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John Gray's Demolition Derby

The title of John Gray’s book could mislead some readers in the United States of America since “liberal” in England and Europe means the more or less coherent school of political thought wherein what is most important is the freedom of persons to govern themselves (as distinct from being governed by other persons). Government is established in societies to protect the right to this freedom. It is this negative right to liberty that the liberalisms of Gray’s book focus upon. He offers reflections on what might be problematic about the idea and what different liberals mean by and how they support it.

In the United States “liberal” refers to systems of government designed to coercively enable, empower or make provisions so that citizens obtain what they need to get on and succeed with their lives. This last way of using “liberal,” derived from the work of L. T. Hobhouse entitled Liberalism, is not entirely off base, since it is loyal to a certain sense of the term “free” or “at liberty,” as in “Someone ought to free me of my pain.”

Disillusioned With Liberalism

John Gray is a fellow at Jesus College, Oxford, a political theorist who has written extensively on John Stuart Mill and F. A. Hayek, among others.He is presently closely aligned with the views of the late Michael Oakeshott, a critic of rationalism in politics. Gray has changed his mind on and off concerning whether one or another type of liberalism is a more powerful position. These days he is somewhat disillusioned about liberalism and thinks the push to spread it around the globe is misconceived. (He is, in this regard, close to the ideas of the Hungarian born historian John Lukacs.)

Yet John Gray’s thinking also contains a stable element, namely, his Pyrrhonism in epistemology. This is the view that human beings really cannot know the world, let alone what people ought to do, nor how they ought to organize their communities. At best certain traditions develop and we are guided by them, pretty much without much thought (or only the thought that this tradition permits). Anything else is hubris. Gray’s skepticism is evident in this work by virtue of the preponderance of its critical sections. The title should have been “Failed Liberalisms,” since every theory Gray examines is found to be seriously flawed. Liberalisms, then, is a collection of previously published essays, some nearly popular, others very technical, critical of every version of liberalism that has been advanced.

Here are some of the liberalisms Gray discusses: John Stuart Mill, for example, is a major figure, noted mostly for his defense of the principle of individual liberty based on the view that only if conduct is harmful to others, may it be interfered with. Mill defended this mainly on utilitarian grounds, although, as Gray’s earlier work on Mill shows, Mill’s argument is quite subtle. Adam Smith’s liberalism is based on the utility of the quasi- laissez-faire market to guide self-interest toward public prosperity; John Locke’s version of liberalism is, based on his assertion that individuals are equal and independent in the state of nature and a system of natural rights will keep them so in society; Herbert Spencer’s variety of liberalism is based on a kind of evolutionary individualism, whereby nature strives toward greater and greater differentiation and individuation; more recently there is Ludwig von Mises’s neo-Kantian praxeological defense of free markets, and F. A. Hayek’s neo-Humean view that spontaneously developed institutions, which reflect the principles of liberalism, are best, as well as Milton Friedman’s idea that liberty is the bulwark against authoritarian moralism. These are all discussed critically, some of them at length, in Gray’s book, and anyone will find the discussion filled with intelligent observations and criticisms. Gray is, no doubt, a wealth of information about all sorts of liberalisms, ergo, the title of his book.

All criticism requires some criteria or standards to which those being criticized are asked to live up. So the skeptic will have deep trouble trying to justify these criteria. What are they based on? Why, for example, is coherence a virtue of a theory? Why completeness? Why practicality? Why consistency of its key concepts?

For example, when Gray joins those who find fault with the distinction between liberal negative freedom and socialist or welfare statist positive freedom, he notes that there can be exceptions to neatly applying them. But it is unclear why is that a fault for a skeptic? Only if some defense of neatness is succeeded would this be a criticism, but skepticism cannot defend anything at all, so it essentially loses its power of criticism.

