The Case for Decency

Unfinished Dialogue

by Isaiah Berlin and Beata Polanowska-Sygulska, with a foreword by Henry Hardy
Prometheus, 317 pp., $28.00

Russia, Poland and Marxism: Isaiah Berlin to Andrzej Walicki, 1962–1996

in Dialogue and Universalism, Vol. 15, No. 9–10, 2005.Warsaw University Press, 196 pp., $5.00


Western political thinking between the end of the Second World War and the collapse of communism was shaped by the experience of totalitarianism. The rise of National Socialism and Stalinism produced a sense of the fragility of liberal civilization that persisted after the Nazi regime had been destroyed and Soviet power contained. The question that troubled many was how liberal values could have collapsed so precipitately and completely in much of Europe, while Communist regimes that claimed to embody Enlightenment values repressed freedom on an unprecedented scale. It was clear that if the disasters of the twentieth century were not to be repeated, the intellectual roots of totalitarianism had to be uncovered and destroyed, even if this meant relinquishing some cherished Western beliefs.

Among those who took up this challenge Isaiah Berlin occupies a highly distinctive place. On both the right and the left there have been many who have dismissed Berlin as a thinker whose ideas are irretrievably dated, and in recent years it has become fashionable to question the idea that the twentieth century witnessed the rise of a new, totalitarian type of dictatorship. For his part Berlin never doubted the reality of totalitarianism. Given the background of his life he could hardly have done so. Born in Riga in 1909, Berlin was part of the generation of European Jews that experienced the twentieth century at its most destructive and horrific. When he was six his family moved to Petrograd, where in 1917 he witnessed the liberal revolution in February and the Bolshevik seizure of power in November. In 1921 his family moved to England and he was educated at Oxford, where he obtained his first academic post. Apart from his years abroad during World War II he remained in Oxford for the rest of his life.

In 1941, after the German invasion of the Soviet Union, the Nazis murdered both his grandfathers and several other family members. During World War II, Berlin worked for the British government, first in New York and Washington and then for a time in Moscow. When in Russia, he came into contact with Anna Akhmatova and other members of the Russian intelligentsia who lived in an environment where intellectual and personal freedom had been almost wholly eclipsed. The events of these years had a formative influence on the work in political theory and the history of ideas he did after resuming his academic life in Oxford after the war. In conversation Berlin used to observe that in its mass murders the twentieth century was the worst in history, and to an extent that has not been appreciated the view of liberty and ethical pluralism that he developed in the 1950s was an attempt to undermine the beliefs that helped engender the crimes of totalitarianism.

Those who argue that Berlin’s thought was shaped by the history of the last century are not mistaken, but in dismissing it as dated they neglect the larger historical perspectives that informed it and miss its continuing power. Berlin posed a formidable challenge not only to totalitarian ideologies but also to recent varieties of liberalism. At times Berlin seemed—to use a distinction he borrowed from the ancient Greek poet Archilochus to interpret Tolstoy in a celebrated lecture—more like the fox that knows many things than the hedgehog that knows one big thing. Both as a thinker and as a man Berlin had many facets; he refused to tether himself to any simple formula for dealing with human affairs. Yet if there is a single idea that links together his surprisingly voluminous writings on Mill and Machiavelli, Herder and de Maistre, Vico and Herzen and many lesser-known thinkers, and which gives his defense of liberalism its distinctive character, it is his thesis of the plurality of values.

Berlin was never a very systematic thinker, and he nowhere stated his theory of value pluralism in anything like complete or canonical form. Several versions of it are presented in his writings; but common to them is a consistent rejection of the idea—which Berlin rightly viewed as being fundamental in the Western intellectual tradition—that all genuine human values must be combinable in a harmonious whole. In this view conflicts of values are symptoms of error that in principle can always be resolved: if human values seem to come into conflict that is only because our understanding of them is imperfect, or some of the contending values are spurious; and where such conflicts appear there is a single right answer that—if only they can find it—all reasonable people are bound to accept. In opposition to this view Berlin maintained that conflicts of values are real and inescapable, with some of them having no satisfactory solution. He advanced this view not as a form of skepticism but as a universal truth: conflicts of value go with being human. Inklings of this pluralist viewpoint can be detected in some of Berlin’s pre-war writings on analytical philosophy, but it was only after the war that he stated it clearly and applied it to the pathologies of twentieth-century politics.

