There Are Values and Then There Are Values

People got a lot of letters from Isaiah Berlin, the philosopher and historian of ideas. The New York Review of Books published a review several months ago (I’m behind on my reading) of the third volume of Berlin’s letters, covering the years 1960 to 1975. There’s one more volume to go.

One of the ideas Berlin argued for in his letters and elsewhere during his long career was “value pluralism”, the view that there is no one ultimate value. Instead, there are many values, some of which can conflict in ways that cannot be easily resolved (there is no “right” answer). Liberty and equality are two such values.

In Berlin’s words, from the review, value pluralism is:

The conception that there are many different ends that men may seek and still be fully rational, fully men, capable of understanding each other and sympathizing and deriving light from each other.

Nothing is less popular today than to say that there is no millennium, that values collide, that there is no final solution, that one can only gain one value at the expense of another, that whatever one chooses entails the sacrifice of something else—or that it is at any rate often so. This is regarded as either false or cynical or both, but the opposite belief is what, it seems to me, has cost us so much frightful suffering and blood in the past.

John Banville, the author of the NYRB review, writes:

[Berlin] was keenly aware of the potential destructiveness of ideas, “ideas about what relations between men have been, are, might be and should be,” which in time become transformed into visions of a supreme good, and therefore a supreme goal, in the minds of leaders, “above all of the prophets with armies at their backs.” 

Ideas can be dangerous or beneficial, and also mistaken. Although he vigorously campaigned to “ban the bomb”, the great philosopher Bertrand Russell once supposedly said “I would never die for my beliefs because I might be wrong”. But would Russell have accepted death if ending his life resulted in global nuclear disarmament? (That’s not a likely scenario, of course, but it’s the kind of question philosophers have to deal with.)

So how much importance should we attach to our most favored values if we accept value pluralism and simultaneously recognize that our values might not be the best ones? I don’t know the answer to that, but it brings me to an article called “How To Win Your Next Political Argument” from New York Magazine.

The thesis of this article is that there are better ways to win an argument than by citing facts or by being confrontational. People will just dig in their heels if you hit them with too many facts or make them feel threatened. It’s better to get your opponent to try to explain his or her position, since people often can’t explain their position even to their own satisfaction and will thereby become less confident that they know what they’re talking about.

Another recommended tactic is to “change the frame”, which means appealing to values your opponent holds dear, not necessarily your own. So, us left-wingers are said to focus on “care/harm” and “fairness/cheating”, while right-wingers are equally attached to “loyalty/betrayal”, “authority/subversion” and “sanctity/degradation”. If you want to convince a Republican that Edward Snowden was justified in releasing government secrets, you’re going to have to keep in mind that “betrayal” and “subversion” are big concerns for Republicans.

I was coasting along through this article until I got to the end, at which point the author presents an example of how to argue in favor of gay rights with a right-wing opponent. For example:

“I think my main reason in favor of allowing gay people to be scout leaders is that I have some gay friends who were Boy Scouts growing up, and who seriously treasure the lessons they learned during that time.”

What a load of mealy-mouthed crap! I suddenly thought of the Sophists, the ancient Greeks who were somewhat unfairly criticized for teaching their students how to argue successfully in favor of any position at all. Plato claimed the Sophists were mere hired guns (swords?) with no respect for the truth and no principles of their own. 

It’s a good idea to tailor your argument somewhat to meet your opponent’s concerns, and it’s an excellent idea to recognize that values can conflict and none of us own the truth. On the other hand, I especially enjoyed what Isaiah Berlin had to say about the Republican Party in 1964:

I wonder…whether Goldwater followers are not simply the old 20 percent … who were isolationists during the war, did not want to go to Europe but to Japan towards the end of it, supported McCarthy and McCarran [both paranoid anti-Communists], and are in fact the old combination of Southern “Bourbons,” Texas industrialists, Catholic bigots, Fascists, lunatics, political neurotics, embittered ex-Communists, unsuccessful power-seekers of all kinds, as well as rich men and reactionaries, in whom America has never been poor…. This is the optimistic view.

Brutal honesty has its place too.