Conference: Religion, Conflict and Reconciliation
March 2001, Amersfoort

By Connie Aarsbergen, PhD-candidate


In this paper the theme “Religion, Conflict, and Reconciliation” is approached from a liberal-humanistic angle, namely from the views of the Oxford philosopher and historian of ideas Sir Isaiah Berlin (1909-1997). According to Berlin, one of the most important causes of conflict is monist thinking, the belief that for colliding ends and values, there is only one solution. Closely connected with monism is teleological thinking, the belief that in history there is a goal towards a situation of final harmony where there will be no conflicting values and ends.

In this paper I start with giving a description of how Berlin justifies his pluralist and anti-teleological views. Furthermore, one of the consequences of views such as Berlin’s (with regard to the negative role religions and ideologies play to stimulate conflicts) is that visions of the good life are kept out of the public domain as much as possible. An undesired result of this is that a modern Western individual is more and more disconnected from the moral sources that give motivation and inspiration for positive moral action. In this paper I will also try to take away some misunderstandings about teleological thinking that are behind the wish to keep the public domain as neutral as possible.

Berlin’s theory of knowledge

Before giving an account of Berlin’s anti-teleological views, I first have to say something about Berlin’s theory of knowledge. It is based on concepts and categories through which people think and act and order the data of experience. The concepts and categories are not a priori given, but transmitted through communities in which individuals live. They change when circumstances in the community alter. Certain concepts and categories can have an enslaving or discriminating effect and should therefore be critically examined. Wrong ideas are for Berlin the main source of evil: they can encourage inhuman behaviour. As a historian of ideas but also as refugee from the Russian Revolution (as a child) and as a Second World War correspondent, he is strongly motivated to trace wrong ideas that lead to human misery. One of the most evil causing ideas is the belief that in a situation of conflicting values and ends there is one solution or only one set of values that is true (monism) and that in history it is possibility to reach a situation of final harmony.

Berlin’s theory of values

Berlin is a pluralist[1]. There is a plurality of cultures and of individual temperaments. Also there are many ends that an individual can follow in his life. There is a choice in esthetical, ethical and intellectual values that can be realised. The different ends and values are not always combinable in one lifetime or in one society. For example, a life as an unrecognised but talented artist (outside a welfare state such as the Netherlands) is difficult to combine with family duties. When a judge shows too much mercy towards a criminal, he is not doing justice to the victim. If a government is too active in reducing inequalities in society, this can lead to serious limitations of liberty and conversely, more freedom is often reached at the cost of equality. 

In order to make the right choices, there is a great desire for universal measuring-rods to decide which value or end should get priority, but according to Berlin there are none. People like to believe – both in religions and sciences - that only one set of values is true. however, there is not only pluralism in values and ends, but also in the criteria to decide which one should get priority. Each community or culture has its own value system. These value systems are not always compatible and can even be contradictory. For these incommensurable value systems, reconciliation is not possible by referring to one true system. 

The only thing an individual or policymaker can do is to make an own choice between the incommensurable values or ends. Connected with that choice is the responsibility of the consequences of the decision and the sad knowledge that one of the cherished values or ends will have to be given up to give priority to another one. Choices involve responsibility and this is a burden which many people find hard to bear.[2] They seek various ways to avoid this burden. In scientific concepts, believing that our lives are determined (by for instance material or biological factors) can relieve the moral burden. We can no longer blame or be blamed for a world largely outside out of our control. In religions[3], moral dilemmas can be solved by reference to the Will of God. God stands for a rational and harmonious order in which all values have its proper place. But also in scientific concepts influenced by the Enlightenment the world is not untidy, cruel or purposeless, but harmonious, clear, intelligible.[4] It has an end and a rational person ranks its ends and values according to the telos. In this fixed order, clashes are – in principle – avoidable. If conflicts and tragedies occur, it is because the correct order and telos is not yet known. Religions fulfil in the need for a harmonious world by providing the concepts and categories capable of finding final answers. Religious believers have difficulties with accepting moral dilemmas that would lead to ultimate tragedy: that would subvert the providential order.[5] 

Berlin’s anti-teleological view

In religions and secular worldviews the telos of mankind can be connected with establishing an ideal society on earth. On this planet we can work on a situation of final harmony in which there will be no conflict in values. There are ideologists or religious leaders who claim to have special knowledge about this future, about inevitable courses in history leading to it, or about the exact situation of the Golden Age that needs to be restored. Marx believed that history would lead to a Classless Welfare State in which the tensions between equality and liberty and individual and group interests will be solved.

