Exchange with Tomaz Castello Branco
on John Gray


[Letter is edited for clarity]

From: Tomaz Castello Branco
To: Kelley Ross, kross@friesian.com
Date: Sat, 28 Sep 1996 19:48:56

Dear Professor Kelley L. Ross,

I hope you still remember me. The Portuguese law student. A month has passed since I last mailed you. During this time I did not get back to your web site. Not because of any lack of interest, but just because I am in exams at the University and I did not find the time to do it.

Now I am writing you just for the sake of discussion, and of course, to try to learn something from you.

You told me that you were familiar with John Gray's works. You told me also that he appeared to "have lost his mind a bit". That he had got taken by "Derrida's skeptical and nihilistic 'deconstruction' philosophy". And you concluded that it was "very bad stuff".

Well, I am afraid I cannot agree with you.

If I understood you well enough, you seem to try to qualify Gray's thinking as some form of relativist aproach from the very inside of liberal tradition.

With all due respect, I think you are wrong. In my view, what John Gray does is, on the contrary, an effort of reconstruction (not deconstruction) of the classical liberal thought. In order to do this, he gets back to the Vico and Herder's counter-Enlightenment, supported by Isaiah Berlin's work.

This is, in my view, the starting point from where he devellops his "Agonistic Liberalism".

In order to illustrate my point, I will quote some lines of one of John Gray's most recent books, BERLIN, Fontana Press, London, 1995.

page 46:

(...) It is, in fact, demonstrable that Berlin's ethical theory is a species, not of relativism or scepticism, but of objective pluralism, and that the objective pluralist idea of value-incommensurability is central in giving content to what I have called his agonistic liberalism. (...).

page 143:

(...) In the real world in wich wefind ourselves, there is an irreducible diversity of worthwhile forms of life whose goodness is not commensurable by any universal standard, and within each of wich there are goods and evils that are similarly incommensurable. (...) Value-pluralism supports liberalism here in that it is by the choices protected by negative freedom that we negotiate our way among incommensurable values (...).

Page 144:

(...) The nub of these arguments is in the claim that if the radical value-pluralist thesis of the rational incomparability of goods and evils is true, then the state can never have sufficient rational justification for imposing any particular ranking of values on people. (...).

Page 145:

(...) liberal societies are ones in wich the truth of value-pluralism is accepted and celebrated. (...) In Berlin's thought, then, the master thesis of pluralism supports liberalism. (...) Berlin's liberalism (...) diverges radically from those that have dominated political philosophy in the post-war world, and indeed since J. S. Mill, in many important aspects. Its agonistic charachter, its acknowledgement of an irreducible diversity of rivalrous goods, including negative and positive liberties, distinguishes it from all those recent liberalisms that engage themselves in 'theories of justice', or of 'fundamental rights'. These liberalisms are destroyed by Berlin's insight that, not only is any sort of liberty only one among many incommensurable values, but the different liberties, negative and positive, are themselves rivalrous and uncombinable and sometimes incommensurable, such that choices must be made among them, without the help of any overarching standard or synoptic theory. (...) If I am not mistaken, Berlin's liberalism is by far the most formidable and plausible so far advanced, inasmuch as it acknowledges the limits of rational choice and affirms the reality of radical choice. (...)

The argument of the compatibility, and support, between liberalism and pluralism can also be found form pages 150 to 160 of that book.

In the same way, Joseph Raz also makes a strong and powerful defense of pluralism in his "The Morality of Freedom".

If you got here, I am very pleased!!

I think the quotes above support my argument that the pluralistic is not nihilistic. Perhaps it is a bit sckeptical, but not a relativist one.

I am looking forward to hearing from you,

Best Regards,
Tomaz Castello Branco


From: Kelley Ross, kross@friesian.com
To: Tomaz Castello Branco
Date: Sun, 29 Sep 1996 14:40 PDT

Dear Mr. Branco,

I hope you still remember me. The Portuguese law student.

Oh yes, of course I remember you. I hope I didn't accidently send you multiple copies of my response before. I was still trying to figure out how to work my e-mail program. Now you have sent me two copies of your letter. Similar problems? I am working from the copy posted later, in case you reposted because of any changes.

A month has passed since I last mailed you. During this time I did not get back to your web site. Not because of any lack of interest, but just because I am in exams at the University and I did not find the time to do it.

Now I am writing you just for the sake of discussion, and of course, to try to learn something from you.

You told me that you were familiar with John Gray's works. You told me also that he appeared to "have lost his mind a bit". That he had got taken by "Derrida's skeptical and nihilistic 'deconstruction' philosophy". And you concluded that it was "very bad stuff".

