Of Hercules and humanism
The Choice of Hercules: Pleasure, Duty and the Good Life in the 21st Century By A. C. Grayling Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 184pp, $ 35
‘ THE real point of politics,’’ observes A. C. Grayling in his latest book of popular philosophy, ‘‘ is to build circumstances in which good individual lives can flourish.’’ This seemingly obvious insight is, in fact, unusually astute. It gives rise to many fundamental questions about what constitutes a civilised society and a well- lived personal life.
To these questions, Grayling proffers some sure and thoughtful answers. They will be endorsed holus- bolus by some people, and rejected holus- bolus by others. I found myself in the strange situation of agreeing vehemently with Grayling about some things and disagreeing with him just as vehemently about others. It was a schizophrenic read.
Grayling is a passionate secular humanist. He states in his preface that he will not draw at all upon ‘‘ devotional and exhortatory works of religion’’. ( In fact, from time to time, he does just that, though always in dismissive terms.) His favourite sources are the classical Greek and post- Enlightenment philosophers.
The title of the book is a reference to Xenophon’s tale of the son of Zeus: the choice required of Hercules was that between duty and pleasure. One of Grayling’s central arguments is that this is a false choice, an immensely harmful way of depicting the challenge of morality.
According to Grayling, a basic flaw of most religions, and especially of Christianity, is the promotion of the idea that virtue equates to joylessness and self- denial. Any such virtue is venal, he suggests, because it is motivated by irrational fear of divine sanctions and- or irrational hope of divine reward.
Certain other key metaphysical premises underpin Grayling’s opinions. One is that ‘‘ the universe exists as the outcome of morally neutral physical forces’’. Another is that human autonomy ( that is, free will) is real and not apparent. As to free will, Grayling rightly remarks that it ‘‘ lies at the root of the very possibility of ethical life’’. If we ‘‘ do not act, but are acted upon’’, then talk of morality is meaningless. Of course, the very existence of free will — and its twin phenomenon, conscience — is a central plank in the theist’s case, but Grayling skirts those issues here. ( To be fair, he has tackled them in other contexts.)
These, then, are Grayling’s core beliefs. How does he apply them to specific issues in the real world? As regards the hot- button social issues — euthanasia, divorce, prostitution, pornography, adultery, drug use, stem- cell research, abortion — Grayling is an unashamed and radical libertarian. He argues, for example, that both active and passive euthanasia should be legalised and a new medical specialty (‘‘ thanatology’’) invented to deal with it. He also argues that the ideal of monogamy is ‘‘ evil’’, because too many of us suffer from ‘‘ frustrated instincts’’ in the dubious cause of protecting the institution of the nuclear family.
Personally, I find these and other such arguments repugnant. But they all follow logically enough from a humanist world view, and are counterbalanced by Grayling’s eloquent treatment of other issues.
I have read few better short discussions about friendship or about suffering, and few more incisive denunciations of the tabloid press. There is also an intriguing analysis of the socalled golden rule: ‘‘ Do to others as you would have them do to you.’’ Grayling argues cogently that the injunction should be inverted: ‘‘ Don’t do to others what you would not have them do to you.’’ None of these passages is marred by the semi- informed jibes at Christianity that, in other parts of the book, become tiresome.
The best two arguments Grayling makes deserve the whole- hearted support of religious and non- religious people alike. First, the most vital moral questions ‘‘ are about human rights, war and genocide, the arms trade, poverty in the Third World, the continuance of slavery under many guises and names, interreligious antipathies and conflicts, and inequality and injustice everywhere’’. Unless and until these overarching issues are tackled more successfully — by governments and ( I would add) by the churches — countless individuals will be hampered in their attempts to live moral lives.
The key is education. This is Grayling’s other main theme: big practical and moral problems must be confronted in a sober and intelligent way. Far too much human problem- solving potential is lost to poverty and ignorance. And, in the West, ‘‘ the worst mistake societies make is to think that education belongs to the years between the ages of five and 16 or 21’’.
We must all, Grayling urges, try to read more and to discuss things more, because ‘‘ the life best worth living is the informed life’’. God, Actually by Roy Williams, a lawyerly defence of Christianity, will be published this year by ABC Books.