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by John Gray

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 2000
ISBN: 1-56584-589-7
Publisher: New Press

A disappointing capitulation to vague postmodern multiculturalism from one of England’s leading political and economic theorists.

In his latest broadside, Gray (European Thought/London School of Economics) states that, although classical liberalism was well suited to the early modern era and has contributed much of inestimable value to Western society over the last few centuries, it must be reconfigured in order to serve the interests of a truly pluralistic world. After taking readers on a quick tour of Great Political Philosophers—Isaiah Berlin, Joseph Raz, John Stuart Mill, John Rawls, Immanuel Kant—Gray arrives at his main point: liberalism’s assumption that eventually folks will figure out the single best way to order society no longer works in a multicultural world where people increasingly believe that there is no one best way to do things. Gray does not want to jettison liberalism so much as renew it. He is careful to say that he believes we can know right from wrong; he simply questions whether moral conundrums have only one right answer. He asserts that people should simultaneously affirm “universal values” and “many moralities.” Courage, for example, might be said to be a universal value, but different cultures understand it differently: Zulus consider fighting a battle courageous, while pacifistic Quakers believe that carrying a stretcher behind the lines merits a Purple Heart. Gray’s insistence on hammering home this obvious point, piling silly and unoriginal examples on top of one another, makes his slender volume feel like an endless tome. In previous books (False Dawn, not reviewed, etc.), even when Gray’s conclusions were debatable, they were argued with rigor and originality, neither of which is in evidence here.

Another John Gray offered more insight than this in Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus.