Pandaemonium

IGNORANCE, DISHONESTY AND JOHN GRAY

Moral compass John Gray, former Professor of European Thought at the LSE, last week reviewed The Quest for a Moral Compass for the New Statesman, for which he is the lead reviewer. (The review is not online but I will try to include it in my next round-up of commentary on my book.) It was what you might call a ‘scorched earth’ review. The Quest for a Moral Compass is, Gray claimed, a ‘rationalist fairytale’ from which ‘all of the repugnant and troubling elements of rationalism have been airbrushed, Soviet-style, from the record’. I express the ‘dishonesty of the evangelising ideologue’ who won’t ‘let awkward facts get in his way’. And so on.

I had expected a negative review. Gray despises any defence of rationalism and of the Enlightenment and has previously treated my work with disdain (I have an equally dismissive view of his work). What I had not expected, I must confess, was quite the level of vitriol or depth of ad hominem attacks. I wrote a (short) response for the New Statesman. The magazine published the letter, but cut it quite savagely (among the sections removed was my rebuttal of the claims that I don’t deal with the issue of race, that I ignore Aristotle’s views about women, slaves and barbarians and that I fail to recognise that the Greeks did not have the same conception of morality as we do). So here is the uncut version of my letter to the New Statesman. And those who don’t believe with John Gray that ‘The freest human being is not one who acts on reasons he has chosen for himself, but one who never has to choose’, you can exercise your freedom actually to read The Quest for a Moral Compass by buying it through the Pandaemonium bookshop.

Update: John Gray’s review is now online.


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Letter to the New Statesman

John Gray, in his review of my book The Quest for a Moral Compass claims that I am being ‘dishonest’ and ‘ignorant’ in ‘airbrushing’ ‘all the repugnant and troubling elements of rationalism’. He suggests that I ignore the question of racism. He fails to mention the section in the book on that very subject and the chapter on ‘The Ethics of Liberation’ which explores the response of Asian, African and Caribbean intellectuals to Western racism and imperialism, and at the heart of which is the question, ‘If Europe was responsible for the enslavement of half the world… what worth could there be to its political and moral ideas, which at best had failed to prevent that enslavement, at worst provided its intellectual grounding?’ (p 273) I explore how notions of race ‘confirmed… a sense of the moral worthlessness of the Other’ and how ‘the Europe of the Enlightenment was also the Europe of imperial terror’.

Gray claims that I airbrush the fact that ‘TH Huxley, praised by Malik for his criticism of evolutionary ethics, developed a detailed classification of racial types’. What I actually write is that the late nineteenth century was ‘an age in which even staunch liberals, such as Darwin and Huxley, took racial hierarchies as natural and racial struggle as a given’ (p 307). Gray implies that I ignore Aristotle’s views about women, slaves and barbarians. In fact, I deal with those issues more than once, and describe the ‘Golden Age of Athens’ as one ‘in which barbarians were regarded as fit for enslavement, and in which Aristotle defended slavery on the grounds that some people were naturally created to be enslaved’ (p 51). Gray claims that I fail to see that the Greeks did not have ‘the same conception of morality as we do’. Why, then, do I write of the Iliad that ‘it describes an alien moral world, not simply because its moral rules are so different from those of our world but also because its very notion of what constitutes a moral rule is alien to us’ (p 6)?

Gray claims that I ignore the significance of the Book of Job in the Bible. In fact I call it one of the Bible’s ‘most magnificent creations’ and a ‘narrative of great power, both psychological and spiritual’ (p 82). Gray thinks that I am ‘largely hostile’ to monotheism. Strikingly, when the former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (a man who knows a thing or two about monotheism) reviewed my book for the Tablet, he not only failed to see that hostility but described the book as ‘majestic and timely’ and suggested that ‘we are all in Kenan Malik’s debt’.

I could carry on, but you probably get the picture. John Gray is perfectly entitled to think that I am too rational. I happen to believe that he is too irrational, and that the main problem we face in the world today is not that of too much rationality. But if Gray wishes to accuse me of ‘dishonesty’ and ‘ignorance’, it might help if he could show some honesty and knowledge himself.

Kenan Malik

26 comments

  1. Since Prof. Gray believes that the humans who are most free are those who never have to choose, he is likely exercising his freedom by not having to choose to read the book and think about it before passing his judgment on its central themes. I admire the cleverness it takes to consistently turn irrationality into a virtue but I have doubts about whether it is good philosophy to ride so roughshod over the principle of charity for the sake of expressing our own thinking when reviewing someone else’s work. I find Gray’s writing typically too clever and not thoughtful or nuanced enough. This sounds like it should be an amusing spoof rather than a serious review. We’re sure the New Statesman is not actually an intellectual parody source, right?

