Does a liberal society require anything more from its citizens than respect for the law?by Oliver Letwin / October 20, 2001 / Leave a comment
Published in October 2001 issue of Prospect Magazine
Liberals believe in freedom-but how much, for whom and why? In a profound and important book, John Gray advances what might be called the sceptic-optimist answers to these questions.
Gray doubts the existence of any ultimate truths about how the ideal society should be organised. He doubts the ability of any society to reconcile the conflicting values espoused by individuals and groups within it. He doubts even the existence of Oakeshottian common traditions or practices, capable of binding a society together. He doubts, in short, that there is any firm basis upon which an argument (as opposed to a preference) for a liberal society could be advanced. This is the sceptical aspect of his thesis.
The optimistic aspect of the Gray thesis consists in the hope that a liberal society can nevertheless be sustained on the basis of the pragmatic acceptance by a wide variety of individuals and groups of “convenient articles of peace, whereby individuals and communities with conflicting values and interests may consent to coexist.” On this view, the “liberal project” becomes the pursuit of “modus vivendi among conflicting values,” establishing a society in which “toleration is valued as a condition of peace, and divergent ways of living are welcomed.”
The question that confronts those of us who regard the continuation of a liberal society in Britain as both the most precious and the most tenuous of our inheritances, is whether Gray’s optimism can be sustained, if the full range of his scepticism is justified.
The “convenient articles of peace,” upon which Gray’s hoped-for modus vivendi depends, are not things that can plausibly emerge from nowhere. They have to be formed-as laws, regulations, judgements, administrative acts-within some institutional framework that is accepted as legitimate by “individuals and communities with conflicting values.” To this extent, Gray’s attack on the Oakeshottian-conservative defence of common tr…