The Limits of Pluralism
Princeton University Press, 1996, viii + 189 pgs.
The intellectual historian Isaiah Berlin has achieved great renown for essays that range from
analysis of liberty to memoirs of Russian poets. But if John Gray is correct, Sir Isaiah has been
grossly underrated: he ranks with the foremost political philosophers of all time. Like John the
Baptist, though of a different person, our author asks: "Are you he who is to come? Or do we
wait for another?"
Those devoted to classical liberalism must pay close attention to Gray's claim for Berlin,
he is right, the foundations of their system lie in ruins. Not that some other regime market
socialism, perhaps, or the Green Conservatism that Gray in a recent book himself professes has
been shown to be better than classical liberalism. Rather, no system may claim universal
primacy. Values are locked in conflict, and the good inevitably is plural. No political system,
including, of course, classical liberalism, embodies perfection.
The essence of Berlin's view of values, as Gray presents it, may be stated simply. Human
have no fixed nature: they are in large part self-creators. Competing forms of valuable life, which
cannot be simultaneously realized, attract them. The same person, e.g., cannot be a nun like
Mother Teresa and a "free- floating intellectual" in the style of Karl Mannheim.
How then, does one choose among competing values? No criterion is at hand. Contrary to
Bentham, we cannot always put competing values into a common scale to determine which is
superior. Frequently, values prove incommensurable. Following Joseph Raz, an Oxford legal
philosopher by whom he has been much influenced, Gray characterizes incommensurability in
this way: "'Two valuable options are incommensurable if (1) neither is better than the other, and
(2) there is (or could be) another option which is better than one but is not better than the other'"
(p. 50, quoting Raz).
This, I fear, will appear a typical piece of philosopher's jargon; but an example may help.
Suppose that you cannot say that Joe DiMaggio is either a better or worse athlete than Joe
Namath. But, it is possible that Babe Ruth is better than DiMaggio without being better than
Namath. If you accept these suppositions, then DiMaggio and Namath have incommensurable
value as athletes. (We shall see later why so much fuss about stating this is needed.)
Given, then, a situation with incommensurable values, one must simply choose. As Berlin
"In a sense I am an existentialist that's to say I commit myself, or find that I am in fact
committed, to constellations of certain values" (p. 159, quoting Berlin; footnote number omitted).
But does not this espousal of groundless choice enmesh one inextricably in moral relativism?
at all, Gray contends. The position is not that the chooser determines by his own caprice what has
value: rather, each of the incommensurable options really is valuable. "Berlin's ethical theory is a
species, not of relativism or skepticism, but of objective pluralism" (p. 46).
The relevance of Berlin's position for classical liberalism should now be clear. Classical
can no longer judge competing regimes as inferior, since they may embody competing,
incommensurable values. "What does follow from the truth of pluralism is that liberal institutions
can have no universal authority" (p. 155). Those who find congenial the classical liberal
emphasis on liberty are free to espouse an "agonistic liberalism" for themselves; but that is all.
The position so far advanced seems to me groundless at every step. It is, first of all, no doubt
that no form of life can include every type of value. According to Gray, Berlin, following in the
footsteps of Machiavelli, Vico, and Herder, has revolutionized moral philosophy by realizing
this: "In the Platonic conception of the Form of the Good, . . . [it] is affirmed . . . that all genuine
goods are not only compatible with one another. . . but that they somehow entail or imply one
another. The same idea, more moderately expressed, is found in the Aristotelian ideas of the
Mean and of the unity of the virtues" (p. 39).
Not at all! Plato's metaphysics, fortunately, very far exceeds the limits of The Mises Review;
suffice it to say that Plato's notion has nothing whatever to do with whether all good things can
be together realized. Even more odd is the ascription of such a position to Aristotle because of
his doctrine of the unity of the virtues. To say, e.g., that an unjust man cannot really be
courageous has no bearing on whether someone can perfectly realize both the active and
contemplative life at the same time. Who exactly did say that a perfect life includes all forms of
But, Gray might reply, even if this objection is correct, Berlin's case stands. Whether he is
about what others have advocated, he has overthrown the idea of the perfect or highest life. In
fact, though, he has not done so. Someone who contends that there is a perfect life, or a highest
good, need not think that some form of life includes all values. Rather, his position is that some
value outranks all others. Arguably, Aristotle thought this of a life of contemplation. (See Book
X of the Nicomachean Ethics.)
And if this is the position, what has Gray to say against it? So far as I can see, nothing at all.
or Berlin speaking through him, just dismisses views of this sort out of hand: "It is a feature of
the Christian tradition," he writes, "that however tragic may be the moral and practical dilemmas
we face in mortal life, they are all in principle soluble by reference to the will of God; and the
ideas of deity and perfection are conjoined" (p. 42). Gray writes as if this position were self-
evidently false but advances nothing against it. It will hardly do to dismiss all hierarchical
schemes as outmoded and then triumphantly proclaim the victory of pluralism. By that method,
one could "prove" any thesis by asserting without argument that a rival view is false.
But let us grant Gray his premise and make no appeal to metaphysical systems. (No doubt
will now breathe a sigh of relief.) Has it been shown that values of a kind essential to classical
liberalism are incommensurable? I do not think that it has.
