February 19, 2013


The Silence of Animals by John Gray: review : John Gray's study of the human condition, The Silence of Animals, intrigues Jane Shilling. (Jane Shilling, 19 Feb 2013, The Telegraph)

In modern Western society, the melancholy experiences of the last century have largely (though not entirely) put us off the idea that the remedy for mankind's ills is an -ism, forcibly applied. The brutal utopianisms of imperialism, Nazism and communism are generally regarded by right-thinking people as a kind of atrocious collective delirium. We look back on those passages of our collective experience as a man convalescing from a dangerous fever might recollect his febrile ravings - with a horrified determination never to return to those shameful states of delusion.

But the human inclination to meddle with the status quo is irrepressible: we can't not be doing something. With utopianism off the list of possibilities, meliorism - or the notion that every day in every way, things are getting better and better (or would be, if only a different political party had won the last election) - seems an attractive alternative.

Eschewing convulsive messiness in the form of revolutions and invasions, meliorism imagines a brighter future arrived at by gentler means: education; a respectful relationship with the environment; the eradication of poverty, ignorance and disease; and, of course, capitalism (properly regulated) - all leading to a moment in the not unimaginably distant future when peace and prosperity will cover all the world. Or something along those lines.

Who could possibly object to such a benevolent vision? Well, the political philosopher John Gray, for a start. Gray, whose academic career included professorships at the London School of Economics, Oxford, Harvard and Yale, is a critic of the neo-liberal philosophy that proposes that advances in human scientific knowledge will necessarily be accompanied by equivalent progress in ethics and politics.

First, the End of History does not promise ethical progress.  It concerns the means by which we organize society, not the ends towards which it is organized.

But, secondly, because, in practice,  it does universally render higher standards of living more equitably distributed, it achieves ethical and political progress. To ignore the universal affluence that Western man lives in is to make one's critique of our culture risible.

Posted by at February 19, 2013 5:34 AM

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