Berlin, liberalism in the face of diversity
George Crowder interviewed by Elisabetta Ambrosi 6 June 2007

Prof. Crowder, in your book you argue very well that Berlin’s pluralism is in a dialectical tension with his liberalism. Well, can you show us how Berlin combined liberal “strong” ethics with diversities? How to put together universalism and localism and defend human rights for all, respecting at the same time cultural particularities?

Berlin’s liberalism appears to be in tension with his pluralism because while his liberalism involves a general ranking of some values (individual liberty, toleration, etc) above others, his pluralism seems to tell us that there can be no such general ranking. If values are plural and incommensurable, then each has its own unique force, and none can be translated into terms of another or slotted into a complete ranking that applies in every case. In my view, Berlin never resolved this tension, and indeed never really admitted it to be the problem it is. Bu on the other hand, he does give some clues as to how it might be resolved, or coped with, and we can give a fuller account than he did of how this might be possible. Part of the answer is the idea of contextual decision making (which I’ll explain further on). But he also hints at a rather more radical possibility, which I try to develop more fully and systematically in my own work. This is the idea that the concept of value pluralism itself implies ethical principles. These principles don’t amount to a formula that will answer all questions, but they do provide us with a political view that will frame our contextual judgements, and to some extent even shape them.

The most basic point here can be called ‘respect for value plurality’. If pluralism is true, then all genuine human goods are equally valuable, and, prima facie, each has an equal claim on our attention and capacity for action. Of course, in particular cases we can’t pursue every good to the same extent; we have to make choices. But those are choices that should respect the full range of human goods. Pluralists will not simply ignore a significant value, or decide against it arbitrarily. The practical upshot, I argue, is that respect for value plurality issues in three main principles: we should promote a greater rather than lesser diversity of goods within a single society; we should expect and accommodate reasonable disagreement about general patterns of life (cultures and religions); and we should promote personal autonomy, including a strong component of critical reflection, as a capacity that’s essential for making good choices when incommensurable values conflict.

Which are the political implications of this view?

They are broadly liberal in character. More specifically, liberal pluralism will be redistributive, perhaps in the manner of Rawls, or at least in keeping with the broad ‘egalitarian-liberal’ outlook of which Rawls is a leading representative. In cultural policy, liberal pluralism will be multiculturalist, although moderately so – that is, it will accept a liberal-democratic framework rather than regard liberalism itself as merely one cultural form among others.

Do you defend a Rawlsian position, that is to say the idea of a strict distinction between the Right and the Good or do you prefer Sen’s idea to search liberal values inside cultures?

I accept much of the general ‘accommodationist’ impulse behind Rawls’ distinction between the right and the good, but I think that liberal pluralism should not pretend to complete neutrality among conceptions of the good. On a pluralist view, any political position entails some ranking of values in preference to the alternatives, so all political positions in effect propose some general account of the good. The best that we can aspire to is a political view based on a ranking that is as accommodating as possible to the full range of human values and (secondarily) ways of life. For that reason, if you give me a choice between Rawls and Sen in this respect, I think I’d lean rather more towards Sen (and his former collaborator Martha Nussbaum). His approach does not claim to be ‘neutral’, but it’s still humanist in its ambition to look beyond the identities and perspectives that preoccupy so many contemporary thinkers, and to look for the fundamental values that we share as human beings. It’s in this way that we can arrive at a rational basis for evaluating and criticising current practices. I believe that this is in keeping with the spirit of value pluralism, and that Berlin would have agreed.

Positive liberty and negative liberty: two concepts that still today are causing discussions and problems. Should a liberal conception of the State be associated only with the negative concept of liberty? Or does it need also a certain degree of “positiveness”? And how much “positiveness” is compatible with a non-ethic and liberal state?

This aspect of Berlin’s thought is often misunderstood. Berlin did not say that the only coherent or valuable kind of liberty was ‘negative’ (i.e. non-interference); he believed that ‘positive’ liberty (being governed by the ‘true’ or ‘authentic’ part of oneself) also expressed a valuable and important aspect of human freedom. However, he did, on the whole, warn against placing too much weight on positive conceptions of liberty, especially in the political sphere, where he thought that the negative idea was safer. What worried him about positive liberty was that once you defined liberty not as simply allowing people to do what they wanted, but rather as the liberation of the ‘true self’, there was a danger that fanatical or unscrupulous people could then identify the ‘true’ self with their own preferred moral or religious or political program. This they could then force on everyone and call it ‘freedom’. Berlin saw an example of this in the kind of ‘freedom’ offered by the communist world in the 1950s, and he rightly condemned this as a grotesque abuse of the idea.

