Political and social polarisation is born of difference. This problem deeply impresses itself upon contemporary politics. Britain, in the wake of Brexit and the coronavirus, looks to be proceeding along a malicious process in which political divisions are magnifying. This process parallels rises in xenophobic tendencies across Europe, as populations become increasingly hostile to that which seems alien. The algorithmic nature of social media compounds these trends, widening chasms between cultures, worldviews and political preferences as people are thrust into digital echo chambers. At the crux of such polarisation, then, is the issue of difference, and how we deal with it. A political outlook is consequently needed that is theoretically equipped to deal with this issue: a philosophy that situates difference at the heart of the human experience, and therefore cultivates a sensitivity to its intrinsic complexities, dangers, and potential.
When the intellectual historian Isaiah Berlin examined the history of political thought, he observed the recurrence of common theme pervading the pantheon of great thinkers: many were guilty of developing ‘grand narratives’ in which moral value was uniform and singular. They therefore advanced what Berlin called a ‘Platonic ideal’, by supposing that there is one true answer to political questions. The tendency to this form of ethical ‘monism’ is an appealing one. With only one standard for the good, decision-making and institution building gains an arithmetical and scientific precision: political agents need only consult the all-encompassing normative standard in order to ascertain the ‘correct’ answer to seemingly difficult moral questions. A utilitarian, for example, might simply analyse the extent to which a decision maximises pleasure and proceed accordingly.
Berlin’s problem with such theories was that they betray a simplicity not illustrative of the normative landscape we inhabit. For him, values were multiple and wholly distinct from one another. Moreover, they were often incommensurable, frequently clashing in the political sphere. Liberty could not always be reconciled with equality. The pursuit of justice might obstruct peace. To act in the name of one good often amounts to betraying another.
Despite political thoughts’ grand narratives, value was therefore plural in Berlin’s eyes. To accept this is to accept political life’s ‘tragic’ constitution. Actors are eternally condemned to choosing between entirely distinct, yet equally legitimate goods for which there is no common measure. Plurality therefore induces fragmentation, not only between individuals but internally also, as people are bound to become confused by their simultaneous adherence to conflicting value systems. This predicament also complicates the construction of ultimate utopias, as architects would struggle to claim that their trade-offs constitute a ‘perfect’ end-state. According to Berlin, all we can hope for when engaging with these types of political issues is some form of respectable equilibrium in which human suffering and contradiction is minimised. Moral certainty, and therefore perfection, will forever be elusive.
However, this predicament is no cause for dejection for Berlin, but instead for celebration. Plurality is responsible for humanity’s variety, colour and flavour. Unlike monist theories of value, it means that there are multiple versions of the good life to be lived. Being an artist, lawyer and a fireman are all equally legitimate occupations. At the macro level, nations and generations of people might pursue widely divergent but respectively valid socio-cultural paths.
Indeed, it is only recognition of multiple viable forms of self-expression that can guard against external coercion towards the pursuit of one single good. Value pluralism is therefore necessarily intimately tied to self-determination, in that it guards against aggressive forms of paternalism by justifying a minimum sphere of liberty in which individuals are free to pursue their own interests. Alternately, monist theories of value could facilitate coercion by permitting actors to claim that they are better placed to realise other individual’s ‘perfect’ state, a platform from which they can claim justification in taking whatever steps are necessary to do so.
Unsurprisingly, Berlin’s thought therefore has a close relationship with liberal politics, in that it seems to buttress political systems that guarantee, and are more conducive to, the flourishing of multiple forms of self-expression. But this relationship is complicated when value pluralism’s principles are applied at the national or international level. Value plurality undermines neo-colonial proclamations or manoeuvres made by groups that seek to legitimise coercion by arguing that other groups should more successfully realise a value putatively prioritised by themselves.
Although plurality implies disharmony, it does not necessitate violent conflict. When two goods collide, recognition of their respective legitimacy lays the groundwork for conciliation, concession and conversation. Berlin consequently advocated a specific form of value pluralist virtue, whereby actors engage in forms of transposition in order to expand their normative horizons and appreciate the potential validity of other worldviews, even if full adherence to such views can never be attained.
Value plurality does not naively assume that fundamental social and political differences between peoples can be fully reconciled or integrated in some grand synthesis. Indeed, by celebrating difference, it does not strive for such homogeneity. But by encouraging the identification of mutual legitimacy in cases of difference, it does lay the groundwork for facilitating peaceful coexistence in a culturally plural world. By cultivating this sensibility, a value pluralist politics rejects the type of antagonism polluting current polarising trends across the globe.
It is also in this sense that a pluralist politics is uniquely placed to prevent the establishment of a ‘single narrative voice’ in the media and wider culture. Only by accepting that there is a multitude of viewpoints with potentially legitimate bases can news-telling systems develop in which the exercise of several such voices is guaranteed. On a value pluralist perspective, no one person or group is automatically better placed to write history or report the news than another.
Berlin’s ‘tragedy’ of value incommensurability is therefore a peculiar one. It observes how value conflict is endemic to the collective political experience. It also perennially inscribes moral difficulty into the fabric of human existence in a way that will always dissatisfy moral and political philosophers. But his greatest revelation is that this is a small price to pay for the vibrancy and colour that only such a form of existence could allow.