The Isaiah Berlin Virtual Library

Miscellaneous fragments, mostly on pluralism

Henry Hardy

Pluralism, moral universals and fullness of life
Pluralism entails a degree of toleration, namely, enough freedom from direction and interference to enable men to choose their own path. But it does not imply or involve the relinquishing of universal moral standards; nor does it require or allow us to confine ourselves to those values that can be seen as universal. Indeed, the small core of shared values are arguably insufficient to ground a fully-fledged moral life; one might even say that there was a universal need to fill out the core with a non-universal periphery: that a fully developed conception of life will always contain both universal and non-universal components.

Pluralism, the limits of variety, and religion
Pluralism recognises the legitimacy of variety in conceptions of life; indeed it may encourage such variety as comprising a rich moral ecology, much as the variety of biological species can be encouraged on literally ecological grounds. But the variety it recognises cannot be limitless, in two ways. First, shared human values require any proffered conception of life to fall within certain limits of acceptable human behaviour. Secondly, pluralism cannot consistently accept conceptions of life that insist that moral variety is illegitimate: in short, monism and pluralism are logically incompatible.

This last point can be most vividly illustrated by the phenomenon of universalist religious creeds.[1] Any religion which claims to preach a comprehensive set of truths valid for all men, everywhere, is plainly at odds with pluralism. Of course, some of the truths it preaches may be part of the common moral core, but it is not on those grounds that they are preached: the authority of religion is supposed to derive primarily not from empirical observation but from revelation. Notoriously, revelations differ, quite apart from the problems inherent in validating any particular instance of revelation. This creates acute difficulties for those who seek to understand how the competing revelations may be jointly understood if they are not all (or all but one) to be rejected, but it also illustrates starkly how the variety of religious dispensations differs from the variety of approaches to life sponsored by pluralism. The various views of life that can be embraced by pluralism make no universalising, fundamentalist or triumphalist claims (apart from their insistence on the universality of the core); indeed they may severally welcome the existence of the alternative conceptions with which they coexist. But universalist religions, however tolerant they may decide to be at a practical level, require other such religious outlooks to be regarded as competitors for acceptance as guides to the unique truth.
Religion is therefore not a coherent vehicle of cultural identity in a self-consciously pluralistic world.[2]

Cultural identity and multiculturalism
If it is true that cultural identity is one of the most basic human needs, that without a sense of belonging to a group a man’s identity is impoverished, certain questions arise about the nature of cultural wholes, and the way they interact and alter. These problems are more acute if a culture is seen as holistic, in the sense that its integrity is damaged if any part of it is lost or damaged or altered. Such a view, of course, would in any case be an idealisation of reality, since few cultures have ever been entirely hermetically isolated from other cultures; but the advent of global cultural intermingling makes it even more impossible to sustain. In an age of multiculturalism – that is, the simultaneous presence of many cultures in one geopolitical unit (which may be the whole world, if we allow for the cultural globalisation induced by travel and the media) – what are we to say about the effect on cultural identity of the resulting admixture of cultural elements? Berlin believed that the dominant culture should be protected from too much infiltration and alteration by minority cultures, lest it forfeit too much of the character that gives it strength and confidence; enthusiastic multiculturalists may disagree.

Monism has the potential to become the fifth horseman of the apocalypse. The idea that there is a single, universal set of moral rules, applicable to everyone, at all times and in all climes, is, if one tries to cash it out in specific terms, absurd. Any rules capable of applying to Tobriand Islanders and New York executives, to primitive hunter-gatherers and sophisticated intellectuals, would have to be so general as to be virtually free of content. And there is also the variety introduced by differences in taste, temperament, ability or vocation: are all these to be eliminated in deference to some universalising system of preferences among such properly unrankable alternatives? If this is the claim of monism, true monism can scarcely ever have been embraced by reasonable men; in this comprehensive sense, there is no need for exemplary monists such as Christians or Communists, Moslems or Fascists, to be monist at all, for all these creeds must recognise the differences between people, places and times. There may be ideologies so fierce that such variability is denied, but they are unlikely to win sufficient credence to achieve a status beyond that of fringe, extremist cults. Surely the central characteristics of a monist outlook worth serious consideration must be other than these. A plausible monism must be distinguished from non-monist outlooks not by its failure to recognise the kind of variety just alluded to, but by its insistence that, given such variety, there is a single correct solution to any moral problem that arises against this background. Circumstances alter cases – all agree on that – but for the monist they do not alter the principles according to which the correct way forward, in whatever circumstances, is to be discovered.

It may seem that we have now returned to our starting-point: we began by denying the plausibility of universal rules and ended up by suggesting universal principles. The difference is this: the denied rules were very specific injunctions for the guidance of everyday conduct – for example, regulations about the proper disposal of dead bodies – whereas the suggested principles are more procedural, more sensitive to the differing cultural, historical or individual contexts in which they may be applied – for example, the rule that the will of God always trumps the inclinations of the individual. Monism is to be rejected in either guise, but it is not fair to start with a conception of monism so implausible that it is just a straw man.

Berlin and evil
One of the problems I see in Berlin’s work is that there tends to be a pervasive if unspoken assumption that people are benevolent – that they are acting for the best according to their lights. They may sometimes be the victims of quite appalling empirical error – Berlin often instanced the false beliefs about Jews held by Nazis, beliefs which, had they been true, might have justified their behaviour – but, once these errors are cleared away, matters will improve. This may be so to some extent, but it is surely a massive underestimation of human malevolence, of the sheer nastiness and bloody-mindedness (to put it no more strongly) that is lurking somewhere in most of us, and doing a great deal more than lurk in many people known to us all. A picture of the moral nature of mankind that does not allow for the force of evil, if one may use this terminology, is unrealistic, and therefore flawed. The empirically-minded observer must take the world as he finds it, not as he would like it to be. Berlin himself was unusually sweet-natured and benign, and this may be part of an explanation of why he gave so little attention to aspects of human nature which were under-represented in his own makeup.

Rough notes
2 reasons for clash of ideals: (1) they just do clash anyway – even when viewed under the old system; (2) if created, they are bound to, since unfettered creation follows no guidelines that guarantee consistency among its results.

The nature of values: sui generis.

Non-core values: chosen from a pre-existing selection, a bran-tub, or invented? Both? Is the core fixed or can it grow (shrink?)? Is it, in fact, a universal feature of human moral agreement that its boundaries will shift? This must be the hope of those who seek moral progress.[3]

[1] Some religions may not be universalist, which makes them very paradoxical, given that the desire for universally true transcendental guidelines might be thought to be one of the most basic elements of men’s religious instincts; but that is a separate issue which can be left on one side for present purposes. [back]

[2] Cf. my ‘The Compatibility of Incompatibles’, Independent, 20 February 1993, 33. [back]

[3] Growth in the core leads to alteration of the horizon; growth in the periphery may alter the core and/or the horizon; the common purpose of society is to eschew the idea of a common purpose. [back]

© Henry Hardy 2004

The Isaiah Berlin Virtual Library