The Quest for a Moral Compass: the moral tightrope we are condemned to walk as human beings

<em>The Quest for a Moral Compass</em>: the moral tightrope we are condemned to walk as human beings

It was one of those books that sit in the pending pile for quite a while, but I finally got round to reading Kenan Malik’s The Quest for a Moral Compass this autumn. Subtitled ‘A Global History of Ethics’ his book proved to be a rewarding, accessible (and actually quite gripping) three thousand year history of moral thought, not just in the West but across the globe. Reading it in the closing months of this awful year in which cherished assumptions about how we govern ourselves and relate to one another have been cast asunder was nothing if not timely. Continue reading The Quest for a Moral Compass: the moral tightrope we are condemned to walk as human beings”

The Silence of Animals: ‘barbarism is a disease of civilisation’

The Silence of Animals: ‘barbarism is a disease of civilisation’
Victims of the 1994 Rwandan genocide

Watching BBC2’s Life and Death In Herculaneum the other night I thought I glimpsed a truth in the case that John Gray has advanced relentlessly since Straw Dogs in 2002 and now in The Silence of Animals: that the idea of progress in modern western thought is a myth, and advances in civilisation can easily be reversed.

Of course, it would be another three centuries before the Roman Empire collapsed, but learning about the sophisticated way of life enjoyed by the people of Herculaneum – their houses, furniture and interior decoration; their healthy diet; the piped water and sewage disposal system; and the degree of social mobility that allowed slaves to be freed by law to become rich men and property owners in their own right – it occurred to me that the citizens of Herculaneum probably believed, as we do now, that theirs was the best of all possible worlds, and things could only get better.

These thoughts arise after reading The Silence of Animals, Gray’s latest book, and hearing him in on Start the Week (a discussion in which, actually, Mary Beard pointed out that the Romans believed that the best was in the past, in the time of the gods). Gray’s case is, by now, familiar: we need to demythologise the Enlightenment and recognise that, like Christianity, the belief in progress and the advancement of liberal humanist values is a religious faith without foundation, a form of transcendental faith we adhere to for fear of having nothing else to hold on to.  Gains in civilisation, such as the emancipation of women or the prohibition of torture are all real, but each of the advantages of civilisation can easily be lost.

On Start the Week, Gray observed that if ten years ago he had argued that torture might be rehabilitated by a liberal regime (as, indeed, he did) that would have been seen as wilful misanthropy and pessimism.  But it happened, and very quickly – at Abu Ghraib and other places under the jurisdiction of the USA – and, he suspects, it continues.

Gray states that we falsely imagine advances in civilisation to be like progress in science and technology – a process of cumulative advance, hard to reverse.  But advances in civilisation, he argues, are easy to reverse and can be lost very quickly.  It’s a modern myth that ethics and politics can be like science, ever-advancing.  Universities, he said on Radio 4, are never likely to reintroduce alchemy to the curriculum, but atavistic hatreds – of Jews, gypsies and immigrants – have re-emerged with startling rapidity in the European Union this past decade.

The reason for this, Gray believes, is that humans are, and always will be, flawed: ‘Barbarism is a disease of civilisation’, as he puts it.  All our institutions – the family, churches, police forces (he might have added corporations) – are consequently permeated with human nastiness. It is ‘childish’, therefore, to place faith in the the progressive betterment of society and human behaviour: he cites the Belgian Congo, Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia and pretty much the entire 20th century to support his case.

Gray insists that he doesn’t deny the importance of advances in human rights, but that it is the ‘modern fairy tale’ of progress that he wishes to debunk.  He is at one with Joseph Conrad, who learnt what civilisation could do in defence of civilisation in the Congo – but who never ceased to defend civilisation.

The core of the belief in progress is that human values and goals converge in parallel with our increasing knowledge. The twentieth century shows the contrary. Human beings use the power of scientific knowledge to assert and defend the values and goals they already have. New technologies can be used to alleviate suffering and enhance freedom. They can, and will, also be used to wage war and strengthen tyranny. Science made possible the technologies that powered the industrial revolution. In the twentieth century, these technologies were used to implement state terror and genocide on an unprecedented scale. Ethics and politics do not advance in line with the growth of knowledge – not even in the long run.
– John Gray, ‘Joseph Conrad, Our Contemporary’ in Heresies

In Straw Dogs, Gray wrote:

To believe in progress is to believe that, by using the new powers given to us by growing scientific knowledge, humans can free themselves from the limits that frame the lives of other animals. This is the hope of nearly everybody today, but it is groundless. […] Modern humanism is the faith that through science humankind can know the truth – and so be free. But if Darwin’s theory of natural selection is true this is impossible. The human mind serves evolutionary success, not truth. To think otherwise is to resurrect the pre-Darwinian error that humans are different from all other animals.