Nevertheless, it might be argued that Berlin went too far in condemning the logic of positive liberty and insisting on negative liberty for political purposes. He himself allows that negative liberty, too, can be abused, as in strongly laissez-faire forms of liberalism that leave everything to the market. On the other hand (a point that he does not make so clearly), there can be forms of positive liberty that are not so vulnerable to the kind of inversion that concerns him – in particular, the idea of ‘personal autonomy’, which emphasises people’s capacity to decide for themselves how to live through a process of individual critical reflection. This species of positive liberty has a vital place in a liberal society, and has the backing of writers such as Kant and John Stuart Mill.

But Berlin’s worry about ‘thicker’ or more substantial conceptions of human authenticity remains valid and significant. For this reason he would be concerned about allowing religious ideals to enter deeply into the principles and institutions governing the state. Moral pluralism implies that many different values, and configurations of values, are legitimate – not absolutely all configurations, since there are limits, but many. People can disagree reasonably about these things. Particular religious beliefs can be understood as entailing particular configurations of human values – for example, most contemporary Christians are committed to an ideal of sexual equality that would be disputed by many contemporary Muslims. Consequently, there will inevitably be widespread and reasonable disagreement about the rival claims of different religions (and of different streams within the world religions). To allow the state to be ‘captured’ by any one such set of claims is to alienate the others.

This means that the modern State does not need shared an ethical basis to unite them, doesn’t it?

No. One of the features of Berlin’s thought was his emphasis, unusual for liberals of the time, on the importance to human well-being of a sense of cultural belonging – in particular, national belonging (his Jewish background is relevant here). But to promote a shared cultural or national identity is one thing; to expect all citizens to accept a particular religious affinity, especially under modern multicultural conditions, is quite something else.

Let’s come to Romanticism and Enlightenment: Berlin did criticize both, or, to be precise, their radicalization, which, in his opinion, would lead to illiberal consequences. However, these two different visions of the world are still  present under different forms (we could think, for example, to the  anti-globalization movement as a form of romanticism). How may Berlin’s reflections and intuitions help us to identify those tendencies in our contemporary world?

Berlin drew a broad distinction between the Enlightenment tradition and what he called the ‘Counter-Enlightenment’, from which the romantic movement emerged. He saw both the Enlightenment and Counter-Enlightenment as important and valuable components of our intellectual heritage, but he thought that each contained dangerous and destructive elements if they were pushed too far. This is precisely what had led to the totalitarianisms, both left-wing and right-wing, of the 20th century. The Enlightenment stands for broadly liberal values, but also, in Berlin’s account, it stands for the pursuit of truth through modern scientific method – empirical observation and mathematical calculation. The Counter-Enlightenment is defined in part by a commitment to more communitarian values, but also to a denial that the scientific model offers the only route to truth.

When it comes to explaining and guiding human conduct, the natural sciences, with their impersonal, measuring, ‘external’ approach provide only limited guidance. In fields such as history, ethics and politics we need to take a non-scientific ‘inside view’, involving an empathetic understanding and interpretation of particular cultural and historical perspectives. It’s only in this way that we can appreciate the human purposes that drive human conduct. It’s important to add, however, that this kind of understanding is cross-cultural and humanist rather than relativist. Berlin believes that we can use our imagination and draw on a common ‘human horizon’ of experience to understand cultures and periods other than our own. Berlin saw great value in both of these intellectual tendencies: from the Enlightenment he derived his own liberal values, and he regarded some of the thinkers of the Counter-Enlightenment, in particular Vico and Herder, as early exponents of value pluralism. But he also believed that an exaggerated emphasis on the scientism of the Enlightenment had led to the scientistic utopianism that underpinned Marxism and, subsequently, Soviet communism; and that Counter-Enlightenment particularism had been distorted into the romantic worship of culture, nation and state that later issued in fascism.

Can these categories be applied to the contemporary world?

