Edited and written by David Gordon, senior fellow of the Mises Institute and author of four books and thousands of essays.

A Totalism of His Own

Spring 2001

Two Faces of Liberalism by John Gray (The New Press, 2000; vii + 161 pgs.)

Sometimes a single sentence in a book tells you that something is radically wrong. In the present work we find the damning statement early: "Aeschylus, Shakespeare and Samuel Beckett are supremely great dramatists; but we cannot rank their work in value" (p. 37). Mr. Gray uses this example to illustrate his hobbyhorse, value pluralism; but it reveals an astonishing failure of aesthetic judgment. How can he rank Beckett, a minor playwright inferior to Shaw, among the "supremely great"?

What I suspect has happened is this: our author is in the grip of a theoretical obsession. He quite properly sees that there are many valuable types of life and deplores efforts to press people into a common pattern. Have we not learned in the twentieth century the dangers of totalizing ideologies? But a menace threatens that, unless Mr. Gray can block it, will render us vulnerable to the fanatic drive toward unity at the root of communism and fascism. If all values could be ranked in order, would not advocates of the best life be justified in imposing their conception of the good on those of us less enlightened than they? It is this dire prospect that Mr. Gray most fears, and he believes that he has the answer to it.

Suppose that important values cannot be ranked in an order of merit; instead, they are "incommensurable," to use our author's favorite term. Then all is well; the specter of totalitarian universalism dissipates. No advocate of a way of life can say that his values outrank all others, however good they seem to him. If so, will we not all agree on a politics of toleration? How can we demand that others fall in with our pet universal scheme, if they hold incommensurable goods of their own? Will not a policy of modus vivendi recommend itself instead?

Mr. Gray fails to see that his avid pursuit of pluralism conceals a totalistic impulse of his own. So anxious is he to find plural values that whenever any difference appears, he yells "incommensurability" with all the monomania of Mr. Dick about King Charles's head. Here we find the explanation of his appalling lapse of taste. Since Beckett's plays differ in style and substance from those of Aeschylus and Shakespeare, must they not be incommensurable "blessed word" with them?

Our author has of course reasoned too quickly, but I do not propose to discuss his views on the beautiful any further. Gray on the true and the good is quite enough, and we turn at once to his ethics and politics. The source of our author's confusion lies in pushing too far a perfectly sound observation.

He rightly sees that we often cannot say that one value outranks another. Is the active life of a businessman better than that of a quiet scholar engaged in research? Should we seek constant change, as Mrs. Virginia Postrel thinks, or adhere to customary ways, with M.E. Bradford and the Southern Agrarians? These questions admit of no ready answer; if so, is not Mr. Gray right in invoking the incommensurable?

Not at all. Our cases show at most that some values cannot be rated better or worse than various others. But why not say, then, that the values concerned rank as roughly equal? This leaves entirely open whether there is a highest good. Two values may count as equal, but something else may have more value than either. Even if two values count as about equal, values may be measured on a common scale, for all Mr. Gray has shown otherwise. His favorite term does not apply, as he wrongly thinks, whenever we find puzzling the relative rank of two values.

Quite the contrary, incommensurability exists only under highly specific circumstances, a matter Mr. Gray altogether neglects. Suppose that I cannot say whether Shakespeare is a better poet than Milton and cannot rank in order Shakespeare and Dante, but that I can place Dante above Milton. Then, Shakespeare and Milton count as incommensurable. Crucial here is the apparent anomaly: though I do not place Dante above Shakespeare, I place Dante and not Shakespeare above Milton. Absent this, I could not take Shakespeare and Milton as incommensurable. Instead, I would say merely that they rank about the same.

I have harped on what seems a technical point; but there is, I hope, method in my madness. Our author does not grasp how difficult it is to show that values are incommensurable; but unless he can show clear and important instances of this phenomenon, his argument for value pluralism collapses. To reiterate, all he has shown is that rough equivalents in value exist. But what if something outranks both?

We may go further. Gray's failure stems from his loose grip on what is at stake, although this book is his second that adopts the incommensurable as its theme. He states: "Two goods that are incommensurable as a pair may be commensurate when either or both are compared with other goods" (p. 41). He here falls into gross fallacy. He does not see that one of the two incommensurable values must be commensurable with a third, and that the other member of the pair cannot be. In brief, Mr. Gray does not know what he is talking about.

