- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 14, 2000

According to John Gray, the two-facedness of liberalism consists in its endorsement of two ideas that sharply conflict in our (post) modern world. Liberals have sought a "rational consensus on the best way of life," typically the regime of commercial republicanism or, more ambitiously, democratic socialism. Liberals have also claimed that "human beings can flourish in many ways of life," that disparate religious and ethnic groups can learn to coexist peacefully under the liberal political order.

Mr. Gray, a professor of European thought at the London School of Economics whose books include studies of the Enlightenment and on Isaiah Berlin, rejects the liberal claim that rational consensus on commercial-republican or any other set of political, economic, social or cultural foundation can be sustained. That is because no consensus on such matters is rationally derivable. The claim made not only by liberals but by political philosophers from Socrates onward that there is an ideal political regime, obtainable at least in theory, as a standard by which to judge lesser regimes, if not in practice must be abandoned as chimerical.

Instead of one ideal, reason discovers "many forms of life in which humans can thrive." At best, philosophers can help their fellow-citizens to formulate a peaceful modus vivendi wherein these forms will survive without jostling each other too violently.

Mr. Gray rejects the charge that he preaches moral relativism or some other nihilism. To endorse a plurality of goods or "values" is not to claim that they are all equal, and that moral choices are therefore arbitrary. "The good is independent of our perspectives on it, but it is not the same for all." The good plays out differently for persons and peoples differently circumstanced; "justice does not always speak with one voice." Courage, prudence and justice, for example, indispensably comprise any good human life, but may result in radically different ways of life, and rightly.

Mr. Gray aims his best philosophical shots at the utilitarian and neo-Kantian liberals of the past 30 years in the United States, whom he properly accuses of entertaining rationally baseless, parochial assumptions about the character of the human good. John Rawls, Robert Nozick and other overly-publicized theorists take a deserved drubbing at his hands, although it must be noticed that they have been drubbed before, early and often, without much effect on their careers.

Mr. Gray's modus vivendi stance exhibits two problems, one practical/political, the other theoretic/philosophic. Practically, any modus vivendi, any way of life, needs to defend itself against enemies who want to destroy and supplant it. Would anyone fight for "values-pluralism?" Or would it not rather incline the vivendists down a slippery slope of complacency towards tyranny?

Such a slide is exhibited by Mr. Gray himself when, in comparing the United States with Cuba, he remarks that a boy like Elian Gonzalez can get a better education in Havana than in certain big-city school districts in America. Really? Given the character of tyranny, how much can Mr. Gray or anyone else know about Cuban schools? We can know some of the trash Fidel Castro stuffs into the heads of his putatively very literate subjects, as Mr. Castro broadcasts it widely; it does not argue powerfully for the merits of Cuban education. If the world is believed to dress mostly in shades of gray, will not tolerant, peace-loving vivendists not go politically colorblind, at their own peril?

The theoretical problem is worse still. Mr. Gray praises those who worked to end slavery in the last century. "When they proscribed slavery, abolitionists made persons and chattels incomparably valuable" that is, they made it impossible to treat persons as objects for sale. But in so outlawing slavery, did they in some literal sense make human beings morally unsalable? Or did they rather end a legal and social practice that had been wrong all along, because human nature does not as a rule flourish in slavery?

In other words, Mr. Gray neglects the philosophic question of natural right, the moral foundation of American commercial republicanism. In this he is as parochial in his Britishness as Mr. Rawls is in his (contemporary, academic) Americanness.

That the acknowledgment of natural right in politics need not result in irrational intolerance or dogmatism, but can nonetheless stiffen political backbones against tyranny, can be seen not so much in the philosophers of the past two centuries as in the political thought of such men as George Washington, James Madison, and Abraham Lincoln, who combined adherence to principle with a profound capacity for prudential reasoning. Mr. Gray seeks in some way to replace philosophically-informed prudence with a sophisticated doctrine of pacifism. But this is simultaneously to load doctrine with too much weight to bear in practice, while undercutting clear-cut principles that men and women can defend.

Will Morrisey is assistant professor of political science at Hillsdale College.

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