[Paleopsych] TLS: John Gray: America's fading religion

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John Gray: America's fading religion
The Times Literary Supplement, 1995.3.21

[Over several days, I'm sending all twenty-two articles and reviews in the 
TLS written by John Gray, the most thought-provoking philosopher alive. He 
changes his mind, too, an extreme rarity.]

    James Q. Wilson, The Moral Sense, 313pp. New York:Free Press. £19.95
    (paperback, £9.99). - 0 02 935405 6.

    Karl Kraus remarks somewhere that psychoanalysis is a symptom of the
    disease of which it pretends to be the cure. Much the same might
    reasonably be said of neo-conservative cultural criticism in the
    United States. It is common among neo-conservative thinkers and
    publicists to condemn the excesses of modern individualism, such as
    the cult of romantic self-expression, and to inveigh against such
    supposed blemishes of modernity as cultural relativism and
    multiculturalism. It is notably uncommon to find neo-conservative
    writers asking why the cultural disorders they diagnose are so
    peculiarly prominent in the United States, and do not affect in
    anything like the same degree other modern societies. Why is it, one
    is tempted to ask, that in France, for example, the phenomenon of
    multiculturalism is virtually unknown ? And where else, apart from the
    United States, is there a "cultural war" over the core curricula in
    schools and universities? That questions such as these are not asked
    among neo-conservatives, still less answered, may be accounted for
    merely by their ignorance or parochialism. More plausibly, it is to be
    explained by a repression, in neo-conservative thinking, of doubts
    about the Enlightenment project that are as unsettling and uncongenial
    to neo-conservatives as they are to American liberals. For what all
    shades of American opinion have in common is a faith in the
    Enlightenment project shared by no other people at this stage in human
    history, and a willed blindness about the role this faith plays in
    generating the disorders of contemporary society, most especially in

    In a wide-ranging and reflective book, James Q. Wilson reveals at the
    start an Americocentric limitation in his thought that plagues his
    analysis throughout, when he tells his reader that "We are engaged in
    a cultural war, a war about values. It is not a new war . . . it has
    been going on for centuries as part of a continuing struggle at
    national self-definition. Once the issues were slavery, temperance,
    religion and prostitution; today they are divorce, illegitimacy, crime
    and entertainment." It seems not to have occurred to Wilson that the
    pursuit of national identity via recurrent spasms of moral reform, if
    it really characterizes much of the American historical experience
    which is more than doubtful has been a singularity among modern
    nations, and remains so. Nor does he seem to notice that the recent
    American conflict over the meaning of its civil religion an
    Enlightenment religion of world improvement and universalistic
    individualism has not been replicated in any other country.

    This preoccupation with the singularities of the recent cultural
    history of the United States imparts an air of oddity to Wilson's
    entire project, since its aim is supposed to be entirely universal
    that of rescuing us from moral scepticism by convincing us of the
    reality of an innate human disposition to moral judgment and
    behaviour. Because his argument is dominated by the local and
    transitory context of recent debates in America, it fails to persuade,
    even when all that he is doing is to walk again over well-trodden
    ground in the argument for a moral sense. As Wilson himself notes,
    this is a very familiar argument of the eighteenth-century Scottish
    and other British moralists. His aim is to supplement this
    eighteenth-century argument with supporting evidences from the social
    sciences that were not available to the original moral-sense
    theorists. It must be said that Wilson's use of recent empirical work
    is fair-minded and judicious in the highest degree, never simply
    partisan, and does go some distance towards his goal of reinforcing
    the eighteenth-century argument. Yet the telescoping of modern
    intellectual history that his account involves, together with the lack
    of any systematic reference to the large twentieth-century literature
    on scepticism, realism and related issues in moral epistemology,
    leaves his argument with large and embarrassing lacunae. The
    incautious reader would be surprised to learn that modern ethical
    scepticism finds some of its strongest statements in the works of
    fideist and conservative writers, not liberal humanists: it was
    Pascal, after all, who observed that it is a queer sort of justice
    that is different on the other side of the Pyrenees, and Montaigne who
    deployed Pyrrhonism in the service of obedience to authority.

    Again, Wilson's neglect of the vast and subtly ramified philosophical
    literature on questions of ethical realism leads him to crudify the
    views of some recent writers, such as Richard Rorty, to a point at
    which they are almost unrecognizable. Most important, he does not
    confront the hardest problem for moral-sense theories, which is that
    of accounting for the fact that cardinal points in our current moral
    sense, such as the wrongness of slavery, are not shared by many deeply
    reflective and civilized men at other periods, even in the history of
    Western cultures. In this crucial respect, it cannot be said that
    Wilson makes any real advance on the wri-tings of the
    eighteenth-century moral-sense theorists.

    There is much in Wilson's argument against topical fallacies that is
    shrewd, commonsensical and illuminating. At the same time, the
    limitation of his intellectual horizons to the ephemera of current
    American controversy gives his book a defensive and polemical aspect
    and disables it as a contribution to moral theory, and even as an
    exercise in cultural criticism. It is difficult to resist the
    suspicion that the significance of The Moral Sense will be lapidary,
    as an apology for a civil religion whose days plainly are now

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