Since my Cato Unbound essay name-checks Isaiah Berlin (at least in part as an excuse to make a bad headline joke), this is a good opportunity to circle back to an interview in with Francis Fukuyama in New Perspectives Quarterly that I’d meant to link when it first appeared. Apart from some musing on the modern problem of defining positive freedoms, Fukuyama offers this:
The way to think about this is that we have both a deep philosophical problem and a practical political problem. The two may be related, but not necessarily.
The deep philosophical problem is whether you can walk Western philosophy back from Heidegger and Nietzche and say that reason does permit the establishment of positive values—in other words that you can demonstrate the truth of certain ideas.
The practical problem is whether you can generate a set of values that will politically serve the integrating liberal purposes you want. This is complicated because you want those values to be positive and mean something, but you also can’t use them as the basis for exclusion of certain groups in society.
I tend to think the two are related, at least on a proper framing of the first question, which I doubt includes the premise that it’s necessary to “walk Western philosophy back from Heidegger and Nietzsche.” If the goal is to build up from ground zero, with no normative premises, a moral view that would persuade a thoroughgoing moral skeptic, that probably is hopeless. But it’s not clear why that’s the standard: From one point of view, it seems to be asking too much, like demanding a theory that would serve to talk a bear out of mauling you. From another, it seems as though it wouldn’t be enough even if it were possible. Suppose I could construct a flawless proof, based entirely on the apodictic truths of logic, that one may torture innocent people only on pain of contradiction. This would miss the point: Pain is worse than contradiction. The interesting question is how thin a basis you can build a moral community on. If it’s thin enough, you have an answer to both the practical problem (at least potentially) and the interesting version of the philosophical one.
Somewhat tangentially, I think it’s worth observing how many purported value conflicts are really grounded in factual disagreements, which present few special problems for ethical theory, however practically intractable they may be. Radical jihadis have “different values” from liberals in large part because they hold a false belief in a deity who holds a rather perverse and illiberal set of preferences. But of course, many such beliefs are so intractable that the only thing to do is take them as givens and hope that most people at least hold (or can be brought to hold) what Rawls called “reasonable comprehensive conceptions,” compatible with (if not limited to) some shared values that provide the basis for coexistence and cooperation.
Since I attacked Brink’s argument for a link between mass affluence and libertarian attitudes yesterday, let me suggest one way in which I do think he’s on to something: Pluralism and cosmopolitanism do create especially fierce conflicts over positive rights, and make the prospect of seeking convergence on a relatively thin libertarian conception of justice seem more promising. This is one reason I find the transition from the discussion of “positive freedom” and “positive rights” in the Fukuyama interview unfortunate, since it’s perfectly possible to advance “positive values” or “a more positive sense of what freedom is in terms of the recognition of basic human dignity,” but in a way that makes negative rights and negative liberty central to justice. These are descriptions at very different levels—a point I hope Fukuyama would concede, though it’s not clear from the interview.