Gray’s perspective is best summarized in an interview with Laurie Taylor, published on the Rationalist Association website in 2007. There, Taylor comments that:

It is all wonderfully readable and consistently provocative. But it is also unremittingly pessimistic. Gray is literally proposing that we should do nothing to try to change our world. We might be able to make modest adjustments here and there to some local social and political arrangements, but even these modest changes are likely to be quickly reversed by the next cycle of history. In such circumstances our best bet might be quiescence. […]

He is absolutely convinced that liberal humanists have made the fundamental mistake of believing that the cumulative developmental nature of science is paralleled by a cumulative development in human well-being and ethical behaviour. He is equally insistent that religion can only be temporarily vanquished because its special access to basic truths about human life means that it will always reassert itself in one form or another. Above all he is thoroughly sceptical about attempts to better the human condition. He’ll just about go along with a little of what Popper once called ‘bit and piece social engineering’ but anything more ambitious is certain to founder at some time in the future. History is cyclical not progressive. Reversible not linear.

This is a salient passage from the interview in which Gray sums up his position:

Let me try and be more precise. I don’t deny that some states of human history are better than other states. Europe in 1990 was better than Europe in 1940. I don’t deny that. And I don’t deny that some programmes of reform have enhanced the lot of human beings to a considerable extent. And peace is better than war, freedom is better than anarchy, prosperity is better than poverty, pleasure is better than pain, beauty is better than ugliness. But there is a another very specific belief that I would guess you subscribe to: the belief that advances in ethics or politics can in principle become like advances in science in the sense of being cumulative. This is the belief that there is nothing inherent in human life or human nature to prevent cumulative improvement. We’ll get to the point where there is no poverty in the world, where there is no anarchy in the world.

My view is that all gains in ethics and politics are real but they are all also reversible and all will be reversed and often reversed very easily. For example, I know many liberal humanists myself and I know that when I said two and a half years ago that torture would come back, they were incredulous. That doesn’t tell me they are stupid. That tells me they are in the grip of a belief that makes such a thing unthinkable. They have a narrative, a notion of stages. But when I look at history I don’t see any kind of thread, however tenuous, however sometimes broken. What I see is cyclical change, cyclical transformation.

In a recent interview with the Telegraph that coincided with the publication of The Silence of Animals,  Gray said:

What you’re seeing is the re-emergence of classical toxins into politics which a lot of people thought would never emerge again. Whenever there’s a prolonged dislocation in people’s lives, they start blaming minorities – gays, Jews, immigrants. That’s starting to happen all over Europe. Look at the rise of the [fascist] Golden Dawn party in Greece. Just the other day, one of the leading politicians in Hungary questioned Romani people’s right to exist.

Gray gives short shrift to any suggestion that social media will act as a brake on extremism:

Technology may make some short-term difference, but history shows that political tyrannies always end up controlling key forms of communication. In the long term, the Google generation, the liberals, will be swallowed up and erased from history.

The Silence of Animals is divided into three sections, in each of which Gray draws on a wide range of poetry, fiction, memoirs and philosophy to advance his argument that, in the words of Wallace Stevens which he quotes, ‘We live in an old chaos of the sun’.  This approach makes the book very readable, and though I find John Gray’s philosophy daunting in its challenge to fundamental ways of thinking about the world (since I’ve always regarded myself as a beneficiary of Enlightenment values), I am always stimulated when I read his work.

The Silence of Animals

In the first section of The Silence of Animals, Gray assembles examples such as Conrad writing about the Congo at the end of the 19th century, Norman Lewis’s account of Naples in 1943, a city where civilisation had crumbled, and many more to support his  assertion that faith in progress is nothing more than a facile modern myth. Amongst several nuggets in this first long section of the book, is Gray’s discovery of the probable source, in a contemporary account of propaganda for the Soviet Five Year Plan in the 1930s, of the equation ‘2 + 2 = 5’, just one of the memorable tropes from Orwell’s 1984.

In the second section, Gray finds support for his argument in the work of Sigmund Freud, who, he says, ‘reformulated one of the central insights of religion: humans are cracked vessels’. In Gray’s account, Freud saw all religion, and all myths, as illusion, therefore posing the question: how can modern human beings live without modern myths?  Gray’s answer is found in lines from another poem by Wallace Stevens, ‘Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction’:

It must
Be possible
To find the real,
To be stripped of every fiction except one,
The fiction of an absolute …

Gray finds an example of such a fiction in the ‘myths of the near future’ created by JG Ballard in novels such as The Drowned World,a vision of the planet reverting to a remote geological past and London reverting to swamp.  Ballard’s vision is a ‘truer myth’ for Gray ‘because there is no suggestion of any better civilisation coming into being’. He likes the story, too, because the protagonist is subject to the effacement of all personal memory, thus enabling him ‘to reconnect with pre-human levels of his own nature’.

Having erased all religious illusion and all myth, including the Enlightenment myth of progress and perfectibility, what is left?  Gray concludes this section by invoking the thoughts of the late 19th century writer and philosopher Fritz Mauthner.  For Gray this is what is left: ‘There is no God apart apart from the world, nor a world apart from God …the Ego is a delusion …there ceases to be a difference between the world and myself’.  Those are Mauthner’s words; Gray calls this ‘Godless Mysticism’.