  2. Kenan,

    Yes, I do get the picture:)

    I confess, however, that I am not at all surprised by John Gray’s reaction. Over the years I have found that, as much as dishonesty, it is sloppy thinking, an instinctive allergy to ‘Reason’ (and its cousins- the Enlightenment, Science and Critical Thinking) that prevents many people from doing justice to texts that challenge them. Reading itself, for many of these worthies, becomes a contact sport where the point of it all is to see if the text aligns with one’s own stance and not to understand it on its own merits. In academia and elsewhere, what I call, the Anti-Reason, Pro-Instinct/Intuition/Emotion Brigade is particularly prone to such easy and often erroneous characterization of what they see as the enemy. Apart from further polarizing the discourse it unfortunately models some pretty bad habits such as intellectual laziness,an inability to pay close attention to texts or speech.

    The best that those of us who are at the receiving end of such sloppiness and dishonesty can do is to try and bring the conversation back to the realm of reason and debate. Though sometimes it is so much more satisfying to engage in a bit of sniping ourselves:)

    Cheers,
    ashok

    • Gray’s fascist embrace of all-things irrational is one of the reasons I wouldn’t use The New Statesman to wipe my cock off if I’d just fucked a monkey.

      The freest human being is not one who acts on reasons he has chosen for himself, but one who never has to choose is the most naked expression of authoritarianism imaginable.

      • De Te Fabula Narratur

        … is the most naked expression of authoritarianism imaginable.

        Yes, Gray’s work makes look Mein Kampf look like Mill’s On Liberty, dunnit?

        It’s interesting how some people don’t abandon hysterically self-righteous adolescent hyperbole when they leave adolescence. I apologize if you are still adolescent.

  3. De Te Fabula Narratur

    I like some of Gray’s stuff, like his p*ss-takes of the neo-cons, but he knows nothing about science — except what he is told by “rationalists” he is otherwise so dismissive of.

    …that “Darwin’s bulldog” T H Huxley, praised by Malik for his criticisms of evolutionary ethics, developed a detailed classification of racial types…

    And what more need be said? Huxley was obviously a fascist avant la lettre. We all know that there is only one race, the human race, and that the human brain has been miraculously preserved from evolution for the past 70,000 years, despite the widely different environments humans migrated into. Only it wasn’t “miraculous”, or Marxists like Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Lewontin, Steven Rose et al wouldn’t have believed it.

    • And what more need be said? Huxley was obviously a fascist avant la lettre.

      I find people who regard common English words as ‘adolescent’ but who resort to foreign terms to appear ‘grown up’ rather pretentious.

      My apologies if you are actually French and not just a bell-end.

      • De Te Fabula Narratur

        I wasn’t objecting to your vocabulary, I was objecting to your hysterically self-righteous adolescent hyperbole. There’s a clue in the fact that I named the latter, not the former.

        My apologies if you are actually French and not just a bell-end.

        Civis mundi sum, mon brave.

    • We all know that there is only one race, the human race, and that the human brain has been miraculously preserved from evolution for the past 70,000 years, despite the widely different environments humans migrated into. Only it wasn’t “miraculous”, or Marxists like Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Lewontin, Steven Rose et al wouldn’t have believed it.

      There’s only one human species.

      ‘Race’ is a social construct, and biologically meaningless. You don’t need to be a ‘Marxist’ to recognise that fact, you just have to have read a book printed after 1930.

      • De Te Fabula Narratur

        You’re a keen member of the atheist community too, aren’t you?

        ‘Race’ is a social construct, and biologically meaningless.

        So you’ve been told. So you’ve dutifully parrotted. But — hélas! — reality isn’t dictated to by pious little true believers.

        You don’t need to be a ‘Marxist’ to recognise that fact, you just have to have read a book printed after 1930.

        Have you popped in from a parallel universe?

        In Defense of A Troublesome Inheritance

    • eldl1989

      “We all know that there is only one race, the human race, and that the human brain has been miraculously preserved from evolution for the past 70,000 years, despite the widely different environments humans migrated into.”

      What’s the challenge to this?

    • eldl1989

      That article saved me from the sheer depression created by Gray’s doom-mongering in Straw Dogs, just a few months ago; so much so that I emailed Eagleton some gratitude.

      Gray has a lot of knowledge and understanding, but he seems to commit the mortal sin (oh how many jokes you could make out of this) of not recognising that he knows nothing really. It’s almost impossible not to make this mistake when you’re arguing like Socrates every day of your twilight years.

  4. Nick

    Actually, what you are is not all that interesting. You dumb stuff down. You string together banalities and attempt to pass off the result as incisive analysis. One example from fairly recent memory: your review of the Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini book on Darwin. That book has major problems but compare your review to, say, H. Allen Orr’s. You say essentially nothing in yours and it contains not a single original idea. You have a copybook mind. You’re a hack. Nothing personal.