Well, I am afraid I cannot agree with you.

If I understood you well enough, you seem to try to qualify Gray's thinking as some form of relativist aproach from the very inside of liberal tradition.

With all due respect, I think you are wrong. In my view, what John Gray does is, on the contrary, an effort of reconstruction (not deconstruction) of the classical liberal thought. In order to do this, he gets back to the Vico and Herder's counter-Enlightenment, supported by Isaiah Berlin's work.

Whatever he tries to get back to, it is because he decided in 1989 (in Liberalisms) that the effort to morally justify liberalism had failed. And his reasons for why it failed are deconstructionist reasons, about which he is quite explicit. He is rather sad about the failure; and he wants to "salvage" something, but such a salvage operation is, of course, misconceived if his original reasons for the "failure" of liberalism are wrong.

This is, in my view, the starting point from where he devellops his "Agonistic Liberalism".

In order to illustrate my point, I will quote some lines of one of John Gray's most recent books, BERLIN, Fontana Press, London, 1995.

page 46: (...) It is, in fact, demonstrable that Berlin's ethical theory is a species, not of relativism or scepticism, but of objective pluralism, and that the objective pluralist idea of value-incommensurability is central in giving content to what I have called his agonistic liberalism. (...)

"Value-incommensurabily" is a deconstructionist concept. Berlin's value pluralism is inevitably relativistic, and his calling it "objective" is merely an assertion that doesn't really add up to a difference, especially when what "objective" is supposed to MEAN would depend on a fairly serious theory about the nature of value--the kind of theory Gray would regard as impossible.

Now, I do not regard Berlin's value pluralism as objectionable or even as wrong, except to the extend that it is irrelevant to the MORAL issue and so proves nothing for or against liberalism. Liberalism will indeed recommend itself if one wishes to have a regime that will respect, within limits, a value pluralism. I have no doubt that respecting a considerable value pluralism in society is a good thing and that a nomocratic regime that, mostly, leaves people alone is morally superior to a teleocratic regime that specifies and engineers the kinds of values that people should have. However, the project of showing that such a regime IS a good thing and IS morally superior is precisely the kind of thing the Gray decided was a failure.

Thus, I believe Gray himself sees clearly enough that a thoroughgoing "value pluralism" would mean that the regime of the Ayatollah Khomeini is just as morally justified as the regime of Thomas Jefferson. Gray prefers liberalism (or its wreckage) for the very same reason that the deconstructionist philosopher Richard Rorty prefers his leftism: it is "ours" and "we" like it better. Why Gray, or Rorty, should think that they speak for the rest of "us" is a good question.

page 143: (...) In the real world in wich wefind ourselves, there is an irreducible diversity of worthwhile forms of life whose goodness is not commensurable by any universal standard, and within each of wich there are goods and evils that are similarly incommensurable. (...) Value-pluralism supports liberalism here in that it is by the choices protected by negative freedom that we negotiate our way among incommensurable values (...).

The "supports liberalism" claim begs the question because of the hidden premise that it is desirable or better to "negotiate" among incommensurable values. Since the Ayatollah Khomeini would reject this in favor of the Holy War to extend the Dar al-Islam, it should be clear that this hidden premise is going to be a non-starter in terms of many of the conflicts in the world today, let alone in the past. Nor could Gray himself deny in any a priori, rational, or apodictic way that the Ayatollah Khomeini does not represent a "worthwhile form of life" ("form of life," by the way, being a relativistic term borrowed from the philosopher Wittgenstein). If there are multiple "worthwhile" forms of life, Gray would still be stuck trying to find reasons why the Ayatollah's values are wrong, which simply becomes the original foundational project of liberalism all over again.

Page 144: (...) The nub of these arguments is in the claim that if the radical value-pluralist thesis of the rational incomparability of goods and evils is true, then the state can never have sufficient rational justification for imposing any particular ranking of values on people. (...)

Why should the state need a "sufficient rational justificaton" to impose a certain set of values? The whole project of "rational justification" is what Gray, and earlier philosophers like Hume, gave up on as hopeless. All the state need do, which it has often done, is claim that its values are favored by the majority, by the General Will, by the Blood of the Volk, or by God, and it is in business. It certainly doesn't have to claim that what it wants is favored by "reason." And if the "radical value-pluralist thesis" is unable to rationally determine what is best by rational means, then the irrationalist, or fideist, need only claim that he knows better by non-rational means. For the likes of Gray then to claim that this claim is WRONG is to contradict the "value pluralist" thesis by saying that there are SOME value systems, e.g. Islam, that are intrinsically evil, which means that reason can determine right and wrong after all.

