Isaiah Berlin’s liberalism of no illusions

Some things in life are incommensurable. This means that one thing cannot be said to be better than another, but there may well be a third option which is better than the one, yet not better than the other. Euripides and Shakespeare, for example, are both playwrights whose dramatic art is incommensurable. Euripides may be said to be superior to Aeschylus, but this does not mean that he is better than Shakespeare. The cash value of this truth, according to Sir Isaiah Berlin, is that some ways of life also are incommensurable – they cannot be ranked according to any rational criteria. It is on these premises that Berlin builds his theory of «value pluralism» – the central concept of his classic defense of liberalism – which is laid out in his influential «Four Essays of Liberty.» The book is now available in Greek translation by Yiannis Papadimitriou (Scripta, 2001). Unlike Plato’s belief in the compatibility of values and Aristotle’s idea of the unity of virtues, Berlin believes that the ultimate human values – such as freedom, equality, justice, mercy, self-realization – are conflicting and sometimes uncombinable. In fact, each of these goods may itself be plagued by inner conflicts, such as freedom of information versus the right to privacy. Furthermore, Berlin says, when these rival human goods clash, they are often incommensurable: People equally informed and rational can come up with different decisions and hierarchies of values. The implication of this for political philosophy, according to Berlin, is that the idea of the «best life» is not only utopian but also incoherent. Some goods, he says, would be squeezed out even in the «best life» and this is a necessary, not contingent, truth. Our moral choices are often tragic, for they entail sacrifice. In any choice we make, some values will be lost. «The need to choose, to sacrifice some ultimate values to others, turns out to be a permanent characteristic of the human predicament,» he writes. It is in this context that Berlin raises his famous distinction between positive and negative liberty. In his renowned essay titled «Two Concepts of Liberty,» Berlin asserts that it is the truth of the diversity, and often of the incommensurability, of values that should make us prefer the latter meaning of freedom. In contrast to negative freedom, which is freedom from interference by others, positive freedom is freedom to obey one’s rational will, the freedom to realize some higher goal in history, and the freedom to make material some invisible or repressed potential. Negative freedom, the author says, is more compatible with the diversity of human purposes. This is because it leaves scope for making different decisions. Negative freedom enables choice and trade-offs, and allows the maximum possible room for self-creation. If goods are incomparable and irreconcilable, it follows that they must not be imposed from above. Doing this is bound to suppress some forms of the good life. The emphasis of positive freedom on rational will, on the other hand, suggests that there is only one decision to be made. Under the influence of Plato and Aristotle, many Enlightenment proponents of positive freedom have argued that a community of truly free persons is one which is free of value conflicts, united in the pursuit of a common goal. Conflicts of values or purposes are said to be the product of immorality, unreason, or distortion. The ostensibly enlightened leaders claim to know better than the people themselves what is in their true interests, how their emancipation will come, and where the final solution lies. But the idea of a final solution, Berlin contends, is a dangerous fallacy. It is this teleological interpretation of history – the idea that history marches toward a greater, ultimate end – which has been invoked to justify the sacrifice of individuals or entire populations; it is this temptation to believe in monism (single concepts) that unleashed the destructive forces of totalitarian systems such as Nazism and Communism. Berlin’s dismay at illiberalism, either overt or covert, was no coincidence. A close witness of a turbulent century, he became a great proponent of the liberal idea of freedom and wary of the paternalistic interpretation of liberty by its disguised enemies. Born in Latvia in 1909, Berlin grew up St Petersburg and was old enough to witness the Bolshevik revolution before moving with his parents to Britain in 1921. He became professor of social and political theory at Oxford and worked for the British government in the USA during WWII. He died in 1997, after seeing the fall of the Soviet Union. Berlin’s original contribution to liberal theory consists of his defending it not on the grounds that it maximizes rational choice but because it is compatible with the idea that such rational decisions are, in fact, not always possible. For Berlin, only truly liberal societies are compatible with the truth of value pluralism. Only a negative interpretation of liberty leaves people with maximum scope to pursue their own ideas of the good life, allowing diverse ways of life to flourish. As Berlin says, «the belief that some single formula can in principle be found whereby all the diverse ends of men can be harmoniously realized is demonstrably false.»

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