On Human Dignity

By

This letter was written in response to an appreciative letter from
George Kennan about Berlin's essay "Political Ideas in the Twentieth
Century," which appeared in the "mid-century issue" of Foreign
Affairs in 1950. The essay is one of the important documents of
twentieth-century liberalism. It was reprinted in 1969 in Four
Essays on Liberty, where Berlin commented in a note about the
journal in which it was originally published that "its tone was to
some extent due to the policies of the Soviet regime during Stalin's
last years. Since then a modification of the worst excesses of that
dictatorship has fortunately taken place; but the general tendency
with which the issue was concerned seems to me, if anything, to
have gained, if not in intensity, then in extent: some of the new
national states of Asia and Africa seem to show no greater concern
for civil liberties, even allowing for the exigencies of security
and planning which these states need for their development and
survival, than the regimes they have replaced."New College, Oxford

13 February 1951

Dear George,

I have ill rewarded your wonderful letter by leaving it so long
unanswered. I received it towards the end of term here when I was
genuinely worn out by teaching and examining, and scarcely capable
of taking anything in, but even then it moved me profoundly. I took
it off with me to Italy and read it and re- read it, and kept
putting off the day on which I would write an answer worthy of it,
but no such day ever came. I began many letters but each seemed
trivial, and what the Russians call suetlivo ["in a fussy or
bustling manner"]--full of hurrying sentences, scattered and moving
in all directions at once, inappropriate either to the theme or to
your words about it; but I cannot bear (if only because of the
feelings which your letter excited in me) to say nothing merely
because I am not sure how much I have to say. So you must forgive
me if what I write is chaotic, not merely in form but in substance,
and does little justice to your thesis. I shall simply go on and
hope for the best, and beg you to pardon me if I am wasting your
time.

I must begin by saying that you have put in words something which I
believe not only to be the centre of the subject but something
which, perhaps because of a certain reluctance to face the
fundamental moral issue on which everything turns, I failed to say;
but once forced to face it, I realise both that it is craven to
sail round it as I have done, and moreover that it is, in fact,
what I myself believe, and deeply believe, to be true; and more
than this: that upon one's attitude to this issue, which you have
put very plainly, and very, if I may say so, poignantly, depends
one's entire moral outlook, i.e. everything one believes.

Let me try and say what I think it is; you say (and I am not
quoting) that every man possesses a point of weakness, an Achilles'
heel, and by exploiting this a man may be made a hero or a martyr
or a rag. Again, if I understand you correctly, you think that
Western civilisation has rested upon the principle that, whatever
else was permitted or forbidden, the one heinous act which would
destroy the world was to do precisely this--the deliberate act of
tampering with human beings so as to make them behave in a way
which, if they knew what they were doing, or what its consequences
were likely to be, would make them recoil with horror and disgust.
The whole of the Kantian morality (and I don't know about
Catholics, but Protestants, Jews, Muslims and high-minded atheists
believe it) lies in this; the mysterious phrase about men being
"ends in themselves," to which much lip-service has been paid, with
not much attempt to explain it, seems to lie in this: that every
human being is assumed to possess the capacity to choose what to
do, and what to be, however narrow the limits within which his
choice may lie, however hemmed in by circumstances beyond his
control; that all human love and respect rests upon the attribution
of conscious motives in this sense; that all the categories, the
concepts, in terms of which we think about and act towards one
another--goodness, badness, integrity and lack of it, the
attribution of dignity or honour to others which we must not insult
or exploit, the entire cluster of ideas such as honesty, purity of
motive, courage, sense of truth, sensibility, compassion, justice;
and, on the other side, brutality, falseness, wickedness,
ruthlessness, lack of scruple, corruption, lack of feelings,
emptiness--all these notions in terms of which we think of others
and ourselves, in terms of which conduct is assessed, purposes
adopted--all this becomes meaningless unless we think of human
beings as capable of pursuing ends for their own sakes by
deliberate acts of choice-- which alone makes nobility noble and
sacrifices sacrifices.

