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.