Front Page Titles (by Subject) Isaiah Berlin: Pluralism vs. Rationalism - Literature of Liberty, Summer 1981, vol. 4, No. 2
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Isaiah Berlin: Pluralism vs. Rationalism - Leonard P. Liggio, Literature of Liberty, Summer 1981, vol. 4, No. 2 
Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought was published first by the Cato Institute (1978-1979) and later by the Institute for Humane Studies (1980-1982) under the editorial direction of Leonard P. Liggio.
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Isaiah Berlin: Pluralism vs. Rationalism
“Reason, Development, and the Conflicts of Human Ends: Sir Isaiah Berlin's Vision of Politics.” The American Political Science Review 74 (March 1980): 38–52.
At the root of the conflict between Isaiah Berlin's political philosophy and his critics is the controversy over the possibility of certainty and over the relation of human ends to politics. Berlin denies that any of us can demonstrate that one particular way of life is morally superior to any other. He draws from this the liberal conclusion of our need to tolerate one another.
Berlin's “moral pluralism” is a fairly unique defense of tolerance and freedom. For Berlin, accepting the belief that every question has only one true answer leads to the dogmatic absolutism of forcing everyone to live by the light of “reason.” Calling this belief “rationalism,” Berlin seeks to expose its mischievous intolerance as at the heart of various political theories: “One belief, more than any other is responsible for the slaughter of individuals on the altars of the great historical ideals.... This is the belief that somewhere, in the past or in the future...there is a final solution.” Two rival approaches thus divide our views of politics and society. Theorists of the first group are called rationalists, monists, or “hedgehogs”; the second group includes empiricists, romantics, pluralists, and “foxes.”
Berlin's account of moral pluralism encounters difficulties since it rests on “rationalist” assumptions of its own. Berlin's view of human nature insists that there is one eternal a prioristic truth: to be human, men must be capable of living life for their own purpose. Berlin's “emphasis on freedom and choice requires that we act in such a way as not to deny others the possibility of making their own choices about life.” Berlin exhibits a compelling vision of liberal politics. Despite logical flaws, his vision is inspiring: to deny humans the right to choose their life plans for themselves is a violation of their personhood.
Professor Kochis believes that by considering Berlin and his critics, we can gain insight into the nature of politics. “Most of Berlin's critics fail to deal with Berlin's central claim. Either they concede his equation of rationalism, dogmatism, and despotism; or they fail to deal with the tendency of rationalistic views to entail unitary, coercive plans. This conflict is basic to considering the controversy between the rival claims of “negative” and “positive” liberty. According to Berlin positive liberty means implementing some single vision to which all humans must conform and so denies the pluralist vision of the freedom of humans to choose their own varied ends.
Berlin's critics include the following who criticize his vision of liberty either “for including too much politics” or for excluding politics.
On the one hand, we find MacCallum and Macpherson. Gerald MacCullum reduces Berlin's belief about the political nature of human freedom to a question of formal logic. MacCullum's overformalist criticism “obscures the political question of whose value a free person is at liberty to pursue.”
C.B. Macpherson desires to terminate liberal politics and install participatory economic planning and thus denies that his “positive” liberty is “rationalistic” or “political” in Berlin's invideous sense. But Macpherson's reasoning fails because he confuses liberty with its conditions and also assumes a rational pattern for human moral development.
On the other hand, Berlin's defense of negative liberty is believed to be too apolitical by Bernard Crick (in “Freedom as Politics”) who understands politics as active participation in the polis to achieve the good life for all.
Finally, Professor Kochis shows that Berlin's conceptions of politics as a form of human interaction (to bring about the conditions of human dignity in a situation where we disagree about the ends of life) is an effort to liberate individuals to live life for their own chosen purposes. But Berlin's defense of liberty is incomplete and too skeptical. We need “a non-teleological yet developmentalist account of human nature and a weakly hierarchical account of human values.” Liberty is of special importance, but, for Kochis, it is not the highest or most important of values. “Liberty, then, is a true and humane ideal because it provides people with the...assurance that no one will be able to dictate their goals to them.”