Isaiah Berlin, John Rawls and Values Pluralism

Published 14 Feb 2017

Every society has to appropriate and adopt for itself fundamental notions of justice if society is to function well and flourish. The Greek philosopher Plato and his mentor, Socrates, for instance, deem it necessary that a society be in the process of continuously trying to articulate the form and requirements of a satisfactory theory of justice through a healthy form of discourse. Philosophy is essentially, discourse and it seeks to account for justice through the very process of rational inquiry and deliberation.

This paper seeks to explicate the notion of justice in the context of the views of two prolific Twentieth Century political thinkers, Isaiah Berlin and John Rawls. For the sake of clarity, the specific task of this is to provide a critical examination and appraisal of Berlin’s views on the ideals of liberty and equality as it is weighed against Rawls’ theory of justice. The thesis statement of this paper is that “Both Berlin and Rawls agree that in a liberal and democratic setting, Berlin’s contention regarding value pluralism holds true and that certain inequalities are permissible trade-offs in exchange for other social goods that we consider as primary”.

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Being the political liberal that he was, Berlin remained an advocate of “objective pluralism” and “value pluralism” until his death in 1997. In Ramin Jahanbegloo’s book entitled “Conversations with Isaiah Berlin” Berlin explores the idea that liberty and equality oftentimes present us with a dilemma and that faced with such a dilemma, we feel the inevitability of making a choice. Berlin says: “if you have maximum liberty, then the strong can destroy the weak, and if you have absolute equality, you cannot have absolute liberty, because you have to coerce the powerful … if they are not to devour the poor and the meek. … Total liberty can be dreadful, total equality can be equally frightful…” (Jahanbegloo, 1992).

What does he mean by such a statement? Clearly, the way in and through which we may properly construe what he meant is by understanding the philosophical underpinnings of his views. Let us start with Berlin’s value pluralism. The governing idea in his value pluralism is the contention that in any given society, there exists a plurality not only of views but more importantly, of values. The problem, might seem simple at first glance but if one will look closely into the matter, Berlin is pointing out that it is not only the case that there exists a plurality of views and of values, the problem is much more complex; these views and values are “in conflict” with one another. The problem now has an added dimension; it now has a political dimension.

At this point, we may proceed to our construal of what Berlin meant by the statement he made in the conversation that he had with Jahanbegloo. The statement may properly be understood in the context of value pluralism. In the statement, Berlin presents to us a dilemma; on the one hand, we have liberty, and equality, on the other. Notice that the statement in itself has a character of “urgency” and the “necessity” of making a choice. The human condition, as Berlin sees it, is one by which he must choose.

At this point, one might be tempted to think that making a choice among competing and incommensurable values seems a province of ethics and not of social and political philosophy. For Berlin, ethical theory is an integral aspect of political philosophy. Jahanbegloo adds up to the idea that for Berlin, the ethical is connected to the political via the doctrine of “teleology”. He writes: “The task of political philosophy is, for Berlin, to be concerned with the examination of the ends of life, human purposes, social and collective. The business of political philosophy is to examine the validity of various claims made for various social goals, and the justification of the methods of specifying and attaining these” (Jahanbegloo, 1992).

The dilemma, as presented by Berlin, involves the process of “weighing conflicting values” such as liberty and equality. As an advocate of liberalism, Berlin puts premium on liberty than equality. Human beings possess the capacity for rational thought. Since human beings are forced to choose over conflicting values and given that human beings are beings that are capable of rational thought, it is not difficult to see that in such situations, every man will, to the best of his judgment, choose to do what is best for himself.

Our next task is to explain why the choice between liberty and equality brings forth issues regarding the fundamental notion of justice. It is at this point that we shall now turn to the ideas of John Rawls. In 1971, Rawls wrote A Theory of Justice; with the aim of defending an egalitarian liberal vision of justice by adopting the social contract theory. I will mention two important aspects of Rawls’ theory; first, the “original position” and second, the principle of “justice as fairness”.

In Rawls’ theory, the original position, like the social contract, is a “thought experiment”. Social contract theorists like Hobbes for instance do not contend that there was actually a corresponding historical fact to the idea of a “social contract”. For the most part, the social contract theory has an explanatory function and that is to provide a justification for the formation of the state. In the same vein, Rawls’ original position has an explanatory function to explain “what and how will we arrive at the principles of justice” given that there is a “veil of ignorance”? The veil of ignorance was employed by Rawls to mean that the parties involved are “mutually disinterested” since they do not know who they represent.

The idea is actually simple. For instance, we have decided to think of a principle of social justice that we ought to apply to our society and let us say that we are generally knowledgeable on issues regarding human affairs. In addition to this, let us also say that we are not aware of our positions or whom we represent in society because of the veil of ignorance. The question is, will we devise laws that may be called “unjust”? The answer is “No”.
What is “Justice as Fairness”? What are the principles of justice that Rawls speaks of?

According to Rawls, we may arrive at two principles of justice through the original position and the veil of ignorance. A just society, as Rawls sees it, ought to assure that each citizen has “an equal claim to a fully adequate scheme of equal basic rights and liberties in which the scheme is compatible with the same scheme for all” (Rawls, 1999). This is the Rawls’ First Principle. The Second Principle must address those aspects of the basic structure that affects the distribution of opportunities, offices, income, wealth, and resources.

Collectively, these are identified as “social advantages”. The second principle, according to Rawls, has two parts. In the first part of the second principle, Rawls contends that the social structures or institutions that mold the aforementioned distribution must satisfy the requirements of a “fair equality of opportunity.” In the second part of the second principle, Rawls discussed the “Difference Principle.” In the his work entitled Political Liberalism, Rawls writes: “social and economic inequalities … are to be to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged members of society” (Rawls, 1996).

Like Berlin, Rawls had a liberal orientation. For Berlin and as well as Rawls, personal and civil liberties are social goods and there are occasions when certain inequalities are permissible in society. The point is that we cannot totally be equal and even if it is possible, it would lead to more losses than gains. Absolute equality is never achievable. In addition to this, Rawls agrees with Berlin in the point that he raised regarding value pluralism.

Finally, I would like to end with a remark on justice in a liberal and democratic political setting. The issue of coming up with a satisfactory account or theory of justice is a necessary condition for a society to be considered humane. True, liberal ideologies opened up new ways of looking at things, different ways of looking at things. This is the thrust of Berlin’s value pluralism.


  • A Theory of Justice, rev. ed., Harvard University Press, 1999
  • Political Liberalism, rev. ed., Columbia University Press, 1996
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