Liberal Pluralism and Common Decency

  • Jonathan Riley
Part of the Asan-Palgrave Macmillan Series book series (APMS)


An interpretation of Isaiah Berlin’s liberal pluralism is presented in which his tragic value pluralism is embedded within, and constrained by the other ingredients of, a common moral horizon that gives priority to the value of human survival, to social rules (which may be called natural laws) of decency or justice that are deemed essential to survival, to a minimum core of human rights distributed and sanctioned by such rules, and to a minimum sphere of negative liberty carved out by such basic moral rights. A serious objection is that this interpretation assumes that human survival and human rights are far more important than (and thus rationally comparable with) any conflicting incommensurable values, contrary to the view associated with Berlin’s pluralism that incommensurable values are necessarily incomparable so that any conflict between them cannot be rationally resolved. But the objection is unpersuasive because, whatever Berlin’s idea of incommensurable values is (and his idea remains ambiguous), incommensurability cannot properly be reduced to incomparability: reasonable comparisons of incommensurable values are possible under plausible forms of incommensurability whereas incomparability is arguably an extreme form that tends to disappear with increasing information about competing values. It needs emphasis, however, that Berlin’s writings are marked by various ambiguities and inconsistencies, which require further critical discussion on another occasion.


Isaiah Berlin Value pluralism Negative liberty Common moral horizon H.L.A. Hart Human survival Natural law Human rights Incommensurable values Democracy Indecent societies Precarious equilibrium 

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© The Author(s) 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Jonathan Riley
    • 1
  1. 1.Tulane UniversityNew OrleansUSA

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