Isaiah Berlin Interview on Freedom (1974)


Hi, I’m Alan Saunders, and today on The Philosopher’s
Zone, we’re returning to the great thinker, Isaiah Berlin, whose 100th birthday
we celebrated in our last show. This week, we raided the ABC Archives, and
found a conversation between Berlin and John Merson, formerly of the ABC Science Unit,
and now at the University of New South Wales. The subject is an idea close to Berlin’s heart:
human freedom. And he begins with the 18th century
German philosopher, Immanuel Kant. Kant was very deeply convinced that
there is such a thing as moral action. Moral action means that a man chooses, or
can choose, to do right as opposed to wrong, to put it in very simple terms. And that there was no merit in choosing what
is right, unless there was a possibility of choosing what is wrong. And if man was totally determined, not only
by external factors, biological or physical, but also by what might be called internal
factors, psychological for example–his desires, his wishes, his inclinations– then, according to Kant, he was a mere ‘turnspit’,
as he called him. He was like a clock, which of course, moves in a perfectly regular fashion,
but not determined by itself, but determined by some mechanism over which it has no control. What he was really opposed to was Spinoza’s
idea, that a stone, which is flung by somebody, if you ask it why it is flying where it is
flying, supposing it were conscious of what it was doing, might answer that it was doing
so because it wanted to. But in fact, it can’t help it, it’s really the thrower
who determines its direction. For Kant, this cancelled morality altogether. He thought that this was true of the physical
world, but if it was true of the moral world, then goodbye to morals. For him,
morality consisted in the power of choice. This does raise the very interesting question
though, doesn’t it, when you deal with those who are considered to be criminally insane;
that is, they are mad-bad and therefore curable, and those people who are just bad, who are
just criminals, and are seen to be responsible for their actions, and therefore,
are punished for those actions. I don’t know whether — if you’re
considered to be totally incurable, then of course, you are more or less regarded as
a kind of medical object, whether you’re put in jail or in hospital, I think that isn’t quite
perhaps the division which one ought to draw. The division is between people who think, whose
acts are supposed to be caused by environment, by bad education, by other factors which can be
adjusted by a kindly and wise psychologist, or sociologist, as it were, and acts which
are regarded as, in some sense, free for which the man is responsible. And the whole
notion of responsibility is at stake. Kant, whom I’ve mentioned already,
took a very extreme position about this. He thought that punishment was fundamentally
retributive, which is now regarded as the most brutal and irrational position by many
liberal-minded and progressive thinkers. He thought that because he thought that the
idea that punishment is corrective, or the idea that punishment is educational in character and
alters your character, is insulting to the man himself. In some sense, the corrector, the psychologist,
is regarded as a man who knows what is good for the man which he himself does not. And
therefore, he’s being treated like a sick man or a child. This may be required in some cases, where you are
dealing with children, that’s to say, un-grown-up people, who are not fully aware of the facts, who
are in some way not adult, or perhaps people who are very aberrant, that’s to say, who are
psychologically, in some way, as we would say, pathological or abnormal. But to regard all human beings as being in
that condition, appears to him to deny what he regards as the most human of all human
attributes, which is the power of free choice. And he says, in effect, that generosity, for
example, and paternalism, even used for the most noble purposes, can be an insult
to man, can be a terrible form of tyranny. That indifference, even hostility, recognizes
the equality of the person towards whom you’re hostile or about whom you’re indifferent,
more deeply than the attempt to condition him, to mold him, to do something to him which he’s
regarded as being incapable of doing himself. I mean, I’ve known people who’ve committed
antisocial acts who are quite clear about the fact that they’d rather
go to prison than to hospital. To go to prison means that they at least
know there is a punishment attached and they’ve done it all the same. They know perfectly well that society’s against
it, they maybe agreed with the laws of society and defy them openly, or they may disagree
with them and think the laws are moral or wicked. But at least they know what they’re doing,
they do things with their eyes open; as opposed to being sent to hospital, the implication of
which is that they are in some way psychologically feebler, inferior to, understand the world less
well than the people who are in charge of them. Would this be true of homosexuals particularly?
