George Grant: the “good” vs “values”

The First Principles website has a fascinating profile of George Grant, “incontestably the most important Canadian conservative thinker of the twentieth century”.

What I find most interesting about Grant is his clear-eyed rejection of both what we would now call neoliberalism and US imperialism. On the former, the writer of the profile, Neil G. Robertson, writes:

For Grant, it was a serious confusion to associate conservatism with the ideology of the free market. As he was fond of pointing out, the right to make as much money as you can is the apotheosis of liberalism, not a mark of conservatism. For Grant, conservatism was related not to one side of the modern debate between socialism and capitalism, but rather was rooted in a desire to conserve still abiding instances of an older, pre-modern relation of humanity to God and the world.

Grant contrasted “the older European culture of contemplation, reflection, and higher purpose united with social solidarity” with “the revolutionary individualism of the United States”. Grant’s lament for his own nation was that it was giving up the former for the latter; it seems equally the case that in Europe, and especially in Britain, “revolutionary individualism” has become dominant over any older culture of “contemplation, reflection, and higher purpose united with social solidarity”.

Influenced by Jacques Ellul, Grant argued in his later work that this triumph of individualist modernity was an unavoidable consequence of modern technological society, at the heart of which lies “a conception of the essence of humanity as freedom or as will”, with technology as an instrument “mastery of both human and non-human nature”. For Grant, while technology has undoubtedly “greatly liberated human beings from suffering and the slavery of work”, it has also turned the world “into potential raw material, at the disposal of our ‘creative’ wills.”

This then leads Grant to a fascinating insight into contemporary talk of “values” or “quality of life”, which has almost completely supplanted “the older language of the ‘good'”. For Grant, this is a consequence of our “technological fate”:

The older language implies a given order or set of purposes, and with this, a sense of “nature” as an ordered whole—ultimately, for Grant, a sense of God as the fundamental source and end of this order. But this older language has been replaced with a language that derives worth from a realm of “values” that are posited by human agency.

To Grant, the language of values is a confused language: “Everybody uses the word ‘values’ to describe our making of the world: capitalists and socialists, atheists and avowed believers, scientists and politicians. The word comes to us so platitudinously that we take it to belong to the way things are. It is forgotten that before Nietzsche and his immediate predecessors, men did not think about their actions in that language.”

In other words, “the good” implies a prior order to which we seek to conform, whereas “values” imply that we are ultimately free to choose our own notions of meaning and truth.

Grant’s vision of technological modernity’s destruction of all prior concepts of “Justice” and the “Good” led him a position that could appear (and in many ways was) “deeply pessimistic”. However, against this he insisted that “to be a Christian one cannot be a pessimist”. Even if all that can be achieved in some circumstances is “lamentation and waiting”, and utopian hopes are “folly”, Grant rejected “inaction or cynicism”. As he told student protestors in 1965:

Nothing I have said denies for one moment the nobility of protest. Nothing I have said denies that justice is good and that injustice is evil and that it is required of human beings to know the difference between the two. To live with courage in the world is always better than retreat or disillusion.

The politics we should adopt in the face of technological modernity was one of realism without despair, and of seeking opportunities to express our humanity through our love and intelligence. As Grant told his student audience:

We must face the laws of [technology’s] necessity—its potential to free men from natural necessity, its potential for inhumanity and tyranny. We must not delude ourselves and we must not throw up our hands. We must define possible areas of influence with the most careful clarity. When in this mammoth system can we use our intelligence and our love to open spaces in which human excellence can exist?

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