The book’s third section comprises two extended essays on works about the natural world that, in Gray’s view, come closest to expressing this ‘godless mysticism’. Along with a discussion of the writings of Llewelyn Powys, the younger brothers of the better-known John Cowper Powys, there is a superb account of JA Baker, whose obsessive observations of peregrine falcons in his native Essex resulted in The Peregrine, one of the most extraordinary examples of nature writing in the 20th century.

The book, Gray says, ‘slowly reveals itself as the testament of someone struggling to shed the point of view of a human observer’:

People who love other creatures are often accused of anthropomorphising them.  This was not true of Baker.  Rather than anthropomorphising other species, Baker tried the experiment of de-anthropomorphising himself.  Seeing the world as he imagined hawks might see it, he was able at times to be something other than he had been.  He [lost] himself as he followed the peregrine.

It is here that the title of the book is explained. The silence of animals, says Gray, is not the same as the silence pursued by human beings.  The silence of animals is not a literal silence, for most sentient animals inhabit vivid sound worlds. It is, however, a world without the kinds of turmoil and torment that humans experience:

Only humans want to silence the clamour in their minds.  Tiring of the inner chatter, they turn to silence in order to deafen the sound of their thoughts. […] Humans seek silence because they seek redemption from themselves; other animals live in silence because they do not need redeeming. […] The distance between human and animal silence is a consequence of the use of language.  It is not that other creatures lack language.  The discourse of the birds is more than a human metaphor. … Only humans use words to construct a self-image and a story of their lives.  But if other animals lack this interior monologue, it is not clear why this should put humans on a higher plane. […]

Turning within, you will find only words and images that are parts of yourself.  But if you turn outside yourself – to the birds and animals and the quickly changing places where they live – you may hear something beyond words.  Even humans can find silence, if they can bring themselves to forget the silence they are looking for.

These passages reminded me of Werner Herzog’s film The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser and these words which appear on screen in the opening moments: ‘Don’t you hear that horrible screaming all around you? That screaming men call silence?’  Could it be that Kaspar Hauser is Gray’s model for the state of grace we should aim for?  The enfant sauvage imprisoned in a dark cellar for his entire life and therefore lacking language, speech and any semblance of received ideas or educated thought?  Outwardly he looks like the village idiot, but inside Kaspar is a thoughtful man of great tenderness, drawn towards beauty. Herzog shows how those who rescue him, believing that reason is the true source of humanity, erode Kaspar’s unbounded sense of himself in the world resulting in his ‘terrible fall’ (Kaspar’s words) into the culture of men.

Gray finds in William Empson’s poem ‘Homage to the British Museum’ words which express his own position:

There is a Supreme God in the ethnological section;
A hollow toad shape, faced with a blank shield.
He needs his belly to include the Pantheon,
Which is inserted through a hole behind.
At the navel, at the points formally stressed, at the organs of sense,
Lice glue themselves, doll, local deities,
His smooth wood creeps with all the creeds of the world.
Attending there let us absorb the culture of nations
And dissolve into our judgement all their codes.
Then, being clogged with a natural hesitation
(People are continually asking one on the way out),
Let us stand here and admit that we have no road.
Being everything, let us admit that is to be something,
Or give ourselves the benefit of the doubt;
Let us offer our pinch of dust all to this God,
And grant his reign over the entire building.


What Gray seeks is ‘godless contemplation’, godless mysticism which offers no more than mere being:

Gods are as mortal as the ways of life they sanctify…. For those that cannot bear to live without belief, any faith is better than none.  This is the appeal of fundamentalism, which promises to banish the lack of meaning by an act of will.  Hence, also, the god-building enthusiasm of the humanists, who announce the arrival of a new deity, uglier than any that has ever before been worshipped, a divinized version of themselves …

One of those humanists that John Gray has is in his sights is, no doubt, Steven Pinker.  I haven’t read his latest book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, but it would appear to be the antithesis of Gray’s. Drawing on detailed historical analysis and a huge array of statistics, Pinker raises the banner for progress and argues that humans have grown less horrible with time as people become better educated and have created more effective institutions. The 20th century was the century of Gandhi and Martin Luther King as well as Stalin and Mao, and the number of deaths by violence as a proportion of the total population remained modest compared with the ferocious cruelties of the wars of religion in the 17th century.

The modern nation state, he insists, has had a civilising effect almost everywhere. Education has helped, as has the empowerment of women, and the idea of human rights.  Capital and corporal punishment have been eliminated in much of the world, and slavery has been abolished: people have lost their thirst for cruelty. Pinker gives the credit for this progress – ‘and if it isn’t progress, I don’t know what is’ – to explicit political arguments and changes in sensibilities that began during the 18th century, the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment.

As for me – some days I believe in the world of Pinker; but on others Pinker becomes Pollyana, and I see the ash cloud about to fall and obliterate all.

See also