Pluralism Research Paper

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Pluralism is a characteristic of the contemporary life-world that has developed in the course of modernity into the dominant basis for social freedom and political justice. Today, the features as well as the relevance of this basis have not, gone uncontested (Schultz 1974, Kelso 1978). We generally understand pluralism not only as a diversity, but rather as a right to an equal coexistence and confrontation of natural or social elements which lack a governing principle of unity. Tolerance is closely associated with the notion of pluralism insofar as it refers to those individual virtues which derive from the recognition of this right to an equal coexistence of a multitude of natural and social elements. Pluralism and tolerance consider the same phenomenon from different perspectives. Whereas pluralism emphasizes the diversity of equally entitled, free groups, tolerance stresses the ‘live and let live’ of others’ liberty.

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1. The Idea Of Pluralism

Pluralism can be understood in a metaphysical sense as designating those philosophies which allow for a diversity of entities in their explanations of the world. The pragmatist philosopher William James maintained the existence of an infinite number of limited facts, connections, and systems which are in constant flux; which always lead to new relationships and structures; and for the cognition of which, fixed categories and criteria do not exist, only perspective orientation points (James 1909). Pluralism can also refer to the methodological neutrality of the social sciences of an empiristic orientation, to the multiplicity of cultural forms, from which ‘all sociology has its starting point’ (Scheler 1980, p. 25). Today, the term is primarily understood in a social and political sense in which empirical and normative elements converge.

1.1 Empirical And Normative Elements

Empirically speaking, pluralism denotes the diversity not only of confession and religion (religious pluralism), but also of social groups together with their lifestyles (social pluralism), of basic values (pluralism of value), and of the powers which determine politics (political pluralism). For this many-dimensional diversity, our life-world has primarily benefited from the religious wars of the Reformation, the European Enlightenment, and the Bourgeois and Industrial Revolutions. Through those factors, a process of differentiation was set into motion which dissolved both the relatively homogenous and stable relationships of the so-called Old-European societies and the connection between church and state. Moreover, this process brought forth open societies, the numerous and constantly expanding groups of which had their own interests, convictions, and manners of conduct. More recently, pluralism has gained a new momentum through the process of globalization (Hoffe 1999), in particular also through migration movements, many refugees, and those looking for asylum. Second, pluralism purports—and here one finds its normative content—that diversity and difference is acknowledged and approved of; all functionally different groups are equally entitled to develop themselves in a free and unconstrained manner.

The notion of pluralism is of particular relevance in modern democracy theory (Fraenkel 1979, Oberreuter 1980). It is considered here as a critical notion, namely as that central mediative category between the individual and the state, with which the liberal atomization of individuals just as the omnipotence and an all-encompassing capacity of the state are rejected. In a democracy, so runs the empirical thesis of pluralism; many-faceted powers are at work, which, on the basis of a fundamental consensus over institutionalized arbitration with and against one another, struggle for influence and importance. As far as the normative content of pluralism is concerned, various social forces, notwithstanding their differences in content and function, have the same right to engage themselves in the political process by the means of, e.g., voting, of contributions to public deliberation, or by addressing themselves to members of parliament. These forces include trade groups, unions, and employers’ associations; scientific organizations, churches, and political parties; and even civil action groups. Politics is not derived from the conception of a common good which is clearly recognizable, prior to all political confrontations and which does justice to all parties concerned. Political decisions are a result of the constant dispute between competing interest groups which have to mutually monitor one another and, in constantly new coalitions, ‘scuffle’ together into a compromise which might be accepted by a majority.

1.2 The Critique Of Pluralism

The criticism of the idea of pluralism is leveled partly at its empirical thesis and partly at its normative content; the normative criticism pertains to either pluralism of value or political pluralism.

Pluralism of value becomes visible in the form of the ideologically neutral state. It is reproached with relativism and even nihilism, because it does not even acknowledge certain very general values as binding and is held responsible, therefore, for the crises of meaning and orientation which threaten contemporary industrialized societies. Pushed to the fore, the ideologically neutral state will abolish itself, because it cannot legitimize the framework in the limits of which various powers are capable of freely expressing themselves.

