How do you like your liberalism: fat or thin?

Glen Newey

  • Two Faces of Liberalism by John Gray
    Polity, 161 pp, £12.99, August 2000, ISBN 0 7456 2259 3

Corinthians, it was once said, worshipped at the tomb of the unknown god. Liberals worship at the tomb of the unknown principle; they’d be prepared to die for their beliefs, if only they knew what they were. Nowadays the creed, at least among political philosophers, recalls the fate of the Old Left: implacable certitude combined with smithereened factionalism. At the same time, liberalism routinely gets a drubbing from multiculturalists, who think either that liberals should smile indulgently on practices like clitoridectomy, or that the fact that they don’t shows that liberalism fails to deliver what it promises.

Liberalism arose in response to the enmities born of difference. One version of the ‘unknown principle’ charge says that liberals can’t make up their minds whether theirs is a ground-level ideology, on a par with beliefs like Islam or conservatism, or a meta-ideology which aims to glide above the wash of vying credos. Thus liberals are accused of being unprincipled (as in the case of clitoridectomy), unless they renege on their defence of difference and come out as ground-level ideologues who balk at genital mutilation. But if they come out, then insofar as the defence of difference is the principle constituting liberalism, the principled defence collapses. In becoming what it is, liberalism reveals itself as vacuous.

Or so it might seem. Ambiguity is a bad start for an ideology – ‘meta’ or otherwise – which aspires to political impact. Nevertheless, it is, like chameleonism, a useful survival strategy. During the 1960s in Britain it used to be said, not always unaffectionately, of the then Prime Minister: ‘there’s two things I dislike about Wilson – his face.’ But perfidy depreciates as a political asset when it becomes a known trait. Liberalism’s bad odour both inside the academy and out stems in part from the hunch that it wins credence – like Wilson and Blair – by not being about anything.

The prominent British political theorist John Gray has also been seen as chameleonic. His passage from Mill to Hayek to Berlin (he has written books on each of them) has prompted charges of swaying with the wind or, still less charitably, being a Vicar of Bray. The Hayek phase coincided with Thatcherism, while Gray’s rejection of the New Right occurred as Labour’s electoral fortunes were on the up. Latterly, he has endorsed ‘deep’ ecologism, quoting with approval the human depopulation scheme of the late John Aspinall, the freelance zookeeper. Aspinall’s notoriously lethal zoos have done their bit for the scheme, but the latter may not be achievable within liberalism as we know it. This turn, unlikely as it is to land Gray a job with the Bush Administration, at least rebuts the charge of time-serving. In any case, he has been sufficiently wayward, and rude about other theorists, to explode the idea that he’s out to ingratiate himself. Whether or not he now regards himself as a liberal, his position is far-out enough for most liberals not to recognise him as one of their own.

Gray’s attitude towards liberalism is a bit like that of a detox patient hooked on methadone. He can’t quite get off it, but at the same time hard-core addicts see his liberalism as a poor substitute for the real thing. His new book manifests both liberalism’s haziness and his own ambivalence. What are the ‘two faces’ of his title? The first is a morally fatter, more aspiring form of liberalism, which asserts that there are general but substantial moral truths, universally applicable, on which liberalism’s claim to deliver the human good is founded. The second face is morally more emaciated. It holds that the best to be hoped for in politics, most of the time, is a modus vivendi between different ideologies and ways of life, some liberal, some not. Gray’s main goal is to debunk the fatties’ philosophical pretensions in favour of thin-face liberalism, which is, he hopes, better adapted to the political contingencies of the world we inhabit. However, the ambivalence which this wobbly taxonomy betrays makes it doubtful that the ‘thin’ face can avoid universalism, while remaining recognisably liberal.

Gray is not, of course, the first to pick universalism as a target. This brand of liberalism is the multicultis’ big bugaboo, attracting as it does charges of x-ocentrism, for the nasty x of one’s choice, be it European cultural hegemony, the rampant phallus or the merely human view. The guiding idea behind fat-face liberalism, on Gray’s account, is that there is a single life, best for everyone, on which everyone can rationally agree, at least in principle. This has given rise to legalistic liberalism, which seeks to referee conflicts about values and lifestyles by constitutional law and legal procedures.