But quite apart from this, suppose we have a concept, “adult,” that allows us to designate a good many people and distinguish them from others, “children.” But there will be some who will not be covered by either. Why is that so bad? It will only be bad if there is good reason to believe that in matters such as distinguishing human beings by their development a rigid designation is required. If this is a bad idea, adult versus child will do just fine. Broad distinctions often allow gray areas and yet they serve us well, so they are not guilty as charged.

The same can be said about a number of Gray’s problems with several versions of liberalism. I shall concentrate on the portion of his criticism that I am most interested in, namely, where he dismisses the recently developed neo-Aristotelian support for liberalism (advanced by, among others, Douglas Rasmussen, Douglas Den Uyl, Fred D. Miller, Jr., Eric Mack, and myself). This will give us a case study of how well Gray has succeeded in criticizing his targets.

Moral Norms Defended

The crux of the neo-Aristotelian idea is that because human beings have a moral nature–i.e., they are able and responsible to choose to live the life that is good for them as individuals–their communities require provisions that make everyone free to choose, to live by his or her own judgment, to enjoy what Nozick called “moral space” in Anarchy, State, and Utopia. These provisions are individual rights to life, liberty and property. A government is established to secure these rights but has no other lawful function.

Gray’s objection to this has three parts. First, he claims that naturalism–i.e., basing norms of human life on human nature–has been invalidated by contemporary empirical science, especially by the demise of teleology, the idea that we can explain behavior by reference to a human purpose or end. Second, he finds fault with an ethics of individual flourishing, drawn from Aristotle. He says “The attribution to Aristotle of a belief in the moral centrality of choice-making (made by Machan and others) is all the more incongruous in that the belief plainly presupposes an affirmation of the freedom of the will which Aristotle does not make.” Third, Gray is doubtful about the universalism implicit in natural (human) rights theories. Does the individualism of Western political theory apply to a tribal culture or even to Baznia-Herzegovina?

But is Gray on such solid footing in his objections? Aristotle’s theological approach is by no means obsolete and is widely defended in the philosophy of biology (by Professor James Lennox of the University of Pittsburgh). Furthermore, Aristotle does address the issue of choice-making in his distinction between the intellectual and the moral virtues. As Werner Jeager notes, in Aristotle , “Aristotle’s notion of free will is the exact complement of the notion of most perfect deliberation in the Epinomis.” And David Ross, in his work Aristotle, mentions that “On the whole we must say that [Aristotle] shared the plain man’s belief in free will but that he did not examine the problem very thoroughly, and did not express himself with perfect consistency.” As Aristotle puts it in Book II of the Nicomachean Ethics, “The virtues are modes of choice or involve choice” and “it is in our power to be virtuous or vicious.”

Next, as to the universality of liberal principles, Gray invokes standards he does not defend and thus finds liberals coming up short of what he has them aiming for. The liberal, Aristotle, aims for very broad principles of right conduct and of human community life. The way to secure this is by reference to the most essential aspects of being human, namely, that we are all rational animals. This is no wild idea but pretty much what experience and research teach us wherever we travel.

Gray’s Service to Liberalism

So, all in all, natural law classical liberal theorists haven’t been hurt all that much at the hands of John Gray, although, no doubt, they will have to address his points in the future. Also, Gray’s criticism of other types of liberalism–including, for example, his discussion of Berlin’s efforts to offer a purely descriptive conception of negative liberty–has considerable merit. The book is comprehensive, contemporary and insightful enough to be used as a text (which I have done in a class called “Challenges to Liberalism” I taught recently at the United States Military Academy, West Point.) But, as we have seen, Gray’s conclusions often go beyond what he has mustered in their support. Accordingly, pace Gray, neo-Aristotelian liberalism, which establishes objective, universally applicable and fundamental enough norms of human community organization, based on a set of Lockean individual rights–is a promising answer to the common political problem human beings face, namely, how to live together without diminishing our individuality or the shared characteristics of the lives we forge with many others. Gray’s service in Liberalisms is to remind us how much work there is left to make a thorough and powerful case for a way of social life that has certainly proven itself in practice, namely, the system of free and responsible human individuals.