Continued from Agonistic Liberalism (1/2) - The Non-System of Liberty
To Hang Together or Not To Hang Together
In order to have a system, things need to hang together. If they do not, you will not possess a system. Incommensurables make things not hang together.
Any claim to know the public good depends on the assumption that the public hangs together in a manner that makes its members commonly partake in that good.
The approach breaks down, when the members of the community do not hang together in a web of comparable sensitivities enabling them to jointly accept offers of the good.
Incommensurables are a threat to any unitary concept of the public, which latter tends to underlie all major ideologies, including liberalism. Incidentally, perhaps, this assumption of the natural cohesion of the populace with respect to being able to commonly partake in an optimal arrangement entitled the public good represents the hidden collectivism of the liberal doctrine.
At any rate, in all its variants, liberalism tends toward a unifying, rationalist world view in which the interests of all can be reconciled. John Stuart Mill's posture is a case in point:
There cannot, for Mill, be undecidable dilemmas in moral or political life, since that would impeach the ideal of rationality central to classical utilitarianism, and from which, despite his many other revisions of this utilitarian inheritance, he never departed.
Note, this shortcoming is not confined to the utilitarian breed of liberalism, it is also found in the traditions deriving from Kant and Locke.
The Conundrum of Incommensurables
Against this background, Sir Isaiah Berlin radically confronts liberalism with the conundrum of incommensurables, the unconnectedness, the lacunae that divide us, impede communication and put us at loggerheads. His argument rests on three pillars:
First, Berlin affirms that, within any morality or code of conduct such as ours, there will arise conflicts among the ultimate values of that morality, which [cannot be resolved on the level of rational discourse]... Within our own liberal morality, for example, liberty and equality, fairness and welfare are recognized as intrinsic goods. Berlin maintains that these goods often collide in practice, that they are inherently rivalrous by nature, and that their conflicts cannot be arbitrated by any overarching standard.
Secondly, each of these goods or values is internally complex and inherently pluralistic, containing conflicting elements, some of which are constitutive incommensurables ... Such goods are not harmonious wholes but themselves arenas of conflict and incommensurability.
Thirdly, different cultural forms will generate different moralities and values, containing many overlapping features, no doubt, but also specifying different, and incommensurable, excellences, virtues and conceptions of the good.
(Ibid., p. 43)
This describes the complicated situation that liberty has evolved to come to grips with.
While analytically of interest, in reality it is not possible to clearly distinguish between
- liberty-as-aggravator, setting free challenging and dissenting opinion, and
- liberty-as-peacemaker, mitigating the tendency especially in all-encompassing belief-systems to resolve rivalry by the physical elimination or incapacitation of opponents.
Liberty Outside the Purview of Liberalism
Liberalism itself assumes the position of a rivalrous alternative vis-à-vis countless conflicting, mutually irreconcilable optional world-views. Liberalism's response to conflict is the same as that from any other system-building ideology: take me wholesale, I am right and good; get rid of competing alternatives, they are wrong and bad. Ultimately, liberalism does not address the stoic mission of liberty - how to make people with incompatible value systems get along with one another.
It follows that if we wish to understand liberty, we need to step outside of the purview of liberalism, recognise that liberalism is just one tributary to the intellectual and political competition that makes up a free society.
Aporia of the Unprivileged Favourite
Berlin is concerned with the aporia that
- one wants the values of liberalism to succeed in the competition of values, while
- in a world riddled with incommensurables the values of liberalism can claim no privilege over values favoured by other world-views.
In principle, I am less concerned with this question, as I tend to think that robust conditions of freedom provide a resilient platform on the basis of which we are able to figure out which values are to be admitted for the purpose of regulating social interaction, and which are not - while, of course, the working out of concrete solutions will often be difficult, inherently incomplete and leave a residual of inconclusiveness; which is why few people assume the responsibility of becoming politicians and the vast majority prefer - at least by implication - to expect perfection in the politician, whose main job is to deal with urgent issues, most of which, owing to the presence of incommensurables, cannot be resolved in perfect fashion.
What I do not find in Berlin is the self-healing aspect of liberty as a balanced play of aggravation and pacification. Berlin seems to be leaving the train, as so many do, at the penultimate station, ending his journey burdened with an inconsolable sense of tragedy, according to which incommensurables make us aliens to one another, imposing on us a fate of alienation that dulls or emboldens us, as the case may be, to pursue acts of the most gruesome inhumanity which reveal the dimension of utter unconnectedness and disregard between human beings.
By contrast, notwithstanding deviations from the trend-line, I believe that
the natural parallel growth of aggravation-through-liberty and pacification-through-liberty
represents a gigantic advance in human civilisation.
By being more open to, more admitting of conflict, a free society accommodates experiments and experiences that help us deal with conflict by deflecting and sublimating the intolerably harmful currents of agonistic energy. Deflection and sublimation are strategies of violence reduction and trust building that invite the political theorist to look into areas of "politicking" that are partly removed from the conscious practice of politics. It is the area in which the invisible hand of politics makes those moves that translate our action into beneficial outcomes, "and thus without intending it, without knowing it, advance the interest of the society..." (Adam Smith - The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) in Part IV, Chapter 1)
See also my post The Spontaneous Order of Politics and the State (SO2).