Legalistic liberalism aims, usually by assigning rights, to entrench morality constitutionally, even though the problem it hopes to solve arises from moral disagreement about values and lifestyles. The conflicting moral beliefs can’t always be embodied in rights, on pain of contradiction (there obviously can’t be both a legal ‘right to life’ for foetuses, and a ‘right to choose’ abortion), so the rights have to ignore or overrule some of the beliefs. The effect is to make legal structure trump conflict. Gray has been one of the few to criticise this nomolatry, which flourishes in the US as nowhere else (except perhaps in Germany). Its most bizarre outgrowth is the widely-held jurisprudential doctrine of originalism, which holds not merely that the Constitution should determine judicial outcomes, but that its content can be authoritatively decided by divining the intentions of the Founding Fathers.

As in his other recent writings, Gray denounces this reduction of politics to law. To name names is invidious, but the one that irrepressibly suggests itself is that of Ronald Dworkin, whose claim to be the doyen of the legalist school is probably the strongest. Dworkin, who’s never been one to see the difference between magisterial prose and a sound argument, is an exponent of a secular natural law jurisprudence in which there is always a ‘right answer’ to disputed questions of law. A case in point is his account in Life’s Dominion of political tussles over abortion – which, he argues, in fact mask a deeper agreement between the ‘pro-life’ and ‘pro-choice’ camps that life is very precious, though abortion’s okay, too, and should indeed be constitutionally protected. You don’t need to be a Romanist to suspect that Dworkin’s pulling a fast one here: he resorts to the standard legalist device of justifying rights by appealing to bogus agreement. Because rights purport to be absolute, they bypass the compromises attending the usual political resolutions of conflicts between interests. However, this attempted Anschluss of politics by law won’t in fact prevent grave conflict. Dworkin’s own well-judged razor-job in the New York Review of Books on the Scalia Supreme Court’s decision in the Florida election case showed eloquently that the US Constitution itself is up for political grabs.

Gray is sceptical not only about the prophylactic power of rights, but also about their ability to be both consistent and non-vacuous. This goes for human rights, too. If we take seriously the requirement stressed by rights theorists such as Hillel Steiner that there must be a possible world in which all rights are respected, then the more rights there are, the less likely it is that they will form a consistent set. Libertarians may argue that this trade-off must occur because rights cost money. But, as Gray says, it does not come about because welfare rights are costly whereas liberal ones aren’t. Preserving national or personal security is just as ‘redistributive’ as social security spending. In the dominant political rhetoric in the US, welfare betrays the looming hand of ‘Big Government’, whereas when it comes to an annual defence expenditure pushing $300 billion a year, and a domestic law-and-order budget which has to maintain two million inmates in US jails, the hand turns strangely invisible. By constitutionalising rights, pretending their protection is free, and contrasting them with mere ‘wants’ like welfare, large tracts of political concern can be placed off-limits.

Another device which philosophical liberals use to escape the nitty-gritty of politics is neutrality. Once again, the idea is to set up constitutional procedures, or something like them, to discipline day-to-day political activity: the state aims to be neutral or impartial between different conceptions of the good life, such as political ideologies or religious creeds. Where it can’t avoid taking a position (as, for example, with public policy on abortion, even if the state does nothing), neutralists shift their attention from the policy to the procedures which generate it. Neutrality, which has taken hold as a sort of new-variant liberalism, has claimed a number of prominent victims, including John Rawls, Thomas Nagel, Dworkin, Bruce Ackerman, Brian Barry and even Jürgen Habermas.

Surprisingly, Gray pays little attention to it, mentioning the idea only as a historical aberration. It poses problems for him, however, since it cuts across his two-face taxonomy. Neutrality matches part of the photofit of fat-face liberalism, particularly as regards its universalistic aspect. Even if the doctrines to which it applies vary in time and place, neutrality itself enjoys universal application. At the same time, neutralists deny that it’s the state’s job to mould its citizens after an ideal human type, such as a Rotarian, or the Queen Mother. This stance makes neutrality universalistic in its aims, but morally slim. Gray, by contrast, runs universality together with fat moral claims: universalistic liberals are thought of as preaching the one true gospel here, there and everywhere. Neutrality is also closer to the thinner modus vivendi liberalism in being worked out as a political response to the fact of diversity.

