The Crooked Timber Of Humanity
22nd September 2016
Humanity has a deep instinct for competition and conflict. Isaiah Berlin spoke of this as a central problem in the work of the liberal state. It must contain different world-views without any realistic hope of resolving the inevitable conflicts between them.
Liberalism cannot declare one group’s ways over another as right, because if it were to do so, it would no longer be liberal. At its most effective, liberalism manages our competitive urges and appetite for conflict. But it must do so in the knowledge that the peace it seeks will come under threat, and occasionally be overcome, by a particularly aggressive group.
A realistic liberalism requires a tragic view, one motivated by expediency. The writer and political philosopher John Gray, a biographer of Berlin has called it ‘agonistic liberalism.’ Gray believes in the liberal state, and believes it worth defending, but, similarly to Berlin, feels that this cannot be done with an empty optimism, nor with the belief that it should attempt to impose its ways on others.
Berlin felt virtues and values to be immune to a concept of permanent progress. In his estimation, whilst all cultures can recognise certain crimes, agreement on the most important virtues can only overlap. Moral variety is built into the constitution of humankind and the differences require respect given that no society can be built upon absolute values. A truer liberalism would seek to hold conflicting values between its groups without the wishful thinking of a definitive agreement.
Berlin’s contemporary Richard Dworkin rejected this view of the incompatiblity of values however: “pluralism was Isaiah Berlin’s extremely popular thought, that there are truths, but they conflict. I think it’s wrong. Truths don’t conflict in the domain of value any more than in science.” This position has encouraged a portrayal of Berlin as being sympathetic to relativism. In fact, Berlin’s view is pluralistic.
A number of conflicts afflict the choices a human will experience. As Gray has pointed out, it is frequently the case that individuals and states must choose between different goods – between equality and liberty, between knowledge and happiness or between justice and mercy. The Wikileaks episode revealed just to what extent the right to free speech can be at odds with the right to privacy. Our desire for security continually conflicts with our freedoms.
It is at these intersections, where difficult choices must be made, that politics must take up the reins. It can do this by carefully choosing between rival freedoms, to work within their conflicts and contradictions. Freedom is not something that merely develops via the removal of oppressive practices or states. It must be negotiated over and over again.
The art of politics is to navigate the inescapable reality of human moral conflict. In Berlin’s estimation “some of the Great Goods cannot live together…. This is a conceptual truth. We are doomed to choose, and every choice may entail an irreparable loss.” Absolute truths in the name of the ‘good’ society are impossible to realise because virtues and values are immune to absolute agreement.
Each culture has its own centre of gravity when it comes to beliefs and this is no less true of individuals. We each tend to see with our own theories and the values upon which they are based. Conflict is intrinsic to the experience of being human, the possibilities for consensus between people stubbornly infrequent. Berlin, who had first-hand experience of some of the most traumatic events of the first half of the twentieth century, understood this painful fact only too well.