The most significant criticism of political pluralism stems from Carl Schmitt and his followers, who fear the centrifugal, ‘anarchistic’ tendencies of pluralism. Through the openness and insecurity of pluralistic democracy, the state’s power of decision making is left crippled; moreover, the compromises resulting from such a situation correspond to neither moral nor economical ideals of sound politics.

Supporters of the critical theory hold pluralism for desirable, but contest the existence of the empirical presuppositions for its realization. They point to the socially underprivileged, who are either effectively shut out of participating in the bargaining process of weighing competing interests, or are, at least, clearly at a disadvantage when up against more powerful organizations. The normative idea of an equal right for all groups is, therefore, rather a postulate than social reality. Other critics maintain a ‘standardization of subjects,’ who are no longer capable of an autonomous definition of their interests and, hence, of a genuine pluralistic differentiation. Where a free concert of interest groups once existed, one now finds bureaucratic apparatuses in their place, the internal dynamics of which dominates the political scene.

1.3 Pluralism And Liberal Democracy

Political pluralism presupposes two conditions as given. On the one hand, all interests and the groups which represent them should have equal rights in public deliberation and in the process of political will-formation; on the other hand, the common good should realize itself through the struggle of interests between groups of equal rights. Both conditions are fulfilled, even in developed democracies, at best in approximation. For in pluralistic society, citizens with their interests and convictions have no direct access to politics; their access stands in need of mediation through clubs, organizations, and political parties. In this manner, interests and convictions do indeed gain political power, however at different levels of intensity. The mediation of interests and convictions very often leads to perceptible distortions of their influence.

Due to varying historical or social conditions, many interests and convictions are represented more powerfully than others. The explanation of this fact might be seen in the tighter organization of certain associations, to the better support by more potent money lenders, or to the fact that such groups have attractive media at their disposal, or better relations to the mass media. An equality of rights in modern times is not realized through the abolishment of legal privileges, characterizing hierarchical feudal or class societies. Pluralism does not simply describe our social and political reality. It is to a significant degree really a postulate, according to which societies need to be changed and modified.

A modification within pluralism, however, is possible only to a limited extent: first of all, because powerful groups do not freely relinquish their predominance; second, as can be observed sociologically (Olson 1965), many interests are much easier to organize than others, which may lead to the superiority of certain economic groups (employers as much as employees). Furthermore, mergings and the oligarchical tendencies within organizations endanger civic freedom, the essence of pluralism. Dependence on the government gives way to dependence on both the bureaucracy of associations and its functionaries. Finally, even a fair arrangement between a plurality of interest groups does not simply lead to the realization of the common good; for, as a rule, long-term interests get the worst of short-term interests, just as general interests get the worst of particular interests. It is for this reason that the protection of the environment is so easy to push aside.

In taking an overview of these arguments, one must neither adhere to a conspiracy theory, nor to an extreme criticism of capitalism, in order to preserve a residue of skepticism with regard to the affirmation of an empirically existing pluralism. Hence, the plurality of intermediary groups is without a doubt a pillar of freedom; a pluralistic society is invariably better than a nonpluralistic one; and pluralism itself an important structural element of the liberal-constitutional democracy. Nevertheless, pluralism alone cannot warrant its own significance; it is only a helpful not in any way sufficient organizational form of freedom and equality. One should not easily identify pluralism and liberal democracy because the notion of pluralism brings to light only diversity and competition, and not the complementary elements of commonality and cooperation.

A liberal democracy consists not only of the coexistence and confrontation of a diversity, but also of the regulation of coexistence and confrontation. Regulation brings about community: the mutuality of problems to be solved and, in particular, that fundamental (constitutional) consensus which defines the normative content and the rules of pluralism. In this manner, pluralism shows itself to be a one-sided, nondialectical notion that stresses plurality instead of unity, competition instead of cooperation.

