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Isaiah Berlin – Philosophy, Liberty and EthicsIsaiah Berlin – Philosophy, Liberty and Ethics


Isaiah Berlin (1909-1997)


Russian-born British philosopher famous for his two concepts of liberty (see point one below).


What did he say about philosophy, liberty and ethics?


1. Two concepts of liberty

Positive and negative liberty are necessary for a free and civilized society:

Isaiah Berlin – Philosophy, Liberty and Ethics


a) positive liberty 

Self-mastery i.e. having the opportunity and capacity to:

  • make the best of your potential.
  • do what you really want to do.

This means having the freedom to:

  • decide your aims 
  • make your own decisions and choices.

So liberty isn’t paternalism, when people tell you what to do for your own good.


b) negative liberty

Freedom from the interference and coercion of others.

So social ills like poverty and ignorance only reduce people’s freedom, if they are caused by someone else.

Isaiah Berlin – Philosophy, Liberty and Ethics 

2. Values are vital but lead to moral conflicts

Berlin supported “value pluralism” i.e. you must have certain values to be the best possible person.

Values include:

  • liberty.
  • the pursuit of truth.

Conflicts in these values are unfortunate but inevitable


In conflicts between values of equal importance (e.g. liberty and social justice), solutions to moral problems are not clear-cut and must be decided by your ideals.

 Isaiah Berlin – Philosophy, Liberty and Ethics

3. The hedgehog and the fox

This is the title of Berlin’s famous 1953 article.

This says that thinkers can be divided up into:

a) hedgehogs 

(who are dominated by one idea like Plato’s, pictured right below, Theory of Forms).

b) foxes

(whose work is a mixture of several different, sometimes contradictory, ideas).

 Isaiah Berlin – Philosophy, Liberty and Ethics


Key quote on obectives and vision

Men do not live only by fighting evils. They live by positive goals, individual and collective.


Key quote on economics

To be free to choose, and not to be chosen for, is an inalienable ingredient in what makes human beings human.


Key quote on freedom

Freedom is the opportunity to act, not action itself.

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