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Liberalism has always had two faces. From one side, toleration is the pursuit of an ideal form of life. From the other, it is the search for terms of peace among different ways of life. In the former view, liberal institutions are seen as applications of universal principles. In the latter, they are a means to peaceful coexistence. In the first, liberalism is a prescription for a universal regime. In the second, it is a project of coexistence that can be pursued in many regimes.
    -John Gray, Two Faces of Liberalism

The argument of John Gray's book is pretty easily stated, even if nonsensical:
Liberalism contains two philosophies. In one, toleration is justified as a means to truth. In this view, toleration is an instrument of rational consensus, and a diversity of ways of life is endured in the faith that it is destined to disappear. In the other, toleration is valued as a condition of peace, and divergent ways of living are welcomed as marks of diversity in the good life. The first conception supports an ideal of ultimate convergence on values, the latter an ideal of modus vivendi. Liberalism's future lies in turning its face away from the ideal of rational consensus and looking instead to modus vivendi.
The threshold problem is obvious: Mr. Gray's preference for the modus vivendi in itself represents an assertion that there is at least one universal value and that value is peace. Since he too is asserting a universal truth, his criticism of others who advocate the first form of liberalism is inherently hypocritical.

The extreme form of tolerance that he advocates he calls value-pluralism:
Modus vivendi is liberal toleration adapted to the historical fact of pluralism. The ethical theory underpinning modus vivendi is value-pluralism. The most fundamental value-pluralist claim is that there are many conflicting kinds of human flourishing, some of which cannot be compared in value. Among the many kinds of good lives that humans can live there are some that are neither better nor worse than one another, nor the same in worth, but incommensurably--that is to say, differently--valuable.
When he says "can live" and "flourish" he appears to mean nothing more than that any way of life that has endured for some time is deserving of this kind of deference:
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 so forth.
He's essentially saying that it is impossible for us to say whether the Amish have a better way of life than a tribe of South Sea cannibals who practice infanticide for gender selection purposes, use female circumcision, etc.. This is multi-cultural political-correctness run amok. It is one thing to say that we should seek to understand how a people ended up with a culture so antithetical to ours, something else altogether to say that we have no basis for judging it inferior to ours.

Even worse, his argument suggests that should our imagined tribe relocate to our country that we should simply accept them in order to maintain the peace:
The end of politics is not the mere absence of war, but a modus vivendi among goods and evils.
Now, he is certainly right that humankind values peace (security) and that on any list of values it would rank quite high--maybe even first--but there seems little basis for the idea, and he offers none, that it is worthwhile to willingly accept the continuance of systemic evil in exchange for that peace. What is it about the peace between us and them that is more important than the evil that they practice upon one another? Is not the imposition of evil by one member of our society upon another in some significant sense a violation of the peace? Is this not ultimately just a despicably selfish form of appeasement? "Do whatever you want to the members of your own social group, just leave me alone."

One is inclined to believe that anyone with even a passing acquaintance of human nature will have determined Mr. Gray to have been talking nonsense by now. We simply do not have it within us as a species--and a very good thing it is--to completely ignore the beliefs and behaviors of our fellow men. Mr. Gray's faith that a day might dawn where we would all just go our own way is the stuff of dreams--and dangerous dreams at that. But, rest assured, even he isn't serious about this vision, as witness his discussion of human rights (which are his own substitute for value judgments) and the differences between "legitimate" and "illegitimate" regimes:
In contemporary circumstances, all reasonably legitimate regimes require a rule of law and the capacity to maintain peace, effective representative institutions, and a government that is removable by its citizens without recourse to violence. In addition, they require the capacity to assure the satisfaction of basic needs to all and to protect minorities from disadvantage. Last, though by no means least, they need to reflect the ways of life and common identities of their citizens. [...]

The requirements of legitimacy that all contemporary regimes should meet are not the free-standing rights of recent liberal-orthodoxy. They are enforceable conventions, framed to give protection against injuries to human interests that make any kind of worthwhile life impossible. A regime is illegitimate to the extent that its survival depends upon systematic injury to a wide range of these interests.