The whole of that morality, which is most prominent in the
nineteenth century, in particular in the romantic period, but
implicit in both Christian and Jewish writings, and far less
present in the pagan world, rests on the view that it is a
marvellous thing in itself when a man pits himself against the
world, and sacrifices himself to an ideal without reckoning the
consequences, even when we consider his ideal false and its
consequences disastrous. We admire purity of motive as such, and
think it a wonderful thing--or at any rate deeply impressive,
perhaps to be fought but never despised--when somebody throws away
material advantage, reputation etc. for the sake of bearing witness
to something which he believes to be true, however mistaken and
fanatical we may think him to be. I do not say that we worship
passionate self-abandonment or automatically prefer a desperate
fanaticism to moderation and enlightened self-interest. Of course
not; yet nevertheless we do think such conduct deeply moving, even
when misdirected. We admire it always more than calculation; we at
least understand the kind of aesthetic splendour which all defiance
has for some people--Carlyle, Nietzsche, Leontiev [Konstantin
Nikolaevich Leontiev, nineteenth-century Russian philosopher and
critic] and Fascists generally. We think that only those human
beings are a credit to their kind who do not let themselves be
pushed too far by the forces of nature or history, either passively
or by glorying in their own impotence; and we idealise only those
who have purposes for which they accept responsibility, on which
they stake something, and at times everything; living consciously
and bravely for whatever they think good, i.e. worth living and, in
the last resort, dying for.

All this may seem an enormous platitude, but, if it is true, this
is, of course, what ultimately refutes utilitarianism and what
makes Hegel and Marx such monstrous traitors to our civilisation.
When, in the famous passage, Ivan Karamazov rejects the worlds upon
worlds of happiness which may be bought at the price of the torture
to death of one innocent child, what can utilitarians, even the
most civilised and humane, say to him? After all, it is in a sense
unreasonable to throw away so much human bliss purchased at so small
a price as one--only one--innocent victim, done to death however
horribly--what after all is one soul against the happiness of so
many? Nevertheless, when Ivan says he would rather return the
ticket, no reader of Dostoevsky thinks this cold- hearted or mad or
irresponsible; and although a long course of Bentham or Hegel might
turn one into a supporter of the Grand Inquisitor, qualms remain.

Ivan Karamazov cannot be totally exorcised; he speaks for us all,
and this I take to be your point, and the foundation of your
optimism. What I take you to say, and what I should have said
myself if I had had the wit or the depth, is that the one thing
which no utilitarian paradise, no promise of eternal harmony in the
future within some vast organic whole will make us accept is the use
of human beings as mere means--the doctoring of them until they are
made to do what they do, not for the sake of the purposes which are
their purposes, fulfilment of hopes which however foolish or
desperate are at least their own, but for reasons which only we,
the manipulators, who freely twist them for our purposes, can
understand. What horrifies one about Soviet or Nazi practice is not
merely the suffering and the cruelty, since although that is bad
enough, it is something which history has produced too often, and
to ignore its apparent inevitability is perhaps real
Utopianism--no; what turns one inside out, and is indescribable, is
the spectacle of one set of persons who so tamper and "get at"
others that the others do their will without knowing what they are
doing; and in this lose their status as free human beings, indeed
as human beings at all.

When armies were slaughtered by other armies in the course of
history, we might be appalled by the carnage and turn pacifist; but
our horror acquires a new dimension when we read about children, or
for that matter grown-up men and women, whom the Nazis loaded into
trains bound for gas chambers, telling them that they were going to
emigrate to some happier place. Why does this deception, which may
in fact have diminished the anguish of the victims, arouse a really
unutterable kind of horror in us? The spectacle, I mean, of the
victims marching off in happy ignorance of their doom amid the
smiling faces of their tormentors? Surely because we cannot bear
the thought of human beings denied their last rights--of knowing
the truth, of acting with at least the freedom of the condemned, of
being able to face their destruction with fear or courage,
according to their temperaments, but at least as human beings, armed
with the power of choice. It is the denial to human beings of the
possibility of choice, the getting them into one's power, the
twisting them this way and that in accordance with one's whim, the
destruction of their personality by creating unequal moral terms
between the gaoler and the victim, whereby the gaoler knows what he
is doing, and why, and plays upon the victim, i.e. treats him as a
mere object and not as a subject whose motives, views, intentions
have any intrinsic weight whatever--by destroying the very
possibility of his having views, notions of a relevant kind--that
is what cannot be borne at all.

