A Critique of Isaiah Berlin

by Benjamin Studebaker

Today I’d like to mount a critique of Isaiah Berlin. In particular, I’d like to go after his objectivist argument for value pluralism, the notion that there are multiple moral systems that, despite their conflicts, cannot be described as more true or better than one another because their differences are so foundational as to be incomparable on any given metric. I will argue, contra Berlin, that he is simply empirically wrong–in the real world, moral theories separated by time and culture have much more in common with one another than Berlin perceived.

Berlin observes that many different cultures across many different time periods have had fundamentally different conceptions of morality, from the pagan Greeks, to the Christians, to the secular liberals, and so on. Often times, words that have immense moral significance in one period–say, “individuality” or “liberty” either do not appear in a different context or, if they do appear, have entirely different meanings. The Greeks did not so much as have the concept of individual liberty, while the liberals consider individual liberty morally central. Berlin claims that different groups of people reach these widely different conceptions of morality because the premises they operate under and the language they have available are utterly different, so different that it is impossible to compare the Greek morality to the Christian or the liberal on metrics that these others would accept or even fully comprehend. The same man who to the Greeks appeared heroic may to the liberals appear tyrannical or genocidal, and there is no obvious way to reconcile those two views using terms with which both would be familiar and use in the same way. The Greek conception of what it means to be free is just entirely different from the liberal conception.

It should be noted that this argument, while reminiscent of moral relativism, was not considered as such by Berlin. He thought it empirically and objectively verifiable whether or not cultures and time periods differed in the way he suggests. In any given context with any given set of conceptions of values, Berlin believed that there were only a finite number of reasonable moral views to hold, and he denied that his view implied a subjective relativism under which anything goes.

Many attack Berlin by arguing that his view is relativist, even though he doesn’t see it that way. I’d like to try a different angle and argue that on Berlin’s own terms, value conceptions among various cultures and periods do not differ as much as he suggests, such that the moral systems of different ages remain, on a foundational level, intelligible even to temporally foreign interlopers.

People have always valued the same things, even though they have built wide-ranging different moral infrastructures on top of those fundamental values. Ultimately, all moral frameworks are comparable to one another on the basis of which better serves the core elements that all have in common. What are those core elements, the essential values that all moral frameworks share?

At any point in history, mentally healthy human beings (not the suicidal, for instance) have universally wanted several things that are scarce in this world:

  1. Food/Water–that which the body requires to sustain life.
  2. Shelter–that which gives comfort and protects the body from the elements.
  3. Friendship/Sex/Socialization–the most ancient forms of entertainment, pleasure, and reproduction.
  4. Security–that which protects the body and mind from harm or abuse by other people, by dangerous animals, or by deadly diseases.

When human beings fight, it has always been on some level about these things. Different groups of people have different conceptions of the values they use to determine how to distribute these goods among themselves. When we talk about what is a just or fair distribution, we are ultimately talking about the various conceptions of who should get access to these things–who should be safe, who should have access to fun, who should live in comfort, and who should have food. While societies of today often have far more of these resources than any one individual needs, we still find that people make comparisons and desire to have these things, even beyond need, in order to see their social standing reflected in their relative share of the social pie. While societies have come up with distributive ideas that are very different from one another and different systems of values to support those distributions, what they have tried to distribute has been fundamentally constant.

With each of these categories, the feelings we get when we have the things in question in sufficiency have, throughout history, been similar. Having enough food, shelter, companionship, and security makes us feel relaxed, calm, and content. Having insufficient amounts of these things makes us feel hungry, cold, hot, lonely, afraid, or anxious. The various values and virtues human beings have employed when speaking about morality all ultimately have something to do with these feelings and how we want people in our societies to process them. We use, say, courage to encourage people to engage in socially beneficial actions even when those actions risk their access to one of these things. Depending on the context, the thing in question might be different. In a culture that is frequently at war, we might want people to be courageous in the face of threats to their security, and this is how the Greeks often referred to it. But in modern rich countries, risks to security are reduced, so more often people are courageous when they say or do something that puts a social relationship at risk, like asking someone out, or admitting an uncomfortable truth, or coming out of some closet, or what have you. Our conceptions of values and virtues shift with material changes in human access to these timeless essentials.

