Straw Dogs 3: The Vices of Morality

In this chapter, John Gray argues against the very idea of morality, considering it an absurd concept, linked to the idea that we are different from other animals.

From a general, methodological point of view, the chapter is somewhat disappointing. The author keeps committing the naturalistic fallacy: dismissing ethics because humans can be very violent and are full of self-deception. But the whole point of ethics is making a distinction between what it is and what it ought to be. Therefore you can’t argue against ethics by presenting non-ethical behaviors, because ethics doesn’t plan to explain how humans do actually behave, but how they should behave according to a series of rules. You could discuss whether those rules make sense or not, you could also argue that trying to create a series of norms on how to behave based on what ought to be is hopeless, but this is different from stating that there is the Shoah, and the Gulags, so there are no ethics. It would be like pointing at several scientists who have cheated in their papers and use that as a proof to show that there is no scientific method.

And of course, every anecdote of violence and moral dishonesty could be matched with an example of compassion and heroism. Take Viktor Frankl Man’s Search for Meaning which presents a very different moral from Auschwitz.

The author tries to get rid of the is versus ought debate in pages 112-113 but his argument is quite weak,mostly appealing at Daoism as a culture/religion in which that distinction didn’t work as expected. It is interesting, but not strong enough as an argument.

However, I fully agree with his description on how Daoists live, and lately I’ve been thinking that Daoists and Gray are right: to live a meaningful life is just to consider the present moment in a non-judgemental manner, consider what is best for the whole situation, and not just our own interests, and just do that.

Also, the text contains powerful insights

– the difference between rules of thumb to live well and moral imperatives that derive from divine principles. Rules of thumb help you to live a better life and don’t disturb other people, while moral imperatives do not seem as able to dp that. This  phenomenon – I add- can be seen in Buddhist ethics, in which moral precepts are not commandments, but suggestions that will lead you to a happier life, so they are precepts you should take for your own interest, for living a better life.

– Historically, morality has not been addressed to the whole mankind, but to specific groups. The ethics of the Old Testament is addressed only to Jews. Therefore -I add- “Thou shall not kill” doesn’t refer to any human, it means “do not kill other Jews”.

– It is also refreshing to remember how intellectuals in the Western world were trying to cover all the atrocities perpetrated by Stalin. We still adore authors and thinkers like the Bernard Shaw or Jean Paul Sartre, despite they try to disguise genocides as “revolutionary actions”

And my favorite (p. 99) how Humanism and Christianity make tragedy impossible. Tragedies are either “blessing in disguise” (Christians) or “an edifying reminder of how we can thrive in misfortune”

Some things I didn’t find as enlightening

When he argues in page 94 that Hilter shared some Enlightenment ideas,namely, positive and negative eugenics I think he is going a little bit too far. Eugenics was mostly a pseudoscientific cover  for very unenlightened beliefs of the superiority of one group against another.

When  he dismisses Rawl’s theory of justice because moral intuitions are not stable but rapidly modify in time. “A century ago everyone knew that gay sex was wrong”. (p. 102). Besides the fact that Rawl’s theory has included some mental experiments precisely to avoid that, I don’t see why moral intuitions cannot change through time, the same way that our scientific intuitions do. Only religious people believe that moral truths are the same independent of how human culture and society develops.

I didn’t get the point of section 10 “A weakness for prudence”.  He asks “Why should my future goals matter more than those I have now?” the answer is so obvious, we, animals, want to live well as much time as possible, so we want to avoid things that can be pleasurable in the short term but fatal later, that I guess he is trying to make some other point, which I don’t get, or trying to be an enfant terrible.

A more personal note: One of the things that annoy me most of the XXI century art and culture is presenting as “deep” and “revolutionary” giving very detailed descriptions of violence and human suffering in novels and movies. John Gray does that a couple of times in this chapter. At best, it is just emotional violence on the reader passing as arguments, at worst it is sadism disguised as haute culture. I’m thinking of stuff like the movie “The Act of Killing” which some critics consider one of the best documentaries of all times.

Straw Dogs: 2. The Deception

Following the schedule of our Reading Calendar

(I have to admit that it is long, long ago that I am not that virulent against a writer)

Well, as David guessed and I didn’t, the first chapter was intended as a quick overview of Gray’s ideas and that is why everything seemed written in a aphoristic way. We have much more detail and argumentation in this second chapter. That is good.

The central point of the chapter, as far as I understand it, is that the human consciousness, that rational agent that is us with free will and moral values that perceives the world, makes decisions and acts according to that decisions is nothing but an illusion. We are in reality a battlefield of different animal drives, brain modules, ideas, mental agents etcetera, each one with its own agenda and “we” are just spectators of “our” actions.

To defend his point he mixes through the chapter two strategies which seem to me to be incompatible. On one side the philosophical approach. We cannot know if the world exists because the only thing we have are sensations from which we create illusions to make sense of that sensations (Hume) and the biggest and more dangerous of that illusions is the idea of ourselves (Schopenhauer). So neither the world neither us exist and if they/we exist, we cannot know about their/our nature and reality.