Political Ideas in the Romantic Ageis the longest text Isaiah Berlin ever produced. Written between 1950 and 1952, much revised, and then set aside and seemingly forgotten, it is described by Henry Hardy—the dedicated editor and literary trustee who in thirty years of scholarly labors has rescued so many of Berlin’s surprisingly voluminous writings from undeserved oblivion—as the “Grundrisse, the ur-text or ‘torso,’ as Berlin called it, from which a great deal of his subsequent work derived.” Indispensable for anyone interested in the history of ideas and the development of liberal thought, it contains most of the central themes of Berlin’s work, together with some of its recurring ambiguities. In a characteristic passage Berlin attacks the Enlightenment belief that a condition of society is in principle attainable in which all values that are truly important can be fully realized. In a wide range of Enlightenment thinkers, he writes,

we find the same common assumption: that the answers to all the great questions must of necessity agree with one another; for they must correspond with reality, and reality is a harmonious whole. If this were not so, there is chaos at the heart of things: which is unthinkable. Liberty, equality, property, knowledge, security, practical wisdom, purity of character, sincerity, kindness, rational self-love, all these ideals…cannot (if they are truly desirable) conflict with one another; if they appear to do so it must be due to some misunderstanding of their properties. No truly good thing can ever be finally incompatible with any other; indeed they virtually entail one another: men cannot be wise unless they are free, or free unless they are just, happy and so forth.

Here we conspicuously abandon the voice of experience—which records very obvious conflicts of ultimate ideals—and encounter a doctrine that stems from older theological roots—from the belief that unless all the positive virtues are harmonious with one another, or at least not incompatible, the notion of the Perfect Entity—whether it be called nature or God or Ultimate Reality—is not conceivable.

This passage encapsulates Berlin’s analysis of the intellectual roots of some of the major political disasters of the twentieth century: the role in the Enlightenment of a utopian ideal of social harmony; the derivation of this ideal from older metaphysical and religious beliefs that have a long history in Western thought; and the claim that in refusing to accept the testimony of experience, with its message of irresolvable conflict among human ideals, the Enlightenment propagated a monistic philosophy that opened the way to new forms of tyranny. Berlin’s broad-brush picture leaves out Enlightenment thinkers such as David Hume who emphasize the limited role of reason and understates the extent to which Adam Smith and others acknowledged human imperfectability. Even so Berlin was right in thinking that a major strand of Enlightenment thinking featured a belief in attainable harmony that had no basis in experience. The belief that conflicts of values can be left behind in a new type of society, to which many Enlightenment thinkers have subscribed, is not a product of observation or scientific inquiry; it is a relic of faith. These thinkers may have imagined that they embodied the voice of reason, but they were in fact believers in an idea of perfection inherited from religion.

In one facet of his work, Berlin, then, was a critic of the Enlightenment—but not an enemy. He does not belong among the thinkers of what he called the Counter-Enlightenment—thinkers such as J.G. Hamann and Joseph de Maistre, who were virulently hostile to the Enlightenment’s core beliefs in freedom, equality, and the value of rational inquiry. Berlin shared these Enlightenment beliefs; but he found in some of the most influential Enlightenment thinkers a monism he viewed as dangerously mistaken, and in this he was influenced by some of the Enlightenment’s Romantic critics. In a seminal essay he praised the Romantic movement for having “permanently shaken the faith in universal, objective truth in matters of conduct,” and described the Enlightenment faith in future harmony as “an ideal for which more human beings have, in our time, sacrificed themselves and others than, perhaps, for any other cause in human history.”1

