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 Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Roy Wil­liams

‘ 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.

Il­lus­tra­tion: Dave Fol­lett

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