by Hans Blokland

We need to talk. We need to talk about fundamental concepts like democracy, ethical and political pluralism, tolerance, equality and freedom, concepts that many consider as constitutive for the European identity. We need to talk with those Europeans that see the values concerned endangered by, often Islamic, refugees and immigrants. These natives are now voting for extreme right wing populist parties, are marching the streets to protest against an “Untergang des Abendlandes” and are attacking refugee homes, all activities seemingly at odds with the very same values believed to be in jeopardy. And we need to talk with the refugees and immigrants that supposedly do not share our fundamental ideas on the aforementioned concepts, and who are supposed to radicalize because of failed integration. Maybe we should talk together.

Social integration and cohesion, whether it concerns natives or newcomers, strongly depend on social, economic and cultural factors. Excessive social inequality, for instance, endangers the stability or development of any integrated, cohesive society. Ideas play a role by themselves, though, motivate people to move in specific directions. When moving, they always clothe themselves in ideas anyway, ideas considered to justify the direction they have taken (Berlin 1958). Consequently, either way, it is important to discuss ideas. But are we able to discuss normative ideas, especially with representatives of other cultures? Or have we lost our abilities to do so, under the influence of rationalization, relativism and postmodernism (Blokland 2006)?

Let us try to analyze the concepts that are relevant here, and their interrelationships: democracy, pluralism, deliberation, tolerance. How do we develop a normative argumentation with regard to these concepts?


Democracy and ethical pluralism

Democracy can be justified by referring to different human conditions and the values attached to these conditions. Some are tempted to search for ultimate, final values – freedom, equality, solidarity – that would form the foundation for the idea of democracy, a foundation unambiguous and straightforward and maybe even objective, universal, timeless. This reductionism is seldom fruitful. The implicit assumption often seems to be the existence of a cognizable cosmic order where all the real questions, also with respect to ethics, can only have one right answer, where all the right answers can be united in one coherent, consistent and pyramidal system and where everything that is ‘good’ goes together, smoothly and naturally. When such an order would exist, though, we would not need any democracy. A philosopher-king who knows and implements the truth could do the job.

A more accurate description of our human condition probably is that there is a wide variety of values and goals all worth dying for but that, unfortunately, these values and goals often clash and consequently have to be balanced (cf. Berlin 1958, 1962; Blokland 1997, 1999, 2011). In a political context we do this via all sorts of deliberation.

How we weigh up different values depends on the circumstances and the set of values relevant for these circumstances. We also do not weigh up values in the abstract, but always in relation to the costs of realizing them, the costs of realizing connected values, and the consequences of their realization for other values (cf. Brecht 1959, Lindblom 1959, 1963). Hence, the value of negative freedom – the ability to do or to be what one is able to do or to be without the interference of others – is probably ranked higher in a totalitarian state than in a stable open democracy. And when we need to balance this dimension of freedom with equality, personal autonomy, positive political freedom (the collective ability to direct social development), companionship, distributive justice, nonviolence or peace, et cetera, we will do this differently in North-Korea, Syria or Iraq  than in Germany, France or the USA.

Furthermore, although many of us would like to live a life that is incredibly adventurous or epic and at the same time incredibly secure or sheltered, we know that we need to strike a balance. We also know that the relative costs of achieving more security and shelter increase disproportionally the more secure and sheltered we are.

Also because of the need to balance values according to the circumstances, the formulation of a theory about, for instance, democracy that is not empirically informed and contextualized, is a sterile enterprise without much political relevance. Bringing Dutch-style democracy to contemporary Afghanistan does not work, no matter how many bombs we drop.


Pluralism versus relativism

Ethical pluralism is something different than value relativism or cultural relativism. Cultural relativism is the belief that all cultures are unique and can only be understood and evaluated from the inside. Within a particular culture one can have ‘rational’ arguments about values, values considered as important, ‘natural’, or even ‘objective’ by the participants of these arguments. But not so between representatives of different cultures: they miss a common ground on the basis of which shared conclusions can be reached.

Cultural relativism is not only widespread among broadminded, tolerant, western liberals. Despots like this standpoint too: “do not bother us with this arrogant, western, ethnocentric talk on human rights and all that, within our unique culture we happen to see things differently”.

