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A Liberal Pluralism: Isaiah Berlin and John Stuart Mill

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  29 January 2013

Abstract

The essay explores the relationship between value pluralism, as Isaiah Berlin understood it, and liberalism. It consists of two main parts. In the first part, I argue that value pluralism does not entail liberalism, and I criticize two philosophers—William Galston and George Crowder—who believe that it does. In the second, I reconstruct and defend Isaiah Berlin's own understanding of this relationship, drawing on an essay that is often neglected by Berlin's interpreters: “John Stuart Mill and the Ends of Life.” Berlin thought that the relationship between value pluralism and liberalism was largely psychological. He believed that those who embraced value pluralism would be more likely to affirm liberal institutions, because they would be more likely to exhibit certain virtues—notably empathy, imagination, and openness to other ways of life—that typically motivate tolerance.

Type
Research Article
Copyright
Copyright © University of Notre Dame 2013 

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References

1 Gray, John, Isaiah Berlin (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006), 145Google Scholar.

2 Ibid., 150–51.

3 In a 2004 article, Galston claims that he rejects this entailment claim. As I will argue below, however, there is strong evidence suggesting that he still endorses a qualified version of it.

4 Berlin, Isaiah, “Two Concepts of Liberty,” in Four Essays on Liberty (London: Oxford University Press, 1969), 171Google Scholar. Gray is somewhat equivocal when he attributes this view to Berlin. He notes that the evidence for it is inconsistent at best. But he goes on to say that “the question of interpretation of Berlin, given that the textual evidences are not wholly unequivocal, is second in importance to the questions of substance: Does value-pluralism support liberalism, or can the two come into conflict with one another?” (Gray, Isaiah Berlin, 151).

5 For an excellent discussion of Berlin's antifoundationalist view of political justification, see Myers, Ella, “From Pluralism to Liberalism: Rereading Isaiah Berlin,” Review of Politics 72, no. 4 (2010): 599625CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

6 Robert Talisse, for instance, writes that Berlin's “principal contribution to political theory” is his attempt to derive a justification of liberalism from value pluralism. See Talisse, Robert, “Can Value Pluralists be Comprehensive Liberals? Galston's Liberal Pluralism,” Contemporary Political Theory 3, no. 2 (2004): 131CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

7 I have explored the ethical and psychological implications of Berlin's value pluralism elsewhere, drawing on a different body of textual evidence; see Zakaras, Alex, “Isaiah Berlin's Cosmopolitan Ethics,” Political Theory 32, no. 4 (2004): 495518CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

8 See Zakaras, “Isaiah Berlin's Cosmopolitan Ethics,” 499–500. Crowder also endorses this reading of Berlin: see for instance Crowder, George, Liberalism and Value Pluralism (London: Continuum, 2002), 46Google Scholar.

9 Berlin, Isaiah, “The Originality of Machiavelli,” in The Proper Study of Mankind: An Anthology of Essays, ed. Hardy, Henry and Hausheer, Roger (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1997), 324Google Scholar.

10 Berlin, Isaiah, “The Pursuit of the Ideal,” in The Crooked Timber of Humanity (New York: Knopf, 1991), 12Google Scholar.

12 Berlin, “The Originality of Machiavelli,” 289.

13 Berlin, Isaiah, Vico and Herder: Two Studies in the History of Ideas (New York: Vintage Books, 1977), 206–7Google Scholar.

14 Berlin, “The Pursuit of the Ideal,” 14.

15 Ibid., 15.

16 I will say more about the nature of this relationship (between monism and political repression) later in the paper.

17 Isaiah Berlin, “Two Concepts of Liberty,” 167.

18 Berlin, Isaiah and Polanowska-Sygulska, Beata, Unfinished Dialogue (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2006), 86Google Scholar.