The other strategy assumes that the world do exist, that is populated by animals that have a biological and evolutionary history, some of which have developed brains and by studying them scientifically we are advancing in the idea that consciousness, free will etcetera are not but illusions.

So, I think that it would be great for Mr Gray, in order to clarify his position, to decide if the world exists and is knowable or not. If Science is a tool for knowing anything and if this anything tells us something relevant about the real world. Are we playing the neuroscientist or the Schopenhauerite?

For my part I feel satisfied with this two paragraphs of the first sections of the chapter:

Other animals are born, seek mates, forage for food, and die. That is all. But we humans -we think- are different. We are persons, whose actions are the results of their choices. Other animals pass their lives unawares, but we are conscious. Our image of ourselves is formed from our ingrained belief that consciousness, selfhood and free will are what define us as human beings, and raise us above all other creatures.

In our more detached moments, we admit that this view of ourselves is flawed. Our lives are more like fragmentary dreams than the enactments of conscious selves. We control very little of what we most care about; many of our most fateful decisions are made unbeknownst to ourselves. Yet we insist that mankind can achieve what we cannot: conscious mastery of its existence. this is the creed of those who have given up an irrational belief in God for an irrational faith in mankind. But what if we give up the empty hopes of Christianity and humanism? Once we switch off the soundtrack -the babble of God and immortality, progress and humanity- what sense can we make of our lives? (p. 38)

From that point on everything gets confusing to me with some pearls here and there:

Kant’s dogmatic slumber may have been disturbed by Hume’s scepticism, but it was not long before he was snoring soundly again. (p. 42)

My problem with this book is that I have the feeling that it contradicts itself at every two sentences and plays, unnecessarily, to be a naughty boy. Let’s go to the beginning of section 8,

The calls of birds and the traces left by wolves to mark off their territories are no less forms of language that the songs of humans. What is distinctively human is not the capacity for language. It is the crystallisation of language in writing. (p. 56)

that is a vivid example of what you DON’T have to do ever. He is going to talk about the effects on humanity of writing. He could have begun by saying: “Writing is a human distinctive capacity with such and such impact”. But no, he decides to include a gratuitous assertion without ANY relevance for the following argumentation, an assertion that he is not going to use or refer to any more, implying that human language is essentially nothing different from animal language. This can only have the effect of upsetting and alienating the reader and disposing him against a quiet and rational reflection on what comes later. This is rebel teenager writing.

And, just playing to the philosophers, if there is no relevant difference between humans and the rest of animals, the “distinctively human capacity of writing” should have no relevance at all and this section should no exist.

But the worst comes at the end:

Plato’s legacy to European thought was a trio of capital letters – the Good, the Beautiful and the True. Wars have been fought and tyrannies established, cultures have been ravaged and peoples exterminated in the service of these abstractions. Europe owes much of his murderous history to errors of thinking engendered by the alphabet. (p. 57)

What? Wait a moment. You are writing a book arguing that we are animals driven by our passions without any conscious abstract decision mechanism and now you write this? Are you drunken? Wars and tyrannies have being fought and established by the lust and thirst of power and sex and riches and by the hates and loves of people behaving like animals. And all Plato’s legacy abstract constructions were just nothing more than an illusion to justify such behaviours.

That’s my feeling with the book at every step. A writer that has interesting things to say but doesn’t know how to say them without complicating and embroiling everything.

He ends the chapter explaining the aim of his work:

(…) we should set ourselves a different aim: to discover which illusions we can give up, and which we will never shake off. (…) Henceforth our aim will be to identify our invincible illusions. Which untruths might we be rid of, and which can we not do without? -that is the question, that is the experiment. (p.83)

Which I don’t understand and maybe someone can help me.

Also, since I know nothing about Buddhism, I would like to hear what do you think of his vision of the Buddhist approach that he considers, well oriented but doomed to fail.

Straw Dogs Chapter 1: The Human

In this first chapter, John Gray presents the main thesis that are going to be developed in the book, and gives some arguments to support them.

Here is my own rendering of those main thesis:

1) Humans are not special. They are not masters of their own destiny, but just another animal, with the same problems and irrational behavior that other animals show. “The upshot of scientific inquiry is that humans cannot be other than irrational. ”

2) Humanism is not a rational view of the world, but superstition based on Christian faith.

3) When Darwinism is properly understood, we can understand that there is no hope for human salvation. As the author states in the preface to the paperback edition: “A truly naturalistic view of the world Leaves no room for secular hope”

4) Science  serves two main human interests: hope in a better future and being able to censor those people that do not think like the majority. It is the only unquestioned source for such beliefs in our humanistic world nowadays.

5) Technology is not a source for good, but a way for humans to look for what is more pressing now, without caring about moral issues or consequences in the long run. “Pogroms are as old as christendom, but without railroads, telegraphs and poison gas there could have been no holocaust. […] humanity’s worst crimes were made possible only by modern technologies.”

