Writing in the wake of the breakup of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, the moral philosopher Bernard Williams considers the opposing claims of Rawlsian liberalism, with its emphasis on pluralism and procedural fairness, and communitarianism, which instead promotes more or less culturally homogeneous societies formed around shared values. Williams shares the communitarians’ critique of Rawls’s theory as excessively abstract, questioning whether a rational commitment to pluralism as the most just social arrangement can serve as a sufficiently binding social force. He simultaneously resists, however, the conservative tendencies of the communitarians, particularly their dismissal of ethically motivated social critique. Grounded in the late philosophy of Wittgenstein, communitarians reject foundationalism, the notion that beliefs can be philosophically justified, instead regarding ideologically driven social arrangements as the result of inherently particular historical and environmental conditions. This perspective precludes rational reevaluation of a society’s status quo; if a society’s adoption of values does not depend on philosophically grounded principles, neither can those values be altered through a process of collective moral reasoning. For Williams, however, because pluralism is a condition of modern life with which even culturally homogenous communities must contend, members of modern societies are aware of alternatives to their own social model, leaving a space for self-critical reassessment. Finally, Williams suggests that the desire of cultural minorities for separate states in the post-Soviet geopolitical landscape underscores the limits of both pluralism and communitarianism, limits that all of us will need to grapple with as we confront the immediate social and political realities of modernity.

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