1.4 A Relative Pluralism

Because empirical and normative elements converge in the notion of pluralism, the normative valuation has already begun in the empirical thesis. It is continued with a pragmatic consideration: the decentralizing of political power, the institutional and social separation of the process of will formation, just as the diversity of convictions and manners of conduct increase the chance of an efficient coexistence, in which superfluous frustrations and conflicts decrease.

The comprehensive moral evaluation begins with an ethical–anthropological insight. Because of its lack of instinct and a wanting specialization of organs, mankind is not fixed to definite manners of conduct. Due to its capacity for language and reason, mankind is much more reflective in relation to its doings and omissions; this not only enables it to act freely and responsibly, but also constitutes a particular challenge. Therefore, mankind, be it as individual, a small or a large group, has the task and the right to develop its own convictions and practices, and to determine and pursue a particular conception of a good life. Different convictions and practices are to be expected, on account of the historical factors under which this process of personal as well as social self-determination takes place. The form as well as the results of self-determination are limited by different perspectives, and a single individual cannot lay claim to the unconditional ‘truth’ for himself (Rawls 1993, p. 36). In the pluralism of interests, of values, and of life-plans, the wealth of human self-realization is expressed just as well as the limitation of every concrete design.

On the other hand, different groups are already related to each other through the social division of labor; but the division of labor represents only one of the many aspects which make mediation necessary. Within one’s own group, the acknowledgment of interests and convictions is commonplace. However, with regard to other groups, they stand in both competition and conflict with other groups. Because the solution of conflicts is not secured by instincts, there exists the danger of collective self-destruction of mankind. In order to check this danger and, at the same time, to avoid a crude sort of social Darwinism which makes the weak even weaker and the vital and cunning even stronger, general obligations are necessary, which guarantee a humane and just management of conflicts. For that reason, not an absolute and merely a relative pluralism that develops in the context of fundamental commonalities is really desirable.

Pluralism of this sort can encounter the suspicion of being relativistic and nihilistic. Even if modern societies are skeptical of a timelessly valid code of values, even if they do not confer infallibility upon a particular personal, political, religious, or intellectual instance, they nonetheless need at least a few generally valid obligations removed from the opposition of particular designs of faith and existence. Therefore, human rights is accrued a particular meaning: as the personal right to liberty, the political right to participation, and as social and cultural rights, they are the condition and expression of the mutual acknowledgment of fundamentally equal persons. Therefore, human rights refer to those claims which every individual may legitimately raise: they belong to a sphere beyond a legitimate pluralism and which every legal order, every state, especially pluralistic democracy owes to each individual. Through human rights even those minorities which come off badly in the pluralistic struggle of competition are protected (Rawls 1971, Hoffe 1995).

2. The Idea Of Tolerance

Tolerance is realized through the recognition of those groups which are differentiated by interests, beliefs, and lifestyles. In this manner, the idea of pluralism is, through its normative content, aligned from the outset with tolerance; and tolerance, like pluralism, has its basis of legitimation in the idea of justice and in the modern principle of liberty.

2.1 Its Origin In Religious Tolerance

Like the general principle of liberty, the particular principle of tolerance found its principal acknowledgment only after long intellectual and sociopolitical debate. In this context, religious tolerance plays a particular role (Puttner 1977).

Because polytheistic religions make a lesser claim to truth than monotheistic ones, they do not face many difficulties as far as the toleration of diverse religious beliefs is concerned. Pre-Christian Rome allows all conquered peoples to practice and even propagate their own cults. Yet the Christians were excluded from the rule of tolerance, but not for religious reasons; from their refusal to observe the transmitted gods, one fears a backlash within the entire commonwealth.