  5. [this replaces my previous unedited comment]

    Wow! What a hatchet-job by Gray.
    Having read Malik’s reply I don’t know what to think…and his book is VERY expensive.

    “the main problem we face in the world today is not that of too much rationality.”

    Is a pretty good point, not that Gray actually thinks that. I think that what Gray is attacking is the teleological fallacy, the belief that we are improving – though he has strong opposition there from Pinker and Diamond, who contend that humans ARE actually getting nicer. Except that we are pullulating like hideous maggots on this fragile planet, and no amount of human niceness can ever make up for the harm sheer numbers have caused the current biosphere..

    A phrase that Gray uses by the by – “world-transforming sense of agency” – is interesting, and I think that our post-Christian quasi-rationalist belief in individuals and groups, rather than ‘humanity’ as potent agents acting more or less rationally is what Gray is against.

    But it’s great to have someone like Gray growling like Cerberus in the back room, and suspect that Kenan Malik, something of a socialist groupie, might be something of a smug whitewasher!

    • I think that what Gray is attacking is the teleological fallacy, the belief that we are improving

      Gray does far more than that. ‘Humans’, he argues in Straw Dogs, ‘cannot be other than irrational’. Because, he insists, ‘If Darwin’s theory of natural selection is true’ then the idea that ‘humankind can know truth… is impossible’. ‘The human mind serves evolutionary success, not truth’ and ‘in the struggle for life, a taste for truth is a luxury’, even a ‘disability’. (Of course, if this is the case, how do we know that ‘Darwin’s theory of natural selection is true’? And on what basis do we accept (or reject) Gray’s argument?)

      The fundamental irrationality of humans, and the impossibility of establishing any kind of truth, dooms for Gray any project based on more than contingent values. And that means any kind of project for social change. ‘Those who struggle to change the world’, Gray writes, are merely seeking ‘consolation for a truth they are too weak to bear. At bottom, their faith that the world can be transformed by human will is a denial of their own mortality’. The very attempt to make the world a better place can only lead to mass slaughter and corrupt the human spirit and ensure that ‘we do not accept our lives for what they are but instead consider them always for what they might become.’ And this leads him to a sentiment that is to put it mildly, disturbingly authoritarian: ‘The freest human being is not one who acts on reasons he has chosen for himself, but one who never has to choose’. But ‘the question that Gray never addresses’, as I point out in my review of his collection of selected essays, ‘is why a world in which we have given up ideas of betterment should be a world worth living in.’

      But it’s great to have someone like Gray growling like Cerberus in the back room, and suspect that Kenan Malik, something of a socialist groupie, might be something of a smug whitewasher!

      So, you can’t be bothered to read my book because it is too expensive, but you suspect anyway that I am a ‘socialist groupie’ and ‘something of a smug whitewasher’. Hmm. You seem to have bought into the John Gray methodology in more ways than one…

      • eldl1989

        “But ‘the question that Gray never addresses’, as I point out in my review of his collection of selected essays, ‘is why a world in which we have given up ideas of betterment should be a world worth living in.’” This is what I thought after reading the first quarter of Straw Dogs.

        Luckily, he is an individual, he makes mistakes, and he doesn’t know or understand the world as much as he thinks he does, because no one can. Funny that Straw Dogs takes its title from a passage in the Tao Te Ching which is the only one that could possibly be interpreted by him to mean Grayism i.e. nihilism to an extreme degree. It’s known for being very out of kilter with the rest of the book to the extent that there have been many attempts to translate it better in order to ascertain its true meaning.

        I’d also like to know how he accounts for the abolition of slavery, the Civil Rights Movement, or continually developing equality rights for women and gays. Maybe black people should’ve just given up and remained slaves. Maybe women and gays should stop fighting.

      • Bazompora

        Greetings. It is only through mention by Anthony Weir that this exchange caught my attention and it would only be rational to not let me waste your time.

        In the context of class struggle, the notion that ‘The freest human being is not one who acts on reasons he has chosen for himself, but one who never has to choose’ would indeed ring as an authoritarian dismissal of social change. And that is why I join Anthony in his suspicion, because the perspective here projected upon that phrase is narrowed to that of the socialist narrative. Mind, I am of socialist leaning myself and not a reader of John Gray.

        Yet, is there not something to be said for that where one never has to choose, one is free from doubt, free from sacrifice and free from guilt?

        The issue I take is with the implicit conflation of freedom with empowerment, while there actually is something of an inverse correlation between the two. Man’s knowledge is the greatest power, but it is also the burden of conscience and foresight. I do however disagree with the John Gray position that we should free ourselves from essentially our found humanity, because a more bestial state is the horror that drove our ancestors away in the first place; instead, we ought wind down the dissemination of unfreedom that unfortunately is a given with a scheming ape, even if that means the attrition for mankind.

