Wednesday, August 09, 2006

As A Good Conservative, For Gray It Is An Article Of Faith That Honesty Is Not A Virtue, or, I Will Probably Never Be Employed By The LSE

John Gray had a review of Amartya Sen's new book in the Guardian Review on Saturday. In it, three times, Gray ascribes a particular view to the majority of liberal theorists without ever showing any liberal theorists hold the view. Firstly, he states that

[u]nlike most liberal thinkers, [Isaiah] Berlin understood that, while freedom may be a universal value, it is far from being an overriding human need.

Secondly, that

[a]long with many liberal philosophers, [Sen] seems to think human conflict is a result of intellectual error.

Lastly, that

[f]or Sen, as a good liberal rationalist, it is an article of faith that the violence of identity is a result of erroneous beliefs.

Gray's evidence for the second two claims consists of a series of quotes from Sen's book, which it looks to me like he has at best misread, and would themselves in any case only show that Sen, rather than liberals more generally, seeks to explain human conflict through intellectual error. For example, he says:

[w]riting of sectarian conflict in post-Saddam Iraq, Sen observes: "It should not be so surprising that the overlooking of all the identities of people other than those connected with religion can prove to be a problematic way of trying to reduce the hold of religious sectarianism." The implication is that sectarianism in Iraq is a product of intellectual confusion...

Since Sen, in the statement quoted by Gray, is talking about methods of "trying to reduce the hold of religious sectarianism", it strikes me that the 'overlooking' he is talking about is likely not to be an epistemological blindspot, as Gray supposes, but a feature of Coalition policy, which has been surprisingly willing to let alone Iraqi politics fragment on sectarian grounds, given the predictable consequences of doing so. Of course, even if Sen did believe what Gray ascribes to most liberal theorists, that would not mean other liberal theorists did.

Or, again, leading up to the second of the uncorroborated assertions, earlier in the piece:

[t]here is a deeper unrealism in Sen's analysis, which emerges in his inability to account for the powerful appeal of the solitarist view. He tells us "there is a big question about why the cultivation of singularity is so successful, given the extraordinary naivete of the thesis in a world of obviously plural affiliations". Here we touch the heart of Sen's continuing bewilderment. Along with many liberal philosophers, he seems to think human conflict is a result of intellectual error.

Given that Gray himself earlier says

[t]he solitarist view of human identity is plainly false

and it is reasonable to wonder why a view which is plainly false persists, I fail to see what is wrong with stating that the falsity of a view leaves a "big question about why [it] is so successful", or why that means that Sen must believe that conflict caused by that view "is a result of intellectual error" any more than John Gray must.

Further, the causal account of the roots of human conflict Gray offers looks to me rather like that which one would reasonably expect Sen to provide. Gray says of the violence in Iraq:

[its causes] are many and tangled, including conflicts of interest, rival power structures and competition for resources. Iraq is a post-colonial construction whose populations are divided not only by ethnic and religious allegiances but also by rival claims on its oil reserves. Toppling Saddam's tyranny meant destroying the state and plunging the country into chaos. Shia, Sunni and Kurdish communities are not at one another's throats because they have a mistaken view of human identity. Trapped by the brutal logic of anarchy, they are locked in a battle for survival that could go on for generations.

This looks very much to me like what I will call the Collective Action Problem Explanation of violence: the lack of a stable regime has meant that other affiliations, able to provide the some of benefits associated with any established order, have come to the fore, and then, in the absence of an over-riding power, started competing over resources. Sen, amongst other things, has worked quite extensively on social choice theory, as indeed Gray states whilst introducing him. Social choice theory deals quite extensively in collective action problems: the Tragedy of the Commons, for example. Sen would therefore be well aware of the processes which are involved in the Collective Action Problem Explanation, and indeed probably rather better versed in them than Gray. Since none of the quotes Gray does produce actually contain a causal explanation of violence, it does not therefore seem unreasonable to believe that Sen does at least show an interest in the Collective Action Problem Explanation.

Gray's evidence for the first of his unsupported claims is, of course, liberal theorists' failure to grasp the importance of the Collective Action Problem Explanation, as exemplified by Sen. This works because by not grasping the importance of the Collective Action Problem Explanation, liberal theorists don't see that solutions to collective action problems, supplied not by freedoms but by stable authorities, are crucial to the reduction of violence in human life, a reasonable goal by anyone's lights. Now, I haven't read Sen's book, and I assume, maybe not wisely, that Gray has, so perhaps Sen genuinely does ignore it. That, though, does not licence the claim that the majority of liberal theorists ignore it. Indeed, it is the centre-piece of a major strand of liberal political thought, social contract theory - Rawls and Locke, neither minor figures in the liberal canon, are social contract theorists, for example. Social contract theory seeks to explain what justifies state power. In doing so, it necessarily calls upon the bad things that happen in the absence of state power - the things the Collective Action Problem Explanation talks about - since otherwise, the point of states and their creation of stable authorities would be totally obscure.

I said last year that

Gray is either so stupid as to be a shocking indictment of the processes one is required to go through to obtain a professorship in Britain, or a devious liar...

I tend now towards the latter explanation.


Ben said...

I recently enjoyed Gray's Modern Masters book on Berlin, but I don't know how accurate it is...

Rob Jubb said...

His more academic work may be, for all I know, perfectly respectable. But the chances of me now voluntarily reading any of it are vanishingly small.

Ben said...

Incidentally the Berlin book was published 1994 I think, certainly while he was still at Jesus College. I believe Stuart White was only appointed a year before I came, so had I not been much older I probably could have been taught by him...