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Getting Along

Friday, February 1, 2002

John Gray.
Two Faces of Liberalism.
New Press. 162 pages. $25.00

This is a Religious War” was the title of Andrew Sullivan’s cover story in the October 7 New York Times Magazine. Remarkably, in the climate that prevailed in the weeks following September 11, this was an assertion of considerable boldness. Reluctance to encourage discrimination against Muslims or to alienate our Islamic “allies” led most public figures to follow the broad abstractions of President Bush: This was a war between a good, moral people and pure, unqualified evil. Sullivan was one of a handful of writers who dared to grapple with the religious dimension of the attackers’ destructive rage. “Osama himself could not have been clearer about the religious underpinnings of his campaign,” he wrote, and bin Laden’s words “had salience among the people he wished to inspire and provoke.” This violent strain of Islam is not limited to bin Laden and a few followers, nor is it a wholly modern phenomenon: “It would be naïve to ignore in Islam a deep thread of intolerance toward unbelievers, especially if those unbelievers are believed to be a threat to the Islamic world.”

But this intolerance is hardly unique to Islam, Sullivan wrote. At the heart of the conflict, he argued, was the problem of fundamentalism generally, which everywhere is at “war against faiths of all kinds that are at peace with freedom and modernity.” Fundamentalism includes in milder form some strains of religious belief in the United States. It also shows up in secular form, for example, in the public ideologies of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. Its defining characteristics are “the fusion of politics and ultimate meaning,” and “the subjugation of reason and judgement and even conscience to the dictates of dogma.”

The key feature of American society, by contrast, is the separation of politics from questions of ultimate meaning, Sullivan wrote. Americans have created a political system that stands apart from religious questions and that permits all citizens to worship as they please. In our current war against terrorism, therefore, what we defend is “the principle of the separation of politics and religion,” and “the universal principles of our Constitution — and the possibility of free religious faith it guarantees.” According to Sullivan, the conflict is between fundamentalism and a politics of ultimate truth on the one hand, and toleration and pluralism on the other.

Sullivan’s article offers an intelligent account of the inner logic of fundamentalism and its allure in societies wracked by the pressures of modernization. It fails, however, to accurately represent the character of our own society. Two Faces of Liberalism, the recent work by British philosopher John Gray, can aid us in understanding why. It is a slender volume that tackles a broad subject matter with bold claims and vigorous writing. Gray, professor of European thought at the London School of Economics, has traveled considerable distance over his career. He has shifted from a Thatcherite libertarian to a Third Way environmentalist, and from a fairly orthodox liberal to a harsh critic of liberalism. In recent years, he has argued with increasing conviction that what he refers to as “the Enlightenment project” is a failure. Flawed in theory, liberalism’s pursuit in practice has led to unhappiness and social strain in the societies in which it predominates, and increasing poverty and instability across the globe. Now, however, Gray claims to have identified an element of the liberal tradition that is worth rescuing from the wreckage.

In Two Faces of Liberalism, he assumes the responsibility of bringing this older, more shadowed “second face” of liberalism into the light. Liberalism’s first face, which Gray identifies with John Locke and, in this century, with John Rawls, is the project of designing a single, ideal, universally legitimate regime. The second face — which he calls modus vivendi or neo-Hobbesianism — is an effort to create institutions that will permit different ways of life to coexist peacefully. The philosophical basis that Gray offers for this approach is the doctrine of value-pluralism, the idea that there are many different human goods, some of which cannot be compared in value. These goods are embodied in ways of life which are not only different, but often incompatible. Some exclude each other logically, others tend to drive each other out in practice. “No life can reconcile fully the rival values that the human good contains,” Gray writes; furthermore, “the span of good lives of which humans are capable cannot be contained in any one community or tradition.” This being the case, what is needed are “common institutions in which the claims of rival values can be reconciled.” While the existence of different and incommensurable ways of life has been the truth of the human experience throughout history, Gray argues that the need for modus vivendi grows increasingly urgent as, through greater mobility and global economic integration, ways of life are more and more commingled.

Historically, liberalism is premised on this very notion — that, given the choice, human beings will lead different lives, and that they should be permitted do so. Gray states this liberal orthodoxy as follows: “conflicts of value are what make liberal regimes legitimate. Liberal regimes enable people whose views of the good life are at odds to live together on terms they can accept as fair.” But Gray argues that many liberal thinkers, including Locke and John Stuart Mill, saw toleration as a means, not an end. Pluralism was a temporary stage in human development in which ideas about the good life could be aired and resolved. Left to their own devices, humans would gradually arrive at a uniform understanding of the best life. Other liberal thinkers, among whom Gray includes F.A. Hayek, Joseph Raz, and John Rawls, held that diversity of views about the good is a permanent feature of human existence. Aware that “the goods of life clash,” these thinkers sought to “state principles of right and justice that stand aloof from these conflicts.” They have attempted to devise a system of political principles that does not stand on any particular conception of the good but rather permits all worthwhile ways of life to flourish. Gray does some of his best work in demonstrating that they have not succeeded.