What else horrifies us about unscrupulousness if not this? Why is
the thought of someone twisting someone else round his little
finger, even in innocent contexts, so beastly (for instance in
Dostoevsky's Dyadyushkin son [Uncle's Dream, a novella published in
1859], which the Moscow Arts Theatre used to act so well and so
cruelly)? After all, the victim may prefer to have no
responsibility; the slave be happier in his slavery. Certainly we do
not detest this kind of destruction of liberty merely because it
denies liberty of action; there is a far greater horror in
depriving men of the very capacity for freedom--that is the real
sin against the Holy Ghost. Everything else is bearable so long as
the possibility of goodness--of a state of affairs in which men
freely choose, disinterestedly seek ends for their own sake--is
still open, however much suffering they may have gone through.
Their souls are destroyed only when this is no longer possible. It
is when the desire for choice is broken that what men do thereby
loses all moral value, and actions lose all significance (in terms
of good and evil) in their own eyes; that is what is meant by
destroying people's self-respect, by turning them, in your words,
into rags. This is the ultimate horror because in such a situation
there are no worthwhile motives left: nothing is worth doing or
avoiding, the reasons for existing are gone. We admire Don Quixote,
if we do, because he has a pure- hearted desire to do what is good,
and he is pathetic because he is mad and his attempts are
ludicrous.

For Hegel and for Marx (and possibly for Bentham, although he would
have been horrified by the juxtaposition) Don Quixote is not merely
absurd but immoral. Morality consists in doing what is good.
Goodness is that which will satisfy one's nature. Only that will
satisfy one's nature which is part of the historical stream along
which one is carried willy-nilly, i.e. that which "the future" in
any case holds in store. In some ultimate sense, failure is proof
of a misunderstanding of history, of having chosen what is doomed
to destruction, in preference to that which is destined to succeed.
But to choose the former is "irrational," and since morality is
rational choice, to seek that which will not come off is immoral.
This doctrine that the moral and the good is the successful, and
that failure is not only unfortunate but wicked, is at the heart of
all that is most horrifying both in utilitarianism and in
"historicism" of the Hegelian, Marxist type. For if only that were
best which made one happiest in the long run, or that which
accorded with some mysterious plan of history, there really would
be no reason to "return the ticket." Provided that there was a
reasonable probability that the new Soviet man might either be
happier, even in some very long run, than his predecessors, or that
history would be bound sooner or later to produce someone like him
whether we liked it or not, to protest against him would be mere
silly romanticism, "subjective," "idealistic," ultimately
irresponsible. At most we would argue that the Russians were
factually wrong and the Soviet method not the best for producing
this desirable or inevitable type of man. But of course what we
violently reject is not these questions of fact, but the very idea
that there are any circumstances in which one has a right to get
at, and shape, the characters and souls of other men for purposes
which these men, if they realised what we were doing, might
reject.

We distinguish to this extent between factual and value
judgement--that we deny the right to tamper with human beings to an
unlimited extent, whatever the truth about the laws of history; we
might go further and deny the notion that "history" in some
mysterious way "confers" upon us "rights" to do this or that; that
some men or bodies of men can morally claim a right to our
obedience because they, in some sense, carry out the behests of
"history," are its chosen instrument, its medicine or scourge or in
some important sense "Welthistorisch"- -great, irresistible,
riding the waves of the future, beyond our petty, subjective, not
rationally bolsterable ideas of right and wrong. Many a German and
I daresay many a Russian or Mongol or Chinese today feels that it is
more adult to recognise the sheer immensity of the great events
that shake the world, and play a part in history worthy of men by
abandoning themselves to them, than by praising or damning and
indulging in bourgeois moralisings: the notion that history must be
applauded as such is the horrible German way out of the burden of
moral choice.

If pushed to the extreme, this doctrine would, of course, do away
with all education, since when we send children to school or
influence them in other ways without obtaining their approval for
what we are doing, are we not "tampering" with them, "moulding"
them like pieces of clay with no purpose of their own? Our answer
has to be that certainly all "moulding" is evil, and that if human
beings at birth had the power of choice and the means of
understanding the world, it would be criminal; since they have not,
we temporarily enslave them, for fear that, otherwise, they will
suffer worse misfortunes from nature and from men, and this
"temporary enslavement" is a necessary evil until such time as they
are able to choose for themselves--the "enslavement" having as its
purpose not an inculcation of obedience but its contrary, the
development of power of free judgement and choice; still, evil it
remains, even if necessary.

