The Isaiah Berlin Virtual Library

Geography as a Guide to Value Pluralism
A fragment

Henry Hardy


Is different from Geography
Geography is about maps,
While Biography deals with chaps

THIS IS the introductory quatrain by Edmund Clerihew Bentley in the notebook entitled ‘Dictionary of Biography’ which he compiled with friends at St Paul’s School, London, in 1893, thus creating what later became known as the ‘clerihew’.

Isaiah Berlin attended the same school some thirty years later, and loved clerihews. But I digress before I have begun.

The relevance of this excellent verse is that it suggests a metaphor which can, I believe, illuminate some of the more problematic corners of Berlin’s celebrated value pluralism – ‘objective pluralism’, as he came to call it. The central ground stands in no need of illumination, since no one could display it more clearly than Berlin himself (I shall nevertheless venture to summarise it in a moment as a starting-point for discussion). There are, however, certain parts of its hinterland that he never fully and explicitly mapped, and this is a task well worth initiating.

My talk of mapping shows that I have already moved into the metaphorical territory I have alluded to. To speak plainly, it strikes me that, despite Bentley’s firm bifurcation between geography and biography, what we say about maps can be a useful guide to what we say about chaps, at least in the area with which we are concerned, which is the area of human values. To speak polysyllabically, physical geography can model in a heuristically useful manner the history, distribution and relationships of values and value-systems, anthropologically viewed. But in what follows I shall try to stick more closely to maps and chaps.

I turn now to a very brief summary of the central claims Berlin makes about values. For this purpose I shall quote in a slightly altered form what I wrote in an obituary of Berlin, not because I hold any special brief for that particular attempt to encapsulate his views, but because I asked him whether the account was accurate – without telling him its intended context – and he told me it was. Here is what (roughly) I said:

Berlin once described the main burden of his work as ‘distrust of all claims to the possession of incorrigible knowledge about issues of fact or principle in any sphere of human behaviour’. His most fundamental conviction, which he applauded when he discerned it in the writings of others, and adopted in an enriched form as his own, was that there can never be any single, universal, final, complete, demonstrable answer to the most ultimate moral question of all: How should men live? This he presents as a denial of one of the oldest and most dominant assumptions of Western thought, expressed in its most uncompromising form in the eighteenth century under the banner of the French Enlightenment.

Contrary to the Enlightenment vision of an eventual orderly and untroubled synthesis of all objectives and aspirations, Berlin insisted that there exists an indefinite number of competing and often irreconcilable ultimate values and ideals between which each of us often has to make a choice – a choice which, precisely because it cannot be given a conclusive rational justification, must not be forced on others, however committed we may be to it ourselves. ‘Life may be seen through many windows, none of them necessarily clear or opaque, less or more distorting than any of the others.’

Each culture, each nation, each historical period has its own goals and standards, and these cannot be combined, practically or theoretically, into a single coherent overarching system in which all ends are fully realised without loss, compromise or clashes. The same tension exists within each individual consciousness. More equality may mean less excellence, or less liberty; justice may obstruct mercy; honesty may exclude kindness; loyalty may block fulfilment; self-knowledge may impair creativity or happiness, efficiency inhibit spontaneity. These are not temporary local difficulties: they are general, indelible and sometimes tragic features of the moral landscape; tragedy, indeed, far from being the result of avoidable error, is an endemic feature of the human condition. Instead of a splendid synthesis there must be a permanent, at times painful, piecemeal process of untidy trade-offs and careful balancings of contradictory claims.

Intimately connected with this pluralist thesis – sometimes mistaken for relativism, which Berlin rejected, and which is in fact quite distinct – is a belief in freedom from interference, especially by those who think they know better, that they can choose for us in a more enlightened way than we can choose for ourselves. Berlin’s pluralism justifies his deep-seated rejection of coercion and manipulation by authoritarians and totalitarians of all kinds: Communists, Fascists, bureaucrats, missionaries, terrorists, revolutionaries and all other despots, levellers, systematisers or purveyors of ‘organised happiness’. Like one of his heroes, the Russian thinker Alexander Herzen, many of whose characteristics he manifested himself, Berlin had a horror of the sacrifices that have been exacted in the name of Utopian ideals due to be realised at some unspecifiable point in the distant future: real people should not have to suffer and die today for the sake of a chimera of eventual universal bliss.

That summary is over-compressed and incomplete, but it does indicate the territory in which we find ourselves when we read Berlin. And speaking of territory, let me briefly translate these remarks into geographical terms as a preliminary to filling in some of the gaps and raising some unresolved problems.

