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.

3 thoughts on “Straw Dogs 3: The Vices of Morality

  1. David, this chapter is funny. It reminds me of discussions you and me had 25 year ago at the university about Ethics. I think, curiously, that my position then was very aligned with Mr Gray’s. And I say “I think” because, again, I am not sure of understanding him.

    You say:
    “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.”

    But, I think the author has a point here. If ethics is only about human intuitions and doesn’t crystallize into behaviours, it may be an interesting subject of study for scholars and a way to get public funds to pay for they children’s schools but it is of no relevance when we think about, law, politics and the future of humanity which is the subject of his book. The future is going to be built by people’s acts and not by peoples intentions or intuitions.

  2. I see what you mean, Carlos. But ethics *can* be about actions as well. I agree that ethics tend to be a scholar “sex of the angels” discussion with no application to real life. Fortunately, there are exceptions.
    Consider Rawl’s Theory of Justice, briefly discussed by Gray in this chapter. His idea of what justice is, which for him it includes some redistribution of resources. His theory was improved in several legislations, and gave us “positive discrimination”, for example. It’s not that I like “positive discrimination”; I’m just pointing at the fact that ethics can have lots of influence. Or consider Pettit’s theory on “Republicanism” and how much it influenced the development of the “new left” by guys like Tony Blair.
    Gray presents ethics as a metaphysical discussion on whether we are autonomous and have free will or not and therefore we are accountable for our actions or not. I agree with him that this discussion is pointless.
    However, there is also a more recent field of “applied ethics” which aims at discussing real problems, like is it ok to use double blind tests on medicines which could cure a fatal disease or should everybody get it? Here, philosophy, used with moderation, can be of great help.

    And, yes, I remember those discussions. And they apply to Gray in a sense. If I remember well -it was a looong time ago- you had the position that there was no way to establish an objective criteria for ethics or aesthetics. A common friend seemed to share your view, but as the discussion went along we realized that he thought that there is a way to establish objective criteria about ethics and aesthetics, and he was able to see it, but not us, which were too dumb 🙂
    I had the same impression reading Gray. On the surface he seems to be saying that ethics is impossible, but when if I look deeper, I have the impression that he is actually saying: “most philosophers are idiots and can’t figure out what ethics is. But I do!”

    • >On the surface he seems to be saying that ethics is impossible
      Well I don’t think he goes that far away. He simply points out that people have multiple desires and intuitions. They want to behave well and want other people to behave well, they want security and love and sex and beer and being respected and feel useful etcetera.
      In the Christian thought framework the moral desires are put apart from the rest because they come in the form of rules decreed by God. You are allowed to crave for love and beer given that that does not interfere with the commandments.
      Without God, all human desires come to the same ground level and have to compete as equals to drive people’s actions. This is something that humanists seem not to have noticed in depth as they go on considering our desire for universal justice as something essentially different from our desire for sex. I think that this is the fundamental point in Gray’s argument in this chapter.

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