All The More Reason


Misanthropy For The Masses
August 8, 2006, 8:22 pm
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Review: ‘Straw Dogs’ by John Gray

I began John Gray’s demolition of Liberal Humanism with high expectations. Tumultuous praise drips off the back and inside pages. ‘An essential guide to the new millennium’ effuses J.G Ballard. ‘One of the most important books published this year, and will probably prove to be one of the most important this century’, gushes Sue Corrigan. Here is a book that will shock; that will force re-evaluation. Johan Hari says as much. So does Will Self. This should be good.

The book’s basic premise is that humans are animals – no different from chimps, greyhounds or maggots. The self is a chimera. Human characteristics are genetic and cannot be chosen, so we cannot be responsible for what we do. Our environment drives our behaviour, so, for Gray, self-determination is an illusion. This is the theme that underpins the entire book, and Gray uses it as a launch pad to dismantle just about everything we perceive as good about being human.

But what if this fundamental premise is wrong? Gray never satisfactorily explains why our environmental and genetic impulses should stop us from expressing non-animal characteristics. Moreover, he debases his arguments with unfounded and deliberately provocative statements. ‘Morality is a sickness peculiar to humans’ is a typical Grayism – heavy on bombast, light on reason or evidence.

Gray intends to shock, but all too often his arguments are circular or unfounded. He concludes by arguing that there can be no progress because human behaviour will always degenerate to its animal base, having earlier argued that humans can only progress by behaving more like animals. He attacks morality as a sickness peculiar to humans whilst denouncing, morally, human behaviour. Also troubling is Gray’s analysis of human labour. He cites Sisyphus’s eternal punishment as an example of how pointless and demeaning work is. Logically then, Gray himself should admit the degradation and futility of his own labour – and in turn the worthlessness of Straw Dogs. He doesn’t, of course.  

More troubling still is Gray’s attack on the ephemerality of morality: ‘Today everyone knows that inequality is wrong. A century ago everyone knew that gay sex was wrong. The intuitions people have on moral questions are intensely felt. They are also shallow and transient to the last degree.’ This is exactly the same line of argument peddled by moral relativists, who abrogate their humanitarian responsibilities by citing local cultural and social justifications.

The book has been greeted as provocative and jargon-free philosophy for the masses. It is certainly well written and succinct – comprising less than 200 pages – and Gray achieves his aim of making it accessible to the average reader. In succeeding here however, Gray is complicit in his own downfall. Whilst some philosophers can conceal their values in a wordy fug, Gray’s nihilism is all too transparent.

Justin M

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3 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Excellent review. I’ll have to have a read of it – I think all are aware of my opinions of moral relativism.

Comment by migsuk

yeah i like this. good post.

Comment by 123recreation

Ich finde Ihre Homepage sehr gut und fundiert. Die Informationen helfen mir bei einer Diplomarbeit für den Bereich der Medizinischen Dokumentation vielen Dank und weiter so.

Comment by gambling




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