The situation of final harmony is very much desired. There is much at stake and people are willing to pay a high price for it. Ideologists and religious leaders can take disadvantage of it by justifying cruel acts leading to that goal. For this higher telos, normal human responsibility is given up so that followers can act inhumanly. 

Knowledge of the truth with regard to metaphysical, moral and political questions has the tendency to split human kind into two worlds. Holy wars or wars of extermination against enemies with rival claims are justified by referring to that truth. In the ancient world or the Middle Ages, one of the most important virtues was to defend the truth by all means. People were prepared to die for their beliefs or to kill in order to destroy heresies. Due to the influence of Romanticism, the notion of sincerity has become more important in Western thought. This notion makes it possible to admire the sincerity of their believes, although they are considered to be wrong.

Within the class conflict of Marxism, the bourgeoisie and the capitalists made the rival claims. For Berlin Marxism is even more dangerous than fanatical religious movements. At least in most religions, if the infidel accepts the true faith, he is welcomed as a brother. Within Marxism, discussion about the truth with the enemy was regarded as senseless; they should be eliminated as soon as possible.[6] 

It should be noted here that the majority of Berlin’s criticism against teleological thinking is not specifically aimed at religions but at communism and fascism. Berlin is not an atheist seeking to abolish all religion. In his work, he also shows much respect for (non-fanatical forms of) religion as a way of life. For instance, in his biography he mentions how much hidden wisdom he had found in the Jewish rituals of burial and mourning when his father died. 

Within religions, Berlin makes a distinction between religions that claim to know the Will of God and the ones that emphasise the impossibility of human perfection due to the Fall of Man.[7]

Intolerance and monism can be found in the first type of religion. Respect for different views is more likely to be found in the latter type, as it is believed that because of human sin, the Will of God and the paths leading to final harmony cannot be fully known. In his work, Berlin did not specifically mention Christian theologies that believe that the Kingdom of God will not be part of this earth, but in a New World to come. But he must have had them in mind as such eschatology is often inspired by the awareness of the fallen state of man and this world.

If in a religion, there is too much stress on the Fall of Man, for Berlin this can also be dangerous. It can justify despotic, non-democratic governments because man are evil and not capable of doing anything good. Berlin describes this in his essay about the 19th century conservative Roman Catholic Frenchmen Joseph de Maistre.[8]

There are more objections against teleological thinking. According to Berlin, a monistic society, with just one overriding human purpose, cannot put an end to the conflicts within that society![9]  The (sacred) formulas accepted by that society carry different (perhaps incompatible) meanings for different persons in different situations. This is especially the case when vague and general terms are used (such as the fulfilment of the Law of God or the common good, etc.) Furthermore, problems will arise in the secondary ends, the penultimate values for more specific purposes on lower levels. When these subordinate ends come into conflict, a simple deduction from the overriding human goal is in most cases not possible. 

With regard to utopias that are based on a Golden Age in the past, Berlin explains why the results seldom correspond to the hopes of the religious leaders or human engineers who conducted these social experiments. Makers of the revolution found themselves in each case swept on by the forces, which they had released in a direction scarcely anticipated. In the plans for human improvement usually only those facts are included which fit neatly into the theories of society, history, political development and change, forgetting the complicated facts which are more unsusceptible to tidy classification. Ideologists who look at a past Golden age usually forget that they look at it from a later vantage point and leave out important facts which for them are too obvious to need mentioning. The revolution usually concentrates upon certain aspect of the upper, public level but inevitably stirs up the lower levels of life, in the obscurest corners of the life in society. The results are by-products, which are largely incalculable. According to Berlin the more theorists of social programmes force the facts into some preconceived mould, the more (violent) resistance they encounter. The consequences of the experiments are beyond what anybody had wished or planned or expected.

How to deal with moral dilemmas?