Yes, and while there were anti-homosexual laws in England, certainly some homosexuals I’ve
met were proud people who said they knew what they were doing, and they would rather be
punished than treated as pathological cases. How often do you think that this argument
about human nature, that is, a collection of people, sit down and decide, ‘This is human
nature; this is what we can expect from man’, on the side you have what is natural
for man and you have what is unnatural. So, to be homosexual, to come under a heading
of any number of aberrations, you are unnatural and therefore to be cured,
to be coerced into naturalness. Well, of course, one must begin by saying that
some very dogmatic and some very crude views of human nature had been held and
have done a great deal of damage. If you thought diabolical possession was very
important, as you did in the Middle Ages, then when people behaved in perhaps
hysterical fashion, they were beaten. They were beaten and they were maltreated
in order to drive the devils out of them. It took some time for people to realize that
perhaps the causes of such behavior, whatever they might be, were not supernatural in character,
and therefore the treatment advocated by religious persons were mere cruelty. But, at the same time, I have to say, all moral
theories, and all political theory rests on some view of human nature. In the end, it boils down to that. When you compare this morality to that morality,
this moral philosopher to that moral philosopher, or this society to that society, if you research
sufficiently, scrupulously and deeply, you will find that there is some concept of
human nature that underlies it. And there have been several concepts
which have clashed with each other. For example, in the ancient world, and in
the medieval world, the Judeo-Christian world, so to speak, and indeed the Ancient
Greek world too, it was assumed that all things had purposes. Inanimate objects, animate objects, men,
all had some kind of inbuilt purposes. If you are a theist, you believed that God
created you for a certain purpose. If you are not a theist, you talked of nature, not
necessarily as creating, but being, filled with objects with certain purposes. The great thing was to discover
what is the purpose of a stone. The purpose of a stone
is to gravitate downwards. For Aristotle, every object seeks its
natural end. And that’s called ‘teleology’. If you think everything has a proper purpose,
then you say, full realization of an object or a person is the attainment of that particular
end, and that’s what makes people happy. Why are people miserable? Because they don’t understand their ends,
and they try and do something for which they’re not adapted. I am a violin player and I try to
play the flute. That’s no good. I wish to construct a violin, I try and make
it out of stone, it will not yield, because I don’t understand the purposes of stones,
the purposes of violins, or my own purpose as a player. PIANO – Schubert’s Piano
sonata in A major (Adantino) On ABC Radio National, you’re with The Philosopher’s
Zone and we’re listening to a conversation recorded in 1974. The speakers are my former colleague, John
Merson, and the philosopher and historian of ideas, Isaiah Berlin, whose thoughts now
have turned to the Aristotelian notion of everything having its own appropriate end. And this, of course, is also the Christian idea of
a kind of hierarchy in which God is at the head and perhaps an amebae below, and there is
a whole hierarchy of beings each of which seeks to attain its own purpose and if they all attain
their purposes, they’re in harmony with each other. Disharmony arises when people wander away
from their purpose, through error, through blindness, through perversity of some sort,
through misfortune sometimes, perhaps. And then they have to be put right, adjusted,
put into their proper bracket and then it’s all right. And people like Hume who was highly empirical
still believed something not unlike that. He thought there was a nature, Mistress Nature,
Dame Nature, which always came to one’s aid when one was, in some way, distempered. Hobbes did not believe this, on the
whole. Spinoza didn’t believe it. This was a great break, the idea that things
don’t have ends. That only people who have ends are men who make things
for certain purposes. Clocks don’t have ends,
the end is imposed by me. Men don’t have inbuilt ends,
they simply seek what they seek. When they’re rational, they seek rational ends.