Just as there can be no moral Utopia, so there can be no geographical Utopia. Are mountains best, or plains? Do we prefer our climate to be equatorial, arctic or temperate?[1]  Each country has its own distinctive characteristics, its own peculiar advantages and disadvantages. Some countries, of course, are fortunate enough to have a mixture of different physical characteristics, but no single country can accommodate the whole range of terrain, of climatic conditions, of flora and fauna that the earth as a whole displays. Some geographical conditions are compatible, other incompatible; in the latter case we may also find the options incommensurable, as with values. Life in Norway is geographically quite distinct from life in Egypt, but who could say that one was better than the other, for all men, at all times?

One can in theory regard the whole earth as one’s unit, in which case all the options are available simultaneously, and one can move from one to the other to escape the limitations of the patch of ground on which one happens to find oneself. But to have everything in this way is as unsatisfactory geographically as it is culturally. The cosmopolitan who is in one way at home everywhere is in another deeper way at home nowhere, as is reflected in the notion of the ‘rootless cosmopolitan’. Just as human beings have a deep-seated need to belong to a particular culture, to have a cultural ‘centre of gravity’, without which they are importantly incomplete, be they never so adaptable to the wide range of cultural settings through which they may flit, so there is in many of us, when we are away from our home territory and turn our mind towards it, a strong sense of nostalgia for the geography with which we have become most familiar, especially when we are younger. This is connected, of course, with cultural belonging, because most cultures have a particular physical location as part of their essence, but it is also something independent – a direct relationship of familiarity with and attachment to the particular subset of geographical features that we have come to know best. This sense of attachment cannot be extended to the earth as a whole: we can be fiercely loyal to and protective towards the earth, but this is by comparison an intellectualised attachment. The human mind is so built that the strong geographical attachment I have described is restricted in its physical reach, and becomes attenuated as this reach is exceeded.

The same applies to our sense of cultural identity in the wider sense. We are Londoners, we are English, we are British, we are Europeans, we are Western, we are from the developed world, we are earthlings, but we can sing ‘Maybe its because I’m a Londoner’ in a spirit that becomes progressively absurd if we try to expand the territory to which we refer. Perhaps in an age of intergalactic travel we shall sing ‘Maybe it’s because I’m an earthling’, but I doubt it.

My basic analogy, then, is between the countries in the atlas and the cultures that reside in them. In each case there has been a natural limit to the size of the unit, a limit set by human psychology, though technology has notably expanded these limits in recent decades. Within the geographical restriction on the size of a country, set in this way, further limits arise from the nature of the planet on which we happen to live. We do not usually find arid sandy deserts and steaming rain-forests within the bounds of a country of average size; snowy mountains and tropical seaboards are not normally close to one another; even if they are, and fall within the confines of one political unit, there is likely to be a degree of artificiality about this unit, and its extension is likely to be determined by historical factors that have generated a territorial outcome not well tailored to people’s natural sense of local geographical belonging.

Just as no culture is the best, so no slice of geography is the best. There is no answer to the question ‘Where is it best to live?’ There could in principle – not merely in practice – be no country of normal size that combined within its borders all the widely different physical properties of the different parts of the globe. We can move from one country to another, but we cannot represent such a move as an improvement suitable for recommendation to all comers. Each country has its strengths and weaknesses, and we cannot collect all the strengths together into one place and dispense with the weaknesses, since the two categories are complementary faces of the same coin.[2]

There is a good deal of looseness in the analogy between geography and values, clearly, and to press it too far would yield a proportion of nonsense, as I have perhaps already demonstrated. But if I now turn to the amplification of the brief account I started with, and to the consideration of some of the problems it throws up, it may become clear why I nevertheless find the analogy useful as a way of thinking about what are inevitably rather abstract questions in more concrete terms.

The first amplification has already been briefly introduced, and it is the claim, made classically by Herder, and endorsed by Berlin, that it is a basic human need – as basic as the need for food, drink, shelter and sex – to belong to an identifiable and psychologically graspable group. This group may take various forms – family, tribe, race, culture, nation – and the sense of belonging to it may become pathologically disfigured into an unnecessary state of hostility to other such groups that impinge on one’s own. In that disfigured form Berlin calls it nationalism, but since this term is also often used for the form of national consciousness that is perfectly content to coexist peaceably with other nations – and this is the form of nationalism which Herder believed in – it is perhaps clearer to use a phrase such as ‘aggressive nationalism’ to pick out the intolerant variety of national belonging.

Mao Tse-Tung’s version of Herder’s approach used the image of a garden of many flowers. This is a useful image because it can be extended to cover aggressive nationalism if we remember that some plants are invasive and, if they are not held in check, tend to take over neighbouring areas occupied by other, non-invasive, varieties. Just as the gardener needs to exercise perpetual vigilance to safeguard the vulnerable plants under his care, so the international political order needs to be on its guard against improper expansionism on the part of aggressively nationalistic groups.

