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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Moral conflict, tragedy and political action in Isaiah Berlin's political thought Drugge, Oskar Daniel


A persistent question in political theory concerns how we ought to make sense of moral conflict. How we conceptualize moral conflict affects not only how we view and respond to opposition, dissent and disagreement, but also how we navigate and confront the moral dilemmas with which political life confronts us – be it how to balance the potentially conflicting claims of rights and utility, or how to distribute scarce resources. A prominent, if contested, account of the moral dimension of political life is the theory of value pluralism developed by Isaiah Berlin, which posits that the sources of value are fragmented, generating values and moral principles that are often both incompatible and incommensurable. Through a careful engagement with the political thought of Berlin, this dissertation examines what value pluralism entails for how we conceptualize moral conflict and what it means for how we think about political action and judgment. It develops an interpretation of Berlin’s account of moral conflict and tragedy, his critique of monist, relativist and subjectivist accounts of value, as well as an account of his political ethic. This dissertation argues that value pluralism gives us a more compelling account of moral conflict than rival theories. It avoids the reductionism of monist accounts of value and avoids the conceptual (and moral) problems that plague relativist and subjectivist accounts of moral conflict. More importantly, value pluralism, it argues, helps us develop an approach to politics and political action – a political ethic, in short – that is better able to navigate moral dilemmas in a way that is consistent with our moral experience. It avoids introducing the kind of problematic incentives for political action and judgment that plague rival accounts of value. Conceiving moral conflict in tragic terms, as Berlin insists, gives us reason to confront normative questions from a more grounded, context-sensitive, perspective. It also helps us think more productively about political disagreement and compromise.

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