As long as the Christians are persecuted, they appeal to the Roman Emperors, referring to the rights which all mankind are due: that freedom of religion is granted internally and externally. But after Christianity is promoted to the status of a national religion, it soon forgets this demand and its underlying principles contained in the New Testament: even the principle of reciprocity (Matt. 7,12; also Tob. 4,16); the sermon on the mountain; the parable of the weed under the wheat (Matt. 13,24–30, 36–43); Jesus’ conduct in general of welcoming, but not of forcing his imitation; moreover his magnanimous attitude toward sinners; finally, Paul’s conception of freedom of religion as free from enforcement and his admonition to mutual tolerance (Col. 3,12f.; Cor. 1, 4,12; Cor. 2, 11,1; Gal. 5,1.13).

Whereas the Edict of Milan (313) leaves religious belief to its practitioners and, moreover, differentiates between state and religion and does not admit mortal or corporeal punishment for religious offences, the swift rise of schisms and heresies fills the bishops with such alarm, even in the patristic times, that they begin to bind, as in the Old Convenant, religion closely with political affairs. Especially the conversion to a foreign cult is punished to the same extent as capital crimes and the disruption of civil order.

Granted, medieval Christendom should not to be considered intolerant through and through (Patschovsky 1998). Because it regards the transmittance of faith as a matter of free conscience, the conversion of pagans by force represents a clear exception. Jews are generally and, often, truly tolerated; and for a long time the Christians live in mutual tolerance with the Muslims. But, the heretic in Christendom, accused of both arrogance and impertinence, was considered, like the Islamic apostate, as it were, an outlaw in the eyes of the law. In the eleventh and twelfth centuries, capital punishment extends to the heretic and is maintained until well after the Reformation. The foundation of medieval intolerance, the all too intimate fusion of Sacerdotium and Imperium, of spiritual and secular matters are all well preserved in Protestant countries, more likely being advantageous to the state than to the church.

In the ‘confessional age’ (the age of the Reformation), the idea of (religious) tolerance has to be re-established; and it is effected only after hefty intellectual debate and painful political experience. In order to encourage the victory of tolerance in the form of the religious neutrality of the state, the mutual autonomy of the state and the church, a few fundamental insights first have to be (re)attained. At first the pragmatic consideration of the ‘greater benefit,’ the fact that in most cases mildness is better suited than force in order to gain back ‘lost souls.’ Then one also has to reach the insight that the New Testament is based on tolerance and love, moreover, that not only the conversion but also the retention of faith is both an act of freedom and of mercy, and for that reason, cannot be enforced; furthermore, that the church is a free communion, whose task is to be fulfilled in the spiritual, not in the secular realm, and that for this task every possible constraint is useless, as it would at best lead to a feigned and not to a real acknowledgment of faith.

The way for this new form of tolerance is prepared by Christian humanists like Dante, Marsilius of Padua, Nicolaus von Kues, and Sebastian Castellio, who reject all acts of violence against religious dissidents. However, they are still fixed to ideas of religious unity within Christendom, and, therefore, they search for a peaceful reconciliation by way of religious forum and dogmatic compromise between rivaling confessions. On the contrary, mystic spiritualists as well as some sects engage themselves directly for the religious liberty of each individual; they do this by appealing to the Holy Ghost, who forbids every form of slavery in the realm of the religious, including that of the institutional church.

Whereas no lasting success is allotted to either of these thoughts (peaceful reconciliation or religious individualism), the second half of the sixteenth century sees the problem shift from the religious to the ‘secularized’ level. Theological arguments are succeeded by considerations of politics and natural right, occasionally even of economics; unsuccessful reconciliatory talks give way to efforts of toleration, in which the denominational heterodox gains ground.

Starting in France, where the preservation of the nation is considered more important than the reestablishment of religious unity, the idea of civil tolerance, which unambiguously differentiates between the aims of the state and the aims of religion, is established against the rule of ‘one confession, one law, one king.’ With the idea of the confessional, later the religious neutrality of the state, the bloody experiences of confessional civil wars which, at the European level, ended in a stalemate, are finally digested. Consequentially, the relative autonomy of the state and church religion and, with that, of confessional pluralism, is acknowledged as a necessary condition for political, even physical survival. Nevertheless, the numerous edicts of tolerance, which follow on the Peace of Augsburg (1555) and the Edict of Nantes (1598), are issued only reluctantly; Brandenburg Prussia represents an exception for a long period. In auspicious circumstances, as in France (1685), the edicts are repealed or, as in Great Britain, where the Catholics remain second-class citizens until the nineteenth century, they are not valid for everyone from the outset.

