The varieties of goodness

Damian Grace, University of New South Wales

A.C. Grayling What is Good? The Search for the Best Way to Live London, Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 2003 (320 pp). ISBN 0-29784-132-7 (paperback) RRP $49.95.

What is good? Grayling answers this question historically, by tracing the course of humanist ideas, from ancient Greece to the present, in three moments of enlightenment. This is not, however, a history book. Grayling is a British philosopher and public intellectual writing for a general audience in the vein of Roger Scruton, Raimond Gaita, John Armstrong, Peter Singer, and Alain de Botton. What is Good? is a defence of secular humanism as the only basis for living well, told through accounts of significant turning points in the history of (Western) thought. The great virtue of the book is that the general reader can readily assess its arguments and form an opinion of them.

Grayling answers his question in a racy and readable style—Bertrand Russell meets Ripping Yarns. The book sets out the contest between successive enlightenments which move humanity forward, and benighted religiosity that binds it in superstition and self abnegation. This is a Whiggish history of humanism that vanquishes many men of straw but knocks down some men of bone as well. The message that Grayling drives home is that the liberty to choose one’s own plan of life is attained most fully in those who take a rational view of the world in which they live, eschewing the personal and political enslavements of religion.

Humanism for Grayling is the kind of position espoused by the Humanist Society or the Rationalist Association, but he locates its antecedents in Classical Greece and Rome, the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. Never mind that ‘humanism’ has very different meanings, even in those periods which actually used the term, or that it is easy to elide historical differences by reference to the Protagorean principle of man as the measure of all things. Renaissance humanism, for example, was not a doctrine of rationality and moral responsibility, but a course of study—the studia humanitatis or study of the humanities—that was given the label ‘humanism’ by Burckhardt in the nineteenth century. Grayling simply accepts Burkhardt’s highly contested version of the Renaissance. Still, there is a story here and Grayling will not let quibbles stand in the way of its telling.

That story goes like this. Good things have come to humanity through the progressive victories of rational secularism over religious superstitions. From the Greeks and Romans, through the Renaissance, the scientific and philosophical revolutions of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and the shockwave of Darwin’s discovery, the good of humanity has resided in a rational point of view that appreciated human nature and did not try to repress or alienate it.

The straw men Grayling knocks over to tell this story are ‘Religions of the Book’, principally Christianity. The good of these religions is no good at all, but rather a morality of obedience and submission manipulated with a carrot and a stick. Grayling uses arguments from Socrates to Russell against religious belief, but he introduces subverting novelties, such as Jesus being a warrior for God, and the Church Fathers and Aquinas plundering the riches of ancient moral doctrines to fill out the slender ethics of the Gospels. At a philosophical level, Grayling dismisses the metaphysics of monotheism summarily (he mentions no Jewish or Christian philosophers); and explains away religious belief as an epiphenomenon of neural evolution and culture.

Grayling has no sympathy for Christianity. He concedes nothing to it, and certainly not credit for movements he regards as countervailing. Hence he ignores the contribution of Christian thinkers like Vitoria, Suarez, Grotius, Pufendorf, and Locke to the growth of human rights and toleration. These thinkers, incidentally, understood the notion of right primarily as a liberty. Grayling praises some Christians, notably Erasmus, for their tolerance and learning, but then omits others. More would never do, and Grayling omits mention of Utopia in discussing the Renaissance, although it provides a counter example to his view that Epicureanism scandalised Christians.

The straw men Grayling knocks over to tell his story are ‘Religions of the Book’, principally Christianity.

Grayling declares the values of the Gospels and St Paul to be irrelevant to the modern world because they do not fit with contemporary aspirations. In other words, he not only confuses descriptive with prescriptive ethics at this point, but ignores two thousand years of interpretation and casuistry. He makes much of the heteronomy of reward and punishment in religious ethics, but he does not altogether avoid the same criticism himself. He takes heteronomy as submission to the command of a god, but he advocates secular goods which just as surely undermine autonomy, at least from a Kantian point of view. He rightly rejects the commands of a despotic god as a ground for morality, but does not consider the pursuit of the goods he notes with approval in the same terms. Bewitchment of the will is no more autonomous than fear of retribution. But Grayling is no moral Kantian and does not offer a theory of an autonomous good will that conforms itself to the moral law. It is fair to ask why religious rewards are noxiously heteronomous when Utilitarian benefits and disadvantages are not. It is fair also to ask why Grayling renders religious ethics wholly in terms of power, submission and punishment.

One passage bears quoting:

Religion is not only anti-moral, it is often immoral. … religious fundamentalists and fanatics incarcerate women, mutilate genitals, amputate hands, murder, bomb and terrorise in the name of their faith. It is a mistake to think that Christian clerics in Western countries would never behave otherwise, for it is not long in historical terms since their predecessors were burning heretics at the stake … (p. 71).

Grayling’s history is synchronous: in the world of competing ideas, time does not matter and the despots of the past remain a present danger. Alas, the owl of Minerva is more than usually tardy on the crimes and shortcomings of religion. Grayling will have to queue behind angry Anglicans, Catholics and others to take his shot at the transgressors.

Although antagonistic to traditional Judaism and Christianity, Grayling is most concerned about the resurgence of fundamentalism, whether in America or Afghanistan. It seems to me that he elides liberal and fundamentalist religious positions, for even when he acknowledges the former, he harkens back to the dangers inherent in the latter. Islam he takes to be ‘by nature fundamentalist’.

All of this makes toleration foreign to religion. Grayling asserts that each religion blasphemes against every other. This is simply not true, either for religions like Buddhism or religions of the book. Christianity does not hold Judaism to be blasphemous—how could it considering they share sacred texts and that Jesus was a rabbi?—and agrees with Islamic monotheism. Blasphemy is not the issue in question.