Regimes in which genocide is practised, or torture institutionalized, that depend for their continuing existence on the suppression of minorities, or of the majority, which humiliate their citizens or those who coexist with them in society, which destroy the common environment, which sanction religious persecution, which fail to meet basic human needs in circumstances where that is practically feasible or which render impossible the search for peace among different ways of life--such regimes are obstacles to the well-being of those whom they govern. Because their power depends on the infliction of the worst universal evils, they are illegitimate, however long-lived they may be.
Oh dear; it seemed like just moments ago he was speaking with such humility about how values were so plural that we couldn't choose between them and now, suddenly, we're presented with a veritable laundry list of value judgments and even an assertion that some values are, that most judgmental of all words, "evil". The reader who manages not to laugh out loud at this point has not been paying attention.

Perhaps an argument like Mr. Gray's was inevitable. After all, it was towards the end of the bloody religious wars between Catholics and Protestants that men like Locke and Hobbes first articulated the case for liberal toleration. It was a time when the idea of peaceful coexistence was sufficiently alluring to lead even sensible men into propounding a scheme of liberty that, because it must eventually destroy its own basis in Judeo-Christianity, sacrificed virtue in order to quiet strife. Comes now John Gray--after the even bloodier wars between the liberal democracies (mostly Britain and America) and the various totalitarianisms kicked up by modernity (Bonapartism, Kaiserism, Nazism, Communism, etc.), and he comes at a time when the cancer of toleration has greatly diminished our confidence in our own traditional values--to propose that we must now make peace (security) the be all and end all of our existence. In a way, this is a helpful book just because see the reductio ad absurdum of the argument for tolerance. Not freedom, not the good life, not a decent society, not anything but an absence of conflict should be the lodestar that guides our ship of state. The attraction of this kind of promise of security is undeniable, especially for the weakest members of society, and it will be with us always, but so long as we continue to believe in competing ideas like freedom and the importance of living well we can hopefully avoid the demoralized, quiescent, and utterly banal fate it holds in store.


Grade: (C)


See also:

John Gray Links:

    -WIIKIPEDIA: John Gray (philosopher)
    -TRIBUTE: What Cormac McCarthy knew: The American novelist understood the bleak truth that the world defies human understanding or control. (John Gray, 6/20/23, New Statesman)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: Your own personal Jesus: In the beginning there were many different sons of God – Western Christianity triumphed not by destiny but accident. (John Gray, 3/28/24, New Statesman)
    -ESSAY: The narcotopian dilemma: Why liberal societies are helpless in the face of the global illegal drugs trade. (John Gray, 3/10/24, New Statesman)
    -ESSAY: The sinister return of eugenics: Eugenicist thinking was rejected after the Holocaust, but in the era of Big Tech, the idea that humans can be “engineered” has resurfaced in a new guise. (John Gray, 2/10/22, New Statesman)
    -BOOK SITE: The Two Faces of Liberalism (The New Press)
    -BOOK SITE: Isaiah Berlin by John Gray (Princeton University Press)
   -ESSAY: TWO LIBERALISMS OF FEAR (John Gray, The Hedgehog Review)
    -ESSAY: Easier Said Than Done (John Gray, January 30, 2006, The Nation)
    -ESSAY: Work in the Coming Age: The entrepreneurial approach to working life: Spontaneous, varied, and open to new challenges (John Gray, Ubiquity)
    -ESSAY: Gimme the blue pill (John Gray, 2003/07/11, NEW STATESMAN)
    -ESSAY: The era of globalisation is over (John Gray, 24 September 2001, The New Statesman)
    -LECTURE: Three Mistakes About Modernity (John Gray, London School of Economics and Political Science)
    -REVIEW: of Friedrich Nietzsche by Curtis Cate (John Gray, New Statesman)
    -REVIEW: of Freedom Evolves by Daniel C Dennett: Does human evolution move onwards and upwards towards liberty and progress? (John Gray, The Independent)
    -REVIEW: of SEEING LIKE A STATE: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed By James C. Scott (John Gray, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of THE SENSE OF REALITY: Studies in Ideas and Their History By Isaiah Berlin (John Gray, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of A HISTORY OF FASCISM, 1914-1945 By Stanley G. Payne (John Gray, NY Times Book Review)
    -PODCAST: John Gray on Pessimism, Liberalism, and Theism (Ep. 198): Is pessimism a way to minimize disappointment or the key to an adventurous life? (Tyler Cowen, 11/29/23, Conversations with Tyler)
    -INTERVIEW: John Gray: In Conversation: The author of The New Leviathans discusses Israel’s war, Michael Oakeshott, C. S. Lewis, and more. (Gene Callahan, March 25, 2024, Modern Age)
    -PROFILE: Prophet of the end of liberalism: John Gray at 75 (David Herman, 4/17/23, The Critic)
    -ESSAY: Beware John Gray’s new leviathans: Are we living in a state of nature? (TERRY EAGLETON, 8/30/23, UnHerd)
    -Profile: John Gray: A sceptic who thinks all our ills stretch back to the Enlightenment, he is also a visionary who predicted the credit crunch (Jonathan Derbyshire, 16 April 2009, New Statesman)
    -INTERVIEW: with John Gray: Modus Vivendi: Liberalism for the Coming Middle Ages (New Perspectives Quarterly, Spring 2001)
    -ESSAY: Reading John Gray in war: As a soldier, I was hard-wired to seek meaning and purpose. Gray’s philosophy helped me unhook from utopia and find peace (Andy Owen, 2/22/21, Aeon)
    -Modus Vivendi (New Perspectives Quarterly, Spring 2001)
    The importance of being wrong: Nicholas Lezard is driven to making an anti-recommendation after reading John Gray's Straw Dogs, an aphoristic blow to humankind's self-importance (Nicholas Lezard, September 13, 2003, The Guardian)
    -ESSAY: The Ways of John Gray: A Libertarian Commentary (Daniel B. Klein, January 8, 1999, The Independent Review)
    -ESSAY: Pluralism, Liberalism, and the Inevitability of Choice (Victor M. Muniz-Fraticelli)
    -ESSAY: Some Comments On John Gray's book, Liberalisms (Sarah Fitz-Claridge)
    -ESSAY: The Ways of John Gray: A Libertarian Commentary (Daniel B. Klein, January 8, 1999, Independent Review)
    -ESSAY: The consistent pessimism of John Gray (Brian Micklethwait, August 28, 2002, Samizdata)
    -DISCUSSION: Exchange with Tomaz Castello Branco on John Gray (Tomaz Castello Branco and Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D., The Proceedings of the Friesian School)
    -REVIEW: of The Two Faces of Liberalism by John Gray (Michael Lind, Los Angeles Times)
    -REVIEW: of Two Faces of Liberalism (Kwame Anthony Appiah, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Two Faces of Liberalism (Matthew d'Ancona, Spectator)
    -REVIEW: of The Two Faces of Liberalism (Loren Lomasky, Reason)
    -REVIEW: of The Two Faces of Liberalism (Glen Newey, London Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of The Two Faces of Liberalism (David Gordon, The Mises Review)
    -REVIEW: of Two Faces of Liberalism (Robert B.Talisse, Critical Review)
    -REVIEW: of Isaiah Berlin by John Gray (Daniel Weinstock, Critical Review)
    -REVIEW of Enlightenment's Wake by John Gray and Endgames by John Gray (Pratap B. Mehta, Critical Review)
    -REVIEW: of Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals by John Gray (Jason Cowley, The Observer)
    -REVIEW: of Straw Dogs (Frederic Raphael, Spectator)
    -REVIEW: of Straw Dogs (Helene Guldberg, Spiked)
    -REVIEW: of False Dawn: The Delusions of Global Capitalism By John Gray (Fareed Zakaria, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Al Qaeda: And What it Means to be Modern by John Gray (Martin Bright, The Observer)
    -REVIEW: of The New Leviathans: Thoughts After Liberalism, by John Gray (Robert Bellafiore, American Conservative)
-REVIEW: of The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry Into Human Freedom by John Gray (Thomas R. Morgan, Philosophy Now)
    -REVIEW: of The New Leviathans by John Gray (RYAN ASMUSSEN, chicago Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of New Leviathans (Rod Dreher, European Conservative)
    -REVIEW: of New Leviathans (theodore Dalrymple, City Journal)
    -REVIEW: of New Leviathans (Ed Simon, The Baffler)
    -REVIEW: of New Leviathans (David Gordon, Modern Age)

Book-related and General Links:
    -REVIEW: of Liberalism Defended: The Challenge of Post-Modernity, by Douglas B. Rasmussen and Douglas J. Den Uyl (David Gordon, The Mises Review)