The Meaning of Life 4

The Meaning of Life 4

Welcome to the final part of PETER BRIETBART’S interview with Professor A C GRAYLING. Here we ask what Eutopia might look like, what lies in store for the future of humanity, where the best philosophy is to be found and whether the right to die should be a legal right.

PB: In your view, and, given human nature, what might Eutopia look like?

ACG: It would be a place where people are given the maximum opportunity to explore different ways of living and relating, but without harming other people or causing them distress or getting in the way of their lives. A sort of John Stuart Mill paradise. But that does seem to be a bit unrealistic given human nature! As it is, human nature is full of greed and selfishness and so on, making it very difficult. It seems to me that if we had the right resources and the right teachers that we could really make education work. To get children to think and to really see why they shouldn’t harm others, and why it is important that they have freedom, and how to enjoy it responsibly. Given the flaws we have, Mill’s view might be the best we can achieve.

PB: And if we could transcend the merely human with the aid of science and technology, what sort of trans-humanism can you foresee?

ACG: It looks as though we’ve evolved contradictory sets of capacities. On the one hand, we have the capacities to be very empathetic and concerned about other individuals, even if we don’t know them. To shout, “Look out!” if we see they are in danger. On the other hand we have things that are purely self-regarding, non-altruistic, greedy and aggressive, that may make us respond with anger. We elect people into out-groups and de-humanise them and so on. What one would hope is, since any journey has to start from here, any trans-human reality that eventuates is going to have to be a down-playing of the negative and the aggressive, hostile and divisive aspects and a promotion of the more empathetic and positive emotions. One can imagine a situation where people have a greater propensity to be tolerant, generous and kind towards other people and a lessened propensity to be aggressive and to place people into out-groups, without at the same time everything collapsing into a kind of pink, fluffy nursery where there’s no edge, criticism or discussion. Ideally like a philosophical discussion between friends, unlike in a seminar with people showing off and trying do someone else down.

PB: I’ve experienced my fair share of that.  Now, what question do you wish you were asked more often, and why?

ACG: That’s a tough one. I must preface this admittedly unsatisfactory answer by saying that these “beauty contest questions” like “who is the greatest philosopher”; “what is the most important thing to know”; “what question do you wish you were asked more often” really force me to pick from a range of all of the things I know. All I can really say is what subjects I like to talk about, so that I can try and articulate an answer that I’ve spent some time thinking about.

I like to talk about why the arts matter to human life. We all take them for granted, we all produce pieties about them, we’re all meant to be in favour of them, but there are deep reasons why humans have always told themselves stories and drawn pictures and enacted things. They’re part of the continuing education of our sensibilities, which is terribly important. If someone were to ask me where the best philosophy is to be found, I would say: in literature, in novels, in plays. That’s where we really get an opportunity to explore something which is real, and makes a difference to people’s lives.

PB: So, whilst I’m asking these broad, sweeping questions, would you care to name some of the novels that you consider to contain the greatest philosophy to be found?

ACG: Yes, I could certainly. One thing I think that is distinctive about literature with a capital L and a golden glow, as opposed to railway station paperback thrillers, is that they do strike us as having an insight into the human condition from which we can learn. Not that I’m saying that it is a criterion of literature that it should be educative – god forbid it. Literature is many things, including the beauty of the prose and so on.

Let me give you some examples. Everybody knows Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austin. Among all of its other virtues, including its wit, the beauty of its prose, the sense of irony in it, and the wonderful perception of human variety… that novel is about moral epistemology. It’s about characters misreading one another and having to rethink the judgments that they should properly make about one another. So Elizabeth Bennet and Darcy misunderstand one another, and through the events of the novel they recalibrate their understanding. It always amuses me that Elizabeth finally understands Darcy when she sees his big house. In the end, they get one another as a reward for having re-learnt something quite painful to them about how they judge other people.

A much more powerful example would be in the series of fictions written by Dostoevsky round about the 1850s, starting with Notes From Underground, going on to Crime and Punishment and then, later, The Idiot. What’s interesting is that if you read Dostoevsky’s letters of correspondence at the time, we see he was trying to do something with those novels. In Notes From the Underground he was writing about someone who’s so abased, so degraded, so humbled that when he was walking home after being humiliated at that party he sees all these old, toothless ex-prostitutes sitting at the side of the road and he feels a kind of compassion or love for them, because he feels worse than they are. This is Dostoevsky’s attempt to try and explain what it would be like to have true Christ-like compassion for other people. Of course, it’s because he’s got a religious agenda going on.

In Crime and Punishment he wrote about a man, Raskolnikov, who commits murder because he wants to see if he can do it, and then live with having done it. He finds that he can’t, but is it because he’s being confronted with the true horror of a moral crime? Or is it just because he is weak? So he’s in the dilemma and he can’t work it out. When he finished the novel, Dostoevsky wrote to his niece and said that he was going to try and write about someone who had plumbed the depths like Raskolnikov, but come back to a position of virtue.  He found that he just couldn’t write it.

So he just left the position of absolute virtue to the character of Prince Myshkin, trying to explore in this fictional context how it would be possible for such a character to be. I suppose the closest thing we can think of is Peter Seller’s character in the film Being There, which is again about this Christ-like figure who is weirdly detached from the world around him, and yet, strikes people with his simple wisdom.

Now Myshkin doesn’t actually do that: what he does in The Idiot is fail, because an entirely good person can’t survive in this world. It’s an analogue of the Grand Inquisitor in The Brothers Karamazov saying that if Jesus Christ were to come back now he’d be thrown straight into prison for being disruptive.