And if they’re irrational, they seek irrational ends. If you understand what the world is like,
you will see what is likely to accomplish your ends, what is likely to fulfill them,
and what is likely to frustrate them. But there is a terrible and complete contrast
with people think that there are objective ends built into things and men, and people
who say, ‘Things are what they are, they’re simply a mechanism, they just
exist and they are causally determined.’ And ends are things which human beings
just conceive and can abandon. Where does freedom though, where does the
sense that man is a self-actualizing entity? This is the Sartre argument, isn’t it? Well, certainly it is. That of course is what Kant is in favor of,
that’s where it comes from. It comes from Kant, Fichte, and these German philosophers
for the most part, though there were people in the ancient world, Epicurus I think, probably
thought that we were free in some way. All determinist theorists flow from the Stoics,
and all libertarian theories flow from Epicureans historically speaking. You see, the Stoics were the first people
who really saw the dilemma, the awful agony. They were the first people, who, on the one
hand, believed that there were certain things people had to do. I don’t say they called them duties, but
things which were proper for men to do, and therefore, they had to choose. On the other hand, they also believed in rigorous
causality, and they didn’t know how to get out of this. They were the first people to be in this bind. And one of them then says,
well, we can solve it this way. We can say men are involved in this, they’re
not just pushed about by external causes. If a sphere rolls down an incline, the fact
that it rolled down the incline is due not merely to the incline, but also to
the fact that it is spherical. When men act in certain ways, it isn’t only
that they’re being pushed by external causes, it is also that they have a certain character, that
they’re involved, their nature. They’re involved in it. If they’re involved in it, they’re free. Kant rejects this absolutely, said
this is a miserable subterfuge. Either you were determined or you were not. The fact you were determined by your own nervous
system or by your own emotions, or by your own desires, didn’t make you any freer. But he, and people like Sartre, certainly supposed
that this whole metaphysical notion of everything being rigorously determined, whether by empirical
causality or by some kind of metaphysical structure, was simply something which human
beings invented, at least for Sartre, in order to justify all kinds of acts which they fundamentally
suppose not to be right. Also it seems that it does justify the
structure of society as well, very nicely. If you have a hierarchy, a concept that everybody
has their place, that human nature, God, or whatever it is, history, has determined
that people will have a particular function, then you have your people at the top & your people
in graduated classes down to the very bottom. Now, this does form a very good justification
for injustice, inequalities, and things of this sort. Well, and perhaps for justice too, in some cases. But the thing is, that it’s cozier that way. If you aren’t fully responsible for your own
acts, if you can say ‘I am as I am because my parents maltreated me’, ‘I am as I am because
the nature of the universe is such’, and then you put the responsibility on the back of
the universe, and shuffle it off your own. And this, ultimately, people don’t want to
be all alone, to be lonely persons responsible for their own actions, they want some justification
for what they do, from the nature of something greater, more stable, in a way,
grander than themselves. And if they can say, ‘I fulfill the will of
God’, or ‘I fulfill the will of history’, or ‘I fulfill the will of my class’, or ‘I understand
myself to be a member of a certain economic stratum’, let us say, ‘which I didn’t choose,
but with which I’m deeply bound up, which I cannot, in a sense, help, and don’t
want to help, because that’s what I am.’ In this sense, really, the sociologists are
right to a degree, aren’t they, that in fact, many of the ideas, probably the majority of
our ideas are formed to justify, to rationalize the functions which we have in society. That is, they’re thrown up by society, they’re
not uniquely divined notions that an individual arrives at, but they are ideas which are formulated
by the society in order that the individuals will be able to act. And that the ideas come,
in a sense, after the action and don’t precede it. Well, there’s obviously much truth to this. And I don’t think it’s done consciously. I
don’t think this justifying activity is done by a lot of unscrupulous knaves who simply
throw dust in people’s eyes in order to make them do what they want them to do, although
Voltaire thought something like that. I dare say there have been cases of that. But broadly speaking, what one can
say is ideas are not born in the void. Ideas are not born of ideas. There’s
no parthenogenesis among ideas. Ideas are, to a large extent, the products
of the social process. I’d be the last person to deny that. Take for example, nationalism, which is
one of the most rampant ideas at present in the world. Who can deny? Well, this is, to a high degree, the product, for
example of, I suppose, humiliation on the part of the weak by the strong which ultimately
leads to a backlash, which ultimately leads to a kind of, what Schiller and other
people have called ‘the bent twig theory’. If you bend the twig too far, it lashes back. Well, I don’t think they’re conscious of that.
