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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  30 November 2010

William A. Galston
Governance Studies, The Brookings Institution


This essay explores the ways in which a broadly pluralist outlook can help illuminate longstanding issues of constitutional theory and practice. It begins with a common-sense understanding of pluralism as the diversity of observed practices within a general category (section 2). It turns out that many assumptions Americans and others often make about constitutional essentials are valid only locally but not generically. The essay then turns to pluralism in a more technical and philosophical sense—specifically, the account of value pluralism adumbrated by Isaiah Berlin and developed by his followers. Section 3 sketches this version of pluralism, and section 4 brings it to bear on a range of familiar constitutional issues. In the process, a distinction emerges between, on the one hand, areas of variation among constitutions and, on the other, some general truths about political life that define core constitutional functions. The essay concludes (section 5) with some brief reflections on the normative thrust of pluralist constitutional theory—in particular, a presumption in favor of the maximum accommodation of individual and group differences consistent with the maintenance of constitutional unity and civic order.

Research Article
Copyright © Social Philosophy and Policy Foundation 2011

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15 Rawls, Johnasserts that justice is the first virtue of social institutions inA Theory of Justice (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971)Google Scholar. If Berlin is right, Rawls's claim is unsustainable as a general proposition, which does not mean that particular communities cannot choose to elevate justice to this position as a regulative principle of their own social life.

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22 Quoted in Neely, Mark E. Jr., The Fate of Liberty: Abraham Lincoln and Civil Liberties (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 12Google Scholar (emphasis in the original).

23 That is: “The welfare of the people is the supreme law.”

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28 In the Talmud, angels are sometimes depicted as arguing, civilly, about important questions—much as the rabbis themselves did.

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