Certainly; your example is a good one. In addition, I’d suggest that we can see examples of the excesses of Enlightenment scientism in various contemporary attempts to reduce human understanding to questions of quantification. One instance in recent history was the tendency of American policy makers during the Vietnam War to gauge the success of that war in terms of the ‘body count’ – when a more humanist attempt at cultural and historical understanding might have had better results. Another example might be the tendency of economists to try to measure human well-being in terms of GNP per capita, when arguably human well-being is a much more complex matter, involving consideration of the extent to which people enjoy or have access not just to income but to many distinct and incommensurable goods. On the Counter-Enlightenment side, it’s obvious that various forms of fascism and extreme nationalism are still with us. More subtly, there is a widespread fixation, especially in contemporary universities, on excessively particularist approaches to understanding, sometimes explicitly involving the rejection of scientific method altogether, even in explanations of the physical world (Berlin always gave science its due in this department). I refer here to the various forms of relativism and anti-humanism – cultural relativism, post-structuralism, postmodernism, extreme multiculturalism, and deep ecology, for example – that have flourished over the past thirty years.

Let’s come to the problem of the incommensurability of the human goods and to pluralism. Berlin’s view gives a tragic image of the moral world, which has nevertheless been acquired by contemporary ethics. The incompatibility between equally loved goods can be a source of deep sadness in individual existence. Which are the consequences for political life, where it is necessary to find a composition between values?

Berlin’s vision is indeed tragic – in the sense that we are often faced with conflicts among basic human goods that involve unavoidable losses. You say that this vision has been accepted by contemporary ethics, but I think that’s only partly true. Value pluralism has been influential to a degree, but monist theories – such as utilitarianism and Kantianism – are still influential too. Also, much of what is presented as ‘pluralism’ in contemporary ethics, even when it explicitly cites Berlin, is not really pluralism but relativism, emphasising a plurality not of goods but of cultures or perspectives. As to the political consequences of pluralism, Berlin thought that we have to expect basic human values to conflict, both in private life and public policy. In the face of such conflicts we have to make hard choices – hard in the sense that they involve inevitable loss, and in the sense that there can be no single, convenient rule or principle telling us how or what to choose.

Are you saying that, according to Berlin, we can’t make any choice among conflicting incommensurables at all?

I woudn’t say that. To say that such conflicts are tragic is not to say that reason is always helpless before them. Possible responses to tragic situations include sacrifices, trade-offs and compromises, but not every sacrifice or trade-off or compromise is just as good as any other. One key idea in this connection is context: in order to see which option is best, we have to look at the details of the situation in which we find ourselves. For example, although there can be no single formula for ranking or trading off liberty against equality that applies in every case, a particular balance between liberty and equality may be the best possible in the context of a political community that has a certain identity or tradition and that has decided in favour of, say, a broadly redistributive approach to economic justice.

This kind of practical reasoning (which goes back to Aristotle) is not as neat and tidy as, in principle, the application of some monist rule, such as utilitarianism, would be. But pluralists would argue that there can be no short-cuts in these matters, since rules such as utilitarianism are based on value-rankings that can themselves be challenged. (This doesn’t mean that pluralists can’t use rules at all; rules may still be useful, as long as we see them as short-hand summaries of best practice, provisional and rebuttable given further contextual information.) On the other hand, as I said before, this is not a relativist position. There are limits to the kind of trade-offs that are acceptable to pluralists. Berlin pointed to two possible limits: first, the universality of at least some human values, although this is a very weak limitation, since genuinely universal values must be highly generic; second, the traditions of our society. He also hinted at another possibility, which I’ll come to in my answer to your last question.

To conclude. In the landscape of contemporary (‘900) political philosophy, which was the role and the importance of Isaiah Berlin in “rooting” the ideological thought out? In other words, how precious of an instrument is his definition and criticism of monism for us today in order to unmask very different typologies of ideological ways of thinking – even in the post-ideological era? Which are, in your opinion, the modern “monisms”?

Berlin’s famous essay ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’ (1958) vividly presented a case for the values of liberal democracy against those of political authoritarianism in the context of the Cold War. But the essay also has continuing relevance and appeal beyond that context because of its analysis of the idea of liberty, and its defence of moral ‘pluralism’ against ‘monism’. Moral pluralism is the idea that human values are ultimately plural and incommensurable rather than, as on the monist view, ultimately subject to a single formula that will answer all ethical questions. According to Berlin, monism is not only false to our ordinary experience of values conflict, but also a dangerous idea. It’s dangerous because it encourages people to believe that there is one right way for all human beings to live – an invitation to cultural and political authoritarianism. This critique of monism has obvious continuing relevance and importance. It can be used, for example, to address the various religious fundamentalisms that plague us today. But there are also less dramatic but perhaps more pervasive forms of monism: for example, various forms of economic and public-policy analysis that reduce all normative considerations to the common denominator of monetary cost-benefit or utility. Berlin’s pluralism shows us that this kind of reductive thinking, which denies the distinctive and intrinsic value of different human goods, should also be questioned.