I think if you talk about nationalists, they don’t say, ‘We’ve been humiliated, we’ve been
pushed aside, we’ve not been given our place in the sun and that’s
why we feel so resentful. We are poor and we hate the rich because
we’re poor; we have been weak and that’s why we hate the strong, because we’re weak.’ They just feel these emotions, which
are undoubtedly caused in them by some kind of socio-psychological process. In a sense then, we are determined?
To a large degree. This week on The Philosopher’s Zone
we’re enjoying the boundless eloquence of Isaiah Berlin, born 100 years ago this month. He’s talking about freedom. But it’s clear
from what he says that we are in a sense determined. At what point then, do we have freedom? To begin with of course, let us admit one
thing: a lot of things which were regarded as free in the past are now seen to be conditioned
by external circumstances, and we’ve become in that sense, more enlightened, and if you like,
more forgiving in an anti-Kantian sort of way. People were blamed for doing all kinds of things
which can now be seen they probably can’t help because of bad education or
because of terrible social pressures. But is there a danger of swinging
in the other direction too far? Yes, I would say there was. Nevertheless, if you exaggerate this & make
it absolutely total, then you have a picture of totally moldable, malleable men, who can
be turned into almost anything, which is rather what the 18th century
French philosophers believed. And that really does deny any meaning
to a very large number of moral terms, which you’d then have shed. We’d have to transform our concepts and
language in very drastic ways to meet that. Take, for example,
the phrase ‘Serve him right’. For someone like Skinner,
this is a meaningless phrase. What does he mean, ‘Serve him right’? A man digs a hole for his enemy
to fall into and falls into it himself. People feel some satisfaction about this and
say, ‘Serve him right’, quite right. Poetic justice. Here is a villain who means nothing but harm
to a lot of people and one of the traps which he sets for the other people
actually catches him. Why do we feel satisfaction at this? Not just for the fact that a bad man has been
eliminated, we feel he deserves punishment. The idea of desert is a very obscure idea. If you begin talking about desert, I think
you must somewhat abandon the idea of complete determination. Desert means you could’ve acted otherwise,
in which case you would have been all right, but you chose freely to do this and that’s why
you don’t deserve to be treated in this or that way. Desert implies the possibility of free choice
as a central factor, as a central element in human experience. Action as something which
is not fully determined. The problem though is that when you have
a concept of our being determined; that is, the Skinner argument, that is, the fact we
can know that some all-knowing, omniscient psychiatrist or behavioral therapist can sort of
have us taped, that in a way we are undermined. That if society can say ‘Yes we can help you,
we can cure you of all the problems’, there is that sense in which you undermine the important
ingredient out of which freedom seems to arise, and that is autonomy. Now the question is, in a general notion of
human nature, and also in our social institutions, do you think that this concept
of autonomy is being lost? Well, in totalitarian and authoritarian
societies, of course. This is really in a way stimulated by these
doctrines, but the doctrines I think are symptomatic of an attitude that men are malleable, wholly
malleable, that they are made as they are by certain external factors, but then I can interfere
with these factors by substituting my own factors. And that I can really turn a human
being into practically anything I choose, within certain limits. And this, of course, gives enormous power
to the conditioners, and entails a high degree of not only malleability but makes it possible for
people to become victims of no doubt ill-intentioned, or mad, or power-seeking, or other
power-loving and power-using persons. That’s what of course Kant protested against.
