In his fantastic 1988 essay The Pursuit of the Ideal, Isaiah Berlin argues utopian visions of society, while inspiring in theory, have in practice the potential to do serious harm.
In his 1988 essay on political philosophy, The Pursuit of the Ideal (a PDF of which you can access for free here), the philosopher Isaiah Berlin (1909 - 1997) considers our tendency to seek some kind of ‘ultimate’ good.
He begins by observing that, across both ethics and politics, many people seek to establish ideals. What is the good? What is the moral system? What is the perfect society?
Berlin argues this approach is misguided: ideals don’t exist. There is not one single way to lead a fully human, fully rational life.
It is a mistake, for instance, to think of the ‘enlightened’ times across European history — ancient Greece, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment — as representing a common set of values, as resembling a singular thread of reason in the fight against ignorance.
For the reality, Berlin argues, is that these ‘enlightened’ times — these bright patches of ‘progress’ — are all fundamentally incompatible with each other.
While we may admire the great works of ancient Greece, we cannot compare them to our own — for they were the product of an entirely different set of values, languages, and peoples.
If we are to understand the creations of past cultures, we cannot do so through the lens of our current values.
We should not, therefore, force past cultures into cookie cutter molds of ‘good state’ vs ‘bad state’. Instead, we should recognize that there are multiple ways of organizing society whereupon the people in those societies believe they are generally living rational lives.
This is not moral relativism, Berlin argues; this is moral pluralism.
There are many different ways to live a good life; the idea that there is one Perfect Good to live up to (politically or ethically) is incoherent.
Acknowledging that we can embody lots of different values, Berlin thinks, is a fundamental part of what it means to live a free, rational human life. Those who give themselves up to dogma may make themselves feel better, but they are not being rational. As Berlin puts it:
Happy are those who live under a discipline which they accept without question, who freely obey the orders of leaders, spiritual or temporal, whose word is fully accepted as unbreakable law; or those who have, by their own methods, arrived at clear and unshakeable convictions about what to do and what to be that brook no possible doubt. I can only say that those who rest on such comfortable beds of dogma are victims of forms of self-induced myopia, blinkers that may make for contentment, but not for understanding of what it is to be human.
From moral pluralism, then, it follows that aspiring to create a perfect utopian state is not only foolish, but harmful. There is no Perfect State. There is no Final Solution.
Why? Because every generation of humanity faces a new set of problems, and responds with a new set of values and solutions. Berlin writes:
The children have obtained what their parents and grandparents longed for — greater freedom, greater material welfare, a juster society; but the old ills are forgotten, and the children face new problems, brought about by the very solutions of the old ones, and these, even if they can in turn be solved, generate new situations, and with them new requirements — and so on, for ever — and unpredictably.
Society will constantly have to adapt to new challenges, Berlin thinks. If we enter into a rigid ‘ideal’ state, we will be ill-equipped to respond to such challenges.
“Utopias have their value,” Berlin concedes – “nothing so wonderfully expands the imaginative horizons of human potentialities – but as guides to conduct they can prove literally fatal.”
Why fatal? Well, anyone who deludes themselves into thinking there is one ‘final’ version of society that will lead to the flourishing of all — what won’t they do to attain such an end? If the reward is ‘all humans will be happy forever’, what atrocity could not be justified to obtain it?
The horrors of the 20th century provide their own answers to such questions, Berlin notes.
Berlin recalls an 1848 essay by the Russian radical Alexander Herzen entitled From the Other Shore, in which Herzen eloquently criticizes those who invoke promises of a glorious future to justify a terrible present. Herzen writes:
If progress is the goal, for whom are we working? [...] Do you truly wish to condemn the human beings alive today to the sad role of caryatids supporting a floor for others some day to dance on… or of wretched galley slaves who, up to their knees in mud, drag a barge […] with the humble words ‘progress in the future’ upon its flag? […] a goal which is infinitely remote is no goal, only a deception; a goal must be closer – at the very least the laborer’s wage, or pleasure in work performed…
Commenting on this passage, Berlin starkly adds:
The one thing that we may be sure of is the reality of the sacrifice, the dying and the dead. But the ideal for the sake of which they die remains unrealized. The eggs are broken, and the habit of breaking them grows, but the omelet remains invisible. Sacrifices for short-term goals, coercion, if men’s plight is desperate enough and truly requires such measures, may be justified. But holocausts for the sake of distant goals, that is a cruel mockery of all that men hold dear, now and at all times.
If not utopia, then what? Should we cease all idealization? Should we never aspire for more? Berlin thinks the best we can strive for is the maintenance of a somewhat ‘precarious equilibrium’, in which we structure society in ways that help us avoid desperate situations — i.e. in ways that help us ensure one party or person is unable to seize total power and inflict their version of utopia on their citizens.
This may not seem as exciting a vision as the Perfect State, but Berlin believes it to be an essential precondition for producing a basically decent society and morally acceptable behavior.
If you’d like to explore Berlin’s view further, you can read his essay in full in this free PDF (if you have a spare 30-40 minutes, I highly recommend doing so — it’s a fantastic read).
In the meantime — what do you think of Berlin’s analysis? Do you agree with his ideas around moral pluralism and the dangers of utopia? Or do you think visions of the Ideal provide the impetus for human progress?
If you’re interested in learning more about political philosophy, we’ve created a reading list of the best books on political philosophy to help you get started, from introductions and anthologies to important primary sources. Access it here:
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