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Contempt for Life

November 18, 2002

Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other AnimalsBy John Gray. Granta Books, 2002. X + 246 pgs.

John Gray is Ayn Rand's nightmare come true. Once a classical liberal, he now finds the inanities of Tony Blair's "Third Way", as expounded by its oracle Anthony Giddens, more to his liking. His shift in belief presented him with a problem. Reason and morality strongly support a free market order, and the fallacies of the soppy socialism of New Labour require no great acumen to discern. How then can Gray defend his change of doctrine?

In Straw Dogs, Gray has at last solved his problem. I do not mean that Gray has now come up with new arguments that show we were all wrong--- that it turns out that reason and morality support soppy socialism after all. Quite the contrary, Gray suggests that reason and morality need to be abandoned. While he is at it, Gray suggests that human beings are no great shakes, either. 1

Are you so benighted as to think that all human beings have natural rights to life, liberty, and property? Gray will soon cure you of your universalist predilections. Claims that morality imposes on us certain universal requirements reflect outdated religious views: "The idea of 'morality' as a set of laws has a biblical root. In the Old Testament, the good life means living according to God's will. But there is nothing that says that God's laws apply universally. The idea that God's laws apply equally to everyone is a Christian invention. . . what sense is there in the idea of laws that apply to everyone? Isn't this idea of morality just an ugly superstition?"(p.90)

I cannot think that Gray's knowledge of the Old Testament would get him through an elementary course in the Bible. Has he never come across the Noachite laws, which do apply to everyone? Gray's ignorance of scripture, though, takes us away from the thrust of his criticism of morality in the passage just quoted. Does his argument have any faults?

A couple of minor ones. Gray does not show that the idea of universal moral laws stems from Christianity. If it does, he fails to show that this is a point against the validity of such laws. Why is the idea of universal moral laws senseless and an ugly superstition? Gray does not tell us: he appears rather to "argue" by giving a dog a bad name, a dubious tactic even if one is dealing with straw dogs.

Perhaps I have here given Gray an uncharitable reading. I of course would never knowingly do such a thing, and I will soon endeavor to see if more in the way of argument can be teased out of Gray's musings. Before doing so, though, I pause to avert a possible misunderstanding. One might imagine from our quotation that Gray is an enemy of religion: he takes it as an argument against universal morality that, as he thinks, it stems from Christianity. But this is not so. 

Gray does view all religion with revulsion: he has a soft spot in his heart for polytheism. "Polytheists may be jealous of their gods, but they are not missionaries.. . If the world had remained polytheist, it could not have produced communism or 'global democratic capitalism'. . . Polytheism is too delicate a way of thinking for modern minds." 2 I had not realized that the early Christians fed the polytheist Romans to the lions.

Gray's complaint against morality I think emerges more clearly elsewhere. He has a genuine point to make, but he crudely mistakes its significance. Supporters of universal morality think that all persons are entitled to be treated as ends in themselves. But this idea is provincial: "A person is someone who believes that she authors her own life through her choices. That is not the way most humans have ever learned. . .Are we to believe that bushido warriors in Edo Japan, princes and minstrels in medieval Europe, and Mongol nomads were lacking because their lives failed to square with a modern ideal of personal autonomy?"(p.58)

Gray confuses two very different things. Traditional societies have many virtues, and Gray seems to me right to think that a good life need not involve detachment from the customs of one's society. But the claim that everyone is in himself a moral end does not imply that everyone should abandon his traditional way of life. People who are ends in themselves can live by custom rather than choice. Why does Gray think otherwise?

If you think that this is confused, wait until you see what is coming next. Gray spends a great of time telling us about various atrocities, the Gulag not least among them. In spite of my sarcastic tone, much of what he says is moving. But in what way does the fact that people have been tortured and murdered in vast numbers show that universal morality must be rejected?  I should have thought that our revulsion at cases of contempt for human life counts as evidence in favor of moral standards that transcend social practices.  

Can it be that Gray has fallen into a mistake that would disgrace a tyro?  A moral rule tells us what we ought to do: it is not a description of the way people in fact behave. Is it a good reason to reject the principle of self-ownership that many societies have practiced slavery? Judged by what he says in Straw Dogs, the Professor of European Thought at the London School of Economics would have to say that it is.