When there is pluralism and furthermore, when there are incommensurable values without universal measuring-rods, how to deal with moral dilemmas? For Berlin there are no fixed procedures how to solve value conflicts. However, in his work some guidelines can be found.

First of all, I would like to make a distinction between conflicts among groups (each representing certain incommensurable values), conflicts between an individual and its community (the conflict between personal ends and group interests) and inner conflicts within a personal life. 

As an historian of ideas, for all these types of conflict, Berlin stresses that the notion of final harmony should first be abandoned. This idea has slaughtered many individuals on the altars of the great historical ideas. Conflicts of value should be considered as an intrinsic irremovable element in human life.[10] 

With regard to conflicts of ends between groups, Berlin’s guideline can be found in his writings about Jews as a minority in diaspora.[11] When Jews suffer because they are not recognised as a group and feel discriminated due to their deviating values and ends, they should be able to live in an own country.[12] (This was Berlin’s secular motivation to become a Zionist. During and after the Second World War, as a war correspondent in Washington and friend of Chaim Weizmann, Berlin has helped actively founding the state of Israel). But in our present multicultural societies, founding new countries for minorities is not a practical solution to pluralism anymore. Later in his life, Berlin acknowledged that the claims of the Palestinian citizens within the state of Israel are justified too,[13] but he could not give any advice how to deal with this conflict. 

What could Berlin’s pluralism mean for present day UN-interventions or endeavours of churches to reconcile conflicting parties? The lack of a universal measuring-rod does not make such a peace or reconciliation process any easier. Berlin’s pluralism prevents a ‘solution’ that the conflicting parties must adopt the value system of the interventionist or reconciler: this would not pay respect to the value systems of the conflicting groups themselves. Berlin’s pluralism, however, does not lead to moral relativism. When an act is inhuman or insane, people can recognise this.[14] We know the inhuman when we encounter it. For Berlin there is a ‘common human horizon’ formed by rules and commandments, which have been accepted so widely ‘and are grounded so deeply in the actual nature of man as they have developed through history, as to be by now, an essential part of what we mean by being a normal human being’.[15] Some concepts and categories apply to mankind over sufficiently long stretches of time that they are regarded as virtually universal.[16] So for Berlin it is possible to condemn certain (inhuman) practices. 

Most of Berlin’s work is aimed at value conflicts between individuals and groups and inner conflicts. Between the two, Berlin does not make such a big difference. The most probable reason for that is that he is strongly aware that it is the community who gives the concepts and categories containing the values and ends to choose from. Although Berlin maintains that the individual is (in the end) free, he is also aware that a person’s identity is strongly influenced by its community.  Even if a dilemma looks very personal at first sight (for instance shall I have a career or a family), it is very much influenced by the values and ends in the community of that individual. 

In trying to work out a moral dilemma, it is very important for Berlin that personal responsibility is not evaded by referring to the Will of God or alternatives such as our determined nature or inevitable causes in history or life. Berlin is afraid that this can lead to inhuman action. A side effect of this popular ‘existentialist’ view is that all references to religious or secular moral sources have become suspect. 

For Berlin, conflicts between the ends of individuals and the interests of their societies cannot be avoided entirely, but they can be reduced considerably. In his most famous essay ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’ Berlin gives a clear guideline how to reduce value conflicts: decisions about giving priorities in conflicting values or rankings in the ends of life should be left to the individual as far as possible. Individuals should be given a maximum space to take such decisions themselves.

Positive and negative liberty

To reduce the number of value conflicts between the individual and the group, Berlin has a strong preference for negative liberty, the freedom of not being interfered in personal choices by government, church or community. It is the freedom ‘from’. Berlin is very suspicious about all kinds of forms of positive liberty, the freedom to live your life in a certain way. It is the freedom ‘to’ live according to specific forms of life and it is believed that following that kind of life will generate more freedom in the long term.

