The Isaiah Berlin Virtual Library

What should we be and do?
A fragment

Henry Hardy

Man should be and do something.
J. G. Fichte [1]

Monsters and madmen, barbarians and fanatics are excluded from the list because they are regarded as falling, in some sense, outside the pale of normal humanity; to this degree the notion of natural law, in however weakened and empirical a guise, still operates, and is, indeed, the last, but I think unbreakable, defence against unbridled romanticism.
Isaiah Berlin [2]

ISAIAH BERLIN is known as a cultural luminary better than he is understood as a thinker. For some reason that I do not fully understand his ideas have not yet become part of the general intellectual furniture of our time in the way that they deserve. I don’t believe that this will remain the case indefinitely, but for the time being there is an expository need that sits oddly beside the exemplary clarity of his own writings. I am often asked by people who are aware of his reputation, but cannot give any account of his thought, just what his intellectual contribution is – in particular what his own positive beliefs are. Being his editor does not by itself qualify me to answer that question, but naturally my work has led me to form a view. Indeed it is largely because I find his ideas of absorbing interest, and wish to understand them better, that I have found my editorial role rewarding.

The working view I have arrived at is very much a view from the inside, in the sense that it is not in general informed by a full awareness of the contributions of predecessors (including those about whom Berlin writes) or contemporaries, and to that degree it cannot be offered as a balanced, contextualised account: despite philosophical qualifications my life has not been spent in philosophical teaching or research, so that I am by no means an expert. Nevertheless, there is a sense in which it is worth having a perspective uncontaminated by preconceptions derived from elsewhere: such a perspective is a luxury not easily available to professionals in Berlin’s fields of activity, and it may from time to time allow insights that might escape the better-informed, rather as children sometimes ask philosophical questions that adults have forgotten to be puzzled by.

There is another charge which may be levelled against what I say. I admit to a strong taste for simplification and generalisation: indeed the latter, at least, seems to me one of the main motors of philosophical investigation. Paradoxically, however, it may be that one of the deepest fruits of the search for generalisation about human affairs is that most such generalisations are over-simplifications, disastrous if pressed too far. It is certainly one of Berlin’s greatest strengths to recognise, insist on and revel in the complexity and untidiness of human life, its irreducibility to a simple list of general truths. That is one reason why, despite the clarity of his writing, there are so often qualifications and asides of one kind or another, preventing the emergence of a viewpoint that can be briefly stated without vast suppression of subtlety and of sensitivity to the rich texture of reality. Nevertheless, for Berlin too, I contend, there is in the background, as one of the instincts which drive his work, a search for structure and generality where it may legitimately be found; and there is in any case a role for the plain statement of the general principles that seem to form the hinterland of much of his thought, even if, when the final account is drawn up, none of them can be accepted in a straightforward form. [3]

Two large assumptions must be made before the reflections that follow have any point: first, that the question of how we should live is of consuming importance; secondly, that light can be thrown upon this question by rational reflection. Both these propositions might seem very obvious, but they are not beyond challenge – in the one case, for example, by opportunists or nihilists, in the other by irrationalists or subjectivists – and it is as well to make them explicit. The ultimate usefulness of moral philosophy in general, and thus by indirection of any particular discussion conducted under its banner, is to be judged by its capacity to guide the conduct of life; and however imperfect the deliverances of reason, they are not negligible, and should therefore be consulted so long as they are not offered a jurisdiction that exceeds their reach. If this seems a virtually empty remark at this stage, I hope that some of what is said below may make it less so.

The nature of human values
In order to provide a rough framework for exposition and discussion, it may be useful to subdivide, somewhat crudely, the range of possible views about how fixed human nature is, especially in the moral sphere, into three broad categories, one at each extreme, and one that unites features of both the others. These categories may be labelled respectively ‘monism’, ‘relativism’ and ‘pluralism’.

By monism I mean the view that man has a single, comprehensive moral character, which can in principle be completely discovered, and in the light of which all moral problems, individual and collective, can in principle be solved, uniquely and unambiguously. The qualifications introduced by ‘in principle’ are of course crucial, since any moral theory, however monist in tendency, has to accommodate the undisputed existence of moral disagreement, even among those who accept monist premisses. But for the monist such differences are to be laid at the door of human ignorance and imperfection: they are not seen as endemic, ineradicable features of the human moral predicament as such.

According to full-blooded relativism the human species, morally at any rate, is generically a tabula rasa: values are an individual, variable matter, subjectively validated, and not binding on anyone other than those who freely adopt them – and not even on them if they change their mind. In effect they have the status of matters of taste. Relativism can embrace more than one view of the origin of values: they may be acquired from one’s social, cultural, economic, historical environment; they may be freely invented, as the romantics held; or these sources may be combined in various different ways. But whatever the source of values may be, they are seen as relative to the individual, or perhaps to his culture or some other grouping of which he is a member. This view naturally raises difficult if not insuperable problems about rational moral agreement and justified moral enforcement, quite apart from its vast intrinsic implausibility. As a result relativism tends to be offered in various modified forms, incorporating elements of non-relativist conceptions of morality. But for present purposes I have stated it in a stark, uncompromising form, to keep as clear as possible the features which distinguish it from the other two members of the threesome I am seeking to characterise.

