Some comments on John Gray’s book, Liberalisms

Sarah Fitz-Claridge, 1994

More than any of the misguided criticisms from the left, the criticisms which we libertarians1 should do well to think about are those from such thinkers as John Gray, who was once a libertarian. Some of the ideas and tendencies I regard as misguided on the part of libertarians include foundationalism, justificationism, taking a conflict-of-interest- or rights-based view, failing to take into account human fallibility, utilitarianism, utopianism, dogmatism. All these tendencies can be criticised, as John Gray has shown. But I believe libertarianism (or “liberalism” as I shall refer to it here) needs none of those ideas.2

John Gray’s Liberalisms is, in my view, a brilliant but misconceived criticism of liberalism. The major flaw of John Gray’s thinking, and of this book in particular, can be seen in the very first paragraph of the preface: he says that he undertook a “single project, pursued continuously [for twelve years]—the project of defining liberalism and giving it a foundation.” Not surprisingly, the “enterprise ended in failure.” It is, indeed, not surprising. I agree with Karl Popper that there is no “foundation” for human knowledge, nor is one needed. John Gray says “The various projects of grounding liberalism (conceived as a set of universal principles) in a comprehensive moral theory—rights-based, utilitarian, contractarian or whatever—[were] examined in turn and found wanting,” as, again, one would expect. Gray admits that when he draws the conclusion that “no set of arguments is available which might … privilege liberal society over its rivals,” he is expressing the suspicion he had from the start. Gray shares this false assumption, and others, not only with many anti-liberals but with many (perhaps most!) libertarians themselves. In that sense I would say that his critique of liberalism is wrong, but we libertarians (I include myself) may have much to learn from his critique.

Gray would probably say in his defence that he is not seeking an absolute justification of the sort that Popper denied was necessary, but only a way of founding political science, and liberalism in particular, in some other, less controversial, discipline such as ethics or epistemology. But that sort of quest is misguided for the same reasons. We need only be critical, and judge ideas according to whether they solve problems. It is quite legitimate to seek defences of liberalism (against particular criticisms), or connections between liberalism and, for instance, morality or epistemology, or systematic formulations of liberalism (which must, however, always be tentative) so as to facilitate its criticism or defence. My own opinion is that all existing illiberal political philosophies (including those that one detects between the lines of Gray’s book) fall foul of epistemological critiques such as those of Popper. That is quite different from saying that there is an unassailable epistemological foundation from which liberalism can be deduced, still less is it saying that liberalism is “privileged.”

The argument from ignorance 

This is the name that John Gray gives (slightly misleadingly, because it has nothing to do with the logical fallacy of the same name) to the pro-liberal epistemological argument that, “…inasmuch as human knowledge and understanding are limited, and because they may be expected to develop and grow best in freedom,” liberalism seems preferable to authoritarianism. Astoundingly, John Gray then argues that “…the vital contribution to human well-being of the growth of knowledge is presupposed but undefended. It may be that human knowledge grows fastest in liberal society… but what is to assure us that human welfare is thereby promoted? It is a cliche among contemporary moralists, but one which contains some truth, that the growth of scientific knowledge has not unequivocally or uniformly promoted human interests.” Whilst I agree that developments arising out of the growth of scientific knowledge have not always been beneficial (for instance, the idea that women should give birth lying flat on their backs) I see no justification for John Gray’s sweeping scepticism about the value of knowledge in general. What sort of society is this non-liberal society envisaged by John Gray, in which human well-being is promoted through the suppression of knowledge?

So long as John Gray accepts (for the sake of argument—for he questions it elsewhere—that “human knowledge grows fastest in liberal society”, his idea of a non-liberal society that maximises human well-being raises immediate epistemological problems. Given human fallibility, those in power might be mistaken about many things relevant to “human well-being”: about the definition of human well-being; or the best way of maximising it; or the best way of replacing bad ideas or laws detrimental to human well-being already in existence. And therefore a society cannot maximise welfare without providing means for those powerful people and their ideas to be removed from power when they seem mistaken. So for that reason alone it must be an “open society” in Karl Popper’s sense. And then, what about the whole policy of maximising human well-being: what if it is mistaken, or misconceived, or wrongly interpreted, or unbalanced between individual and collective ‘human welfare’, or whatever? In order to maximise human welfare in any sense the society must create, and be continually creating, the knowledge to answer these questions, and to answer ever-arising criticisms of the prevailing answers. That is why the growth of knowledge is essential to human well-being, and that is one of the many reasons why John Gray is wrong and liberalism is right, foundation or no foundation.


1. When I use the word “libertarian” I mean it in the loosest possible sense: favouring freedom as opposed to authoritarianism. Many “Libertarians” (usually with a capital L) hold ideas that I do not share. My “libertarianism” is non-utopian, and I do not agree with those Libertarians who assert that the only thing wrong with the state school system is that the schools are not privately owned and run.
2. Another mistake libertarians tend to make is to think that it will be possible to create a libertarian society without doing anything about the inferior status of children. In my view, libertarians are unwise if they ignore this issue or its subtleties. The conventional view of and treatment of children is fundamentally incompatible with liberalism, and I believe that until libertarians recognise that, progress is going to be relatively slow.

Sarah Fitz-Claridge, 1994, ‘Some comments on John Gray’s book, Liberalisms’,