Because intolerance endangers the free development of business and trade, Europe and North America also have economic reasons to thank for the following two phenomena: that religious liberty does indeed assert itself in the end, and that the remnants of the medieval connection between the state and the church are vanquished. The European Enlightenment, however, plays a particular role in the ultimate victory of the principle of religious tolerance. Inspired by the idea of universal human reason and liberty, such figures as Grotius and Spinoza, Milton, Locke and Voltaire, Lessing (Nathan the Sage), later also Schiller (Don Carlos) turn to the remnants of dogmatic and political intolerance within the high church and to their corresponding, amalgamated states; moreover, they lay claim to religious liberty as a fundamental personal right to liberty. But, even those propagating the Enlightenment as a rule exclude atheists and nonbelievers from the idea of tolerance, granted, as with Locke, not out of religious but rather out of political reasons; for, whoever does not believe in God cannot take a legally admissible oath.

2.2 Passive And Active Tolerance

The idea of tolerance kindled itself on the freedom of religion in Western Christianity. In our advanced, secularized world this idea no longer represents a special problem with regard to the social interaction of diverse confessions and religions. Tolerance is often enough primarily called for in relation to beliefs which are socially, politically, and culturally differentiated. Thereby, a weaker, more passive form of tolerance, the mere toleration of otherness, is to be differentiated from a stronger, more active, and creative form, the openness to differences, yes, even to their candid recognition.

As pluralistic democracy cannot arise nor continue to subsist without the mutual toleration of otherness, tolerance is, at least in the weaker form, a fundamental principle of modern states (for developments see Lecler 1955, Lutz 1977, Becker 1996). However, tolerance is not only necessary under the condition and in favor of a political pluralism. If not always immediately and distinctly perceptible, there are nonetheless differences among mankind: in need, talent, and interest; in taste and in sociohistorical origin; moreover, in the perception and interpretation of the personal or social situation in which one lives. Nor is one free of faults, prejudices, or mistakes. Therefore, at least passive tolerance is held to be a universally valid posture with regard to the civilized intercourse of mankind; it is through just such relations that the coexistence in marriage and family, in industry, in society, in the government, even between states is made bearable as well as efficient. So, even an enlightened self-interest speaks in favor of tolerance.

However, the core dimension of tolerance is, with that aspect, not yet achieved. Its stronger form, the candid recognition of the other and otherness, is grounded in the dignity and the liberty of every human being. Therefore, tolerance consists not only of that forbearance of the peculiarities and weaknesses of one’s fellow man which can be solicited from them and freely granted to them. As the coexistence of individually responsible persons with equal rights is not possible without reciprocal recognition, tolerance is a fundamental condition for the justice of mankind’s coexistence in freedom; and, as a condition of justice, it is a claim that can be refused to no one.

For active tolerance, not merely the practical (moral-political) principle of liberty but also a theoretical interest in truth be adduced. Human perception being limited, the open debate of different opinions offers a better chance for establishing truth than the ‘intolerant,’ namely, dogmatic and of a conviction considered infallible (Mill 1989).

3. Tolerance As Both A Virtue And A Principle Of The State

Religious liberty is only one example that brings to the fore the specific intellectual and political difficulties which have to be overcome in order for the principle of tolerance to become historically significant. This principle, which goes beyond religious liberty, takes primarily two different forms: tolerance as a personal attitude and as a political principle of the state and of civilization, both forms mutually supplementing and yielding one another.