Pluralism combines elements from both monism and relativism, but in the latter case with a twist that makes a vital difference. The monist element is the assertion that there is a central moral core shared by all men, or at least all those we have so far encountered. This core is universal not as a matter of principle, but as a matter of empirical fact. Beyond the core there is variety, but (here is the twist) not a free-for-all as in crude relativism: the core, as well as making certain minimum requirements, restricts the range of additional values which can be adopted, since these must not be incompatible with the core values. Finally, behaviour governed by principles that lie beyond the ‘horizon’ of what the core allows is rightly regarded as pathological.

In a word, monism sees morality as fixed across the board; relativism as subject to unrestricted variation; pluralism as comprising a constant core that governs the variability of an open-ended periphery. Again, these are crude characterisations that deliberately omit to mention the various devices deployed by all three theories to meet the many objections that can be urged against them.

The contents of the core
Before we ask in more detail what exactly the common moral core may contain – what those values are that may plausibly be said to belong to the whole of humanity – there is an important methodological question to be side-stepped. This is the familiar problem of the derivation of an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’. Even if all human beings bar one agreed on a moral rule, it would still be open to the remaining person to reject it, since a moral obligation can never be simply read off from a list of facts, however long, even a list of facts about the moral sentiments of humans, unless we add a non-empirical catalyst that allows us to extract an obligation. Indeed, on some views of morality, the disconnectedness from facts is even greater: if moral duties are derived from authority, especially revealed authority, facts other than those needed to establish what the authority requires may be of no relevance.

This is a long-standing and intractable problem in moral philosophy. Fortunately, though, it can for our purposes be left on one side: not because it is unimportant, but because the moral claims that we shall be examining are neutral with respect to any particular solution of the problem. Actual moral behaviour, individual and social, has through the history of mankind occurred without reference to this problem – without awareness of it, on the whole – and so without any sense of inhibition based on the difficulty of finding a solution. Tradition and moral consensus have always been effective forces in forming and enforcing moral injunctions, whatever the theoretical questions that may be raised about the justification of their authority. It is possible, then, to examine the traditions, and the content and sources of moral consensus, while leaving open philosophical questions about the general justification of moral sanctions.

The crucial starting-point for such an examination is the nature of man. Just as there are certain common non-moral universals, such as the need for food, warmth, shelter, security – and more controversially social identity, a sense of belonging, and other less obviously biological requirements – so, and relatedly, there are moral universals – that is, moral principles accepted wherever and whenever men seek to codify socially acceptable behaviour, or even when they don’t, since such principles can be implicit in social practice without being overtly verbalised. The universality of such principles may be thought weaker than that of biological needs, and the analogy between the two sorts of universality accordingly specious. But this would be a mistake. Moral universals are often if not always in an obvious sense biologically based: one does not need to accept an evolutionary view of the origin of morality to perceive that moral rules are related, more or less intimately, to the biological interests of those who espouse them.

Despite the biological connection, its indirectness makes it more difficult to achieve an agreed list of moral universals than to draw up a list of universal biological needs (itself perhaps not a straightforward matter). In addition, the fact that moral rules are often mediated, and modified, by that cultural variation which is itself part of human nature makes the discernment of common ground less straightforward. But however difficult it may be to delimit the territory of moral agreement exactly, and though it may in principle never be exhaustively specifiable, since it is a matter of the variable, open-ended, empirical nature of man, the task should not be shirked ...

Some central elements are relatively secure: e.g. the ban on gratuitous/indefensible [to be defined] killing or infliction of suffering. Other candidates:

Equal treatment of cases not relevantly [to be defined] different


Sense of group identity, cultural membership


Retrospective legislation (except in extremis, e.g. Nuremberg)
[add from Jay?]

[1] ‘Der Mensch soll etwas seyn und thun’: Johann Gottlieb Fichte’s Sämmtliche Werke, ed. I. H. Fichte (Berlin, 1845–6), vol. 6, p. 383. [back]

[2] ‘Three Turning-Points in the History of Political Thought’, unpublished TS. [back]

[3] The attempt to simplify may sometimes be self-defeating, if summary displaces subtlety rather than encapsulating it, so that the attempted mirror of reality becomes too cracked to do its work. But vagueness and imprecision can at times have sources other than fidelity to the complex nature of truth, and one should not be shy of attempting, in Popperian spirit, bold theses whose points of vulnerability to counter-arguments and counter-evidence are unambiguously revealed. [back]

© Henry Hardy 2004

The Isaiah Berlin Virtual Library