The eminently reasonable AC Grayling has been annoying people for years, writes Miriam Cosic
AC Grayling reminds me of a duck, gliding across the surface of a pond while paddling furiously below. Serene and apparently ageless, with his long hair and owlish professor’s glasses, he smiles and nods, sits back in his chair, and replies reasonably no matter how often “Yes, but...’’ is thrown at him. He seems to have all the time and patience in the world.
Grayling is one of those rare beasts in the Anglosphere: a famous philosopher. His output is prodigious. He has written dozens of books, sometimes publishing several in a year. Some are quite technical; more and more are written with the general public in mind, designed to help people formulate their own ethics in a rudderless world.
He also sits on any number of boards and advisory panels, has honorary patronage of others, travels quite a bit, has a wife and young daughter to consider plus two adult children from a previous marriage. And he still finds time for active engagement in various causes.
“It helps that I don’t drink,’’ he says. Apparently being a teetotaller gives him many more hours in the day: he seems to draw a thin line between having a glass of wine with dinner and raging alcoholism. He’s a vegetarian too, for moral reasons not squeamishness, though he doesn’t evangelise about it.
His abstemious lifestyle fits his modest demeanour, but the appearance is deceptive. In fact, Grayling has been annoying people for years. Mostly it has been with his indefatigable arguments against religion: more polite than his fellow travellers, but sustained nonetheless.
In the past decade, his writing has veered from the purely technical towards meditations on how ethics can be practised in a “disenchanted’’ world, one that no longer believes in gods. That, of course, presupposes agreement that gods don’t exist.
A book that came out less than a year ago, The God Argument, makes a calm argument against the existence of gods from the philosophical position of scepticism. It is a bravura performance, designed to make the reader think hard about the bases of religious faith.
The second half of the book is equally interesting, and may be more useful. It offers humanism as an alternative, and one that theists may find illuminating too if they survive the first half.
“Humanism is an attitude,’’ Grayling explains. “When you think about the values you live by, and the relationships you have, you must begin with your best, most generous, most sympathetic understanding of human nature and the human condition.
“Emerson said we should give other people the same advantage that we give a painting: that is, the advantage of a good light.’’
He embraces the corollaries of humanism, which resets the moral radar away from a higher power towards human beings as self-legislating moral agents. The result is a gamut of freedoms usually proscribed by religion, including the right of ownership over one’s body. Grayling is a patron of the British organisation that advocates for voluntary euthanasia, Dying in Dignity, for example (alongside some surprising fellow patrons, including Hugh Grant, Jasper Conran, Kim Cattrall, Ian McEwan, Jonathan Miller, Bernard Lewis, Prue Leith and the odd minister and rabbi).
“Ethical reflection is very subversive of morality,’’ Grayling says pleasantly. “Many years ago I wrote a little book called The Future of Moral Values, and somebody said, ‘ Your book Moral Values should be called Immoral Values.’ Especially on things like drugs and sex work and marriage and so on, it can be very subversive of ordinary moral thinking.’’
In 2012, he found a novel way to annoy people: by establishing a private university on an American endowment model. Being a “man of the Left’’, as he says somewhat wryly, he was hurt by the attack on his university as an astronomically priced institution with a star-studded faculty designed to attract the wealthy.
“Education is the last great opportunity for
I DO SEEM TO HAVE AN AFFINITY FOR CONTROVERSY
creating social justice; that is, for helping people to move out of relative deprivation, or backgrounds that are inimical to success in a competitive world. We’ve always thought that a society should invest fully in all levels of education in order to try to level the playing field for people,’’ he says.
As more and more young people enrol in universities, however, higher education can no longer be funded from the public purse, he says. What’s more, student debt is crippling and spiralling. What he is trying to do is to create a university funded by alumni and other wellwishers so that anyone, rich or poor, can attend.
“My aim in the long term is to have a meansblind admission policy, so you don’t bother about whether people can pay or not, you just take the best people,’’ he says.
The jury is still out on whether he will achieve that, but the uproar seems to have subsided — though it’s not clear whether that’s because his critics have been reassured or because attention spans, and the news cycles that fuel them, have become so brief.
Last month, he stepped into an existing uproar when he was named chairman of the 2014 Man Booker Prize, which is going to be open to writers outside the Commonwealth and Ireland for the first time. He had been a judge once before, in 2003.
“That was when we chose DBC Pierre’s book, Vernon God Little. I do seem to have an affinity for controversy,’’ he says demurely.
He is drinking tea in a luxury city hotel, oblivious to the hubbub around him, dressed conservatively in a jacket and tie despite being on holiday in Sydney to visit his brother. Pushed on the Booker controversy, he continues. “Personally I’m delighted because I think keeping the Americans out of it is just an act of timidity really,’’ he says, and it takes a moment for the sting to emerge from the mildness of tone. “I think people are anxious because American fiction is very strong, it has a very strong tradition, and it is a big country. It has a powerful publishing industry, and American authors are a force to be reckoned with.’’
Grayling himself is a role model for remaining competitive in a diminishing market. His other new book last year, Friendship, is a very pleasant, unexceptionable trot through great friendships in classical literature and the mostly classical, with some early Enlightenment, philosophy that describes it. It’s a primer rather than a critique, ideal for summer reading.
He ignores the confronting discussions of 20th-century continental philosophy, such as Carl Schmitt on friends and enemies or Jacques Derrida on politics and friendship. Indeed, he denies any definition of friendship beyond twosomes or what once would have been described as intimates of the household. Grayling has a knack for making philosophical argument sound like common sense. He also has a knack for sidestepping obstacles. Asked about the historicity of his literature, he replies, “Interesting question, that one’’, because it was only in the 20th century that people started to become friends across gender, age and ethnicity divides, that people expected to become friends with their children and parents, for example.
“Prior to that time we have, as exemplifications of friendships, male friendships because women’s voices were so silent,’’ he continues, second-guessing my next question about the boys’-own tenor of the book, “because women were closeted in the home or in the harem or wherever.
“If you really were to penetrate the veil ... and see what it was like for women living together in those very closed communities, you would probably find out something about the nature of friendship, and love and hatred, that is much more diluted between men.’’
For a man in his 60s, reared in a British colonial boarding school, the unconscious bias implicit in these well-meaning words may be unsurprising. More surprising is his cheerful acceptance of social media.
“I don’t think that things like Facebook and Twitter and LinkedIn have changed the nature of friendship,’’ he says. ``All they have done, like the invention of the clay tablet and the postage stamp and the telephone, is widen the possibilities for friends to contact one another.
“And I don’t think anyone is fool enough to think that if you have 500 friends on Facebook that they really are all friends.’’
He continues: “The thing about the bond of friendship is that it is a natural bond. It’s expressive of the fact that we need those sorts of connections with other people in order to flourish ourselves.
“And it’s not just that we need the others’ affection, or concern, or support. It’s that we need to give affection and support and concern.”
He applies the 2am test: who could you ring at two o’clock in the morning if you’re in trouble? The answer will sort our your true friends from the background chatter. That’s Grayling’s whole mission in a way: sorting out the truth from the background chatter.