The Value, Courage, and Freedom of Pluralism

Timothy Garton Ash recently reflected on Isaiah Berlin and his commitment to value pluralism in the Chronicle of Higher Education in an articled titled, 'Two Spirits of Liberty.'

It frequently demands more courage to be a pluralist which calls for humility and self-restraint and the capacity for self-awareness, self-criticism, as well as compromise than it does to take positions of resolute 'conviction' that are often intolerant, absolutist, and marred by the ego's attachment to the beliefs and perceptions of the self. The former allows for self-correction and moral, intellectual, and practical change and democratic discourse. The latter too often satisfies itself with the cocky confidence of stubborn certainty and finds it very hard to genuinely listen and learn from others and integrate new knowledge and perspectives.

Isaiah Berlin's liberalism was imperfect but it was not lacking in conviction. There was conviction to Berlin's moderation and it was more than a matter of temperament and a tendency towards compromise as a kind of personal expedience. It was born out of deep wisdom and personal experience and understanding of human nature and the dangers of utopian visions, whatever their political orientation. Berlin was notoriously self-critical, often excessively so, and sometimes his self-doubt did not do justice to the quality of his own character.

Are there moral limitations to Berlin's pluralism, moderation, and vigorous but cautious liberalism? Yes, there are and Berlin inevitably made mistakes in his politics and policy positions. But his kind of liberalism was and is uniquely courageous. It restrains those powerful aspects of human character that so profoundly damage and distort politics and ethics on both the left and the right and endanger human rights and welfare yet were and are capable of generating support and popular appeal for policies that threaten freedom, equality, justice and democracy and are capable of enormous destructiveness.

Berlin's liberalism insists that the power (whether psychological or political, individual or collective) that results from absolutism, certainty, and extremism be constrained and prevented from exercising domination and its potential for the stifling of diversity, dissent, and the ethos and practice of democracy.

Berlin's liberalism is a bulwark against authoritarianism, totalitarianism, cruelty, violence, and intolerance. It is a passionate defender of the individual and of freedom and the necessity of protecting individual life, dignity, rights, and welfare and never sacrificing them on the altar of ideology - whatever its intentions, noble or ignoble.

Berlin's courage is by its very nature diffident, questioning and self-effacing, rather than vehement.

It is not prone to proclamation.

That is precisely why it is so easy to miss it.