R&D interpret John Gray as dismissing liberalism, because “(1) there have been human beings who have flourished in regimes that are not liberal, and (2) there are forms of human flourishing that are driven out by liberal regimes.” (245)
Regarding (1), Gray’s exact quote is that “human beings have flourished in regimes that do not shelter a liberal civil society.” (247)
Well, I am sure they have, but poorly and not so well as they would have flourished under liberalism. Often the form of flourishing of men under oppressive systems has consisted precisely in fighting those systems to bring about a liberal society. Their heroism is most praiseworthy. Even then, however, it may be possible for them still to find purpose under liberalism by fighting to maintain this society; indeed, liberalism is almost a revolution in permanence, requiring “eternal vigilance” and constant struggle by those interested in lending their talents and dedication to this sort of work.
It’s true that civilization depreciates certain inborn traits, like ruthlessness or physical strength. A caveman born with such talents might achieve dominance within his tribe, get the best food available, leave many offspring, and in a manner of speaking “flourish.” His services would be less in demand in an advanced capitalist society. Tough luck, I say. Besides, even these savage qualities may be useful to society, say, if he becomes a good athlete.
Regarding (2), Gray claims that “the identity of human beings is understood in terms of their participation in common forms of life… So, it seems that incompatible social structures limit not only our ability to compare and evaluate goods and virtues rationally, but indeed our very understanding of what it is to be human.” (248)
I don’t like this. Every human being, unless perhaps horribly abused or brainwashed, is capable of choosing his culture and environment. I want to quote Mises here at some length who makes his point with characteristic force. He sets up the argument as follows:
Some ethnologists tell us that it is a mistake to speak of higher and lower civilizations and of an alleged backwardness of alien races. The civilizations of various races are different from the Western civilization of the peoples of Caucasian stock, but they are not inferior. Every race has its peculiar mentality.
It is faulty to apply to the civilization of any of them yardsticks abstracted from the achievements of other races.
Westerners call the civilization of China an arrested civilization and that of the inhabitants of New Guinea primitive barbarism. But the Chinese and the natives of New Guinea despise our civilization no less than we despise theirs.
Are we really different species of humans? Mises rejects this idea:
[These ethnologists] are utterly mistaken in contending that these other races have been guided in their activities by motives other than those which have actuated the white race.
The Asiatics and the Africans no less than the peoples of European descent have been eager to struggle successfully for survival and to use reason as the foremost weapon in these endeavors. They have sought to get rid of the beasts of prey and of disease, to prevent famines and to raise the productivity of labor.
There can be no doubt that in the pursuit of these aims they have been less successful than the whites. The proof is that they are eager to profit from all achievements of the West.
Those ethnologists would be right, if Mongols or Africans, tormented by a painful disease, were to renounce the aid of a European doctor because their mentality or their world view led them to believe that it is better to suffer than to be relieved of pain. Mahatma Gandhi disavowed his whole philosophy when he entered a modern hospital to be treated for appendicitis.
The North American Indians lacked the ingenuity to invent the wheel.
The inhabitants of the Alps were not keen enough to construct skis which would have rendered their hard life much more agreeable.
Such shortcomings were not due to a mentality different from those of the races which had long since used wheels and skis; they were failures, even when judged from the point of view of the Indians and the Alpine mountaineers. (HA, 84-5)
If only liberalism enables us to pursue virtue and happiness with a measure of efficiency, then other cultures would be well-advised to adopt it, as well.
Further, Gray is not a moral relativist or skeptic, or so it seems; this fact permits R&D to ask him, sensibly, “Can anyone reasonably claim to flourish if their societies have neither the practices for seeking friends, achieving integrity, courage, or justice, nor forms of disapproval for letting one’s passions run wild or repressing all emotions, or for caring nothing for knowledge, reason, consistency, or truth?”
The alleged problem of incommensurability of goods, including those that “are integrated into social wholes,” is solved as before: all values are commensurable through choice.