Friday, March 13, 2009

The Hubris of Humankind 10

Section 6: Justice and Fashion: 

Gray uses a rather strange heading here.  The point he’s making, however, is quite serious.  He suggests that justice is a matter of fashion.  For instance, 100 years ago gay sex was viewed as wrong, whereas today it is acceptable.  One might add that some 200 years or so ago slavery was acceptable, while today it is adjudged a crime.  Although outlawed in nearly all countries, forms of slavery still exist in some parts of the world today.  Gray argues that fashions have changed.  I prefer to interpret the huge change in morality differently by saying that our awareness or sense of what’s right and right has evolved.  Morality is not some abstraction or abstract truth out (up/down) there written on stone slabs.  Rather our moral code and our moral sense have evolved.  Gray suggests that morality is somewhat whimsical and is merely based on what’s in fashion or out of fashion at a given time in history.  I’m not at one at all with Gray’s sentiments here, and I feel he has reduced justice to a whimsy of humankind which to me seems very reductionist indeed.  However, I agree with his view that morality or ethics can never be set in stone – they do evolve.  But they are not just a mere question of fashion.

Section 7: This section is only three sentences long.  It contains a very sweeping statement or generality which no one could possibly prove.  As such it does not deserve comment.

Section 8: Psychoanalysis and Moral Luck

If we turn out to be “good” human beings then we are merely lucky, argues Gray.  This, he avers, is the upshot of the Freudian analysis.  Being either a good or a bad person is totally a matter of chance, and has nothing to do with our choices.  There is probably some truth here, but once again Gray offers little evidence for his contentions.

Section 9: Morality as an Aphrodisiac:

Here he talks about the sense of Catholic guilt which, say Graham Green had, that is, the sense of guilt being pleasurable. I’m not so sure I get what he means.  And even if I did, what point is he making?  Maybe I’m just dim?

Section 10: A Weakness for Prudence:

Philosophers from Socrates onwards have asked the question why should we be moral.  Gray questions whether this is a good question at all.  He suggests that we should ask a more important question – Why should we be prudent?  Why should we care what becomes of us in the future?  Here is a flavour of Gray’s scepticism:

Caring about yourself as it will be in the future is no more reasonable than caring about your self as you are now.  Less so, if your future self is less worth caring about.  (Ibid., 105)

Section 11:  Socrates, Inventor of Morality:  

Gray starts by looking at the old Greek world during which Homer lived (c. the end of the 9th or the beginning of the 8th century B.C.E.).  At that time, it was taken for granted that everyone’s life was ruled by fate and chance.  There was no ethics or morality as we know them today.  At that time ethics was about virtues such as courage and wisdom – how one behaved against the odds.  Let me quote our philosopher in full, as his argument is quite strong:

For Homer, human life is a succession of contingencies: all good things are vulnerable to fortune.  Socrates could not accept this archaic tragic vision.  He believed that virtue and happiness were one and the same: nothing can harm a truly good man.  So he re-envisioned the good to make it indestructible.  Beyond the goods of human life … there was a Good which surpassed them all.  In Plato, this became the idea of the Form of the Good, the mystical union of all values into a harmonious spiritual whole – an idea later absorbed in to the Christian conception of God.  (Ibid., 106)

On morality, Gray informs us that, while we might like to think of it as a set of laws or rules that everyone must obey, it is in fact a set of “prejudices, which we inherit partly from Christianity and partly from classical Greek philosophy.” (Ibid., 107) It is simply a pretence that morality wins out in the end.

Section 12:  Immoral Morality:

Again we have a gripping, if paradoxical, title.  I suppose what our man means is that any code of morality is merely a mask for man’s base instincts. Gray gives the following examples: (i) Machiavelli’s The Prince argues that anyone who seeks to be honourable in the struggle for power will come to grief.  What’s needed is boldness and dissimulation (deception in which one conceals the truth.) (ii) Prosperity is driven by vice.  He argues that this fact was the central thesis of Bernard de Mandeville’s The Fable of the Bees.  Indeed, now that we are deep within a worldwide recession, if not depression, we are learning to our cost that previous and much present prosperity has been caused by humankind’s greed, vanity, envy, cruelty and resentment.  How obviously true this is!

The good life flourishes only because there is a bad life there, the moral life because there is an immoral life too.  A rigorous sense of justice may even drive out sympathy, and courage often goes hand in hand with a certain recklessness.  In short, “moral philosophy is very largely a branch of fiction.”  (Ibid.,109)

Section 13: The Fetish of Choice:

For us modern human beings the good life is none other the the very life we choose to live.  Again, Gray returns to the pre-Socratic Greeks where the common human being was seen as living a life guided only by chance and the fates.  In that scenario, the human animal had little or no choice.  His/her future was written in the stars, or in whatever substance might be adjudged to have prophetic qualities.  Gray takes up the story: “We are not authors of our lives; we are not even part authors of the events that mark us most deeply.” (Ibid., 109)  In a poetic flourish he informs us that “[t]he life of each of us is a chapter of accidents.” (Ibid., 110)

Section 14: Animal Virtues: 

Here Gray returns to one of his favourite words, that is, “animal.”  In this book he keeps re-iterating the phrase “human animal” and I quite like it, because that is what we each are, and let us never forget that.  I love animals myself and have long held the view that animals have their own personalities – in a loose sense, that is, but let us remember that the concept of “personality,” even when applied to us humans, is also very loose indeed itself.  Let’s not get too cocky or too full of hubris!

Gray argues, again rather provokingly but so interestingly, that our animal brothers and sisters have their very own “animal virtues.”  For instance, dolphins display curiosity and bravery, and I remember reading somewhere that it is very good for humans with depression and other mental orders to swim in their company as it improves their mental well-being.  Gray quotes Nietzsche who argued that all animals, humans included, seek food and avoid enemies and that this is the very basis of animal morality. (See ibid., 111)

He argues that ethics or morals was for the Taoists simply a practical skill which one got better at as one practised.  It had nothing to do with right or wrong or ought to, and he argues that we must reacquaint ourselves with this old practical view:

The core of ethics is not choice or conscious awareness, but the knack of knowing what to do.  It is a skill that comes with practice and an empty mind.  (Ibid., 113)

Later, he avers that for those who accept morality as binding, the Good Life means a perpetual striving after what is right.  On the other hand, for Taoists the Good Life means living effortlessly.  Then he becomes more and more provocative and tells us that the lesson of cognitive science is that there is no self to do the choosing.  Hence, it is a deception to say that we make choices.  We are, he avers, far more like wild animals than we imagine.  Then, he comments that

Perhaps we can learn to live  more lightly, less burdened by morality.  We cannot return to a purely spontaneous existence… Luckily, as the history of philosophy testifies, humans have a gift for self-deception, and thrive in ignorance of their natures.  (Ibid., 116)

Our animal friends. Above the picture of a deer I took with my mobile phone in St Mary's hospital in the last year.

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