Isaiah Berlin on pluralism

This is a section from the last essay written by Isaiah Berlin, published in the New York Review of Books, Vol. XLV, Number 8 (1998).

Copyright: The Isaiah Berlin Literary Trust and Henry Hardy 1998. For more information about Isaiah Berlin, see For permission to reprint any material by Isaiah Berlin, contact Anna Davis at Curtis Brown Group Ltd:

I came to the conclusion that there is a plurality of ideals, as there is a plurality of cultures and of temperaments. I am not a relativist; I do not say "I like my coffee with milk and you like it without; I am in favor of kindness and you prefer concentration camps" -- each of us with his own values, which cannot be overcome or integrated. This I believe to be false. But I do believe that there is a plurality of values which men can and do seek, and that these values differ. There is not an infinity of them: the number of human values, of values that I can pursue while maintaining my human semblance, my human character, is finite -- let us say 74, or perhaps 122, or 26, but finite, whatever it may be. And the difference it makes is that if a man pursues one of these values, I, who do not, am able to understand why he pursues it or what it would be like, in his circumstances, for me to be induced to pursue it. Hence the possibility of human understanding.

I think these values are objective -- that is to say, their nature, the pursuit of them, is part of what it is to be a human being, and this is an objective given. The fact that men are men and women are women and not dogs or cats or tables or chairs is an objective fact; and part of this objective fact is that there are certain values, and only those values, which men, while remaining men, can pursue. If I am a man or a woman with sufficient imagination (and this I do need), I can enter into a value system which is not my own, but which is nevertheless something I can conceive of men pursuing while remaining human, while remaining creatures with whom I can communicate, with whom I have some common values -- for all human beings must have some common values or they cease to be human, and also some different values else they cease to differ, as in fact they do.

That is why pluralism is not relativism -- the multiple values are objective, part of the essence of humanity rather than arbitrary creations of men's subjective fancies. Nevertheless, of course, if I pursue one set of values I may detest another, and may think it is damaging to the only form of life that I am able to live or tolerate, for myself and others; in which case I may attack it, I may even -- in extreme cases -- have to go to war against it. But I still recognize it as a human pursuit. I find Nazi values detestable, but I can understand how, given enough misinformation, enough false belief about reality, one could come to believe that they are the only salvation. Of course they have to be fought, by war if need be, but I do not regard the Nazis, as some people do, as literally pathological or insane, only as wickedly wrong, totally misguided about the facts, for example in believing that some beings are subhuman, or that race is central, or that Nordic races alone are truly creative, and so forth. I see how, with enough false education, enough widespread illusion and error, men can, while remaining men, believe this and commit the most unspeakable crimes.

If pluralism is a valid view, and respect between systems of values which are not necessarily hostile to each other is possible, then toleration and liberal consequences follow, as they do not either from monism (only one set of values is true, all the others are false) or from relativism (my values are mine, yours are yours, and if we clash, too bad, neither of us can claim to be right). My political pluralism is a product of reading Vico and Herder, and of understanding the roots of Romanticism, which in its violent, pathological form went too far for human toleration.

So with nationalism: the sense of belonging to a nation seems to me quite natural and not in itself to be condemned, or even criticized. But in its inflamed condition -- my nation is better than yours, I know how the world should be shaped and you must yield because you do not, because you are inferior to me, because my nation is top and yours is far, far below mine and must offer itself as material to mine, which is the only nation entitled to create the best possible world -- it is a form of pathological extremism which can lead, and has led, to unimaginable horrors, and is totally incompatible with the kind of pluralism that I have attempted to describe.

It may be of interest to remark, incidentally, that there are certain values that we in our world accept which were probably created by early Romanticism and did not exist before: for example, the idea that variety is a good thing, that a society in which many opinions are held, and those holding different opinions are tolerant of each other, is better than a monolithic in which one opinion is binding on everyone. Nobody before the eighteenth century could have accepted that: the truth was one and the idea of variety was inimical to it. Again, the idea of sincerity, as a value, is something new. It was always right to be a martyr to the truth, but only to the truth: Muslims who died for Islam were poor, foolish, misled creatures who died for nonsense; so, for Catholics, were Protestants and Jews and pagans; and the fact that they held their beliefs sincerely made them no better -- what was important was to be right. In discovering the truth, as in every other walk of life, success was what was important, not motive. If a man says to you that he believes that twice two is seventeen, and someone says, "You know, he doesn't do it to annoy you, he doesn't do it because he wants to show off or because he has been paid to say it -- he truly believes, he is a sincere believer," you would say, "This makes it no better, he is talking irrational nonsense." That is what Protestants were doing, in the view of Catholics, and vice versa. The more sincere, the more dangerous; no marks were given for sincerety until the notion that there is more than one answer to a question -- that is, pluralism -- became more widespread. That is what led value to be set on motive rather than on consequence, on sincerity rather than on success.

The enemy of pluralism is monism -- the ancient belief that there is a single harmony of truths into which everything, if it is genuine, in the end must fit. The consequence of this belief (which is something different from, but akin to, what Karl Popper called essentialism -- to him the root of all evil) is that those who know should command those who do not. Those who know the answers to some of the great problems of mankind must be obeyed, for they alone know how society should be organized, how individual lives should be lived, how culture should be developed. This is the old Platonic belief in the philosopher-kings, who were entitled to give orders to others. There have always been thinkers who hold that if only scientists, or scientifically trained persons, could be put in charge of things, the world would be vastly improved. To this I have to say that no better excuse, or even reason, has ever been propounded for unlimited despotism on the part of an elite which robs the majority of its essential liberties.

Someone once remarked that in the old days men and women were brought as sacrifices to a variety of gods; for these, the modern age has substituted the new idols: isms. To cause pain, to kill, to torture are in general rightly condemned; but if these things are done not for my personal benefit but for an ism -- socialism, nationalism, fascism, communism, fanatically held religious belief, or progress, or the fulfillment of the laws of history -- then they are in order. Most revolutionaries believe, covertly or overtly, that in order to create the ideal world eggs must be broken, otherwise one cannot obtain an omelette. Eggs are certainly broken -- never more violently than in our times -- but the omelette is far to seek, it recedes into an infinite distance. That is one of the corollaries of unbridled monism, as I call it -- some call it fanaticism, but monism is at the root of every extremism.

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