He thought paternalism was a terrible tyranny, even when a paternalist ruler or conditioner
is very benevolent, because the implication is: ‘You don’t understand yourself. I, as a psychiatrist, do. I understand both myself and you. You understand neither yourself nor me. You resist because you don’t understand. I must therefore somehow break your resistance. I’m kindly, and I don’t propose to do this
by brutal means, but I shall do it all the same. I know what is good for you and you do not. I shall therefore make you happy, whether
you want to be happy or not, in the only way in which people can be made happy, which I
happen to know because I’ve studied the subject and I know all the factors involved. When you are happy, when I’ve finished
with you, you will respectively be grateful to me for having done to you what
at the time you resisted.’ Now, in the case of children, we do do that
a little bit. I mean, we send children to school, although they may of course resist, because
we say, ‘They must be taught to be adult, they must be able to cope with
the universe. They won’t unless I do. And when they’ve grown up,
they’ll see that I acted rightly.’ But to treat large populations as if they
were childish, as if they were un-adult, that is, of course, the
case against imperialism. A large number of imperialists were benevolently
motivated. They thought ‘Here were these poor natives, here are we, civilized people. We
can’t listen to what they want, what they want is neither here nor there,
it’s what we know is good for them. Never mind what they think.’ This does open the doors to the most fearful
tyranny, not less tyrannous because sometimes it’s used by people full of goodwill,
and full of Skinnerian conviction. To sum up then, how do you think that notions
like there being a human nature, how do you think these have formulated
the ideologies of our time? Let me make it absolutely plain. I think that rational, scientific attitudes
are entirely good. That the more we know, the better. The only way in which we can lead sane
and happy and, if you like, moral lives, is by understanding ourselves,
as well as possible. Anything which makes for self-
understanding is a good thing. But of course you can, not only misinterpret,
you can use scientific data for purposes which some of us would disapprove of. Darwin never preached Social Darwinism.
Darwin merely formulated a theory according to which certain species survived and certain species
didn’t, in accordance with certain natural laws. To apply that to human competition
and say, ‘Devil take the hindmost. The only people who are worth saving are the
toughest, the cleverest, and the most ruthless, because they are the fittest’, is a misapplication
of what was a perfectly good biological theory which didn’t dictate any particular
specific form of behavior. You might say, even if you were Darwin, there
are certain forms of life which do not make for survival, but which
nevertheless we value: Saintliness, benevolence, disinterestedness,
all kinds of extreme purity of heart, may expose the people who have it to being
crushed and eliminated by the strong, the wicked and the ruthless. Nevertheless, we wish to support these people
so long as it is possible to do so, we wish to organize society which will prevent
the pike from eating the carp. In nature, pike do eat carp, but we will create
artificial conditions in which the carp will survive, because we are pro-carp. Anyhow because we think the rights of
carp are as good as the rights of pike, and the strong mustn’t eat up the weak. This is not incompatible with anything which
we regard as being a law of biological survival. The whole doctrine of Huxley, for example,
who talked about nature being red in tooth & claw, is we must resist nature,
not cooperate with her. He wanted to deny that nature was benevolent
and meant well. He wanted to say nature was a cold, ruthless, cruel affair, so to speak,
which is not interested in individuals, it has no moral content at all. This is what goes on in the world. But to be a human being is to have certain
moral ideals in which case we must resist natural processes in the way
in which lions and tigers can’t. And therefore, what you would call ideology,
I think, can be made independent of scientific findings, although scientific findings
furnish the evidence of what you want to do. Goals are not provided by science. Goals are not provided by science, no matter
what some people would have you think. Some of the humanistic wisdom of Isaiah Berlin,
talking in 1974 to the ABC’s John Merson. And if you want to hear that again, you can
find it and transcripts, and our audio archive on our website. PIANO – Schubert’s Piano sonata in
A major (Adantino) By the way, Isaiah Berlin loved music. In an interview two years before his death
he said that he would like the Adantino from Schubert’s Piano Sonata in A played at his
funeral, and provided the music for this week’s show. And that show was produced by Kyla Slaven,
with technical production from Charlie McKune. I’m Alan Saunders, I’ll be back next week.

10 thoughts on “Isaiah Berlin Interview on Freedom (1974)

  • Isaiah Berlin was, in my humble opinion, one of the greatest thinkers of the twentieth century. I love reading his work: he never sacrificed his humanity for an intellectual idea. Human dignity was the centre of his work.

  • We wish to organize society which will prevent the pike from eating the carp. In nature, pike do eat carp, but we will create artificial conditions in which the carp will survive, because we’re pro-carp. Anyhow because we think the rights of carp are as good as the rights of pike and the strong mustn’t eat up the weak.

  • After listening to this recording, I can decipher as to why Pakistan is such a poor nation and pathetic in terms of economic development. Because we Pakistani's seek irrational ends.
    This man is a brilliant man! …he is the most outstanding philosopher of the post-war period alongside with A.J. Ayer.

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