Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Max Weber on Value Conflicts: Better than Berlin

The sociologist Max Weber had some important things to say about value conflict and value pluralism, that is the inevitably of many ethical values and conflicts between them. Go here and here for Weber texts online.

The issue of value pluralism and value conflicts within liberalism is often discussed with reference to Isaiah Berlin. Weber’s discussion is more penetrating and deserves to be discussed more. First some clearing of the ground about Berlin’s limitations.

Isaiah Berlin was a distinguished figure in history of ideas, but I can’t really take him very seriously as a thinker about values. His most famous essay in this area, ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’ is much cited, but does not strike me as a very good essay. It gives very little sense of the real richness of the ideas of political and individual liberty, personal and social growth, in the period he is discussing. A book like Freedom and Its Betrayal: Six Enemies of Human Liberty is based on an extremely dubious premiss, that discussions about liberty can be reduced to football teams of enemies and friends. The ‘enemies’ in question are Helvétius, Rousseau, Fichte, Hegel, Saint-Simon, Maistre. 6 very different cases, and maybe none of them are completely innocent of arguments which are bad for liberty, but then who is completely innocent? Certainly Hegel has been rehabilitated by people with political views similar to Berlin, that is left-liberal/social democratic. Some notable French liberals (of a kind similar to Berlin) were members of a Saint-Simon Foundation in France from 1982-99. And so on. Berlin’s numerous contacts and connections, his clear style, impressive personal culture, fame outside scholarly circles, and delightful personality had the unfortunate consequence that simplified versions of the most simplistic elements of his thought have become widespread still, even after becoming at least partly discredited. The irony is that these simplifications have become common place amongst conservative commentators and the more absolutist and more simple minded free market libertarians, who find it helpful to resort to easy oppositions between ‘liberty lovers’ and their supposed enemies.

Back to Weber, who really should be more discussed as a political thinker. There are books and articles around, but not enough in comparison to references to Berlin. However, I am pleased to see that Berlin’s major defender JohnGray has alluded to the importance of Weber, in a recent newspaper review. Max Weber recognised that politics is caught between its more ideal claims and the pursuit of power. Weber also recognised that this is not a question of ethics versus power. The pursuit of an ideal must include the pursuit of the power to implement that ideas. We cannot tidily separate these two activities, even if we can introduce a conceptual distinction. An ethical perspective on a politician must include respect for the willingness to deal with power, and not be just an idealising spectator.

Weber also recognised that this kind of innate value conflict, within the pursuit of a value, is part of the innate value attaching to conflict. There is something deeply valuable about individuals, and groups struggling for their ideal and perspective. Weber was very willing to recognise the value of people he did not agree with engaging in very passionate struggle for their values, e.g. socialists and trade unionists. What Weber feared was that an economic system based on diverse individual initiative, capitalism, and a political system based on the same principles, liberalism, was decaying into conformity inducing bureaucratic states, a and private corporations allying with the state and seeking to stifle competition.

The liberty and strength of the economy, society, and politics, rests on the struggles for values. Struggles which can be defined in less ideal ways as well, but that does not detract from the importance of struggle between different value. It embeds the struggle more deeply. The free individual contains the struggle within, in this tension between abstract ideals and the power to implement ideals. The individual with the deepest calling for politics contains this struggle, and makes it evident, mobilising support for a position through a personal power of persuasion, which can never be purely rational but is not inherently contradictory with reason. Weber’s thoughts on leadership are widely misunderstood. He gave a positive value to persuasion through charisma, through the power of personal style. He thought that this was exemplified by 19th century liberal leaders like Gladstone and Lincoln, operating through democracy, and that this was necessary to the survival of democracy, if it was not going to sink into bureaucratic routine.

Rational bureaucracy is necessary in state and corporation, but the liberal state and the capitalist corporation will weaken if they do not find the means to promote individuality, and the exceptional leader has a necessary role here in enacting and performing strong independent character. The necessary components of depersonalised rules and reason, personal charisma and distinctness of character, along with tradition are conflicting and necessary components of a world of democracy and liberty. Liberty does not just rest on reasoned disputes about liberty equality, law and so on, but on deep conflict within society and inside personalities.

From Weber’s point of view, it is much easier to understand why a Hegel for emphasises the value of the coherence of laws and institutions in the state, a Saint-Simon who emphasised ‘scientific’ state administration, a Rousseau who emphasised the importance of a common political sphere, are not the ‘enemies’ of liberty. Parts of their thought tend away from individualist liberalism, and that leads to some problems to my mind. But, only an adherent of anarcho-capitalism or possibly a purely nightwatchman state, could reject those elements which tend away from pure individual freedom. At some point, the existence of laws and institutions, and some shared values, must restrain pure absolutist individualism. Even anarchism and minarchism cannot escape that dilemma, though it is a necessary aspect of such positions, to try to ignore or abolish it.

Original version of this post at Barry Stocker's Weblog.

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