In Grayling's world of competing ideas, time does not matter and the despots of the past remain a present danger.

David Hume (1711–1776) stated a stronger and better argument when he wrote that ‘in matters of religion, whatever is different is contrary’ (‘Of Miracles’, S 10, Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding). That is, the claims to authority of each religion are contradicted by every other religion, so that each is supported by no more than its own claims to authenticity. This argument only works, however, for those who already believe that all religions are farragoes of superstition and self-serving doctrine. For the external and uncommitted observer, every religious position counts against every other, but for the religious believer there are many explanations of religious diversity and quite a few accommodations.

The most congenial moment in the moral progress of humanity for Grayling seems to be the Enlightenment. This is the age whose best minds affirm the fundamental good of personal and political autonomy. The Enlightenment was an extraordinary period, but it had its blemishes too. Kant’s rationality could not save him from prejudices such as misogyny and racial classification.

At the end of his book, Grayling surveys modern moral philosophy and the progress of rights. He takes as one example the right to die and dismisses the doctrine of double effect with respect to euthanasia. ‘Double effect’ derives from the ethics of Aquinas (c1224–74) and refers to the good and bad effects that result from the one act. In the euthanasia debate, conservatives have argued that the administration of pain killing drugs does not fall under the heading of mercy killing because any death that results is an unintended consequence of treating pain. Grayling denies that there is a difference between letting someone die and killing them—that there is a genuine distinction between passive and active euthanasia. He argues that if passive euthanasia is permitted, then active euthanasia should be too. It is respectful of autonomy and more humane in the relief of suffering.

A commonly used argument to show that the two are identical is to imagine someone in a bath about to be drowned by a murderer for some reason. The murderer can straightforwardly drown the victim, or, to make the scenario passive, noticing that they have slipped under the water, allow them to drown. Both are acts of murder and show that there is no distinction between killing and letting die—between active and passive euthanasia. The problem with this well-worn example is that it is not an analogous with what happens in hospitals. So-called passive euthanasia is not euthanasia at all. It is the administration of pain relieving drugs to dying patients who are being killed by their diseases, not directly by medical staff. Intervention by medical staff could not, in contradistinction to the case of letting the victim die in the bath, save the patient. Of course, a doctor or nurse could decide to kill patients out of concern for their suffering, but then this would be direct killing. The killing would have been done intentionally, not by the progress of the disease. It might be objected that as the patient was going to die anyway, there is no great moral issue here. Perhaps, but there is a logical one. Killing and letting die do not amount to the same thing. The analogy with the killing in the bath does not hold.

A good deal of Grayling’s attempt to answer his initial question is negative.

It will be clear from the discussion above that a good deal of Grayling’s attempt to answer his initial question is negative: we learn a lot about what is not good. This negativity unfortunately permeates the book. Think of other works that push the reader beyond familiar terrain. Whatever the metaphysical peculiarities of Iris Murdoch’s atheistic spirituality, her sympathy for religion takes us further in understanding its relation to good. Murdoch’s moral realism was unfashionably grounded in Plato, but this gave her a vantage for appreciating religious thought and argument. She sees the apprehension of goodness as analogous to a sense of God. Discussing St Anselm’s proof of the existence of God, Murdoch writes: ‘We “see” God through the morally good things of the world, through our (moral) perception of what is beautiful and holy, through our ability to distinguish good and evil, and through our just God-fearing understanding of what is not good’ (Murdoch 1993, p. 396).

For Grayling, such views are capitulations to heteronomy and irrationalism. His vision of good is to be found in scientific enquiry and in the values of secularism. Grayling identifies these values as ‘individual liberty, the pursuit of knowledge, the cultivation of pleasures that do not harm others, the satisfactions of art, personal relationships, and a sense of belonging to the human community’ (p. 203). What is so secular about these goods? Here is another list of goods: life, knowledge, play, aesthetic experience, sociability, freedom and practical reasonableness. And religion, defined as putting all of the other goods and oneself in some kind of relation to the cosmos. The second list comes from John Finnis (1980, pp. 86–90), a Christian natural law philosopher, and the resemblance to Grayling’s is striking. Because Grayling believes that ‘all Christians were opposed to any reliance on reason, and still more to the exaltation of reason for securing the good’ (pp. 107–8), he is not disposed to consider the natural law tradition and its similarities to his own position.

Ironically, Grayling’s work falls under Finnis’s definition of religion. The book feels less like an attack on religion per se, than an attack on the wrong religions. It is a moderate doubter’s uncompromising view of the world. Moderate, because Grayling is not sceptical about science. Yet, Mary Midgley is surely right in observing the affinities between the attitudes of those who look to a deity for salvation and those who look to science (Midgley 1992). Scepticism appears to legitimate a preference for the latter, but it too can assume a religious character. As Midgley has put it, a ‘feeling that disbelief always has the right of way still persists; it can be noticed in almost any philosophical controversy’ (Midgley 1992, p. 128).

Reformers and critics face the occupational hazard of sounding like wowsers. Grayling, unfortunately, falls victim to this. The earnestness of his book suggests that his heroes of enlightenment have not yet wrought the salvation he believes humanity needs, and that he will not rest his pen until he has defeated the devils of irrationality and religion.


Finnis, J. 1980, Natural Law and Natural Rights, Oxford, Clarendon Press.

Midgley, M. 1992, Science as Salvation, London, Routledge.

Murdoch, I. 1993, Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals, London, Penguin Books.

Damian Grace teaches social philosophy in the School of Social Work at UNSW. He writes mainly in the area of business and professional ethics.