So much for morality. Free will also has to go: "We can be free agents only if we are authors of our acts; but we are ourselves products of chance and necessity. We cannot choose to be what we are born. In that case, we cannot be responsible for what we do."(pp.65-66)

What is going on here? Supporters of free will claim that our choices are free, not that our characteristics arise from free choice. No doubt we are born with certain natural traits, and are much influenced by chance events. But how do these facts show that we do not act freely? How do the facts, e.g., that I have a brain, arms, and legs, none of which I have created, imply that I am not responsible for what I do?

Gray is not yet ready to close the Department of Implausible Claims. Someone so incapable as he of philosophical argument is not likely to value logic highly, and our expectations suffer no disappointment. "Classical logic", he claims, "tells us that the same event cannot happen and not happen. Yet in 'many-worlds' interpretations of modern physics, that is precisely what does occur."(p.24)

I'm afraid not. The alternatives at issue in many-worlds interpretations of quantum mechanics occur in different possible worlds; no violation of classical logic is involved. Indeed, the wish to avoid violation of classical logic is one of the chief motives behind the view.

Morality is a sham, freedom an illusion, and logic a superseded relic. Such views do not suggest that Gray will advance a social philosophy congenial to readers of The Mises Review; and, true to form, he has a number of wacky suggestions on offer.

For one thing, he maintains that leaving the Stone Age was a mistake. "We think of the Stone Age as an era of poverty and the Neolithic as a great leap forward. In fact the move from hunter-gathering to farming brought no over all gain in human well-being or freedom. It enabled larger numbers to live poorer lives. . Almost certainly, Paleolithic man was better off."(p.156) Almost certainly? How does Gray know this? A brief reference to the left-leaning anthropologist Marshall Sahlins hardly suffices.

Gray's contempt for humanity and civilization is limitless. He acknowledges that economic growth has brought us many useful inventions. He cites Thomas de Quincey, who, when he claimed early in the nineteenth century that "a quarter of human misery was toothache, may have been right. Anaesthetic dentistry is an unmixed blessing. So are clean water and flush toilets. Progress is a fact."(p. 155)

So far, so good; but now comes the twister. Technological progress enables vast increases in human population to take place. But this, Gray holds, is disastrous. The balance of the earth has been upset. "The destruction of the natural world is not the result of global capitalism, industrialization, 'Western civilisation' or any flaw in human institutions. It is the consequence of the evolutionary success of an exceptionally rapacious primate."(p.7)

Fortunately, human beings will be stopped before they can destroy the earth altogether. The Gaia hypothesis, devised by James Lovelock, shows that the earth is an organism. Its self-regulating mechanisms will strike back against humanity. How dare human beings think themselves special? "For Gaia, human life has no more meaning than the life of a slime mould."(p.33) This view, we are informed, "is consistent with the narrowest scientific orthodoxy"(p.33) 

I am very glad to have read this book. John Gray's frequent changes of opinion have puzzled many, but at last we see the ultimate basis of his outlook. The answer has been concealed from those who know him, because he is a charming and genial companion. But the matter admits of little doubt. He is a misanthrope, pure and simple. 

Lest I be accused of being one as well, I had better note some good things in the book. The discussion of George Bernard Shaw on mass extermination of the "socially useless" is well worth reading,(pp94-95) as is  the account of the influence of Fedorov's technological superhumanism  on the Soviet regime.(pp.137-138). I applaud his attention to that great and neglected thinker Leo Shestov (p.83) and his recommendation  of Santayana's Scepticism and Animal Faith.(p.209). I do not applaud his mistaken claim that Nietzsche died in 1890. (p.45)

  • 1. The book's title reflects Gray’s disdain for our species: “In ancient Chinese rituals, straw dogs were often used as offerings to the gods. During the ritual they were treated with the utmost reverence. When it was over and they were no longer needed they were trampled on and tossed aside. . .If humans disturb the balance of the Earth they will be trampled on and tossed aside.”(pp.33-34)
  • 2. Our erudite author, to my surprise, has not noted that William James sympathized with polytheism.


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