19 See for instance Crowder, George, “Value Pluralism and Liberalism: Berlin and Beyond,” in The One and the Many, ed. Crowder, George and Hardy, Henry (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2007), 207–13Google Scholar; Crowder, George, Isaiah Berlin: Liberty and Pluralism (Cambridge: Polity, 2004), chaps. 6–7Google Scholar; and Galston, William, Liberal Pluralism: The Implications of Value Pluralism for Political Theory and Practice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 5154CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

20 Unless it can be justified in some other way that is consistent with value pluralism.

21 Gray, Isaiah Berlin, 151.

22 Note: I am using the term “pluralism” here as a contrast to monism, to describe a claim about the plurality of objective values. I am not using pluralism to describe a political program of toleration.

23 Liberals might respond, of course, that government cannot be trusted to distinguish valuable from corrupt ways of life, and that they are at least as likely to impose corrupt ways of life on their citizens as they are to impose valuable ones. This is a powerful objection, but it has little to do with value pluralism. It is also unlikely to persuade elites who are intent on preserving their society's particular, traditional way of life, which has developed over centuries.

24 Patrick Neal has given voice to precisely this objection: “After all, … liberal [society] might enable more flowers to bloom, but it might also enable more weeds to grow, some of which might prevent flowers from growing.” See Neal, Patrick, “The Path Between Value Pluralism and Liberal Political Order: Questioning the Connection,” San Diego Law Review 46, no. 4 (2009): 880Google Scholar.

25 In theory, of course, the British government could have chosen to enforce some other objectively good way of life. But Devlin points out that the costs associated with moral upheavals are typically quite high, and that one can never be sure what the outcome of such upheavals will be.

26 Crowder, Liberalism and Value Pluralism, 136; see also Crowder “Value Pluralism and Liberalism,” 220–21.

27 Crowder, Liberalism and Value Pluralism, 137. Patrick Neal has raised important concerns about this argument. To assert that values are equally binding is to commensurate between them; but the possibility of commensuration is precisely what value pluralism denies. See Neal, “Path Between Value Pluralism and Liberal Political Order,” 872–74.

28 Crowder, Liberalism and Value Pluralism, 137–38.

29 Matthew Moore has criticized this step in Crowder's argument—effectively, in my view; see Moore, Matthew, “Pluralism, Relativism, and Liberalism,” Political Research Quarterly 62, no. 2 (2009): 250–51CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

30 Crowder, Liberalism and Value Pluralism, 151.

31 Ibid., 141

32 Kekes, John, Against Liberalism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997), 9798Google Scholar.

33 Crowder, Liberalism and Value Pluralism, 139.

34 Neal, “Path Between Value Pluralism and Liberal Political Order,” 876.

35 See ibid., 878–82.

36 Kekes, Against Liberalism, 97.

37 Crowder, Liberalism and Value Pluralism, 173.

38 Crowder, “Value Pluralism and Liberalism,” 224.

39 Galston, William, “Liberal Pluralism: A Reply to Talisse,” Contemporary Political Theory 3, no. 2 (2004): 144CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

40 Galston, William, “Moral Pluralism and Liberal Democracy: Isaiah Berlin's Heterodox Liberalism,” Review of Politics 71, no. 1 (2009): 98CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

41 Galston, William, The Practice of Liberal Pluralism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 189Google Scholar; see also Galston, Liberal Pluralism: The Implications of Value Pluralism for Political Theory and Practice, 58.

42 Galston, Practice of Liberal Pluralism, 189.

44 Ibid. Galston briefly restates this claim in “Moral Pluralism and Liberal Democracy,” 98.

45 Galston, “Liberal Pluralism: A Reply to Talisse,” 145.

46 As Gray puts it, “a particularistic illiberal regime need not claim, when it imposes a particular ranking of incommensurable values on its subjects, that this ranking is uniquely rational” (Isaiah Berlin, 153).

47 Galston, “Liberal Pluralism: A Reply to Talisse,” 141.

49 See Myers, “From Pluralism to Liberalism,” 607–8, where she suggests that expressive liberty is the only premise in Galston's argument that generates liberal conclusions.