It is a strong claim, and it is questionable whether it applies to all forms of twentieth-century totalitarianism. It was not any faith in human harmony that fueled Nazi ideology. Nevertheless Berlin highlights an aspect of twentieth-century history that is often forgotten, or else stridently denied. The repression of liberty that took place in the countries in which Communist regimes were established cannot be adequately explained as a product of backwardness, or of errors in the application of Marxian theory. It was the result of a resolute attempt to realize an Enlightenment utopia—a condition of society in which no serious form of conflict any longer exists.2

While Berlin’s analysis of the dangers of monism is acute and forceful, he never developed a fully convincing account of value pluralism. He based his version of pluralism on a view of human nature, which is set out in a passage cited by Joshua Cherniss in his admirably lucid and well-balanced introduction:

Man is incapable of self-completion, and therefore never wholly predictable; fallible, a complex combination of opposites, some reconcilable, others incapable of being resolved or harmonised; unable to cease from his search for truth, happiness, novelty, freedom, but with no guarantee…of being able to attain them.

Berlin presented this formulation as an account of the picture of human nature held by John Stuart Mill, but as with many of his interpretations of past thinkers it could just as well be a statement of his own view. Like Mill, Berlin was much influenced by the Romantic belief that humans do not owe their values to God or Nature, but freely create them. Again like Mill he rejected the ultra-Romantic notion that humans invent themselves out of nothing and can be anything they choose to be. Berlin also rejected the postmodern and relativist view that human values are highly elastic cultural constructions. He insisted that basic human needs and potentialities do not vary much across cultures and repeatedly affirmed the desirability of something like a universal moral minimum. He was a convinced exponent of universal human values, whose distinctive contribution was to acknowledge that these values could be at odds with one another. Unfortunately he never spelled out which values are truly universal and which culturally specific, and this leaves his account of value pluralism and its relations with liberalism precarious and unstable.

It is not always clear what Berlin means by “values”—are they fully fledged ideals of the good life, or anything that can be judged desirable? Again, how are values defined and distinguished from one another—should we use the methods of cultural anthropology to identify them, or employ some kind of conceptual or linguistic analysis, as Berlin sometimes did? Yet again, how do we know when we have reached a point at which conflicts of values are irreconcilable? If we reasoned further, might we not increase our understanding and resolve the conflict? Most seriously, it is unclear whether negative liberty—which he sees as the central value of liberalism—belongs in the category of values that are universally human. For Berlin negative liberty meant the ability to act, or to express thoughts, without being interfered with by others and especially the state. After all, as Berlin himself often noted, the ancient Greeks lacked the notion of a sphere of life that ought to be protected from political interference, and it was only in modern times that an ideal of negative liberty was formulated. If it is such a latecomer in the history of human values, why should we value it so highly? How must we accord it such priority, if—as Berlin maintained—it is only one value among many and often clashes with others whose claims are no less valid?


Berlin came to prominence as a political theorist with his celebrated lecture “Two Concepts of Liberty,” which he delivered in 1958 after he took up the Chichele Chair of Social and Political Theory at Oxford in 1957. One of the many absorbingly interesting features of Political Theory in the Romantic Age is that it shows that Berlin’s defense of negative liberty was closely linked with his attack on monism. In a long chapter entitled “Two Concepts of Freedom: Romantic and Liberal,” Berlin sets out his view that Western political theory contains two conceptions of freedom, which are not different interpretations of a single idea but opposed political ideals. The distinction between these two conceptions is far from simple, but the core of Berlin’s argument is that whereas negative liberty refers to matters in which individuals can act without interference from others, positive liberty involves acting in accordance with reason. This might be the reason of a collectivity, as in Rousseau’s theory of the general will, or of each individual, as Spinoza believed. Either way, it was assumed that only one way of living could be fully rational.

