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Harris: Prosperity-democracy and pluralism

George Harris, Chancellor Professor of Philosophy at the College of William and Mary, recently used the values of excellence and diversity to illustrate tragic loss entailed when society has to make hard choices between the things it holds dear. “The two often complement each other, but at times they conflict,” he said.

Harris believes that in the United States, as in other developed countries, there is a tendency to avoid tough choices.

“There’s a kind of American optimism that is very dangerous in my opinion,” Harris said. “It devises solutions to the problem that simply exacerbate the tragedy. We need to deflate our expectations in a way. We need to ask what kind of life is possible given the human condition and quit pretending that we can have it all. The nature of our values is such that we cannot have it all, and we create more tragedy by avoiding that topic than if we addressed it head-on.”

Harris made the point during a videotaped interview focused on Reason’s Grief, his recent book. In it, he wrote that too many advocates of multiculturalism fail to acknowledge differing cultural values and conceptions of inclusiveness. “That we can learn from other cultures, few would deny,” he wrote. “If that is what multiculturalism is, then that is one thing, a very good thing. But if multiculturalism means rejecting the time-tested values of secular pluralism, that is quite another.”

During the interview, Harris elaborated. “A pluralistic society needs something to bond it together. It’s not going to be its differences. We can’t celebrate all of our differences. We must find a solution that binds people together in spite of their differences. In my view, the solution to that problem is to share the burdens.”

In Harris’ view, the burdens often are reflective of the tragic losses each group must entail.