Thinkers in the liberal tradition have tended to regard liberty as the most important of human interests, differing, however, in their definitions of liberty and their judgments about which kind of liberty is most fundamental. In Two Faces of Liberalism, Gray argues that all liberal systems run up against conflicts of value that cannot be resolved by appeals to liberty. John Rawls sought by his Greatest Equal Liberty Principle to avoid prioritizing one strand of liberty over another. Yet he relies on an assumption that all “basic liberties compose a compossible set.” If there are liberties which are not compatible, and which undermine each other, then Rawls has failed, because judgments about what constitutes the greatest liberty “depend on assessments of the relative importance of human interests that different liberties protect.” John Stuart Mill’s principle of liberty, writes Gray, was no more successful. He proposed to restrict the liberty of an individual only in order to prevent harm to other individuals. Clearly, however, people with divergent conceptions of the good will come to different conclusions about what is meant by harm.

Joseph Raz believed that from value-pluralism followed the idea of freedom as personal autonomy — the ability to be part-author of one’s life — since autonomy enables us to choose among rival goods. Gray argues in response that autonomy is a complicated notion, encompassing many different elements: “the absence of coercion, the possession and exercise of skills in choice-making and an environment which contains an array of options that are worth choosing.” Any political system based around the idea of autonomy will not avoid making judgments about which of these elements is most important, nor about the worth of the options that individuals have available to them. “Policies aiming to promote autonomy cannot avoid favoring some options, some purposes, some projects, some values above others,” Gray writes. Even Isaiah Berlin’s famous effort to devise a minimalist system of liberty — negative liberty, or the absence of coercion — that would escape indeterminacy or arbitrariness (as well as protect against more real-world evils) fails, as “there is no impassible barrier that marks off freedom from other values.”

But not only do liberal theories linger in indeterminacy, they also exclude many good ways of life entirely. Discussing Raz, Gray argues that “autonomy cannot be taken to encompass all good things”; furthermore, “some conceptions of the good do not recognize autonomy.” No orthodox liberal thinker escapes this problem, Gray argues; all fail to account for ways of life that are not built around the self-governing individual. At most, Gray claims, these liberal orthodoxies permit only “diversity of personal ethical beliefs and ideas,” not a genuine diversity of ways of life. Pluralism remains “in the realm of voluntary association.” In reality, this assumption excludes most ways of life that exist outside of the United States and a few European countries.

What Gray demonstrates about liberal theory can be seen in liberal practice. Western nations from the U.S. and Britain to Germany and Sweden can all be broadly defined as liberal, but they are marked by different value judgements within a liberal horizon. Which society is more liberal: that which outlaws discrimination by race to protect individual dignity, or that which permits an individual to hire or associate with whomever he or she pleases? That which allows citizens to keep what they earn in the marketplace, or that which redistributes property in the name of equal opportunity? That which strictly enforces separation of church and state, but where religious communities are politically powerful, or that in which religion does not exist as a political force? As Gray writes, all societies “embody local settlements of the claims of rival ideals.”

At the same time, liberal societies do honor distinctive goods — freedom, equality, autonomy — and permit others to wither. In the past decade there has been a chorus of complaint about the weakening of community in America, the decline of civic participation, of neighborhood socializing, of a feeling of rootedness in a particular place. Conservatives worry about the permeation of the family by liberal values of individualism and autonomy, which they claim destroy parents’ sense of responsibility to each other and to their children. Those on the left lament the destruction of the environment and the waning of a sense of connection with the natural world. All of these are goods that are given little support in a liberal order. And some ways of life are entirely excluded. No mini-Talibans will be constituted within the United States. Adults may succeed in joining such a sect, but it will be by their own free choice. If they seek to impose this life upon their dependents, they are likely to be indicted for abuse. And there are limits even on the ways of life that adults may enter into: No adult may contract into slavery or join a polygamous marriage. There may be no single way of life in the United States, or in any liberal society, but there is certainly a distinctive range of possibilities, limited by liberal values.

But Gray’s case for modus vivendi is not without problems. For one thing, there is a serious lack of clarity in his presentation of the concept of a “way of life.” Early in Two Faces of Liberalism, Gray writes, “The lives of a professional soldier and a carer in a leprosarium, of a day trader on the stock market and a contemplative in a monastery, cannot be mixed without loss.” But if this list represents the full range of possible ways of life, then Gray’s argument is in trouble: All of these lives can and do exist comfortably within contemporary liberal society; all are selected by the individuals who lead them.

Soon, however, Gray is defining “way of life” in terms suggesting something far more collective and unchosen: “Ways of life must be practised by a number of people, not only one, span the generations, have a sense of themselves and be recognized by others, exclude some people, and have some distinctive practices, beliefs and values.” And, as we have seen, Gray scoffs at those “recent liberal writings” in which, mistakenly, “the fact of pluralism refers to a diversity of personal ideals whose place is in the realm of voluntary association.” Often, in contrast with his discussion of soldiers and day traders, Gray suggests that all autonomous individuals have the same way of life. For example, he writes that John Stuart Mill at times was “a militant partisan” of the idea that “the best way of life is the same for all — the form of life of the autonomous individual.”