But I am a generous soul. Let us grant our author his key premise: important values are incommensurable. As Mr. Gray says, "to claim that goods are incommensurable is not to rank them. It is to say that they cannot be ranked" (p. 41). Has he then, as he imagines, pierced fatally the view that there is a single best form of life for man?

You will not be surprised to learn that he has not. Even if some forms of life are incommensurable, in the strict sense of which Mr. Gray knows nothing, there may be a best form of life. The highest value may outrank each incommensurable value. Suppose, e.g., with a silliness that exceeds Mr. Gray's, that I took Shakespeare and Milton to be incommensurable as writers, but ranked Beckett above either. Our author s fuss and feathers about a concept best left to the philosophy journals does not suffice to eliminate the objective hierarchy of values that he dreads.

Our author is here not without resources: he has another fallacious argument to throw at us. How can one speak of a best form of life? Surely no way of life can incorporate all the virtues, since some cannot be realized consistently with others. Think of the virtues that animate the Iliad and those that inform the Sermon on the Mount. . . . The lives of people exhibiting these virtues are mutually exclusive, since each requires what the other condemns" (p. 38).

This observation, even if right, misses the point. Why must the best form of life incorporate all possible good things? What if, say, the life of St. Paul is better than that of Achilles, even though the latter had virtues that the former lacked?

But even if Mr. Gray's arguments for incommensurable values fail, must one not admire the spirit behind them? Should we not fear, as he thinks, those who seek to impose their vision of what is best? Once more our author relies on a false assumption. Why must a moral view that rejects pluralism welcome coercion? I should have thought that classical liberalism illustrates the precise contrary. In Murray Rothbard's version of that doctrine, e.g., it is objectively true that people ought to have a sphere of personal freedom. Why is this position "totalistic" in a way open to objection?

I have been so absorbed in my assault on Mr. Gray that I have left myself open to counterattack. The arguments Gray here advances in favor of incommensurable values do not succeed; but this hardly shows that the position is false. Many people, Isaiah Berlin not least among them, find value pluralism appealing and right. If you accept pluralism, must you renounce classical liberalism as universally true?

Robert Nozick argues that you need not do so. Rights, he famously argues, constrain us in pursuit of our goals; they are not designed to maximize value. Thus, incommensurability of values leaves rights unscathed. Even if some values cannot be compared, rights always govern our conduct. Mr. Gray dissents. Appeals to rights, he argues, do not escape the dissolving acids of incommensurability.

True enough, he says, a right does not directly aim to maximize a value. But rights conflict with one another, and these clashes admit of settlement only through recourse to values. And values, as Mr. Gray has told us ad nauseam, are incommensurable. Our original problem returns. No universally binding theory of rights can be shown true.

As usual, Gray moves too quickly. Suppose, like Rothbard, one contends that natural law establishes that everyone has certain rights. How are such views overthrown by invoking incommensurable values? Of course, many will dissent from Rothbard's theory, but these disagreements do not demonstrate that a dispute over values has occurred. Mr. Gray confuses disagreement, an everyday matter of fact, with incommensurability, a highly disputable concept.

Given Mr. Gray's alarm over totalizing ideologies, it is surprising to see how little he cares for personal freedom. People who dare to utter the politically incorrect might not fare well in a Gray world. "European (and American) history suggests that a society in which racist speech is free easily becomes one in which the speech of racial minorities is unfree. . . . These considerations tell heavily in favour of curbs on racist speech" (p. 79). In other situations, such muzzling may not be mandated, but "I am not convinced that these possibilities are realistic" (p. 80).

As John Gray's readers have come to expect, the latest book contains more than its share of mistakes. Mr. Gray says that in Nozick's theory, side constraints "have an infinite weight when they conflict with other values" (p. 83), despite Nozick's explicit denial that side constraints can be thus explained. Nozick notes the suggestion that to be bound by a side constraint is to assign violating that constraint an infinite negative weight and says of it: "A careful statement delimiting 'constraint views' would exclude these gimmicky" suggestions (Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia [New York:Basic Books, 1974], p. 29). Clausewitz's first name is misspelled (p. 125). 

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