Value or ethical relativism is the conviction that values are incomparable and often incommensurable. Values are simply given and in no need of any justification. They justify everything else and are in a certain way ‘brute facts’. Since there does not exist an objective, universal standard to decide on the relative importance, weight or ‘truth’ of a particular value there is also no hierarchy of values. When a choice has to be made between two incomparable and incommensurable fundamental values we do this in a ‘radical’, non-rational way. We just go for it. Thus, when somebody wants to die for the value ‘heroism’, there is nothing we can say. Rational discussions about (the relative importance of) values are in the end impossible and useless. What remains are conflicts of interest and these conflicts are decided by power. Democracy is a functional rational method to prevent these conflicts from becoming overly violent (cf. Schumpeter 1942). There is no normative justification why the prevention of a war of all against all is important, we just don’t like “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” lives.

Value relativism is the death of democracy, deliberation and tolerance. It is ethical pluralism that forms the foundation of democracy, deliberation and tolerance. Value relativists are not able to give a justification of democracy itself. A civil war can also be prevented by an enlightened king. All the deliberative institutions that come with democracy – freedom of speech, freedom of association, parliaments, free press, elections, etc. – assume the possibility to have a rational discussion about values.


Rationally discussing values

What makes up a rational discussion on values? Having particular values, first of all, is not a pure coincidence. They are an expression of what we consider to be inherent to the human condition, of what we consider to be essential to human life. That explains why there is a single set of values recognizable for different people in different times and different cultures. That explains why we can understand these people and their cultural products, even when their culture vanished thousands of years ago. They might have balanced conflicting values in different ways, but the conflict we recognize, empathize and understand, as are the values that need to be balanced. There is a limit to the variety of values we can imagine, there is a minimum of values that we share as human beings (Blokland 1999).

In his famous essay Does political theory still exist? Isaiah Berlin cogently states that we can only comprehend the concept ‘man’ in terms of categories like good and evil, right and wrong, freedom and coercion, happiness and misfortune, and that it would therefore be rather eccentric and also inimitable to dub someone as a human being but to simultaneously add that notions such as justice, truth, freedom, hope and fear have no significance for him. Accordingly, some values are inextricably entwined with the concept of ‘man’. Berlin writes:

… if I find a man to whom it literally makes no difference whether he kicks a pebble or kills his family, since either would be an antidote to ennui or inactivi­ty, I shall not be disposed, like consistent relativists to attribute to him merely a different code of morality from my own or that of most men but shall begin to speak of insanity and in­humanity; I shall be inclined to consider him mad, as a man who thinks he is Napoleon is mad; which is a way of saying that I do not regard such a being as being fully a man at all. It is cases of this kind, which seem to make clear that ability to recognize universal – or almost universal – values enters into our analysis of such fundamental concepts as ‘man’, ‘ratio­nal’, ‘sane’, ‘natural’, etc. (…) that lie at the basis of modern translations into empirical terms of the kernel of truth in the old a priori natural law tradition” (Berlin 1962: 166)

Darren Johson Picture
Where do these values originate? We do not know, but it is also not really necessary to answer this question. Maybe a God created them, maybe biology and natural selection is the source. Fact is, these values exist. Their existence we all experience. We all struggle with their clashes and the needed balances. And we can build on that. When we discuss values we refer to values and conflicts we all recognize.

Moreover, values hang together, are connected, in different configurations in different circumstances. A justification of a particular value consists of references to the other values relevant for the particular case or situation. One does not look for an ultimate value behind the value that has to be justified, instead one shows in which ways conflicting values have been balanced, how other relevant values are connected and are respected or fulfilled by fulfilling the value that has to be justified, why the costs of realizing the value are tolerable or reasonable compared to the costs of realizing other significant values. These argumentation are rational, not in the sense of ‘logical’ (when A then always and inescapably B), but in the sense of giving reasons, reasons that are explicable, explainable, understandable, debatable, coherent, consistent.