Communists and Fascists maintain that this kind of "education" is
needed not only for children but for entire nations for long
periods, the slow withering away of the State corresponding to
immaturity in the lives of individuals. The analogy is specious
because peoples, nations are not individuals and still less
children; moreover in promising maturity their practice belies
their professions; that is to say, they are lying, and for the most
part know that they are. From a necessary evil in the case of the
education of helpless children, this kind of practice becomes an
evil on a much larger scale, and quite gratuitous, based either on
utilitarianism, which misrepresents our moral values, or again on
metaphors which misdescribe both what we call good and bad, and the
nature of the world, the facts themselves. For we, i.e. those who
join with us, are more concerned with making people free than
making them happy; we would rather that they chose badly than not
at all; because we believe that unless they choose they cannot be
either happy or unhappy in any sense in which these conditions are
worth having; the very notion of "worth having" presupposes the
choice of ends, a system of free preferences; and an undermining of
them is what strikes us with such cold terror, worse than the most
unjust sufferings, which nevertheless leave the possibility of
knowing them for what they are--of free judgement, which makes it
possible to condemn them--still open.

You say that men who in this way undermine the lives of other men
will end by undermining themselves, and the whole evil system is
therefore doomed to collapse. In the long run I am sure you are
right, because open-eyed cynicism, the exploitation of others by
men who avoid being exploited themselves, is an attitude difficult
for human beings to keep up for very long. It needs too much
discipline and appalling strain in an atmosphere of such mutual
hatred and distrust as cannot last because there is not enough
moral intensity or general fanaticism to keep it going. But still
the run can be very long before it is over, and I do not believe
that the corrosive force from inside will work away at the rate
which perhaps you, more hopefully, anticipate. I feel that we must
avoid being inverted Marxists. Marx and Hegel observed the economic
corrosion in their lifetime, and so the revolution seemed to be
always round the corner. They died without seeing it, and perhaps
it would have taken centuries if Lenin had not given history a
sharp jolt. Without the jolt, are moral forces alone sufficient to
bury the Soviet grave-diggers? I doubt it. But that in the end the
worm would eat them I doubt no more than you; but whereas you say
that is an isolated evil, a monstrous scourge sent to try us, not
connected with what goes on elsewhere, I cannot help seeing it as
an extreme and distorted but only too typical form of some general
attitude of mind from which our own countries are not exempt.

For saying this, E.H. Carr has attacked me with some violence, in a
leading article in The Times Literary Supplement last June. This
makes me believe I must be even more right than I thought, since
his writings are among the more obvious symptoms of what I tried to
analyse, and he rightly interprets my articles as an attack on all
he stands for. All this comes out particularly in his last
oeuvre--on the Russian Revolution--in which the opposition and the
victims are not allowed to testify--feeble flotsam adequately taken
care of by history, which has swept them away as, being against the
current, they, eo ipso, deserve. Only the victors deserve to be
heard; the rest--Pascal, Pierre Bezukhov, all Chekhov's people, all
the critics and casualties of Deutschtum or White Man's Burdens, or
the American Century, or the Common Man on the March-- these are
historical dust, lishnye lyudi ["superfluous men," in Turgenev's
and Dostoevsky's term], those who have missed the bus of history,
poor little rats inferior to Ibsenite rebels who are all potential
Catilines and dictators. Surely there never was a time when more
homage was paid to bullies as such: and the weaker the victim the
louder (and sincerer) his paeans--vide E.H. Carr, Koestler,
Burnham, Laski, passim? But I must not waste your time any further.

Once more I should like to say how deeply moved I was by your
formulation of what it is that excites in us the unparalleled
horror which we feel when we read of what goes on in Soviet
territories, and to convey my admiration and unbounded moral
respect for the insight and scruple with which you set it forth.
These qualities seem to me unique at present; more than this I
cannot say.

Yours ever,

Isaiah

The Isaiah Berlin Literary Trust 2002

By Isaiah Berlin

Loading Related Articles...
Article Tools
SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS

You must be a subscriber to post comments. Subscribe today.