So is neutrality a third face of liberalism, as its claim to universality is based precisely on moral abstinence? It depends whether neutralists make substantial moral claims. To defend the two-face schema, Gray could say, echoing Richard Rorty, that there’s the bit where neutralists say it, and then there’s the bit where they take it back. ‘It’ here is the neutralists’ claim that they avoid controversial moral ideals. But then they take this claim back, relying on a moral ideal which shows, abracadabra, that the neutral state is really a liberal one. The problem is how to get to this conclusion from an uncontroversial starting-point; a favourite approach is to begin with an apparently unobjectionable ideal such as that of the reasonable. The strain shows when philosophers try to squeeze from this more than it can yield, as in the following passage from Rawls’s Political Liberalism. Discussing the fact that people have different ideas about the good life, or ‘comprehensive doctrines’, Rawls writes:

It is not in general unreasonable to affirm any one of a number of reasonable comprehensive doctrines . . . Others who affirm doctrines different from ours are, we grant, reasonable also, and certainly not unreasonable. Since there are many reasonable doctrines, the idea of the reasonable does not require us, or others, to believe any specific reasonable doctrine, though we may do so. When we take the step beyond recognising the reasonableness of a doctrine and affirm our belief in it, we are not being unreasonable.

Not unreasonable, even though when we take this ‘further step’, we necessarily think either that there are reasons for it which have failed to dawn on others who (reasonably) don’t agree with us, or that there are no reasons for our new belief, even though this is ‘not unreasonable’. Rawls gets into this mess because he hopes to smuggle in the moral ideal of reasonableness disguised as a purely epistemic one: what’s morally reasonable hides behind what it’s reasonable to believe. But the epistemic ideal proves too anaemic to yield political conclusions. Something beefier is called for, and that’s the moral ideal, where we’re all reasonable chaps, vigorously agreeing to pretend to disagree. As a justification, this is lilo: liberalism in, liberalism out. The neutral state’s justification depends on moral ideals whose reasonableness stems from the fact that reasonable people (read: liberals) are disposed to accept them.

So Gray could (to traffic in the debased coin) reasonably respond that neutralists are fat-face liberals in thin disguise, and the two-face taxonomy holds. It’s only fair to neutralists to say that they generally discount the role of the state in fostering moral betterment. However, given lilo, the modus vivendi appearance of neutrality is also deceptive, since only those forms of life which can be accommodated will be salvaged; they will be accommodated, moreover, not merely because that’s the best deal which can be struck but, more grandly, because they fall within the moral consensus envisaged by neutrality. The lilo is a more congenial craft, to be sure, than the raft of the Medusa offered by many actual states. But it is also buffeted by the ambiguity of levels I discussed earlier. It aims for the cachet of meta-level ideology, while never getting above sea level.

Neutrality begins from the desire not to go beyond what is justifiable. If societies contain a lot of conflicting ideas about the good – what Rawls calls ‘the fact of pluralism’ – and there’s no way to decide which is right, maybe the only justifiable state is one not based on any single idea of the good. While Gray avoids the pluralist route to neutrality, pluralism remains pivotal to his argument: it’s the main reason he believes that liberalism cannot be given foundations. However, pluralism needs careful specification here. Among contemporary liberal philosophers, it’s the name for quite different claims: that society contains many different religions, belief-systems, subcultures etc; that whether or not there are a lot of these things, there ought to be; that reasonable people disagree, or that disagreement is reasonable, about morality, and God, and that sort of thing; that different lifestyles, e.g. of a Bronze Age Greek warrior and the CEO of General Motors, are hard to combine; that some valuable things, such as love, can be difficult to combine with others, like cash; that sometimes it’s hard to make up one’s mind, e.g. between love and cash.

The term’s elasticity makes it hard not to agree to be a pluralist. Its strength and weakness lie in its beginning with banality, and gesturing toward grandeur. It can sometimes sound as if we start off on the sofa in front of the telly, mildly torn (or as the phrase has it, ‘conflicted’) about whether or not it’s worth missing the commercials to get up for another beer; and . . . whoosh, we’re at Aulis with Agamemnon, in agonies, the cold steel glinting, over whether or not to murder Iphigenia. The point of this example (which as far as I know Bernard Williams was the first to use about pluralism) is meant to be that the gods lumber Agamemnon with rival options – whether to win a fair wind for the Greek fleet by sacrificing his daughter, or to go home with her, his mission a flop, to live out the presumably grim life of a failed brass-hat, growing turnips. Since life as a heroic commander turns out to be incompatible with life with (not to say for) his daughter, Agamemnon faces a conflict of values, no doubt grander than, but in other respects not unlike, the beer-and-telly tickler.