Thus, the insight of true value-pluralism is that the autonomous life is merely one possibility among several valuable alternatives. Gray argues that nothing about the modern condition has erased this truth. At the same time, however, he insists that in a progressively integrated world, more and more people find themselves beholden to the claims of incompatible ways of life. And he suggests that in this circumstance, choice and autonomy are unavoidable elements of their condition. For instance, Gray places himself in the shoes of a second-generation Asian-American woman who must decide between entering into an arranged marriage or pursuing a more Western courtship: “In that case, an appeal to common practices will not suffice. I must decide which practice I accept.” People belonging to multiple ways of life, Gray writes, face these kinds of “recurrent” and “radical” choices; they engage in “self-creation through choice making.” As ways of life become more commingled, clashes between traditions occur more often, and the result appears to be that lives based on individual choice — liberal lives — are becoming more and more predominant.

But Gray adamantly rejects the notion than human civilization is moving inexorably towards liberalism. To him, it is an assumption of the “Enlightenment project” which has been proved false by history. This view — an “Americanocentric version of positivist philosophy” — assumes that societies are becoming both more homogenous internally and more similar to each other, and that “the values on which they converge are liberal values favoring personal autonomy.” According to Gray, “none of these assumptions is well founded.” To the contrary, many non-Western societies (he offers Japan and Singapore as examples) have modernized and “adapted well to technological and economic change . . . without apparently accepting personal autonomy as a core value.” This is also the case, Gray argues, with immigrant groups in Western nations, many of which have achieved success and lead flourishing lives without embracing personal autonomy or “assimilat[ing] to the liberal majority cultures of their host societies.”

This seems to me to be blatantly incorrect. It may be the case that Japan and other Eastern countries achieved economic modernization without wholly liberalizing their economies or societies. But it now appears that these nations’ illiberal features are preventing them from emerging from a decade-long economic decline. Furthermore, the younger generations in Asian nations have been chafing visibly under the strictures of their parents’ social customs and have embraced consumerism and an individualistic ethic. Certainly, evidence does not support Gray’s assertion that immigrants in Western countries remain in communities apart, escaping liberal influence entirely. A large proportion of second-generation Asian Americans are thoroughly assimilated into the majority culture, living among and often intermarrying with persons of European ancestry. Gray’s own discussion of commingled ways of life helps us to understand why this is the case: When people become cognizant of the existence of different ways of life, are aware that different ways of life are open to them, and are placed in situations in which they cannot help but choose between one way of life and another, they are already on the road to becoming autonomous individuals.

Thus Gray’s historical case against liberalism seems to fail. To be sure, societies throughout the world are not quickly and painlessly converging on liberalism. But the widespread introduction of market economies and of American cultural products has brought liberal elements into societies where they earlier did not exist. These liberal elements have influence, especially among younger generations. And the assimilation of immigrants to Western norms continues apace.

Gray’s moral case fails as well, as his analysis of the state of human affairs departs from the tough-minded realism and reliance on experience he celebrates and claims is lacking from the work of theorists such as Rawls. Indeed, Gray’s argument often seems to emerge from just the kind of abstract, deductive reasoning he derides in Rawls and other liberal “legalists.” Gray claims that there are many different, incompatible human goods. From this, he proposes that there are many different, incompatible good ways of life. From this, he argues that that there are many different regimes in which human life can flourish. All this seems logical. But if we survey the planet, where do we find human life flourishing outside of liberal societies? Outside of liberal societies, we find mostly dire poverty, oppressive governments, and violent ethnic conflict, and often all three.

By the end of Two Faces of Liberalism, Gray has demonstrated persuasively that no theorist can devise a political system, liberal or otherwise, which can be extended to encompass all the ways of life that exist on this planet. He argues instead for building multiple regimes that can achieve compromises between warring ways of life. Certainly, there can be no objection to that goal. But we may be forgiven for wondering why Gray rejects so stridently any effort to expand the scope of liberal norms. There can be no doubt that under a liberal regime some human interests embodied in other, nonliberal ways of life will wither and die. But many such interests are not exactly thriving at present. It may be the case that some goods we associate with the premodern epoch are no longer achievable in human society. This is a tragedy, but it should not prevent us from giving liberalism its due. More important, Gray’s successful critique of the pretenses of liberal theory should not lead us to throw up our hands in despair at the prospects for liberal society, which is remarkably healthy.

As we have seen, Andrew Sullivan’s account of the United States as a society defined by toleration fails to capture the heart of the matter, as does his opposition between liberal pluralism and Islamic and other fundamentalisms. There is greater truth in Gray’s reference to liberalism as “a species of fundamentalism.” Liberalism is not a neutral framework that permits all ways of life to flourish. It is itself a way of life, or range of ways of life. As such, it should be judged in the way Gray asks us to judge ways of life, by holding it up against identifiable human goods. In liberal societies, freedom is not perfect, but it is great. Prosperity is not universal, but it is widespread. Contentment is not ever-present, but neither is misery. There is room for achievement, and room for complacency. And there is peace. Liberalism need not be a framework for complete toleration to be legitimate. And liberal societies need not advance each and every human good to be considered, if not the last, then at least the present best hope of men and women on earth.