Imperial tendency lurking in liberalism

Two Faces of Liberalism
July 13, 2001

This little book by John Gray, a serious and penetrating political philosopher, is iconoclastic, thought-provoking and mandatory reading for anyone seriously interested in its subject. In Enlightenment's Wake , Gray has already warned against the tyrannous implications inherent in "the Enlightenment project"; and in his intellectual monograph, Isaiah Berlin , he denies the existence of a necessary link between Berlin's value pluralism and any conventional form of liberalism, contrary to what Berlin himself often seemed to imply.

These major themes are taken up here and reworked into a radical and systematic critique of the "imperialistic" ambitions of liberalism. Special shafts are aimed at the "hubristic, rights-based" liberal orthodoxy of John Rawls, Ronald Dworkin and their followers, which dominates Anglo-American universities today. In general, Gray says, liberal toleration is justified by the search for a rational consensus and by the incommensurability of many excellent forms of life. But, far from being two sides of the same coin, as is commonly supposed, these represent two conflicting tendencies: rationalistic liberalism and pluralism. The former, erroneously in Gray's view, goes in search of a universal regime. Locke and Kant in the past, Hayek and Rawls today, are held guilty of this error. Rawls in particular seeks to construct a system of rights so abstract and general that it is raised above the pluralist fray and can be taken to apply universally. Towards this "overlapping consensus", Rawlsians then claim all societies, however different their other values, can and will gravitate.

Gray's cardinal objection to this is as sharp as it is simple: into the practical concrete exercise of these rights in specific instances, highly pluralistic and therefore contestable and conflicting conceptions of the good will necessarily enter, thereby compromising their claims to priority and universality. Value pluralism, therefore, far from being the companion in arms of liberalism, "is a subversive doctrine", and the more widespread it becomes, the more it will undermine the image that liberal cultures have of themselves as embodying universal values. And conceptions of justice such as that of Rawls will come increasingly to be seen as a mere piece of American parochialism. We are not all converging on the same model.

The real task, as Gray sees it, is not the postulation of a universal theoretical model but the devising of practical institutional solutions to the problem of peaceful coexistence among individuals and groups not held together by common beliefs. Mere survival and coexistence is the most we can aim for, and the institutional machinery that makes that possible. Here Gray sees Hobbes - not generally classified as a soft-hearted liberal - as "the progenitor of a tradition of liberal thought in which modus vivendi is central." Both Mill and Berlin, he claims, in some moods move a long way in this direction, and in this book he sees himself as further developing their legacy.

Two major queries arise. At one point Gray writes: "We do not need common values in order to live together in peace. We need common institutions in which many forms of life can coexist." But could we even begin to set about constructing common institutions without some common values? Perhaps this proposition is partially tempered (contradicted?) when Gray says a little later: "Some values are needed for any kind of human flourishing... Such values are generically human." Is not Gray's modus vivendi , however minimalist, itself revealed to be as fatally defective and open to rejection by the radical value pluralist he extols as the admittedly more elaborate constructions of Rawls and Co? For no matter how far we whittle down the basis on which we seek to erect our institutions, it can never reach vanishing point. And just so long as there is anything left to attack, it will embody a value judgement and so lay itself open to the charges Gray levels against Rawls. For what could the radical value pluralist à la Gray possibly object to in any man or group of men not interested in the modus vivendi ? I may be a member of a warrior class or nation who would rather dominate and coerce or go down fighting than accept peaceful coexistence. Nor need we take so extreme a case. Much more common and modest forms of life and the conception of the good that they embody will yield widely differing judgements as to the proper scope and limits of peaceful coexistence. What is peaceful coexistence in the eyes of one group will be undue interference or intrusion in one's collective sphere to another. So does Gray's own conception of a modus vivendi not run the risk of succumbing to precisely the strictures he places on Rawls's conception of a rights-based theory of justice?

Roger Hausheer is lecturer in German, University of Bradford.

Two Faces of Liberalism

Author - John Gray
ISBN - 0 7456 2258 5 and 2259 3
Publisher - Polity
Price - £40.00 and £12.99
Pages - 161

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