The Agamemnon story is meant to establish, or at least illustrate, the truth of value-pluralism. But in any such example it remains possible to question the framework of values which sets up the conflict in the first place. Perhaps being a heroic Bronze Age commander isn’t up to much if it means killing one’s daughter. In addition, many dilemmas can be seen as clashes over a single value (in the Agamemnon case, that of loyalty), and if one value can lead to practical conflicts, as Gray himself argues, then we don’t need pluralism to explain conflict. Even if there are plural values, this is neither necessary nor sufficient by itself to explain conflict. It’s a metaphysical nicety whether values like liberty and equality are really distinct or just forms of a single value, because practical conflict is what matters: the conflict shapes the values’ political role, rather than being shaped by them.

If so, pluralism turns out to matter less for Gray’s argument than it might seem, since the fact of conflict does the real work. Nevertheless, Gray himself argues that the only thing that could justify liberalism (or any other political system) is an appeal to values. If values are plural, then reason is incapable of resolving conflicts between them: the reasons which one value supports cannot be weighed against those supported by another. But then if one value (or set of values) supports liberalism, and another supports non-liberalism, there is insufficient reason to endorse liberalism, because there are these other, not demonstrably less weighty, reasons for rejecting it. The same conclusion can be reached without invoking pluralism, by arguing that the fact that conflicts exist shows that reason at least sometimes fails to effect political agreement. Whatever the source of the conflicts, values are available to either side to justify its position, and their role in conflict determines which reasons are eligible for this task. This is true also of the clash between liberalism and rival ideologies.

Despite his pluralism, Gray thinks that some goods are more basic than others. A regime is legitimate if it provides a minimal set of basic goods. He argues that there are ‘minimal standards of decency and legitimacy that apply to all contemporary regimes’. However, he goes on, ‘they are not liberal values writ large’: for example, Castro’s Cuba provides better basic medical care and education to its worst-off citizens than does the United States. Gray himself isn’t clear about the distinction between goods and standards, and whether they boil down to the same thing. Instead, he’s concerned to argue that ‘a regime can be highly legitimate without honouring values that are distinctively liberal.’ Liberals are, however, likely to respond blankly that at least some of the basic goods are liberal ones – freedom of expression, the franchise, freedom of worship and so forth – so liberalism is, after all, a necessary condition of legitimacy.

Does Gray’s rejection of fat-face liberalism entail the out-and-out rejection of universalism? He believes that there is a set of universal human goods, although it falls short of fat liberalism’s moral extravagance.

To affirm the reality of universal human goods and evils is not to endorse a universal morality, such as many liberal thinkers have attempted to defend. Universal values are compatible with many moralities, including liberalism as it has been understood by recent philosophers who take their cue from Locke or Kant; but they underdetermine them all. There is no one regime that can reasonably be imposed on all.

Gray may mean that there is a set of goods which are so basic that any legitimate state must provide all of them, or only that any legitimate state must provide some of the goods in this set (but not necessarily all of them, or the same ones). If it’s the former, and given his claim that there are legitimate non-liberal regimes, Gray has to take the hard-nosed line that some goods are more important than the liberal ones. They would at least include the non-infliction of gross suffering, but this gets us only to statism, not liberalism. On the second possibility, regimes can be legitimate as long as they provide some basic goods, even if these are non-liberal ones; here Gray cites the Ottoman and Habsburg Empires. This position is more consistent with his pluralism. He wants to say, however, that some goods, such as protection against torture, are always necessary for legitimacy. Because Gray identifies thin-face liberalism both with modus vivendi and with value-pluralism, he risks being spreadeagled between thinking that security must be a sine qua non of legitimacy, and thinking that pluralism shows insistence on any specific goods to be unduly universalistic. As a result, it’s uncertain what a regime has to do to qualify as a (thin) liberal one.

Is modus vivendi liberalism really liberalism at all? Gray’s discussion of Isaiah Berlin gives cause for doubt. He notes that Berlin attempted to construct a liberalism on pluralist foundations, just as Mill tried to build liberalism on utilitarianism. The problem which Berlin never solved, according to Gray, was that the priority he gives to ‘negative’ liberty can’t be justified, not only because there are many other values incommensurable with it, but because there are many different forms even of negative liberty. If Berlin can’t justify giving his preferred version of negative liberty the nod over others, his liberalism is to this extent groundless. So what remains of liberalism once these facts are admitted? If it needs foundations, but pluralism shows that it can’t get what it needs, modus vivendi seems to be no longer liberal at all. Bare peace, which may be pax in terrorem, thins it down too far. What remains is not a face, but a skull.