Now there’s an example of a real effort being made through fiction, through the medium of a novel, to grapple with very fundamental moral questions, admittedly from a certain point of view, a 19th century, superstitious point of view, but it’s a very good example of it.

Better examples might be found in Thomas Mann in, say, The Magic Mountain, which is all philosophical discussion. There are so many good examples, but those are some favourites.

PB: Should there be a legal right to end one’s own life, or seek the assistance of another in doing so? Should Britain change the law?

ACG: Yes, it should. There’s no question about it. We’re thinking specifically about people who are condemned to interminable suffering, or suffering that can only be terminated by death, mainly those with incurable diseases or terminal illnesses. If you think about being old and being diseased with no hope of recovery, but able to linger on and on and on with medical help, being incontinent, having to be cleaned up all the time by nurses, but offered an alternative. Either you go on like this, progressively being more and more drugged until you can’t even interact with your family, or you could choose to die at a time and in a manner of your own election.

PB: Do you worry about a subtle pressure on the elderly? A sort of suggestion that they could just get out of the way? That seems to be the only contra-argument that carries any weight.

ACG: That is an argument, and it does carry weight. The truth is, however, that families keep people alive who don’t want to stay alive, by saying, “Oh daddy don’t die. We love you, what are we going to do without you?” So 99 percent of the pressure comes from the other direction. But it is certainly true that there will be cases where elderly people will be subtly coerced to choose early assisted death by family members. The fact that is possible, the fact that something may be abused, is not a good enough reason for continuing the suffering of tens of thousands of people because we’re too squeamish to do anything about it.

I sometimes tell a related story that makes me ashamed. We had some pet hamsters when my children were very young, and a very typical thing that happens to hamsters is that they get inverted intestines, whereby their intestines come out of them because of the diet we give them. And when that happens, they die. If they are not put down they die in a very slow and painful manner. So this happened to one of our hamsters, and I rang a friend who was a vet and asked what I should do. She said to take the hamster and just twist its neck sharply and kill it. I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. She said in that case I should put it inside a plastic bag, put it under the wheel of your car and drive over it. I told her I was sorry, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do that to a living creature. I cannot do it. She gave me all sorts of other suggestions of how to kill it, but in the end it died as a result of what had happened to it, and not as a result of us helping it to die quickly as possible to release it from its suffering. To this day I feel ashamed: that my squeamishness prolonged the suffering of a little thing like that.

That’s what happens in our society. There are people in the most awful situations. Whilst pain can be controlled to a large extent, it’s the indignity of it, having to worry about choking to death and so on. People want to make their own choices about their own life and death. Suicide used to be regarded in the Roman era as ‘the last great freedom’. The fact that you could commit suicide and that it was a real possibility for people to do it really made them powerful, because it made them free. In the end, no-one other than themselves could make a final decision about how they felt on the matter.

• The top photograph shows Grayling with members of the Humanist Society of Singapore in 2013.


8 responses to “The Meaning of Life 4”

  1. Angela_K says:

    If only there were more people like Prof. Grayling in positions of power, the World would be a better place. He must rank among the greatest of modern thinkers.

    Thank you for publishing this interview.

  2. NeoWolfe says:

    I really like the humanitarian ideal side to the question of “the meaning of life”. If you make the world a better place with your efforts, then your existence is meaningful. I would want to be remembered that way. Yet, one must ask himself, who had the biggest impact on human history, Muhatma Ghandi or Genghis Khan?

    Atheists, and splinters thereof, stand on rooftops and shout “wake up you idiots, you are bringing this hell upon yourselves”, and it seems to make perfect sense, except for one thing. Religion is just one facet of the human condition that must change to avoid our self destruction. Our greed is yet another, but not the only other.

    We are driven by nature to breed, we imagine it is the source of happiness. We soon find it is the source of misery, yet we go down the rat maze again and again. We are pawns of our hormones, but I have to admire anyone who thinks that they can undo the human condition with an act of kindness, but, there are millions of guns, rapists and fanatic murderers who couldn’t care less who you stitch back together, because they have enough bullets to shoot them again. The real human condition can be observed in Darfur, not in the ghetto of your Western city


  3. Holland says:

    Thank you for this series. Found some of his lectures on Youtube too.

  4. Broga says:

    A novel I would include is Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. Pip, the hero, begins admiring the toffs and thinks his money comes from Miss Havisham. The entire novel is a process of education when he ends realising his money comes not from a toff but from Magwitch the criminal and the honest hard working Joe Gargery he was initially embarrassed by, he came to admire.

    A brilliant series of interviews. Thanks for making them available.

  5. rog says:

    Will you be publishing them in the freethinker?

    I have a copy of ‘against all gods’ you could give away in a caption competition barry, I’ll post it to the winner – up to you 🙂

  6. William Harwood says:

    Obviously rog is referring to A G Grayling’s 2007 book, Against All Gods: Six Polemics…
    But anyone thinking of ordering the title needs to be warned that there is also a 2010 book by Phillip Johnson, Against All Gods: What’s Right and Wrong… that is a brain amputee’s attempt to defend the god hoax.

  7. rog says:

    Right you are Dr.Harwood!

  8. Richard Woo says:

    Prof Grayling is simply top-rate.

    I have also read several of his books and found myself agreeing with almost everything he has written, because everything he has said sounds logical and true.

    To Prof Grayling – I wish I had just 20 percent of your intellectual capability.