Are there in practice limits to the abilities of people to discuss their values? Without any doubt. People, studies show, turn out only to be prepared and to be able to openly discuss their inner convictions, to accept the existence of different views and of complexity, to accept the better argument, when they feel safe and respected. Furthermore, the ability to feel safe and respected is formed early in life and depends on the existence of a secure, stable, warm environment consisting of many trustworthy ‘significant others’. The lack of this during childhood is very difficult to repair via education, deliberation or big structures and big processes. An insight not sexy, maybe, but what can we do about it? This does not mean that we should give up on creating big structures which offer more opportunities for the Good life and, especially, the Good childhood. Nor does it mean that we should give up on deliberation. On the contrary. We simply do not have another option.


Tolerance and indifference

Tolerance is often confused with indifference. Tolerance means that you have your own balanced set of values and that you comprehend that somebody else came to a different balance. You do not agree, but you do understand where the different evaluation comes from and you respect this evaluation. It is about empathy. Indifference is something else, but often taken as tolerance. Somebody who is indifferent will probably hardly have thought through any set of values, not of his own and certainly not of others. He just does not care. For him every standpoint is ‘relative’ and without solid justification, so why would he bother to think about values?

Unfortunately, these people will not always stay indifferent or ‘tolerant’: because of the lack of a moral compass, because of the lack of thought through inner convictions, they suddenly and unexpectedly can become extremely intolerant towards immigrants, Islamite’s, social-democrats or whatever. That is why it is dangerous when societies or political cultures out of fear of disagreements abstain too long from discussing their fundamental values. That is why the postmodernist culture of the eighties and nineties, dominant in a country like the Netherlands, is partly responsible for preparing the ground for right-wing populist as Geert Wilders (Blokland 2012).

Intolerance towards intolerance is often interpreted as intolerance. However, many people who do not want Nazis or Stalinists to educate their children, hold public office or hold public demonstrations are not intolerant, they simply take tolerance much more serious than those who do not care. As said, the truth of democracy is that there is a wide variety of significant values and goals but that, unfortunately, these values and goals often clash and consequently have to be balanced. Tolerance for groups that deny this truth and that want to install a permanent, irreversible regime that only tolerates one universal monistic truth, is not tolerance, but intolerance towards tolerance. Therefore, in a democracy fascist groups striving for the overturn of democracy should be outlawed. One can have all kinds of (valid) functional rational reasons not to do so – “when they get underground we do not know anymore what is going on”, etc. – but this does not resolve the fundamental inconsistency.

Democracy, ethical pluralism and deliberation are closely connected with ‘tolerance’. Value relativism is not. Democracy is also not related to indifference: allowing everyone to mind just her own business. Democratic tolerance can only survive when people actively think about the ‘business’ of other people. If necessary, they should be forced to do so.



Berlin, Isaiah. 1958. Two Concepts of Liberty. In: Four Essays on Liberty. Oxford, Oxford University Press. 1984

Berlin, Isaiah. 1962. Does political theory still exist? In: Concepts & Categories. Oxford, Oxford University Press. 1980

Blokland, Hans. 1997. Freedom and Culture in Western  Society, London & New York: Routledge.

Blokland, Hans. 1999. ‘Isaiah Berlin on liberalism and pluralism: a defense’, The European Legacy: Toward New Paradigms; Journal of the International Society for the Study of European Ideas, Vol.4, Nr.4, p.1-24.

Blokland, Hans. 2006. Modernization and its Political Consequences; Weber, Mannheim and Schumpeter, New Haven & London: Yale University Press.

Blokland, Hans. 2011. Pluralism, Democracy and Political Knowledge. Burlington (VT): Ashgate

Blokland, Hans. 2012. ‘Nederlands cultuurpolitiek drama‘ (A Dutch cultural-political tragedy), Socialisme & Democratie, Vol.69, No.4, pp.9-24. Also published in Civis Mundi, January 2012.

Brecht, Arnold. 1959. Political Theory: The Foundations of Twentieth-century Political Thought, Princeton, New Jersey, Prince­ton University Press

Lindblom, Charles E. 1959. The science of muddling through. Public Administration Review, Vol.19, No.1, 79-88.

Lindblom, Charles E. and David Braybrooke. 1963. A Strategy of Decision: Policy Evaluation as a Social Process. New York: The Free Press.

Schumpeter, Joseph A. 1942. Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (third impression). London: Unwin University Books, 1981.