From time to time when I stake out pluralist positions on the Internet, I am accused of relativism. It took me a little while to articulate how pluralism does not necessitate relativism, but I think the more interesting point is that many morally absolutist worldviews in North America today are minimally pluralist. Conservative forms of Christianity offer some of the best examples. That’s what I want to outline in this post; in part, I hope to direct people here if I ever get into such an argument again. If you find this argument compelling, you can use it in this way too.
(If you prefer “moral realism” to “moral absolutism,” feel free to swap them in your head. I’ll be using “absolutism” because “realism” has way to many meanings, depending on the specific philosophical argument at hand, than I care to deal with here.)
I can give an abstract case for a pluralism compatible with an absolutist view of what’s good for humans: Imagine there are sixteen types of people in the world, but there are thirty-two ways of doing something (earning a living, say). It might be the case that for each type of person a different way of doing something is best. Nonetheless, it does not follow from this that all thirty-two ways of doing something are good. A full half of them might, by objective standards of value, be bad for people at the same time that many of them are legitimate. Moreover, it may be objectively the case that for people of any given type, one way of doing something is best. However, I think this abstract case too readily allows a person to project their ideas about pluralism onto it. Specific and unexpected examples, I suspect, will work best to drive the point home. The examples I want to use are vocations and complementarianism.
There are a few vocations available to Roman Catholic men: marriage, ordination, monastic vows. As best I understand it, a person is only supposed to take monastic vows or become ordained if one feels called to do so: there are plenty of men who should not take vows–or, more accurately, should take wedding vows rather than religious ones. There are others for whom the monastic life is better than the married life. This is a very minimal kind of pluralism, but it is nonetheless pluralism, and it is compatible with moral absolutism. The reason different kinds of life can be better for different people under the same moral rubric is that those different people are different. Although some Roman Catholics may try to develop an anthropology explaining why some men are better suited to marriage and others to monkhood and yet others to the clergy, as far as I know that is not a particular preoccupation of Roman Catholic theology (I can’t think of any theologians who pursue this question) nor does this kind of pluralism seem to require much defense against Roman Catholic moral absolutists. Moreover, the mere fact of pluralism does not mean that all possible ways of life are equally valid: a man could not both marry and take monastic vows, for instance, nor could a man engage in sexual relationships without getting married.
Of course the vocations available to Roman Catholic women are fewer than those available to Roman Catholic men. This kind is another kind of pluralism, one common to most conservative Christian worldviews: one kind of life, or one set of kinds of life, is appropriate to women but not to men, while another kind or set of kinds of life is appropriate to men and not to women. Heterosexual married submission is appropriate to women; heterosexual married leadership is appropriate to men; same-sex marriage is appropriate to neither. Conservative Christianity can support this kind of pluralism because it has an anthropology of gender: arguably, the same moral rubric has different results when applied to men rather than to women because there are morally-salient differences between men and women. The only reason that Christian conservatives are so adamant on this point is because complementarianism has been thoroughly discredited, not because a minimal kind of pluralism contradicts conservative Christianity’s moral absolutism.
When leftists and liberals argue with conservatives over the merits of pluralism, the fundamental point of contention is not always, or even often, over moral absolutism versus moral relativism. The point of contention may instead be over human anthropology: do humans differ in such a way that the kind of pluralism in question can be justified? In the cases above, I do disagree with the kinds of anthropology which require or allow complementary gender roles, restriction of women from the clergy, or vows of chastity for the ordained, but my argument is that Roman Catholic and evangelical Protestant anthropology are incorrect, not that either is wrongly relativistic (though evangelical Christianity may indeed be relativistic in a fashion, but that is for another time). For the same reason it seems clear to me that progressive pluralism does not necessitate or imply relativism, either.
(Of course pluralism can be relativistic in any given instance, but that claim would require evidence and argument, not mere assertion. Furthermore, I do not mean to argue against relativism here: indeed, although I am further from epistemological relativism now than I have been in some time, I am much closer to something like moral relativism than I ever have been. Nonetheless, I do not think this is the real point of difference in most cases between my interlocutors and myself. That difference would focus much more on anthropology and professed values than on how those values are grounded. After all, I do have values which I apply universally, much like moral realists.)