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.
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.