Such uncertainty about the consequences of value-pluralism may derive from the suspicion that the variety of values is more readily explained by scepticism than pluralism. The sheer zoological variation in its cultural forms is an impressive fact about the human species. For instance, it’s well known that Koreans like to make a stew out of dog-meat (for serving suggestions, featuring a number of breeds, visit http://donalde.dhs.org/~marika/dogcookbook/). This culinary diversity is fully echoed by our political forms. Maybe there’s no fact of the matter to be known about whether pug au gratin is superior to Welsh rarebit; maybe the same is true, at least up to a point, about regimes. Conflict arises not if you want your rarebit and I insist on my grilled pug, but only if you want that pug as a pet and I want to eat it. This is, as far as it goes, a clash of wants or interests, but it may also take the form of a clash of beliefs, about, for example, the morality of vegetarianism. Insofar as it’s the latter, conflict will if anything be exacerbated if scepticism is right, since then there will be no authority to resolve the clash at this level. The result is the world we have: scarce resources and competing beliefs resulting in political struggles for power.

The ambiguities in modus vivendi liberalism are fully present in Hobbes, whom Gray identifies as its main prophet. Leviathan offers a modus vivendi justification for the state, but without any guarantee of the now standard liberal rights like free expression. Gray still thinks modus vivendi, as a response to value-pluralism, can yield a more limited (because relieved of fat liberalism’s moralistic ambitions) basis for toleration as peaceful co-existence. But if scepticism lurks behind value-pluralism, there isn’t much basis for toleration, because scepticism undermines the very beliefs (and attendant political claims) which stand to benefit from toleration. Hobbes notes, for example, in discussing transubstantiation, that Catholic priests are worse than fairground tricksters, who at least have the common decency to make it look as if they’ve transformed water into blood, or rods into serpents. Hobbes dealt with the seditious effects of scepticism by creating a political authority to stipulate what religious ‘truth’ would be, but this runs head-on into those, like Roman Catholics, who locate the source of religious authority elsewhere. Such a sovereign is, however, no guarantee of toleration, since there’s no reason to expect the sovereign to put up with religions other than the one he favours.

Scepticism is sometimes mistaken for an argument for liberalism. But, by itself, it is not an argument for anything: it only gets anywhere if we contend that people can’t agree because there’s no truth to be had, and therefore (say) what’s needed is a strong ruler. In Leviathan, despite recent attempts to rebrand Hobbes as a peace-and-love tolerationist, the sovereign gets absolute discretion in religion. The religious regime can be as restrictive as necessary to ensure civil peace, though Hobbes admits that the state can’t coerce belief itself, on grounds which foreshadow those of Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration. This is the sense in which, as Gray notes, ‘a Hobbesian state extends to private belief the radical tolerance of indifference.’ At the same time, though, Hobbes is contemptuous of private beliefs, and advocates a minimally Christian public religion. What really matters is agreed religious forms; this will exclude forms of worship which matter a lot to a lot of people; so what matters a lot to a lot of people doesn’t matter a lot.

This doesn’t look all that liberal. It means that in a Hobbesian state toleration, at least as embodied in freedom of worship, gets the heave-ho. Gray does well to avoid the tired old tag often misascribed to Voltaire about defending to the death views you hate (the phrase was a 20th-century paraphrase, frei nach Voltaire, by Evelyn Beatrice Hall, alias S.G. Tallentyre). This has always sounded impossibly high-minded, not just because it’s hard to imagine risking your neck for views you hate, but also because it’s hard to imagine doing so even for views you love. Saving one’s neck may not be all that admirable, but at least it’s something one could intelligibly defend to the death. In fact, Gray quotes a different line from Voltaire, this time from the Philosophical Dictionary: ‘Toleration is one of the appurtenances of our humanity. Let us each pardon one another for our follies.’ This points to a world beyond toleration, free of religion, in a commonwealth of apathy.

The great merit of Gray’s book is its engagement with the vagaries of real politics, and its mistrust of philosophical systems which operate too far away from them. Once again, however, it’s surprisingly hard to identify the core content of liberalism. His attack on universalism encourages the thought that fat liberalism is just another ideology masquerading as meta-doctrine, and that only thin liberalism can fill this latter role. In this sense, he is also, despite himself and like the fat liberals, seeking a form of universality, albeit one more attuned to local political conditions. But, as Gray argues, the good of security offered by modus vivendi is not exclusively a liberal one, while his pluralism is too radical to justify even thin liberalism. Mill’s ‘one very simple principle’ remains elusive.