A Pluralist America

Thus far, as our semester together begins, we have started considering this question: “How do the readings reflect the challenges and opportunities of a pluralist society?” By “pluralist,” I am referring to how American society is comprised of a diversity of ethnic, racial, religious, and other social groups. To introduce this inquiry, we began by considering what may be a surprisingly un-democratic concern of the nation’s founders: that one of the greatest dangers to American society is the power of the majority. The Bill of Rights, the Constitution’s system of checks and balances, and federalism all work as built-in protections for minority views and groups. In other words, the prospect of maintaining American society as pluralist rather than strictly “majority-ist” is something fundamental to America itself.

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But how do we nonetheless coordinate the divergent desires of America’s many individuals, each seeking different paths to happiness? To begin answering this question, we borrowed from John Rawls’ idea of a “veil of ignorance,” which asks us to imagine being a member of this society but not sure which member, whether male, female, rich, poor, somewhere in between, ect. While behind that “veil of ignorance,” we then can consider what rights should exist, especially when once we remove that veil we may find ourselves being members of any one of America’s many subgroups. In response, the class came up with a number of basic rights that students believed everyone should have, many of which are found in the Bill of Rights. However, a number of basic rights that you told me should be recognized as fundamental included these:

  1. Healthcare
  2. Parental time off (both paternal and maternal leave)
  3. Food
  4. Clean water
  5. Education
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Of course, how you would implement such rights would be a matter of debate, but the same is true of any right.

We also considered Rawls’ point that some inequality within a society might be beneficial if that inequality improves lives somehow, such as by paying brain surgeons more to help ensure we attract talented individuals willing to go through extensive training before they cut into our brains. Our class debates here, though, included interrogating who needs to be benefited–the worst off in society or the average member of society–and how much inequality is acceptable.

The key take-away from our initial considerations, however, is this: America is a diverse country that was conceived from its founding as supporting many divergent routes in the pursuit of happiness; however, America has also struggled with maintaining this ideal while also confronting questions involving inequality, what rights should be considered fundamental, and how various groups ought to be accepted within society–with the clearest example of this struggle being America’s continuance of slavery up until the Civil War, a legacy that continues to haunt America today.

Moving forward, we have now begun a closer focus on various examples of America’s many cultural groups while continuing our reflection on the challenges and opportunities of America’s pluralist society.

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