Berlin rejected this assumption. Unlike many liberal thinkers today Berlin did not view the value of negative freedom as coming from its contribution to personal autonomy, an ideal he viewed with suspicion.3 In Berlin’s view autonomy is only one human ideal among many and cannot be allowed to crowd out others to which many people are reasonably attached. A liberal society will surely contain people who cherish personal autonomy, understood as a condition in which their lives are governed by principles and goals which they have subjected to rational scrutiny; but it will have room for others—Romantic believers in personal spontaneity and followers of traditional religious practices, for example—who do not accept any such ideal. For Berlin the value of negative liberty is not that it promotes the best or most rational way of living—autonomous or otherwise. Rather, it enables many different ideals to flourish. It may sometimes be right to limit negative liberty in order to promote other ideals and values; but we should understand what we are doing. Liberty is one thing, the good life another.

In many of his writings Berlin tried to argue that a liberal ideal of freedom can be defended as a response to the truth of value pluralism, and he has been followed in this effort by a number of recent writers.4 The fact remains that the two views point in unmistakably different directions. Berlin’s pluralism expressed a kind of Romantic universalism in which the diversity of cultures was celebrated as something intrinsically valuable instead of being seen—as in the Enlightenment—as a stage on the way to a single, all-embracing civilization. While this is a view that affirms universal values it does not support the universal claims of liberal societies. We may be able to reach agreement on universal values—a list of goods that are necessary to the well-being of all human beings and evils that obstruct any worthwhile human life, for example; but such a list does not provide a universal morality—a set of principles that guides us in settling conflicts among these values. Even if negative liberty were agreed to be a universal value it would come into conflict with other values that are also humanly universal. The claims of liberty may clash with those of security and equality; they can also compete with values of community and social cohesion. When this occurs, pluralism gives no reason for according freedom—negative or positive—any overall priority. Pluralism of the kind Berlin defended so eloquently is more potently subversive than he imagined, or wished. It undermines all universal moralities, including liberal moralities.

It may be that the true upshot of Berlin’s pluralism is not liberalism but instead an ideal of basic decency. He always affirmed the necessity of a moral minimum in human affairs, and emphasized that upholding it should take precedence over remote and nebulous ideals. It is true that he gives no clear guidance to the content of such a minimum. When he talked of a “common moral horizon” that applied to all of humankind, he often seemed to mean only that people with very different values can understand one another; but mutual intelligibility between divergent moral outlooks is not the same thing as having common values or agreeing on what should count as minimal moral decency. Still, Berlin could reasonably argue that some practices are so inimical to any human life worth living that their eradication should take priority over other goals. Slavery, genocide, religious and political persecution, and torture are plausible examples of such practices, and are recognized as such in the international treaties that were agreed on after the Second World War. More generally, any practice that requires inflicting the universal evil of humiliation can reasonably be judged as indecent. A decent society may not protect the full panoply of liberal freedoms, but from a pluralist perspective it could be more humanly desirable than a predominantly liberal society in which some of the requirements of minimal decency are violated.5

An ideal of basic decency of this sort may seem a modest outcome of Berlin’s thought, but when applied to politics at the start of the twenty-first century it has a sharp critical edge. There is today a school of “hard” or “muscular” liberals, often allied with neoconservatives, who seek to promote democratic revolution in countries around the world by means that include military force. Some have been willing to accept the relaxation of the prohibition of torture that—despite the resistance of officials in many branches of American government—has been allowed during the Bush administration. These “hard liberals” like to see themselves as defenders of Enlightenment values; but they represent another version of the utopian strand in Enlightenment thinking whose disastrous influence on twentieth-century politics Berlin illuminated. Neoconservatives have been ready to use force on a large scale, and in some cases to condone torture, as means of promoting an ideal of global democracy. It is more than doubtful that democracy can be promoted in this way; but in any case democracy is not liberty, whether negative or positive, nor is it peace or the cessation of terrorism. These are distinct goods, and nothing ensures that in achieving one the others will also be achieved; indeed as one is realized others may become more distant. To think that all of these values can be realized together is a fantasy, which like the utopias of the last century can only end in debacle.