Page 145: (...) liberal societys are ones in wich the truth of value-pluralism is accepted and celebrated.

Within limits, since murderers, rapists, marijuana smokers, prostitutes, polygamists, etc. etc. are criminalized and punished.

(...) In Berlin's thought, then, the master thesis of pluralism supports liberalism. (...) Berlin's liberalism (...) diverges radically from those that have dominated political philosophy in the post-war world, and indeed since J. S. Mill, in many important aspects. Its agonistic charachter, its acknowledgement of an irreducible diversity of rivalrous goods, including negative and positive liberties, distinguishes it from all those recent liberalisms that engage themselves in 'theories of justice', or of 'fundamental rights'. These liberalisms are destroyed by Berlin's insight that, not only is any sort of liberty only one among many incommensurable values, but the different liberties, negative and positive, are themselves rivalrous and uncombinable and sometimes incommensurable, such that choices must be made among them, without the help of any overarching standard or synoptic theory. (...)

This is a classic example of the fallacy of an "ignorantio elenchi" argument: because Gray is not aware of any successful "overarching standard or synoptic theory," he says that it therefore does not exist. In "agonistic" liberalism, there cannot be, according to Gray's logic itself, any genuine reason by it should not turn itself into Fascism, or anything else, by chosing incommensurable values that would be formative of such. As I have noted, "the master thesis of pluralism" does NOT support liberalism without second order claims that such pluralism, within limits, is good and right.

J.S. Mill, etc., continue to be better philosophers than Berlin or Gray because they understand that there must be an absolute moral claim in the end to fundamental rights and negative liberty, however it is thought, or not thought, to be justified. Surrendering the rational case does not even mean accepting the overall "value pluralism" thesis, since Hume himself did not do so.

If I am not mistaken, Berlin's liberalism is by far the most formidable and plausible so far advanced, inasmuch as it acknowledges the limits of rational choice and affirms the reality of radical choice. (...)

It is only "formidable and plausible" on the basis of a form of judicial positivism--i.e. a conservative assumption that what exists is good. That, of course, only works with what exists FOR US, since what exists for others (e.g. Khomeini) is very different. In the end that makes it, not "formidable and plausible," but weak and absurd in arguing with a dogmatic fideist like Khomeini. All the mushy, decadent, Western "value pluralism" would only demonstrate to him the need for the Word of God to determine what is right and good. Since there are plenty of Christians and Jews (and Hindus, etc.) who would say the same thing, it only reveals the intellectual isolation of people like Gray, who are accustomed to an academic life among generally like-minded individuals. He does not find himself arguing with educated fundamentalists who cannot be bluffed and browbeaten like students.

The argument of the compatibility, and support, between liberalism and pluralism can also be found form pages 150 to 160 of that book.

In the same way, Joseph Raz also makes a strong and powerful defense of pluralism in his "The Morality of Freedom".

If you got here, I am very pleased!!

I think the quotes above support my argument that the pluralistic is not nihilistic. Perhaps it is a bit sckeptical, but not a relativist one.

The pluralistic will NOT be nihilistic only if there is the exception I have noted: an absolute claim that plurality, within certain limits, is good. Since Gray cannot make that exception, his theory is really incoherent. Nor is it necessary to specify those limits, as Gray seems to demand (with his ignorantio elenchi), for the purpose of this argument. The existence of the limits, known or not, is implied by the contradiction of trying to claim that the existence of pluralism is good on the basis of a theory that only certain "modes of life" WILL claim that it is good. Thinking that the existence of the pluralism as such itself implies that pluralism is good commits the fallacy of inferring an "ought" from an "is." And thinking that the pluralism exists BECAUSE it is good is both to beg the question and, again, to contradict the theory itself. This is the same kind of tangle that Plato perceived in Protagoras's relativism, as I discuss in the "Relativism" essay under "Ethics" at my website.

To be "skeptical," Gray would have to "suspend judgment in all things," which he does not, or give up the rational project altogether, like Hume. But Gray wants to have his cake and eat it too: he wants to belabor non-liberal theories as "irrational" even while strictly saying that every value preference is irrational.

I don't know how much help this is. The point is a logical one about self-referential consistency, often missed by people in the history of philosophy. "Value pluralism" will not establish what Gray thinks it does, if he is not merely to say that "we" like it, without some hidden premises that would contradict his thesis about the failure of attempts to rationally ground liberalism. Paradoxically, he keeps trying to do the same thing.

Yours truly,
Kelley Ross


Correspondence

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