Among the several writers whom Melanie Phillips cites with approval is the English political philosopher John Gray. People will have their enthusiasms, and we are prepared to forgive Phillips her enthusiasm for John Gray. It is a failing that she shares with many writers for whom we have the highest regard. We would, however, be less than candid if we failed to note that we find the enthusiasm that many conservatives feel for John Gray baffling. Gray did make his reputation as a kind of maverick conservative a decade or so ago. Since then, however—and especially since the rise of Tony Blair—he has been like Henry James’s chameleon on a piece of plaid, taking on just about every coloring it is possible to imagine. Gray has elevated inconsistency and equivocation almost to an art. Is there a potentially influential position that John Gray has not at least tacitly endorsed (and subsequently half taken back)? If so, it is a mere oversight, bound to be corrected in his next book —which, as always, will be appearing in a few weeks.
We were spurred to these unpleasant thoughts by Gray’s latest performance, “The Light of Other Minds,” an essay on John Stuart Mill that appears in the February 11 number of The Times Literary Supplement. Mill is a perfect subject for John Gray: vague, moralistic, superior—like calls out to like, as it always will. Not that John Gray unambiguously endorses Mill. That would be a very un-Millian procedure. Although he is said to be “less dated than most of his contemporaries,” Mill is nonetheless held to be “Eurocentric” and naïve about the salvational properties of education. According to Gray, “Mill’s approach to questions of liberty enables us to think more realistically about the globalization of human rights”; nevertheless Gray says that Mill’s faith in the inevitable progress of moral enlightenment and the “species-wide convergence in both values and institutions” is “groundless” and “practically worthless.” Gray quotes with evident approval Mill’s famous appeal to “utility in the largest sense, grounded on the permanent interest of man as a progressive being,” but then chides him (via an appeal to Isaiah Berlin) for relying on anything so non-utilitarian as the idea of permanent interests. It is one from column A and one from column B; after 1500 words or so, the goulash is complete.
Brilliant though he undoubtedly was, Mill was also an embodiment of moralizing utilitarian fatuousness—a “moral Don Quixote,” in James Fitzjames Stephen’s memorable phrase. This of course explains a large part of his appeal—not least his appeal to writers like John Gray who aspire to Millian portentousness. Nevertheless, whatever Mill’s failings, it has been left to John Gray to make the breathtaking discovery that Mill is really a precursor of both Al Gore and the Australian animal-rights (that is, non-human animal-rights) activist Peter Singer. According to Gray, Mill not only “anticipates late twentieth-century anxiety about the integrity of the natural environment,” but also exhibits a laudable understanding that “it is not membership of the human species that grounds moral concern but rather sentience and the capacity for pleasure and pain.” Gray praises Mill for environmental sensitivity and for his stand against “speciesism,” though not, of course, without leaving himself a way out. Flaccid environmentalism is a certified OK attitude this week, but you never know what changes of sentiment the tide of ideological fashion will bring. So, like Karl Marx, Gray always leaves himself plenty of wiggle room. “It’s possible that I shall make an ass of myself,” Marx wrote to Engels in 1857. “But in that case one can always get out of it with a little dialectic. I have, of course, so worded my proposition as to be right either way.”
John Gray’s essay appears as the sixth installment of a series called “Giants Refreshed” in the TLS. Judging from Gray’s performance, anyway, it might have been called “Giants in Jest.” Gray criticizes what he calls the “vulgar prejudice that environmental concern is necessarily Luddite or anti-modern.” But the real issue, as the philosopher Harvey Mansfield puts it in his essay “The Legacy of the Late Sixties (1997),” is the moralizing sentimentality of professional environmentalists and “speciesists.” “Environmentalists,” Mansfield writes, “worry about future generations—of what? Cockroaches?”
By itself the environmental outlook seems as one-sided as the technological… . The two views are opposite sides of the same coin, both lacking appreciation of any problem in the relationship of man and nature. In our public schools today, … environmentalism is instilled with more fervor and authority than religion used to be. The reason is that environmentalism is dressed up as science and it tolerates no contrary faith. It is indeed a form of pantheism, the diseased kind of religion demeaning to humanity and endemic to democracy that Tocqueville warned about. Environmentalism is school prayer for liberals.
John Gray offers us “The Light of Other Minds” with his hands firmly folded in an attitude of piety. There is perhaps nothing wrong with that, though how he ever managed to pass himself off as a conservative remains an unfathomed mystery.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 18 Number 7, on page 3
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