Religions have always offered their followers forms of life that promise more freedom. The believer should for instance liberate himself of the slavery to unbridled passions. Ascetics, quietists, Stoics or Buddhists followed (and are still following) these forms of self-abnegation. For Berlin ascetic self-denial may be a source of integrity or serenity and spiritual strength, but he cannot see how it can be called an enlargement of liberty.[17] 

But Berlin is more concerned with the political translation of these religious forms of self-realisation in the 19th and 20th century. There is a political goal, for instance a just society, which a person would, if he was more enlightened, pursues himself. Coercion can therefore be justified. The problem with this kind of freedom, according to Berlin, is that it can get any meaning, which the manipulator wishes.

Closely connected with political theories of self-realisation is fanatical nationalism. Before Romanticism, there were already divisions made between higher and lower selves or heternomous or autonomous selves. Romantic thinkers such as the German philosopher and poet Johann Gottfried Herder added the possibility of identification of the individual self with the collective self. There is a collective self that gives meaning and purpose to all its members: without my folk I have no significance.[18] According to Berlin, in this way - again - personal responsibility is given up. The road is opened to justify cruel and inhuman acts.

Consequences of emphasis on negative liberty on the public domain

Looking back at his life, Berlin told one of his biographers Ramin Jahanbegloo that the strong emphasis on negative liberty has been perverted into a species of 'laissez-faire’ that also had led to injustices and sufferings. He admitted that his “Two Concepts of Liberty” was deeply influenced by the monstrous misuses of the word liberty in totalitarian countries.[19] In October 1997 the current British Prime Minister Tony Blair asked Berlin for the limitations of negative liberty and suggested that ‘positive liberty had its validity, whatever its depredations in the Soviet Model’.[20] In posing this question, Tony Blair must have had in mind some ‘paternalistic’ measures to prevent poverty and misery due to broken marriages, ‘inherited’ unemployment, children still on the streets late at night and drop outs at school. Berlin was already too ill to reply and died a month later.

Why could Berlin’s concept of negative liberty have been perverted into ‘laissez-faire’ policy?  One of the most probable reasons is that during the last decades Western liberal governments (like Berlin) have presupposed that individuals have their own moral sources or do not need visions of the good life that can help when making the right decisions in life. In the Fifties and Sixties most Western individuals still belong to a religion or secular world-view but due to secularisation and individualism this has changed. An increasing number of people are not connected to specific visions of the good life anymore, and want to sort out the important value decisions themselves. There is also no government assistance as Western governments are expected to maintain a strict division between public and private domain. Trespassing that border would mean that one of the visions of the good life is preferred above another one and that could cause conflict with rival ideologies and religions.

Berlin’s has a preference for a maximum of negative liberty at the cost of positive forms of liberty. But according to the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor,[21] this leads to problems. With the rejection of positive forms of liberty, also the conveyance of visions of the good life is thrown away. Moral views and moral sources belong together and cannot be separated. They are essential for the motivation and inspiration for positive action and function as a source of empowerment that gets lost when reference to one’s moral sources is not possible.

Charles Taylor is not totally in disagreement with Isaiah Berlin. He also acknowledges that there are incommensurable values that cannot be reconciled by referring to one universal set of values or one measuring-rod. But he does not agree with the ‘solution’ that Berlin gives to emphasise only negative liberty. How can individuals or policy makers make judgements about the priorities in life if there are no moral sources and no frameworks of the good life? Taylor gives an alternative approach when encountering a moral dilemma. He does not want to keep the moral sources hidden privately, but instead, they should be articulated. Articulacy – especially within the public domain - is needed to make clear what the deeper problems and motivations of moral dilemmas are.

But bearing in mind all past and present religious conflicts, when moral sources are articulated in the public domain, does this not lead to a sharpening of the conflict instead of solving it?

But before answering this question, why not taking up Taylor’s suggestion to articulate the moral sources of Berlin? Berlin has a strong desire to avoid human suffering. Human beings should be respected. He thinks it is important that people are responsible for each other. He values autonomy and pluralism. He acknowledges the importance of the community to convey concepts and categories. He has a strong preference for ordinary life forms instead of ‘higher’ religious or monastic life forms, etc.  These are all values that are part of a (liberal and humanist) vision of  the good life.

In modern liberal thinking, values such as respect and pluralism are sometimes confused with neutral ‘procedural values’. For Berlin these values are also so self-evident, that he hardly makes them explicit. But comparing them with other world-views, they are not neutral, but substantive and are part of a Western liberal world-view.

