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A Liberal Pluralism: Isaiah Berlin and John Stuart Mill


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.

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

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), 171. 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): 599625.

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): 131.

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): 495518.

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), 46.

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), 324.

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

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), 206–7.

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), 86.

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), 207–13; Crowder George, Isaiah Berlin: Liberty and Pluralism (Cambridge: Polity, 2004), chaps. 6–7; and Galston William, Liberal Pluralism: The Implications of Value Pluralism for Political Theory and Practice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 5154.

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): 880.

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): 250–51.

30 Crowder, Liberalism and Value Pluralism, 151.

31 Ibid., 141

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

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): 144.

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

41 Galston William, The Practice of Liberal Pluralism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 189; 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): 892.

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

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), 5862.

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), 91.

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), 85.

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), xviii. 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): 329–32.

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

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): 245–87.

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): 308.

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): 1042.

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

This article is based on an essay presented at the International Symposium on Isaiah Berlin and Contemporary China, organized by Tsinghua Academy of Chinese Learning, and held in March 2011 at Tsinghua University, Beijing. I am grateful to Professors Liu Dong and Liu Wei, as well as to Joshua Cherniss, Chow Po-Chung, George Crowder, Jonathan Riley, and Patrick Neal for their help and comments.

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