Hayek swapped for Swampy

Endgames - Against Liberalism
October 3, 1997

Not so long ago John Gray was a new right ideologue, and postfactum prophet of the "Thatcher revolution". That was, it now seems, a time of false prophecy. Gray now acknowledges the corrosiveness of the market and thinks that liberalism itself - especially its bombed-out laissez-faire versions - can muster no more intellectual authority than an indefinite number of rival creeds. His progress has been flagged by a pile of recent books, including Beyond the New Right, Enlightenment's Wake, and Isaiah Berlin. His latest, Endgames, marks a further stage on the way to Canossa.

The book is farraginous. A large chunk of it is rechauffe pieces for The Guardian, billed as "The Tory endgame". Amid much ephemera and shroud-twitching (should Michael Heseltine stand in the 1995 Tory leadership election?) is some sensible stuff - for example, Gray is duly dismissive of Gingrichian cyber-guff and fantasies of the Net as a Hayekian catallaxy. Gray is right, too, about the political anaemia of John Rawls's Political Liberalism and of many other essays in contemporary liberalism. And he is clearsighted about the incoherence of modern conservatism, whose flailing bids to reassert the superego - in, for example, Sarah Hogg's calamitous "back to basics" campaign, and the ill-defined hydra known to chip-wrap scribblers as "moral relativism" - foundered on contempt for the deference which gave the Tories their ticket to office. Conservatism's sole success in reconciling these forces is "heritage", the hinny conceived when "tradition" has a fling with the market.

More startling than Gray's anticonservatism is his conversion to ecofundamentalism. Hayek has been swapped for Swampy. This new and rather grisly turn in Gray's progress yields some strange results, among them an updated Modest Proposal. In chapter ten of Endgames we learn that he now credits James Lovelock's "Gaia hypothesis", and an endnote endorses John Aspinall's "uncompromisingly consistent repudiation of anthropocentrism", which urges that instead of the present 5.5-odd billion humans, the optimum world population would be about 200 million. This John Aspinall is none other than the Referendum party general election candidate, the anglosupremacist one-time boon companion of Lord Lucan, and freelance zookeeper, often to be seen rolling around with gorillas in Kent.

Uncompromisingly consistent, indeed. Gray's chapter wobbles between the arguable view that current demographical levels are unsustainable in the long term, and a quixotic striving after (in Henry Sidgwick's notorious phrase) the point of view of the universe. This is no point of view at all, not even that of Farringdon Road. The best piece in Endgames is a thoughtful and illuminating comparison of Isaiah Berlin and Michael Oakeshott, where Gray's anti-perfectionism comes to the fore. John Kekes's Against Liberalism echoes this and other concerns of Gray's. In Kekes's view moral responsibility, justice, equality, and pluralism all pose problems for liberalism.

In fact, it turns out that each of these problems, apart from pluralism, derives from the same source: the existence of evil as a brute moral fact. In Kekes's view, liberal accounts of responsibility, such as the principle "ought implies can", or the restriction of blame to autonomous acts, neglect the moral differences between persons. Egalitarianism ignores the fact that some people are simply better than others.

Similarly, liberal theories of justice overlook desert as a distributive criterion. Many real people are not like the conceivers of the good envisioned by high-minded liberal theorists: they copulate freely, do drugs, vote Republican. The late serial-killer Jeff Dahmer - whose conception of the good included pleasuring himself with his victims' giblets - is a problem for liberals. They need to negotiate this fork: persons are autonomous if they pursue a good conception of the good rather than a bad one, but are otherwise not (and then cannot be blamed). Whether someone is any good or not, or whether their life has worth, is often irredeemably a matter of luck: in Against Liberalism as in Endgames, we are back at the starting-point of the Enlightenment, with the niggardly provision of a stepmotherly nature. However, it is doubtful whether, as Kekes thinks, liberal egalitarianism is damaged by these thoughts, since liberalism (including rights-based free-market philosophies like Robert Nozick's) uphold equal antecedent entitlements. A commitment to equality is embodied in the sufficient-reason condition on allocating entitlements differentially.

Pluralism - endorsed by Gray as by Kekes - is another matter. Pluralism claims, roughly, that there is an indefinite number of distinct values - loyalty, freedom, justice, and so on. Usually it is also said that at least some of these values are such that they cannot be placed in a hierarchy. Numerous questions then follow. The first is whether pluralism is credible. Few arguments, mostly bad, have been offered to show that it is: that values are (overworked word) "incommensurable", that there are practical conflicts, or that choices made in such conflicts can be rationally regretted.

Monism is compatible with these claims. Much sloppiness mars discussion of this issue, and Kekes adds some of his own - for example, talk of pluralism itself as a value. Then we can ask what follows if pluralism is true. Kekes thinks it makes liberalism's values ungroundable. But pluralism, in its least implausible forms, does not claim that no value is better than any other, only that some may not be demonstrably better than others.

In his writings Gray also concludes that pluralism dooms attempts to ground liberalism. He takes it to be a consequence of pluralism that philosophical efforts, aiming to show that only one form of political design (most often, a liberal one) is justifiable, fail; most obviously because liberalism itself is but one value among others.

A liberal can consistently say both that liberalism upholds a limited plurality of values and that these are superior to other values (if there are any). This is what the more clear-headed liberal pluralists do say.

The best we can do is seek a modus vivendi. But if Gray's radical "agonistic" (ie conflict-ridden) pluralism is true, even that is a conclusion too far. Why should the value of peaceful coexistence weigh heavier in the balance than the creed of ultras?

What really matters politically is that these value beliefs come attached to persons: few would say that political weight should be given to beliefs about value, true or not, which nobody holds. The need for a modus vivendi follows from facts about politics, not value.

Whatever might prove to be the case about the nature of value, however, there may still be a political issue to resolve even if someone's conception of the good is flatly wrong. Take the controversy over the Hampstead Garden Suburb eruv. Judaic rules about not carrying toddlers on Saturday may be daft.

The political question, though, is whether to create the eruv, rather than whether its creation is based on beliefs which are daft - or, less aspiringly, whether the proposal to create one is liable to cause enough of a nuisance to make political intervention necessary. Once the debate is framed this way, rather than as a conflict over values, it is not obvious, to say the least, that philosophy has much relevance to its resolution. And this is as it should be.

Glen Newey is lecturer in philosophy, University of Sussex.

Endgames: Questions in Late Modern Political Thought

Author - John Gray
ISBN - 0 7456 1881 2 and 1882 0
Publisher - Polity
Price - £45.00 and £12.95
Pages - 212

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