So far, the book doesn’t sound than other nostalgic for an ancient regime of shared beliefs and social norms. This chapter gives us powerful insights. Let me point out the ones I found more relevant:

-It is very difficult to establish the effect that a technology is going to have in humans beforehand.

– Technology is not something humans do. It has its own separated existence and inner laws. We can find technology in insects as well.

– the distinction between artificial and natural doesn’t make ultimate sense: “Cities are no more artificial than hives of bees”

– Green humanism, despite their luddite pretensions considering technology harmful ,share with technological humanism the Christian superstition of humans being something special, with free will and the ultimate capacity to save themselves.

– Religious fundamentalism is not the answer to the problems that technological humanism gives us. “Religious fundamentalists see themselves as having remedies for the maladies of the modern world. In reality they are symptoms of the disease they want to cure.

– Any fantasies about returning to a former time in which we share common views of existence, a common faith and so on, are doomed. “We cannot believe as we please. Our beliefs are traces left by our unchosen lives.”

And then, some other parts I don’t find them that good:

Arguments based on philosophy of science are not that impressive. When he quotes Feyerabend at the ultimate reference about Galileo he is forgetting decades of further research of history and philosophy of science that shows that there is more to the debate on Heliocentrism than being good with rhetoric and writing in Italian. Similarly, when he says that Popper philosophy of science can’t explain real developments in science, he chooses Einstein, which is a very bad choice indeed. One of the main case studies in favor of Popper’s falsifiability is the famous crucial experiment during a solar eclipse in 1919 that showed -in a very Popperian fashion- that Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity was -provisionally- right.

Plus, even if Gray is right stating that Popper got wrong how science works -an statement that most philosophers of science would agree nowadays- that will only show that Popper was wrong, not that science is irrational.

Also, throwing quantum mechanics in the discussion to show that the world is irrational is quite cheap. Unfortunately it seems like a common resource for people that want to show that science is irrational.  I am planning to get signatures  to approve a law that anyone that uses in a book quantum mechanics in a oblique way related to some metaphysical debate should give 10% of their royalties to the “Leave Quantum Mechanics Alone Foundation”.

A great deal of the argumentation from this chapter is based on Lovelock’s hypothesis on Gaia: the Earth as a sort of superorganism, to show that humans instead of being the kings of the creation and masters of their own destiny are just a disease on the Planet, which the Earth will sooner or late wipe out completely. The tone is dark and pessimistic. This sentence from the preface to the paperback edition says it all:

happily humans will never live in a world of his own making

Straw Dogs by John Gray

To replace the early and unfortunate disappearance of Diamond’s book from our lives, from next week we will be reading a new book:

Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals by John Gray.

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This author was presented by Nassim Taleb in chapter 17 of Antifragile as:

Finally, John Gray, the contemporary political philosopher and essayist who stands against human hubris and has been fighting the prevailing ideas that the Enlightenment is a panacea -treating a certain category of thinkers as Enlightenment fundamentalists. (p. 258)

On our Blog’s comment to that chapter I wrote:

Taleb cites also some contemporary anti Enlightenment writers and ideas and I have take note of John Gray to read some of his books.

So here we are.

You can find a schedule of chapters in our Reading Calendar.

Chapter 7 Constructive Paranoia

This book is like a journey through the New Guinean forests: full of surprises, never knowing what to expect. Unfortunately not all the surprises are good ones, neither is this chapter.

Diamond has decided, one more time, to change the structure and contents of this chapter. This time, the concept is “autobiography”: Diamonds uses it a excuse to explain with lots of detail three dangerous moments of his life.

The excuse is an interesting one: “constructive paranoia” as he calls it. The idea is powerful: repeating a lot certain activity which has a low probability of risk can be dangerous even fatal, so it is a good idea to act paranoid while you are doing certain activities that may imply dangerous risks, like hunting in a forest or changing a lightbulb.

At first it made me think of Nassim Taleb’s Antifragile, and I hoped I’d get some insight on how traditional societies perform such “constructive paranoia” and what can we learn from that.
Instead, what we got are three long anecdotes of moments in which Diamond was in danger and how they relate to constructive paranoia.

The first anecdote is before he learnt about constructive paranoia and how he was saved from a crazy New Guinea Sorcerer by the shouts of his friends. The second one describes Diamond’s epiphany on the importance of constructive paranoia and how he almost die by drowning due to the careless driving of a boat driver. The third gives us a presentation of constructive paranoia in action, how it can be too much sometimes, but nevertheless, it is a lot better to be aware of the risks and act paranoid than being killed by a rival tribe.

Finally there is a brief reflexion on how traditional societies have to accept some risks, and we got short descriptions of quite risky behavior, like the !Kung trying to steal food from lions.

It was an entertaining reading -thought i have to skip some of the details as it got too descriptive for me tastes- but I don’t feel I’ve learnt much on how traditional societies interact with danger.

Next chapter is supposed to be about that dangers and risks in traditional societies. But I’m starting to be a little worried. What it will be about? A philosophical essay? Erotic fiction? With Jared Diamond you never know…