        And yes, human mind is a tool for transmitting genes, which is why the norm for it is inclined to go against reason in order to force itself towards the mindless act of reproduction. The human gene pool however is large and aberrant minds can deviate to the point where thought overrules instinct. Yet, the exceptionality of rationality means every change is indeed doomed to be diluted away under the successive waves of newborn irrationality.

  6. James Houston

    Arthur Schopenhauer on how one can “make use of a book …. without exactly reading it”.

    “It may fill a gap in his library as well as many another, where, neatly bound, it will certainly look well. Or he can lay it on the toilet-table or the tea-table of some learned lady friend. Or, finally, what certainly is best of all, and I specially advise it, he can review it.”

  7. Steve Cairns

    I read Gray’s review because somewhat naively I expected to find something new to think about. No such luck, but I’m glad it led me here. He’s quick to recognise the influences on (and of) Marx in moral thinking but he expands a Thatcherite denial of society to the point where it becomes a denial of humanity. It may be logical but it’s not very pretty and It goes almost without saying we can’t prove anything in this argument except that humanity matters only to those of us who care. I haven’t read much of the book, but the title seems to acknowledge some underlying belief in a direction to which these moral compasses will point. Metaphors may have unintended consequences of course, but to me that still indicates an underlying monotheistic belief in the “one true North” even if it’s one rationalists desperately want to distance ourselves from. Certainly for most of us humanity is expressed as much in the need to travel together as it is in the quest to know why or where to. The sociopaths are following the herds of gatherers (and so their compasses) too: For their own individualistic reasons of course.
    Whether God is any more sentient or omnipotent than an inert mass of iron near the pole I can’t quite bring myself to say, but it’s much harder than we sometimes think to deny the attraction.

  8. Loic

    Freedom of choice is no freedom at all if one feels the obligation to choose–and is this not how freedom is increasingly experienced today in the Western ‘advanced world’?

  9. Al_de_Baran

    “John Gray is perfectly entitled to think that I am too rational.”

    No, Gray thinks that you hide threadbare arguments and emotion-based Enlightenment cheerleading behind a facade of rationalism, and nothing you have contributed here suggests that he is incorrect.

    It is particularly amusing to read you accuse Gray of intellectual dishonesty, when you yourself offer the following fatuous and erroneous summary of his world-view as that of “a world in which we have given up ideas of betterment should be a world worth living in.’ ”

    As to Gray, his anti-Humanism and his critique of mindless Enlightenment-worship are a salutary corrective to the emotional cheerleaders for a hypostatized “reason”. Analysis of the complex interplay of the rational and the irrational requires a thinker far more sensitive to complexity and nuance than you appear to be. Gray is far from perfect, but he has a far better grasp of such complexity than you do,

    • michaelfugate

      Oh yes, the complexity ploy – it works every time and mean nothing.
      Perhaps you could be bothered to tell us what “enlightenment” Gray is trying to sell?

    • Perhaps we should let John Gray speak for himself. All these quotes are from Straw Dogs:

      ‘Science has been used to support the conceit that humans are unlike all other animals in their ability to understand the world. In fact, its supreme value may be in showing that the world humans are programmed to perceive is a chimera.’ (p 24)

      ‘The human mind serves evolutionary success, not truth. To think otherwise is to resurrect the pre-Darwinian error that humans are different from other animals… In the struggle for life, a taste for truth is a luxury – or else a disability: only tormented persons want truth. Man is like other animals, wants food and success and women, not truth.’ (pp 26-8)

      ‘It is a strange fancy to suppose that science can bring reason to an irrational world, when all it can ever do is give another twist to the normal madness… The upshot of scientific inquiry is that humans cannot be other than irrational.’ (p 28)

      ‘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 humans, and raise us above all other creatures. In our more detached moments, we admit that this view of ourselves is flawed.’ (p 38)

      ‘When we meet someone on the street we just act, and there is no actor standing behind what we do. Our acts are end points in long sequences of unconscious responses.’ (p 69)

      ‘Seeing that the self we take ourselves to be is illusory does not mean seeing through it to something else. It is more like surrendering to a dream. To see our selves as figments is to awake, not to reality, but to a lucid dream, a false awakening that has no end.’ (p 79)

      ‘We cannot be rid of illusions. Illusion is our natural condition. Why not accept it?’ ( p 81)

      ‘We are not authors of our lives; we are not even part-authors of the events that mark us most deeply. Nearly everything that is most important in our lives is unchosen.’ (pp 109-10)

      ‘The freest human being is not one who acts on reasons he as chosen for himself, but one who never has to choose. Rather than agonising over alternatives, he responds effortlessly to situations as they arise. He lives not as he chooses but as he must. Such a human being has the perfect freedom of a wild animal – or a machine.’ (pp 114-15)

      ‘Morality is a sickness peculiar to humans.’ (p 115)

      Is this what we now understand as ‘nuance’ and ‘complexity’?

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