Library Daze.

23 Jun

Every so often, I ricochet between books.  When I am not  mired in this dismal chaos, I romanticise it to anyone who will listen as the best part of this crazy writing life and what not. Utter rot.

My library wanders between zoo and carnival.

There are always some islands. Last night, one was John Gray.  Someone that defines politics as “the art of devising temporary remedies for recurring evils- a series of expedients, not a project for salvation”  is after my very soul. It is someone to trust for lucidity and humour, someone that has the enough perspective to be anti-communist and yet write, in the heyday of Fukuyama’s festivities to celebrate the end of history, this:

Ours is the era in which political ideology, liberal as much as Marxist, has a rapidly dwindling leverage on events, and more ancient, more primordial forces, nationalist and religious and soon, perhaps, Malthusian are contesting one another.. If the Soviet Union does indeed fall apart, that beneficent catastrophe will not inaugurate a new era of post-historical harmony, but instead a return to the classical terrain of history, a terrain of great-power rivalries, secret diplomacies, and irredentist claims and wars

I am, short to say, hooked. That he enjoys Isaiah Berlin without getting all sentimental about the man (and quotes him accurately, a rare feat in Berlin fandom. Most people, self included, mutilate his argument in pursuit of their own) is the olive in my martini. I bring him up because his essays remind me of a review I wrote during college where I inadvertently make a clever point. See if you can spot it.

Book: Joseph Raz, The Morality of Freedom. 


The Choice between Freedom and Autonomy.

I chose Raz for this assignment for two reasons: one, he makes impeccably polished arguments; second, he’s an icon in the last bastions of unadulterated white maleness. Analysing Raz from a gendered perspective, especially  something as fragile and as controversial as freedom, is an interesting challenge. I didn’t understand half the book, but I do have opinions on some of it, and they are what I shall lay out in the course of this review.

The first thing I learned with Raz is to begin resolutely skeptical. This can only be done by sternly separating the conceptual philosopher from the normative philosopher. One must prise his arguments apart, herding the premises to a place they can be assessed independent of their conclusions. As a conceptualist, Raz is flawless.  I wasn’t able to spot a single instance where he’s inconsistent, vague or obvious.  When he differentiates between consent and agreement, or between duty and obligation, his subtlety is humbling.

The normative philosopher is more yielding to my pugnacity, probably because how things should be is that much more susceptible to opinion than how (or what) things are. The normative thrust of the book is simply this: that freedom (or, rather, autonomy, which he defines as a form of responsible freedom) has moral value, and so it is a worthy goal to protect in a polity.

Raz argues that autonomous individuals are the only way a plural society can survive, as they internalise an “ideal of toleration” necessary for any modern just society. Next, Raz suggests that the “legitimate state” in a political set up has a responsibility to try ensure that this liberal utopia succeeds and actively promote it (opposed to the framework where the state interferes as little as possible to create said utopia). His argument here is ingenious: it is impossible for a state to be value neutral; all actions it takes (including inaction) will have consequences; it may as well be judged by the consequences and not what it “ought” and “ought not” do, as general notions of limited government suggest.

I have two problems with this, after an unrelenting hunt-

  • I dislike utopias (din, 2011: *retracts*)
  • I don’t understand why an already autonomous person deserves so much attention or protection from the state, when most people aren’t autonomous and that’s generally a worse situation to be in.

I realise that what Raz is saying isn’t that autonomous people should somehow be singled out, but that autonomy itself should be, that the state should try make us all autonomous. The state has been called upon to do many ambitious things in the history of jurisprudence, but the scope of that charge led me down a weird new path: moments of overwhelming pity for this forlorn creature stuck playing good-fairy to an unrepentant humanity. But I digress. What Raz means by “autonomy”, as far as I understood it, is the agency possessed by a moral actor to make unhindered choices and shape (partially) her own life. It is the ability of a person to make both long term and short term decisions from a bouquet of options. An autonomous person essentially lives the good life, they face no overwhelming compulsions that might cloud their reason or their options- say, poverty, or disease, or war, or abusive marriage.

The role of the state in all this is to enable individuals (by extension, groups) to coexist without endless dither about core moral principles. Naturally, Raz concludes, a legitimate state determines when someone’s freedom ought to be curtailed in favour of another autonomous person.

