Book: Liberalism: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)

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Liberal philosophical pluralism

There is another form of liberal philosophizing, one of whose leading exponents was the British philosopher Isaiah Berlin (1909–97). Berlin held that values were plural and diverse, and therefore could not be ranked in relation to each other. On the surface this bears some resemblance to the fifth layer of liberal pluralism, but it is in fact an older kind of pluralism. Rather than being based on notions of group identity held by groups themselves, it relates to the moral diversity of human values and of the choices people are entitled to make. The problem with according equal respect to the values held by individuals is that it bypasses the empirical fact that ranking goods is an inevitable feature of political life. Without a means of distributing the significance of values and asserting that ‘this is more important, or worthy, than that’ no political decisions can be taken. As a philosophical observation Berlin’s insistence on the incommensurability of values has some appeal to liberals (though even then most of them safeguard specific values through bestowing on them the finality of rights). As a political characterization, however, it does not represent actual liberalisms, which have to compete for their fortunes in the public arena in their quest to control political language.

Berlin, however, appreciated that conflict was inescapable, and his disdain for totalitarianism and the monism it entailed justified in his view a strong preference for the liberty of each individual to be different, rather than the alternative liberty of converging on universal rational truths and on ethical harmony. Here again a tension is evident: that between the decontested values and preferences that all ideologies exhibit and the desire to open up the range of human expression without hindrance. When liberals express support for the core concepts identified in , they try to choose certain conceptions of each concept in a manner that will permit a high degree of compatibility among them. At the same time, their preferences for those particular decontestations, and their dislike of others, shape their views of the political and moral worlds they inhabit. Liberals may be more amenable to the flexibility and adjustability of those conceptual clusters, but not infinitely so. Berlin preached toleration, but even liberal toleration has its no-go areas. Berlin himself, of course, subscribed to his own ranking of values, one in which (negative) liberty was a master concept. He was therefore intolerant of attempts to undermine it. When push comes to shove, a ranking of preferences must be arrived at in each concrete instance of governing and communal living. That is the flipside of liberal philosophers’ espousal of neutrality. Rather, as Berlin insisted, the one-size-fits-all of universal solutions disregards the ‘crooked timber of humanity’. That is why the right to, and capacity for, moral as well as political choice occupied pride of place in his kind of liberalism, even when the actual choices could be misguided.

Philosophical liberalism is a complex field of argument, assessment, and ideational experimentation. No creed can survive and remain healthy without the constant infusion of critical thinking from within. Political philosophers have pushed forward the boundaries of liberalism by subjecting it to intense scrutiny and they have also repeatedly attempted to tackle pressing issues of immense social significance—What has to happen for a political system to be legitimate? When is civil disobedience justified? What makes an individual deserving of rewards in the form of social goods? Should we compensate individuals for misfortune? Which democratic practices are most conducive to sustaining democracy? How do we reconcile cultural and ethnic loyalties with free choice and individuality? Philosophical liberalism has frequently narrowed and defined the area in which answers to questions such as these can—and should—be found. But to the extent that some of its practitioners believe in clear solutions to those issues, they may find themselves crossing the admittedly porous line between liberalism and its challengers—particularly that between the utopias of human perfection and the liberal acknowledgement of imperfection.

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Next: Chapter 7: Misappropriations, disparagements, and lapses