Undeniably, values conflict. Suppose, e.g., that a law requires that welfare benefits be given
the poor. Here the values of helping the poor and having the right to dispose of one's own income
conflict. But how does it follow from the fact of conflict that the conflict cannot be resolved?
Gray recognizes that he must prove his case. Very pertinently, he notes: "'[V]ersions of value
pluralism can be stated . . . which accept that the goods of life are many, that they are often
uncombinable and sometimes constitutively so, but which deny their rational incomparability'"
(p. 47). Someone with a view of this sort might say, e.g., that freedom and aid to the poor are
conflicting values; but that freedom outranks its competitor. How, then, does Gray deal with this
position? Unless he gives reasons to reject it, he cannot move from value conflict to
He fails utterly to overthrow the rival position, instead tossing it aside as less "interesting"
pluralism of Berlin's kind. He suggests at one point that it is "given in our experience" that values
are incomparable; but I do not see how this can be so. At most experience can disclose that we
cannot settle a conflict of values: how can it possibly show that the conflict is irresolvable?
Further, the use of the term "incommensurable" subtly begs the issue in favor of Berlin's
Someone who thinks that values can be ranked who denies the irreconcilable conflict thesis need
not hold that values can be measured on a common scale. One can think, e.g., that freedom
outranks equality, without thinking that freedom contains more of some common unit of value
than does equality.
Indeed, the intuitionists, a nowadays neglected group of British moral philosophers, who
flourished from the 1920s to the 1940s, took exactly this view; and I venture to suggest that these
thinkers, who included W.D. Ross and H.A. Prichard, were very much sounder than Berlin. Gray
refers to them, but surprisingly classifies Hastings Rashdall, a utilitarian opposed to intuitionism,
as one of them.
And we can take one step further. Even an arch-utilitarian, who thinks that all values can be
measured on a single scale, need fear nothing from value conflict. (Think of a Chicago economist
with his "utiles.") Why cannot he say that a value conflict is an instance of choice between
roughly equal values? Gray, alert to this objection, has sought to guard against it by the
complicated definition of incommensurability discussed earlier. The tricky provision that
something could outrank one value but not the other was meant to block the response I have
But the utilitarian can I think reply that the trick provision is just that: unlike conflicts of
is not given in experience but is just a philosopher's construct. Indeed, Gray himself gives an
account of incommensurability of evils that fails to meet Raz's definition but does accord with
the utilitarian counter I have suggested (pp. 56 57). (I apologize if the last few paragraphs have
been too technical and shall try in future to keep myself under better control.)
Let us, though, make yet another concession here. Suppose that one grants Gray his objective
value pluralism. Values are many and diverse; and they often are impossible to rank against one
another. Does it follow that a classical liberal who accepts this must agree with Gray that his
political system is not universally required?
No, it does not. A moral theory need not be a quest to maximize value. Rather, it can, at least
part, consist of a set of rules always to be observed. Suppose, e.g., that one holds that people
have property rights of a Lockean sort. What now happens if we once more confront a law that
mandates provision of welfare? A Lockean need not say that the value of adhering to property
rights always outweighs the value of welfare. The values, he may admit, incommensurably
conflict; but, for all that, his moral system incorporates a fixed rule against violating property
rights. Gray and Berlin acknowledge that there is a common core to morality that holds
universally: why cannot a classical liberal argue that his principles form part of that core?
Gray has once more anticipated the objection, but his reply is unconvincing. He mentions the
view that "principles of justice or liberty are not substantive goods to be traded off against other
goods, but regulative principles, principles of right which set the terms on which competing
goods and conceptions of the good can be pursued" (p. 146).
In reply, Gray claims that this view underestimates the force of Berlin's value pluralism. The
incommensurability thesis applies with full force to the principles of liberty and justice that the
classical liberal supports. "Further, these competing elements in liberal political morality will
express values that are beyond rational comparison" (p. 147).
But what if they do? To take this as a refutation of the position suggested is to beg the
The proposal, recall, is not that certain classical liberal values outweigh all competing values. It
is that there are fixed rules that mandate (or more likely forbid) certain conduct. Whether other
liberal freedoms express competing values is not here to the point: the system does not operate
through ranking values.
And what if the classical liberal accepted the sum and substance of Berlin's position? Would
have to admit that his system is not universally required? Here our answer is mixed. He could not
say that his system expresses values superior to all others. But he could, with entire consistency,
say that his system was as good as any other and, accordingly, work for his view's universal
adoption. Why not? It is the system that he prefers.
Further, in several places Gray's presentation of Berlin misses the mark. The discussion of
Berlin's criticism of positive freedom should mention the doctrine of the "real self" and tie this in
with the views of Bradley and Bosanquet (pp. 21 ff). The analysis of Joseph de Maistre (pp. 23
ff) overstresses Berlin's agreement with him and does not mention that Berlin takes him to be a
precursor of fascism. More generally, Gray exaggerates Berlin's opposition to the Enlightenment.
But the problems of this stimulating book do not lie principally in detail. The difficulty rather
this: Gray has made very large claims for Berlin's philosophical significance which he has not