The problems we have today are the same as the problems people had in Thebes or Babylon–some of us don’t have enough food, some of us don’t have enough shelter, some of us don’t have positive social relationships, and some of us are not safe. Leaving aside the developing world (which in some cases really is just like the ancient world), there are people in wealthy countries who are on food stamps, or can’t afford healthy food, who are homeless, who live in social housing, who can’t afford to run the heating, who are at risk of violence, who are sick, who are lonely, who are bullied, who are ostracized, and so on. The problems we deem “new” are really new formulations of the old problems. The terms we have used to express these problems have changed to reflect dissatisfaction with different solutions to those, but the underlying problems remain the same.

The man who believes those who do not have enough could get access to more of the ancient goods if only they were freed from outside coercion complains of a lack of individual liberty. The man who believes these relative sufferers could get access to more of the goods if only the state were committed to ensuring they received their fair share complains of a lack of justice. All the other principles and values that people call upon when making moral and political arguments are called upon because it seems to them that if these principles and values as he conceives were socially implemented, the disaffected would receive more. If the problem is believed to be that the disaffected do not have sufficient say, people call for democratization. If the problem is believed to be instability and chaos, people call for authoritarianism. Whatever the problem appears to be, people will invent a term for the solution and devise conceptions of moral values in support of that solution. The moral conceptions and language we use derives from the nature of the problems we face, not the other way around. People do not happen to have pre-existing beliefs disconnected from what is in front of them that they use to determine what is right. People instead divide consistently into two camps:

  1. Moral Progressives–those who adopt moral ideas to address what they perceive to be the critical problems of their age.
  2. Moral Conservatives–those who adopt the moral ideas of their parents, which are invariably designed to address problems that, to some degree or another, are slipping into the past.

It must be conceded that some of these moral systems get bogged down temporally–a moral system in which the courage, physicality, and manliness of the warrior is the moral example for everyone to follow is a moral system that is only useful when warriors are needed; it swiftly becomes an albatross and a barrier when they are not. But a good moral system is designed better than this. A good moral system contains within it the necessary material required to adapt its outputs to changing material conditions. It achieves this by being consequentialist, by being about right outcomes rather than following particular rules or procedures that only happen to track good outcomes due to the conditions of the day. A utilitarian moral system, for instance, is timeless–all peoples at all times are able to make sense of the notion that we should distribute food, shelter, companionship, and security in such a way that we maximize the amount of these things we are able to provide to everyone in the community as a whole. For this reason, something like utilitarianism has appeared in nearly every context, from Mozi to Epicurus to Machiavelli to Bentham. Berlin’s argument for pluralism relies on moral theories being inextricably linked to the specific problems they solve and wider contexts they operate in. This is just not true. The best moral theories contain within themselves the necessary intellectual material to adapt and morph their outputs to suit the changing conditions of the people who wield them. They are pragmatic, ends-focused, and always remember that the original aim of morality is to get people more of the ancient goods they have always desired. Moral theories that lose sight of this, that become context-specific, static, ineffective, and eventually outmoded, are not part of a pluralist array of moral systems that cannot be directly compared with one another because their contexts are too far apart, they are merely bad moral theories that have lost their relevance, or propaganda designed to serve some ulterior purpose.

There are many moral theories that have sought to rule man via arbitrary and unjustifiable deontological rules, that are wholly disconnected from the goods man seeks–these moral theories certainly are contextual, they come and go like seasons, but they are not true moral theories but ephemeral sophistical tyrannies. They may hold sway for a generation, for centuries even in some places, but they are the negation of morality, not legitimate formulations of it.