Berlin on the plurality of value

I recently re-read Berlin’s wonderful essay “Two Concepts of Liberty” for class, so I have the subject of value pluralism on my mind. In addition to his conceptual analysis of negative and positive liberty, as well as several closely related concepts involving status and sovereignty, the final section of the essay contains a defense of value pluralism. More strongly, Berlin wants to defend the claim that value pluralism entails a defense of negative liberty.

Berlin contrasts his view with one that holds all values may in principle be reconciled or unified, or more strongly that a certain historical development will necessarily lead to the reconciliation and unification of value, which he fears will lead to the erosion of negative liberty.

The first problem here is that Berlin is doing what logicians call “denying the antecedent.” That is, even if value pluralism entails negative liberty, it doesn’t follow that if value pluralism is false then we shouldn’t care about negative liberty. If a conditional is true, that doesn’t entail that its inverse is true. Berlin might just be making a point about a psychological or historical tendency. But then he would just be talking about our beliefs about ultimate values rather than values themselves.

Let’s set this aside for a moment, however, and focus on Berlin’s claim that value pluralism entails negative liberty. He defends this claim in several passages:

“Pluralism, with the measure of negative liberty that it entails, seems to me a truer and more humane ideal than the goals of those who seek in the great disciplined, authoritarian structures the ideal of “positive” self mastery by classes, or peoples, or the the whole of mankind…. To assume that all values can be graded on one scale, so that it is a mere matter of inspection to determine the highest, seems to me to falsify our knowledge that men are free agents, to represent moral decisions as an operation which a slide-rule could, in principle, perform.”

“The world that we encounter in ordinary experience is one in which we are faced with choices between ends equally ultimate, and claims equally absolute, the realization of some of which must inevitably involve the sacrifice of others. Indeed, it is because this is their situation that men place such immense value upon the freedom to choose; for if they had assurance that in some perfect state, realizable by men on earth, no ends pursued by them would ever be in conflict, the necessity and agony of choice would disappear, and with it the central importance of the freedom to choose.”

“If, as I believe ,the ends of men are many, and not all of them are in principle compatible with each other, then the possibility of conflict – and of tragedy – can never wholly be eliminated from human life, either personal or social. The necessity of choosing between absolute claims is then an inescapable characteristic of the human condition.”

In the first passage, Berlin seems to affirm the converse of his original claim. He now says that the fact of human freedom entails that there are multiple, incommensurable values. This is, of course, a fallacious argument for his original claim. However, we may set this aside.

In the second passage, Berlin says that some values are “equally ultimate” and some claims are “equally absolute,” and that the realization of one requires a sacrifice of another. Note that he also says that these values are equally ultimate. The very fact that they are equally important that creates the “agony” of choosing among them. In the third, Berlin asserts that these values are “not… in principle compatible each other,” and that their incompatibility guarantees the existence of conflict and tragedy.

I want to suggest that the differences between the second and third passages pull Berlin in two different directions. In the first passage, Berlin relies on a claim about the equality of some proper (i.e. non-empty) subset of values. He regards these values as equally choice-worthy, hence our reason to defer to individual choice and the “agony” of the chooser’s experience. But the claim that values are equal to one another is to suggest that they are comparable! In contrast, Berlin claims in the second passage that these values are incommensurable or incomparable. But if that were true, we could not say that some values are “equally ultimate” and their claims are “equally absolute.” “Incommensurable” means we cannot say that these values are equal or unequal to each other. Hence we would have no reason to regard values as equally choice-worthy, and no reason following from the quality of the choice to respect people’s decisions. A defense of negative freedom would not follow from value pluralism. The defense of negative freedom would require another argument

The third passage, then, shows that Berlin’s original claim that value pluralism entails negative liberty is invalid. However, the second passage shows that Berlin can argue for negative liberty, but on the basis of a claim about the unity of different forms of  value, where “unity” just means equally choice-worthy. Berlin has a dilemma, then: either he can give up strong value-pluralism, or he can give up negative liberty. It seems that he cannot have both.

My intuition is that value-pluralism is the right claim to give up, and I think Berlin should give it up as well. What motivates Berlin to endorse value-pluralism in the first place is the fear that its opposite threatens freedom. If this fear is misplaced, Berlin has reason to give up value-pluralism.

Most value pluralists, I suspect, actually hold an epistemic position. They think, rightly in my view, that it may be difficult to justify our choices among some values, and that this difficulty militates against imposing our own judgments on those of others. This position, however, concerns our beliefs about values rather than values themselves, and is thus not strictly a value pluralist view.


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