The next addendum I have to make is to say that Berlin was thoroughly empirically-minded. He believed that our experience is all we have to rely on, and rejected all non-empirical sources of information or authority – religious, transcendental, mystical, metaphysical, rationalistic and the rest. In the realm of values this meant among other things that he was not disposed to enquire too deeply into the metaphysical nature of values.[3] For him, values were an intuitively graspable part of the furniture of the world – different, no doubt, from tables and chairs and other medium-sized specimens of dry goods (as J. L. Austin called them), and different again from more exotic items such as rainbows, mirror-images, sociological trends and so forth – but not in any way mysterious for the purposes with which he was concerned. People clearly have values, pursue ends, some of which are ultimate in the sense that they are not embraced only or partly instrumentally, that is, for the sake of some higher objective.

As a matter of anthropology Berlin believed that, despite the huge cultural variation to be found in the world, there were certain fundamental moral principles held in common by at any rate the vast majority of peoples in all times and places. These principles might be said to form a moral ‘core’ shared by all moral systems. To use a different metaphor, they define a ‘horizon’ within which more specific moral values must be positioned if they are not to flout the basic conditions of humanity. These two metaphors – of the core and of the horizon – can cause trouble if an attempt is made to use them simultaneously, since they are incompatible. The core is like the foundations of a building: buildings of all shapes and sizes and characters rest on similar foundations. The horizon is more like a set of building regulations: so long as a building does not break the regulations, the permutations of detail available to the architect are indefinite.

These metaphors can be pressed further. We cannot live in a set of foundations, and the core, though necessary, is not sufficient to make a morality or a culture. This is the problem with theories of ‘natural law’ that hold that all we need to do is to live in accordance with the principles that apply universally to all people, everywhere, always. A mature culture has to contain a great deal that is particular to it, not mandatory for all human beings, and in that sense optional ...[4]

The late discovery of universal values
One difficulty that arises out of the image of the limits of moral possibility being pre-defined in human nature is this. Berlin often maintained that some of our most central values are of comparatively recent origin. His most frequent examples stem from the romantic period – values such as integrity and sincerity, which are related to what existentialists call authenticity. If the outlines of human nature are fixed, how is it possible for new values, especially basic new values, to be discovered in the comparatively recent past? This may perhaps seem less strange if we think of a geographical analogy. The countries of the world occupy the land that nature makes available, but the pool of availability alters in two ways over time. First of all, coastlines alter: new tracts of land appear, old ones vanish. Perhaps human nature alters too, either by a process of gradual Darwinian evolution, though that may be too slow to help with the present difficulty, or by a Lamarckian process of cultural evolution, whereby cultural developments of the past throw up new possibilities of future development, including the establishment of new values. To put it crudely, authenticity would not be of much use to the caveman; but to today’s sophisticated, self-conscious beings it is well adapted. The new values are still within the horizon that has always delimited the option open to us, but the conditions under which it made sense for them to emerge are of late onset.

This problem becomes especially acute if it is claimed that a new value belongs to the core. If it is one of the ground-rules of human society, how is it possible that it was not known of in the more distant past? One possible answer to this is that we should not expect to know all the most basic facts about ourselves from the start. Another is that we cannot guarantee that human nature will not change, so there is nothing impossible in expansion of the core. Perhaps one answer fits one value, another a second.

A related question is whether values are discovered or, as the romantics believed, created. If they are part of what nature provides, surely we do not create them? But if we create them, surely they are not among the brute facts of nature with which we have to deal? A middle way between these two apparently contradictory alternatives would be to say that nature has made us value-creators. Our natures are such that, in the process of time, certain core values are likely to emerge, in a particular order, while the emergence of other less central values is more a matter of accident ...

[1] One might develop an analogy between the natural limits to the range of temperatures on offer and the central moral core. [back]

[2] The same is true within an individual garden. The soil cannot be both acid and alkaline at the same time. If we can grow plants that need a high rainfall we cannot grow those that require a dry soil. And who is to say that one possible selection from the possible horticultural alternatives is universally better than another? [back]

[3] But he did write an interesting short piece on the nature of values, ‘Note on Subjective versus Objective Ethics’. [back]

[4] Though not optional in the stronger sense that those who accept their inherited membership of a given culture are free to take or leave the non-universalisable elements of the culture they inhabit as if they are choosing from a restaurant menu. [back]

© Henry Hardy 2004

The Isaiah Berlin Virtual Library