Isaiah Berlin and Decency

It's as though I'd been handed a telegram announcing that I'd won a prize. Not a prizey-type prize, such as an Oscar or the Nobel, but a recognition, an honorable mention. The "telegram" is John Gray's review, in The New York Review of Books, of three books by or about Isaiah Berlin.

I've been drawn to Berlin for a long time, but because I'm not a student of philosophy I've had a hard time putting his work in any kind of context. Which is to say, understanding him. I think that John Gray has just handed me a context, however, and I look forward to reexamining The Proper Study of Mankind and Against the Current, the two Berlin titles in my library.

Not too far into his review, Mr Gray appears to complain that Berlin was not more precise, more systematic.

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? It we reasoned further, might we not increase our understanding and resolve the conflict? Most seriously, it is unclear whether negative liberty [the freedom from constraint, whether by the state or with its permission] - 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 or 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 to 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?

I quote the entirely of Mr Gray's "case against Berlin" because it captures so many problems that, in the interest of decency, Berlin would jettison. The gravamen of each of the questions posed in the quoted paragraph is "How will we know what to do?" This is rarely a question that comes up when one is trying to be decent. What does it mean to be decent? You can't be serious! But I'll hazard a short list: to be fair, to be respectful, and to recoil from inflicting humiliation. For reasons that are more reasonable than rational, decency is never difficult to gauge. Because the feelings against which it battles are so sharp and strong - fury, shame - it has a hard time enforcing itself. But we all know what's decent and what isn't, and if decency were our lodestar, society everywhere would be much happier.

As it turns out, Mr Gray makes his case only to slip aside it a few paragraphs later.

It may be that the true upshot of Berlin's pluralism is not liberalism but instead an ideal of basic decency.

This was the moment of the telegram for me. The title of Mr Gray's piece, "The Case for Decency,"* reminded me immediately of something that I wrote two years ago, "The Anxieties of Honor." In that essay, I argued that decency is a far better standard of behavior than honor; decency will never "oblige" anyone to avenge his sense of it, but on the contrary will ban all talk of avenging. At the time, I was regretting the "honorable" impulses that drive men to try to own the women in their lives. Berlin, as I see from Mr Gray's essay, arrived at decency from a very different quarrel, one with the radically rational. What I sense that we shared was an impatience with artificially-induced conflicts, with violence "in the holy name" of something or other. Mr Gray continues,

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.

What Mr Gray is building up to here is the news that Berlin abandoned the discipline of philosophy after a conversation with a British logician. The conversation took place in Washington, DC, where for a time Berlin did his (doubtless highly symbolic) war service. He realized "that philosophy is not a progressive discipline in which knowledge could be accumulated." So he became a historian of ideas - the highest branch of anthropology. Scholar that I am not, I cannot say that I study it, too, but I do study it in my fashion.

The Enlightenment, of which, on the whole, I'm a fan, had a dark side that it has taken me years to perceive. It gave the law of contradiction - first discovered by the Greeks - a violent thrust. According to the law of contradiction, a thing either possesses a certain quality or it doesn't. It doesn't take much to recast this: a thing is either right or wrong. In the Enlightenment, the tyranny of rationality ruled out the very idea of alternatives: there could only be the right way, and then however many wrong ways you might please. Eventually, after suitable education, everyone would agree on the right way.

Now you know where the totalitarian systems of the Twentieth Century come from - and why so many critics worry that the United States is falling into the totalitarian grip. "My way or the highway." It's a seductive principle - if you think you've got more muscle than the other guy. But it's startlingly unreasonable. And unnecessary. You need your food, your clothes, your shelter, and your dignity. You do not need for everyone else to agree with you. Not if you're healthy, you don't.

I hope that you've noted that, in the sentence beginning "It is true" in the last extract from the Review, Mr Gray is starting up his "case" against Berlin once again. Once again, it is for the same reason. Isaiah Berlin learned not to be a systematic thinker. He understood that faith in systems was the most lasting of Greek myths. Do we really need "clear guidance to a the content of [a moral] minimum"? I don't think so. This isn't because I believe that everybody thinks the same way. Rather, I know that in the battle of stories that constitutes every litigation - in or outside a courtroom - the story that wins is the story that's more decent. It is the story that spreads the benefits as widely as possible, and that shrinks the difference between the contestants' positions. It is, I'm sure, highly sentimental, very much a matter of feeling. But I am more than willing to trust my feelings of decency. I know them well, and I understand them somatically. I'll never know whether I've done the "right" thing, whether I've achieved "justice." Those are ideas of contradiction - my way or the highway. In deciding for the decent, I know that my decision might have been better. Everything can always be better. But I will never worry about having done inadvertent harm. (As in putting an innocent defendant to death on the strength of cooked evidence.)

"'Vengeance is mine,' thus saith the Lord." (A good cite for that fabulous bit of Bible remains elusive.) I can't tell you how much I wish everybody down here on earth would agree. Vengeance is not ours. We rarely get it right; we usually mess it up. Bush Time. (June 2006)

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