Berlin’s thought is a call to realism and humility, which asks us to accept our inability to create a harmonious future. During the cold war there were some who found this message dispiriting and unheroic. In countries behind the Iron Curtain Karl Popper and Friedrich Hayek were read more widely than Berlin, and George Orwell was read more widely than anyone else, and it may be the relative simplicity of their moral vision that accounted for the popularity of these writers. In comparison with Hayek and Popper, Berlin seemed to leave too many moral issues negotiable, while his account of the intellectual origins of totalitarianism lacked the immediacy of Orwell’s dark fables. Yet this view of Berlin was by no means universal in the Communist world, and particularly in Poland he found sympathetic readers.

One such reader was Beata Polanowska-Sygulska, a young political theorist and intellectual historian who wrote to Berlin in 1983 (when Poland was just emerging from a period of martial law) and maintained an active correspondence with him until a few months before he died in November 1997. Unfinished Dialogue is a record of this exchange, containing not only Berlin’s letters but also interviews he gave to Polish periodicals, transcripts of recorded conversations, and a number of articles by Polanowska-Sygulska in which she compares Berlin’s view of freedom with that of other liberal thinkers and examines its contested relations with value pluralism.

The resulting collection is of great value in preserving a record of Berlin’s unique style of conversation—at once irrepressibly gossipy and richly learned, unfailingly generous and yet revealing an underlying steel when confronted with anything that smacked of moral insincerity or woolly thinking. As he put it in a characteristic remark:

I am optimistic enough to believe that there are certain basic human needs, wishes, values, and all I ask is for the breakdown of prison houses, if need be by decisive action, and for enough opportunity to be given for at any rate some of the central values to realise themselves at some but not too much cost to other ones. It’s a very dreary piece of advice…. But I cannot help thinking that if idle bloodshed is to be avoided, my dull solution is valid.

The book is no less valuable in bringing out what it was in Berlin’s thought that had appeal in the harsh environment of Poland at that time. Unlike the liberal philosophies based on rights that have been dominant over the past generation, Berlin understood that vital human freedoms do not form a harmonious system; they can conflict with one another and when they do we must choose between them. At the same time he knew that there are situations in which freedom of any kind is lost. The evil of totalitarianism is not only that it fails to protect specific liberties but that it extinguishes the very possibility of freedom. It was his grasp of this truth that made Berlin’s thought an inspiration to Polanowska-Sygulska and others in Poland.

The exchanges between Berlin and the distinguished Polish scholar Andrzej Walicki reveal another side of Berlin’s pluralism. More than any other intellectual historian Walicki has worked to retrieve nineteenth-century Russian liberal thought from neglect, and many of the letters to him from Berlin that are reproduced in Dialogue and Universalism show Berlin’s sympathy for this project. Walicki contributes a long prefatory essay, “Isaiah Berlin as I Knew Him,” which contains some of the most perceptive and intriguing observations on Berlin I have seen. He suggests that Berlin’s way of thinking renewed the Russian liberalism of Ivan Turgenev’s time, which feared a threat to freedom not only from authoritarian rule but also from revolutionary radicalism. The freedom that Russian liberals such as Turgenev and Alexander Herzen feared was in danger was above all spiritual freedom, which they saw as being threatened by any regime or movement that tried to apply a doctrine of historical necessity. Against the many Russian thinkers influenced by Hegel who believed that history was governed by universal laws to which one could only submit, Turgenev upheld the freedom of different societies to pursue different paths of development and of individuals to pursue, even in opposition to powerful historical forces, their own goals and values. Here Turgenev endorsed the celebrated dictum of Alexander Herzen, with whom he disagreed on many other matters: that history has no libretto. Human history is a realm of contingency and unpredictability, in which each generation faces conflicts that have no ideal solution. In the view of such Russian liberals the belief in a universal pattern of development with which every society must conform was not only a delusion; it was also a recipe for tyranny. Sacrificing present liberty for the sake of an imaginary future harmony was fanatical folly.