Whoever affirms the self-determination (the right to life, the will to development, and the liberty) of the dissentient is realizing the attitude of tolerance. Only when one has one’s own convictions, can one speak of recognizing an ‘other’; and only there, where one doesn’t indulge in indifference, or in the type of cynical nihilism which plainly lets everything pass as valid, including even gross injustice, can one speak of this particular attitude. Tolerance does not mean the fig leaf, behind which moral indifference and intellectual weaknesses conceal themselves. It is a critical autonomy which does not even allow certain conflicts to arise in coexistence, especially not in situations of competition; and which does not go through the inevitable debates and quarrels with the inexorable severity of a religious war. Whoever is tolerant no longer pursues a life which is founded upon self-assertion through violent conversion, or through the surmounting of adversaries. He or she endeavors to establish a communality on the basis of civil equality and communication to which the following qualities belong: the ability to listen, the capacity to take others seriously, and finally the willingness to let oneself be taught by new situations and new information. Tolerance is then accomplished by the willingness and ability to sympathize with the views and lifestyles of others.

Like pluralism, tolerance too is grounded in the following factors: the understanding that no one is entirely free from faults; the knowledge of the wealth as well as the perspectival limitations of every concrete instance of self-realization; and the insight into the limits of human knowledge. Tolerance, however, originates primarily in the recognition of the other as a free and equal person, who, on the basis of the inviolable dignity of mankind, has the right to form his or her own opinions, and to live according to them alone, or with like-minded individuals—provided that the exercise of this right does not encroach upon the same right of all others. The virtue of tolerance is one of the most important political virtues of a democratic citizen (Rawls 1993, p. 194).

As tolerance does not represent an end in itself, but rather a condition and an expression of the liberty and dignity of mankind, it terminates at the point where liberty and dignity are violated. Tolerance does not consist, as Marcuse (1965) fears, of the stabilization of existing social states, in the preservation of the status quo, and even less of the (masochistic) acceptance of injustice. Wherever the liberty and dignity of mankind needs to be protected, tolerance crosses over into accusation, criticism, and protest. The obligation to impose on no one a limitation of his or her liberty which is not imposed on all others in the same manner can be considered a criterion for the limits of tolerance. The highest principle of justice consists of this criterion of an equal liberty which is primarily spelled out in terms of human rights.

Because the justification of tolerance is found in liberty and justice, it cannot be left to the discretion of individuals and political powers. Its recognition is not only a voluntarily assumed attitude, but also a duty of justice, the implementation of which the legal order, the state, is responsible. It is therefore a political task to institutionally guarantee basic elements of tolerance, such as human rights. The first task of tolerance as a principle of the legal order and the state is therefore found in the positivation of human rights and their recognition as basic rights (personal right to liberty, political right to participation, and social and cultural rights), or, as the case may be, as fundamental aims of the state (liberty, democracy, welfare state).

As long as human rights are only recognized by coercion, tolerance remains nothing more than an acceptance accompanied by contemption toward those who think and live differently. In order to guarantee the stronger form of tolerance—coexistence based on mutual respect—tolerance as a duty of justice has to be acknowledged on its own terms; moreover, it must become through continuous practice a component of one’s personal character, a genuine attitude. Tolerance as a political principle is only accomplished when this duty of justice is freely accepted as a moral virtue of the citizen.

At the international level tolerance demands the mutual respect of different cultures and traditions, instead of valuing European culture or American lifestyle as the ideal of the development of all civilization and to devalue all other forms as primitive and barbarian. This type of respect was articulated first in Herder’s (1774 1994) and later in Hegel’s (1821 1970) theory of the ‘spirits of nations’ (Volksgeister), according to which different social and cultural patterns in which different peoples think and live assert themselves in the course of history. As these forms are coherent, they justify themselves to this extent.

One facilitates the recognition of other cultures’ intrinsic value whenever one looks not only to that which divides but also to that which binds, that is, universal human attitudes such as readiness to aid, civil courage, and honesty. These commonalities are not only acknowledged as morally binding in the Christian West, but also in the most diverse of societies and epochs. The tolerance that began with religious liberty is accomplished only at the point, where the colorful abundance of personal and sociohistorical self-realization is freely acknowledged as both a task and a chance for creative humanity.


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