50 Another potential problem arises here: if expressive liberty is meant to establish a categorical protection for certain forms of individual freedom, then it is likely to be inconsistent with value pluralism itself.

51 Galston, Practice of Liberal Pluralism, 191.

52 Robert Talisse, “Can Value Pluralists be Comprehensive Liberals?,” 132–35.

53 Galston, Practice of Liberal Pluralism, 191.

54 Here again, though, we encounter some ambiguity in Galston's argument. Galston argues that it is not enough for an illiberal state to simply assert, “we choose to establish A,” and give no further justification; see Galston, “Liberal Pluralism: A Reply to Talisse,” 146. The state, he says, is obligated to make an argument. This claim seems to me wholly unobjectionable; what I object to is the further claim that, unless they can persuade everyone that A is objectively better than all alternatives, they are left without justificatory alternatives.

55 Galston, William, “Expressive Liberty, Moral Pluralism, Political Pluralism: Three Sources of Liberal Theory,” William and Mary Law Review 40, no. 3 (1999): 892Google Scholar.

56 Berlin, Isaiah, “John Stuart Mill and the Ends of Life,” in Four Essays on Liberty, 201Google Scholar.

57 See for instance Gray, Isaiah Berlin, 145.

58 Berlin understood this well enough: “For Bentham individualism is a psychological datum; for Mill it is an ideal” (“John Stuart Mill and the Ends of Life,” 178).

59 Ibid., 181.

60 Ibid., 185.

61 Mill, John Stuart, On Liberty (New York: W. W. Norton, 1997), 5862Google Scholar.

62 “John Stuart Mill and the Ends of Life” is typical of Berlin's most perceptive and animated works of interpretation in the sense that Berlin's own normative voice is plainly audible, sometimes even at the expense of his Mill's. Berlin often allowed himself to speak through the works of the philosophers he read, and if this tendency sometimes introduced inaccuracies in his readings, it also lent power and vitality to his prose.

63 Berlin, “John Stuart Mill and the Ends of Life,” 187.

64 Ibid., 188.

65 Berlin and Polanowska-Sygulska, Unfinished Dialogue, 84.

66 Ibid., 87.

67 Mill, On Liberty, 54.

68 Berlin, “John Stuart Mill and the Ends of Life,” 192.

69 Mill, John Stuart, “Bentham,” in The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, vol. 10, ed. Robson, John M. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1985), 91Google Scholar.

70 By “genuine toleration” I mean toleration that persists even as power relationships change, even as the people in question acquire the power to destroy other ways of life without substantial cost to themselves. For more discussion of Berlin's view of empathy and its relationship to value pluralism, see Zakaras, “Isaiah Berlin's Cosmopolitan Ethics,” 204–8.

71 Berlin, “John Stuart Mill and the Ends of Life,” 185; emphasis mine.

72 Berlin, Isaiah, “Alleged Relativism in Eighteenth-Century Thought,” in The Crooked Timber of Humanity (New York: Knopf, 1992), 85Google Scholar.

73 Ibid., 85–86.

74 Berlin, “John Stuart Mill and the Ends of Life,” 187–88.

75 Ibid., 188.

76 Ibid., 187.

77 Berlin, “Two Concepts of Liberty,” 151.

78 Berlin, “John Stuart Mill and the Ends of Life,” 185.

79 See for instance Berlin, “Alleged Relativism in Eighteenth-Century Thought.” It is interesting that Mill's work with the East India Company, and his relatively permissive attitudes toward colonialism, escape criticism in “John Stuart Mill and the Ends of Life.” Of the two, Bentham saw the evils of colonialism more clearly.