Much of Berlin’s postwar work was an attack on ideas of historical inevitability that echoed these Russian liberal thinkers. As Walicki puts it, Berlin “transplanted that specifically Russian understanding of liberalism onto British soil.” He did so not only because he was deeply attracted by it but also as a “chosen stance.” Walicki suggests that Berlin’s “Russianness” was a “conscious construct,” and there is an element of truth in this. By identifying himself with Russian thought, particularly with the work of Herzen, Berlin was able to achieve a distance from the kind of philosophy that was prevalent in Oxford and much of the English-speaking world. In postwar analytical philosophy clarity was valued more than anything else. Intellectual respectability demanded a certain laborious dullness, and the notion that philosophy could express a vision of human life was anathema. As a result philosophy was often a display of technical virtuosity, and had nothing much to say about the great conflicts of the time. By speaking in the voice of the Russian thinkers he retrieved from neglect, Berlin was able to present a distinctive vision of human life and use it to interpret some of the defining experiences of the twentieth century.

Berlin often told the story of how talking with the British logician Henry M. Sheffer in Washington persuaded him that philosophy is not a progressive discipline in which knowledge could be accumulated. After spending a night in the darkness of an unpressurized bomber flying back to Britain, unable to sleep because of the need to take in oxygen regularly from a pipe, he decided to give up philosophy for the study of the history of ideas. It is a persuasive tale but it can hardly be the whole truth. In one of the conversations recorded in Unfinished Dialogue, where he retells the story, he remarks: “Before the war I was an ordinary Oxford philosopher.” By switching disciplines he was able to throw off the constraints that went with that role. Yet he did not give up philosophy, but went on to practice it in another way.

Among the writers Berlin most admired was the Russian Jewish religious philosopher Lev Shestov. In a series of provocative and moving books and essays Shestov mocked the idea of unity that guided philosophers from Socrates onward. “The idea of total unity,” he wrote, “is an absolutely false idea.”6 In Shestov’s view Western philosophy was captivated by an idea of rational necessity that undermined human liberty. At the same time it had distorted the biblical message—the message of Genesis and the book of Job, which was one of freedom from universal laws. Berlin was not a religious believer, and did not follow Shestov in his radical rejection of reason as a guide to life. But he was at one with him in refusing any belief in ultimate harmony. The belief in unity that has fueled so many utopian dreams is an effort to reconcile the irreconcilable that ends in repression. Berlin suggests we renounce this venerable faith, and learn how to live with intractable conflict.


Sheffer Was American November 2, 2006

  1. 1

    The Apotheosis of the Romantic Will,” in The Proper Study of Mankind, edited by Henry Hardy (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998), p. 580.

  2. 2

    Berlin examines the roots of utopianism in “The Decline of Utopian Ideas in the West,” in The Crooked Timber of Humanity: Chapters in the History of Ideas (Knopf, 1991), pp. 20–48.

  3. 3

    For Berlin’s criticism of ideas of autonomy, see his “From Hope and Fear Set Free,” in The Proper Study of Mankind, pp. 91–118.

  4. 4

    William A. Galston has written an elegant and resourceful pluralist defense of liberalism in Liberal Pluralism: The Implications of Value Pluralism for Political Theory and Practice (Cambridge University Press, 2002). A survey of the literature on the issue is given in George Crowder, Liberalism and Value Pluralism (Continuum, 2002).

  5. 5

    Avishai Margalit presents a powerful defense of the idea of a decent society as one that seeks to eradicate practices that involve the humiliation of any of its members in his book The Decent Society, translated by Naomi Goldblum (Harvard University Press, 1996).

  6. 6

    Lev Shestov, Athens and Jerusalem (Simon and Schuster, 1968), p. 431.