Wednesday, February 20, 2008

John Angliss: Value Pluralism

Guest post from John Angliss (a co-conspirator on the carnival of socialism)

First, an apology to Jim Jay - I had planned to write on the Ken and Boris show (with Brian Paddick as the policeman and Sian Berry presumably left to play the crocodile?) but I got distracted.

Instead, I want you to consider the theoretical implications of the Archbishop of Canterbury's statement on Sharia law one last time. No, not even the implications of what he said, which has been spun out of all proportions, but the implications of the nightmare scenario presented to us by certain tabloids: Sharia law governing some of the people of Britain.

Is there a political theory which we can connect this idea to? Yes. It was articulated by Isaiah Berlin in various guises, but most shockingly and explicitly by John Gray in his "Reply to Critics"*.

Gray calls his ethical theory "Value Pluralism" and the societal state it entails "Modus Vivendi". He begins by stating that there are ways of life which are equally valid, but which entail the adoption of clashing values. The life of a good Christian may include values, such as devotion to God, which are simply meaningless to atheists, but that does not entail that atheists ought to be forced to pray or Christians forced to abstain. He argues that a peaceful "live and let live" attitude must prevail. He then extends this metaphor and argues that a tyranny is not necessarily morally inferior to a democracy if it succeeds in meeting different needs.

To the charge of moral relativism, Gray answers that there are clearly bad ways to live life: alcoholism is not just a lifestyle choice and fascism is not an equally acceptable government type to any other. But he leaves the reader there, with no clear framework to distinguish right from wrong and the toleration of evil from toleration of difference.

The "modus vivendi" society is to be a society where anyone can freely choose their own conception of the good life, whether that life is refusing to educate your children and mutilating their genitals or living for free love in a hippy commune. Muslims can choose to be governed by sharia law: their disaffected offspring can choose to exit that life and live in a place where drugs are openly dealt nearby.

Gray began his academic life as a Thatcherite, talking eagerly of the New Right before discarding it. He tried becoming a Blairite, advocating market-based solutions to every public problem. Now, it would seem, he is trying to hint to Cameron's Conservatives about how to better marketise the private sphere.

Because a Britain of "modus vivendi" becomes a Britain of unfettered market-based choice - choose hospitals; choose schools; choose products; choose religion; choose law and choose your lifestyle. It is the completion of the liberal/libertarian project: government has had to concede everything to the individual, even the ability to minimise the harm to society which can be caused by individual lifestyle choices.

In the year and a half since writing his "Reply to Critics", Gray has pulled back sharply from his conclusions. His immediate response to the Archbishop's statement was to defend the power of the state to make laws, attack Thatcher's record of marketisation and then promptly argue for more devolution of school choice to individual communities (link). But the extreme position which he took in the Summer of 2006 looks like one of the directions we could be heading anyway, whether supported by political theorists or not.

*Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy, vol. 9, no. 2, June 2006. Reprinted in J. Horton and G. Newey, eds, The Political Theory of John Gray.


Jim Jay said...

I know that moral relativism is the bug bear of every political discussion but wasn't it a necessary development to counter balance the colonial view point that had hitherto underpinned all discussions?

I'm not for it of course - but I think the very word has become such an anathema that we can forget it did actually have something useful to say - even if it did so in too blunt a fashion.

John Angliss said...

This post is very good on that subject:
Gray does claim that he's not a moral relativist, although his judgements upon moral issues still seem arbitrary to me.

Leftwing Criminologist said...

The big flaw in the 'choice agenda' is obviously that the rich can afford to choose what they want whilst the poor get 'second choice' scraps off the table.

Jim Jay said...

Without wishing to be course - for me the big problem with the choice agenda is there is no meaningful choice. I can't choose to have a well funded state education system unless that option is on the table.

When you go to the supermarket all too often the choice of what to eat for your tea will be shit from a packet or shit from a box.

... It also comes in different colours... woop