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The Pursuit of The Ideal
Original Article By: Isaiah Berlin
The Proper Study of Mankind An Anthology of Essays
Major Topic: Philosophy
Minor Topic: History

Précis:

         Two movements have so determined the events of the 20th century that it cannot be analyzed or understood without understanding their significance. The two movements are: (1) the advancement of science and technology and (2) the communist revolution of 1917 and its fallout. Both of these movements, at their heart, began with ideas about the proper relation between men and between man and society. Such ideas make up the essence of ethics. The author defines ethics as: “...the systematic examination of the relations of human beings to each other, the conceptions, interests and ideals from which human ways of treating one another spring, and the systems of value on which such ends of life are based.” (page 1) Ethics applied to society is called political philosophy. To understand the 20th century and the whole world in general, it is not enough to understand the deterministic laws of science or laws of men, we need to consider the chosen aims, intents and desires that guide our actions.

         Many of the best writers of the 18th and 19th century seemed to be, among many other things, moral writers. They were concerned with the causes of evil and how to achieve the good. The answers and solutions posited were varied and original however, all thought that there was a solution to ethical and political problems.

         It was not only at this time that people were thinking about the problems of ethics and political philosophy. There seemed, in all the great philosophers of the western tradition, to be three convictions: That (1) all questions have correct answers, (2) there exists a proper method to find the correct answers and (3) that since contradictions cannot exist, all the correct answers must be in harmony. This state of complete knowledge might not be attainable but it had to exist. Most writers believed that we could discover it but, if not, God knew it and had revealed enough for us to find it. This would have to be true or else there would not be any meaning, any purpose, any hope. Even today many believe that there are timeless, true and correct answers to ethics and political philosophy.

         In spite of this tradition, there were some who questioned this assumption of a unified timeless moral truth. Machiavelli pointed out that Christian morality and pagan morality are incompatible. Christian morality is directed to eternal salvation; Pagan morality, towards a successful life in a successful state. It seems, therefore, that not all final ends and highest values of life are concordant.

         Vico claimed that every society has its own vision and understanding of its world expressed in the way of life of the members. Every society's values are different and often they are not reducible or integrable or even comparable with each other.

         Herder warned that we cannot judge other cultures with our own values rather, if we judge, we must enter into the culture and understand it from within. We must judge it based on its own values.

         This is often mistakenly called relativism – sometimes cultural or moral. If there were nothing more to say about differences then it would be true to call these philosophers relativists. However, they ought better to be described as pluralistic. Pluralism holds that different values can be understood and one can benefit from the attempt to understand. Communication across cultures in time and space is always possible because the essence of human nature has not changed. Therefore we can all, with the force of imagination, enter into another culture, try on their values, dream of life, of setting goals, of working in the other culture. In this way we enter into it. We may find we do or do not like the culture but we will learn something even if it is only a broadened point of view.

         Principles, ideals and standards can diverge and even oppose each other, indeed even in the same person and of course in different civilizations. Some values are simply contradictory and to envision that they are not would require a fantasy world. A fantasy world is what is needed to hold the concept of an ultimate solution in which is found the entirety of what is good, true and consistent and none of what is evil, false or inconsistent.

         There is another more practical problem to the idea of an ultimate solution, namely that every solution has lead to more problems. Values change, times change and situations change. In light of the ever changeableness of the world, it would seem wrong to say that there is one everlasting solution to ethics and political philosophy. Furthermore, to claim that there is only one good or best solution is dangerous. For if one believes in a unique and imperishable solution to any problem then what could possibly justify not acting to bring it about? What could justify not forcing those who disagree to comply? It would seem to such a person that those who are in opposition are either ignorant or malicious and therefore should be made to conform. Is there a price too high to bring all that is good into the world? Some have already tried and millions have died in the attempt to realize the ideal.

         Some have tried to create a utopia but none have ever come close: their dreams have been only dreams – or more precisely: chicaneries, deceits and dissimulations. The only two sure things in their plans have always been death and destruction.

         If there really is no ideal and perfect way to live and organize society, what should we do? The author suggests: we should not set priorities that are decisive, eternal or unqualified. As a start we should (1) avoid excesses of human anguish (2) expect to compromise on values and (3) understand that utilitarian solutions can be wrong but are more often right. There may be times when moral risk is necessary but we must never forget the great danger that that entails. Conflict cannot be avoided so we should seek a teetering balance.

Added on: 2009-06-09 10:22:20
Précis by: James Jeff McLaren
© 2008 - 2017, James Jeff McLaren