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Study Notes

Isaiah Berlin (1909-1997)


Last updated 30 Dec 2018

Born in Latvia, Isaiah Berlin was an all-round thinker, famous for his many lectures on political philosophy and the history of ideas.

He is perhaps best known for developing the idea that there are two types of liberty: negative freedom and positive freedom. This is a clear link to liberalism and was the contrast between the classical liberal idea (which he saw as negative freedom - "freedom from") and a modern liberal notion of liberalism (positive freedom - "freedom to"). The idea of freedom being enabled, does link to Berlin's thinking about pluralism, which is key to his ideas about multiculturalism.

The key concept here is value pluralism. For Berlin, it was clear that humans create values in a range of different situations and circumstances and therefore different values co-exist and these values will come into conflict. We cannot always reason away which is the better, more valuable value. Freedom of speech will conflict with freedom from discrimination; liberty may well clash with social justice. Liberal views in society hold no more moral authority than illiberal beliefs; western values no more legitimacy than values from other cultures. There is no common currency for measuring the worth of values.This is not a crude relativism: he does not argue necessarily that all value systems are equally true.

For Berlin, this pluralism and value conflict is an inevitable part of the human condition and politics should not try to enforce one specific value system or culture onto everybody. Instead, what is needed is political liberalism: a system based on tolerance of difference, where people's freedom is respected (including their positive freedom) and pluralism is itself valued and supported. A system where different value systems and moralities are allowed to co-exist.

This is a clear explanation of the positive need for a liberal, tolerant multicultural society. If you begin from the perspective that people and their choices and values matter, and that it is not the role of the state to force people down particular paths (so from assumptions of humanism and liberalism) then the job of politics is to find a way to allow different ways of life, different value systems and different assumptions to co-exist as peacefully as possible.

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