80 Berlin and Polanowska-Sygulska, Unfinished Dialogue, 84.

81 See Zakaras, “Isaiah Berlin's Cosmopolitan Ethics,” 502–3.

82 Williams, Bernard, introduction to Concepts and Categories, by Berlin, Isaiah (New York: Penguin, 1981), xviiiGoogle Scholar. For a more detailed discussion of Berlin's empiricism, see Crowder, Isaiah Berlin: Liberty and Pluralism, 15–21.

83 See Zakaras, “Isaiah Berlin's Cosmopolitan Ethics,” 505–6; see also Hanley, Ryan, “Political Science and Political Understanding: Isaiah Berlin on the Nature of Political Inquiry,” American Political Science Review 98, no. 2 (2004): 329–32CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

84 Berlin, Isaiah, Concepts and Categories, ed. Hardy, Henry (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999), 133Google Scholar.

85 Michael Walzer, “Are There Limits to Liberalism?,” New York Review of Books, October 19, 2005, 31. To his credit, Crowder acknowledges this link between Berlin's pluralism and liberalism. His mistake lies in arguing that those who embrace the pluralism claim are compelled by practical necessity to embrace certain epistemic virtues, and then political liberalism. I do not have space to discuss this claim in detail, but I agree with Berlin in finding it mistaken; see Crowder, Liberalism and Value Pluralism, 186–213.

86 See Zakaras, “Isaiah Berlin's Cosmopolitan Ethics,” 506.

87 Crowder is sensitive to this convergence in Berlin's thought, but he tries—mistakenly, in my view—to turn it into another justification of liberalism; see Crowder, “Value Pluralism and Liberalism,” 225–27.

88 Ibid., 212.

89 The passage in which he comes closest to describing this psychological relationship as necessary or inevitable appears in a late conversation with Beata Polanowska-Sygulska; see Berlin and Polanowska-Sygulska, Unfinished Dialogue, 214. Here, I think Berlin is simply overstating his case.

90 Crowder, “Value Pluralism and Liberalism,” 212.

91 Berlin, “John Stuart Mill and the Ends of Life,” 193.

92 Ibid., 194.

93 This argument need not be cast in explicitly religious terms. Robert George, along with coauthors Sherif Gergis and Ryan Anderson, has argued, for instance, that heterosexual love and marriage, and the “comprehensive union” they embody, is objectively good and corresponds to a distinctive form of human flourishing unavailable to gay couples. See SGergis, herif, George, Robert, and Anderson, Ryan, “What Is Marriage?,” Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy 34, no. 1 (2010): 245–87Google Scholar.

94 Berlin, “John Stuart Mill and the Ends of Life,” 190.

95 Ibid., 191. Note that he does not call it merely the basis of Mill's liberalism.

96 Ibid., 178.

97 He mentions Hegel as an example; see Berlin, “Two Concepts of Liberty,” 133–34. The recent European controversies over the veil provide a vivid contemporary illustration of this tendency.

98 Berlin develops this argument clearly in the climactic final section of “Two Concepts of Liberty,” where he declares that “the necessity of choosing between absolute claims is then an inescapable characteristic of the human condition.” “This [fact] gives its value to freedom,” he goes on to say, “as Acton conceived of it—as an end in itself” (“Two Concepts of Liberty,” 169).

99 Berlin, Isaiah and Williams, Bernard, “Pluralism and Liberalism: A Reply,” Political Studies 42, no. 2 (1994): 308CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

100 See Zakaras, “Isaiah Berlin's Cosmopolitan Ethics,” 515. Ella Myers also speaks to this point: “He is making a judgment,” she writes of Berlin's defense of liberal values, “concerning the significance of these goods and attempting to persuade others (namely his readers) of their value: he is taking a stand, which is neither necessitated nor ruled out by pluralism” (“From Pluralism to Liberalism,” 623–24).

101 Gutmann, Amy, “Liberty and Pluralism in Pursuit of the Non-Ideal,” Social Research 66, no. 4 (1999): 1042Google Scholar.

102 Berlin and Polanowska-Sygulska, Unfinished Dialogue, 91.

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