The state isn’t the final judge on this point: it lays out a system with which ordinary individuals gauge prevalent social debates to act on them with temporary certitude. Should they feel that they have a compelling reason for acting a certain way, and that reason hasn’t been adequately considered by authority, Raz would argue that the individual is perfectly justified in doing what he thinks is right.

Raz never advocates an unilateral duty of obedience. What he does emphasise is are universal “moral goods” (like keeping promises and identifying with a ‘just’ society )  that form the basis of autonomous persons’ judgement. How they are to be reconciled and acted upon he leaves to individuals.

This is his theory about autonomy.

The fourth section of the book is a theory of value for freedom(s), to enable people to rank and sort them, but that’s the bit I found unfathomable. This kind of autonomy, one which is “morally” valuable for its social benefit, is really just another variant of hegemony. It replaces the structure of law and state with cerebral conformity. I’m not denying that we’re products of society, or that we all have a moral compass — but to suggest that this moral compass is ascertainable (and, goodness, measurable!) by some universally acceptable standard is to make a mockery of freedom. Orderly living demands we be responsible with freedom- but freedom and responsibility are distinct concepts. They differ symbolically as well as consequentially.

If I am free, I am allowed to be irrational, irresponsible, disorderly- an ‘idle, steady vagabond’- as long as I accept the consequences. I am  allowed to rant and change those consequences (all consequences: moral, social, legal, and religious ones). I am expected to have goals that aren’t determined by the society I live in. I am allowed amorality.  Raz seems to suggest that because we should all be respectable gentry, it’s worth constructing a potential society where we are/can be.

Utopias are profoundly ahistoric and make for excellent propaganda, which ensures they are fertile breeding-spots for all manner of lunacy. Raz is (obviously) no lunatic, but his assumptions venture too close to illusion for comfort. Benign statehood notwithstanding, I’m fairly certain that we won’t leap from extreme exploitation to an organic commune in Cockaigne. If one is to place an ideal of freedom at the heart of politics, and on this point I am in full agreement with Raz,  it can’t be done by obfuscating individual freedom.

Freedom is an individual good,  and to be free is not to be content nor tractable (it is possible to be all three; but they aren’t nested ideas). Freedom’s value can only be gauged through its benefit/outcome: creativity. The way forward in any battle for true freedom, in my opinion, is not to intertwine freedom and responsibility but to celebrate freedom and its twin manifestations in independence and debate. We don’t need to tolerate-sanitise diversity, we need to celebrate it, and that’s the only way enough people will be free for the word to be worth a damn.


I am saying, in the flammable fashion of yesteryear chaos, this:

For the ideal of toleration we have inherited [from the liberal tradition] embodies two incompatible philosophies. Viewed from one side, liberal toleration is the ideal of a rational consensus on the best way of life. From the other, it is the belief that human beings can flourish in many ways of life.

If liberalism has a future, it is giving up the search for a rational consensus on the best way of life. As a consequence of mass migration, new technologies of communication and continued cultural experience, nearly all societies today contain several ways of life, with many people belonging to more than one. The liberal ideal of toleration which looks to a rational consensus on the best way of life was born in societies divided on the claims of a single way of life. It cannot show us how live together in societies that harbour many ways of life

John Gray, “Modus Vivendi”, Gray’s Anatomy

Who knew? Not me. Weighty words like “Liberal Paradox” worked far better than my flimsy freedoms in law school.


A List for Today .

The Magician, First of the Major Arcana in a standard Tarot deck.

Four Things Christianity inherited from Persia-

1. “The belief salvation is a type of historical event is an innovation, most likely originating around three thousand years ago with the persian prophet Zoroaster.

2. The belief that history is a battle between good and evil, and good can win derives from Zoroastrian traditions.

3. So does the belief, which is unknown in ancient Hebrew thought, in an approaching end-time”. (John Gray)

4. The word “Magi”, which in Persian meant “Priest” (Ganeev, via Dalrymple’s In Xanadu)


One Response to “Library Daze.”


  1. Pitching SpaceTime « ChaosBogey - July 9, 2010

    […] other point was the ol’ paradox of rationality: an argument stolen from Mahmood Mamdani, among oh-so-many others. Those enlightenment-bogies, the […]

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