Saturday, April 7, 2012

Isaiah Berlin and the altars of history

Back to rarefied ideas. I said in a recent post that there's one piece by Isaiah Berlin which has had a huge influence on me over the years. This is from his essay Two Concepts of Liberty, reprinted in the book Liberalism and Its Critics (Readings in Social & Political Theory)(p29)

One belief, more than any other, is responsible for the slaughter of individuals on the altars of the great historical ideals - justice or progress or the happiness of future generations, or the sacred mission or emancipation of a nation or race or class, or even liberty itself, which demands the sacrifice of individuals for the freedom of society. This is the belief that somewhere in the past or in the future, in divine revelation or in the mind of an individual thinker, in the pronouncements of history or science, or in the simple heart of an uncorrupted good man, there lies a final solution. This ancient faith rests on the conviction that all the positive values in which men have believed must, in the end, be compatible, and perhaps even entail each other. 'Nature binds truth, happiness and virtue together as by an indissoluble chain', said one of the best men who ever lived, and spoke in similar terms of liberty, equality and justice. But is this true? It is a commonplace that neither political equality nor efficient organization nor social justice is compatible with more than a modicum of individual liberty, and certainly not with unrestricted laissez faire; that justice and generosity, public and private loyalties, the demands of genius and the claims of society, can conflict violently with each other. And it is no great way from that to the generalization that not all good things are compatible, still less the ideals of mankind.

The world that we encounter in ordinary experience is one in which we are faced with choices between ends equally ultimate, and claims equally absolute, the realization of some of which must inevitably involve the sacrifice of others. Indeed, it is because this is their situation that men place such immense value on freedom to choose.

For many years I thought this meant that we have to be tolerant about the need to trade-off different ends and balance different principles. Above all it meant that one should distrust zealotry and utopianism and single internally consistent frameworks which purported to explain everything. It was an argument for "everything in moderation" and pragmatic problem-solving.

Now I think that virtue ethics is a way forward. The point of cultivating the virtues is to make the right choices in particular situations, rather than to choose between univeralist principles in a grand sense. If we are condemned to choose between ends, at least we can try to make better choices over time


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