There is more confusion. Visions of the good life are often mixed up with teleological views. However, within a vision of the good life, not all aspects are teleological. Values such as mutual respect, avoidance of pain and misery, preference for pluralism and autonomy, are not referring to any teleological paths in history, but to more prudent considerations or perhaps the motivation to keep the only life you have worthwhile to live. Although not teleological, this is also a vision of the good life. 

A further confusion is that all teleological visions are regarded as potentially dangerous. As Berlin already notices, there are religions without fixed blue prints to final harmony due to a relativization of the human knowledge and ability to become perfect. The latter one leads to more respect for pluralism.
These misunderstandings are still underlying the reluctance to articulate our moral sources when a moral dilemma is discussed. A consequence of these confusions is that also the connection is lost with visions of the good life that inspire their followers not to evade moral responsibility, and motivate them to positive moral action, both at community and universal level.

When a good distinction is made between the fanatical kinds of teleological thinking and inspirational and peaceful forms of teleology, in my opinion few objections are left to follow Charles Taylor’s suggestion to lift up the inarticulacy of our moral motivations.


Through the philosophy of Isaiah Berlin, I have described monism and teleological thinking as one of the main causes of (religious) conflict. Berlin’s pluralist thinking leads to a strong emphasis on negative liberty. Furthermore, to keep peace within the public domain and to be refrained from paternalism, there has been a strong reluctance to actively promote forms of the good life. This in turn has generated other forms of human misery. In this paper I have tried to show that there are also forms of teleology that do not lead to conflicts or disrespect for other opinions and that visions of the good life are not necessarily teleological.

Hopefully this paper and this conference will lead to debates on moral and political dilemmas in which our moral sources are not hidden but articulated and that groups or communities with a specific vision of the good life feel less reluctant to convey their moral sources as a positive example and inspiration for their members and outsiders.

Connie Aarsbergen, PhD candidate       

Word Version

[1] Berlin, I, ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’, in: Four Essays on Liberty, Oxford University Press, 1969, p.169

[2] Berlin, I, ‘Historical Inevitability’, in: Four Essays on Liberty, Oxford University Press, 1969, p.114.

[3] Berlin writes primarily for a Western audience and has mostly theistic religions in mind.

[4] Historical Inevitablity, p. 106-108

[5] Gray, J., Berlin, Fontana Press, London, 1995, p.42

[6] Berlin, I. ‘Marxism and the International in the 19th century’, in: The Sense of Reality, London, 1997, p139

[7] Berlin, I, ‘Does Political Theory Still Exist?’ In: Concepts and Categories, Pimlico, London, 1978, p.153

[8] Berlin, I., ‘Joseph de Maistre and the Origins of Fascism’, in: The Crooked Timer of Humanity, London, 1990

[9] Does Political Theory Still Exists? p.150-151

[10] Berlin, I. ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’, in : Four Essays on Liberty, Oxford University Press, 1969, p.167

[11] Berlin, I. ‘Benjamin Disraeli, Karl Marx and the Search for Identity’ in: Against the Current, London, 1979. A hidden but recently published essay: Berlin, I., ‘Jewish Slavery and Emancipation’, in: The Power of Ideas, Chatto & Windus, London, 2000

[12] Jahanbegloo, R. Conversations with Isaiah Berlin, London, 1992, p85.

[13] Gray, J, Berlin, London, 1995, p.117

[14] Does Political Theory Still Exist, p.166

[15] Two Concepts of Liberty, p.165

[16] Berlin, I, ‘The Sense of Reality’, in: The Sense of Reality, Pimlico, London, 1996, p.17

[17] Two Concepts of Liberty, p.139

[18] Berlin, I. ‘Kant as an Unfamiliar Source of Nationalism’, in: The Sense of Reality, Pimlico, London, 1996, p.245

[19] Jahanbegloo, R., Conversations with Isaiah Berlin, Peter Halban, London, 1992, p147

[20] Ignatieff, M,. Isaiah Berlin a Life, New York, 1998, p298.

[21] Taylor, C. Sources of the Self. The Making of the Modern Identity, Cambridge, 1989