Good – A philosophical perspective

Editor Rebecca Lamoin talks to British philosopher and author A.C. Grayling to discuss the concept of “good”

A regular visitor to Australia, British philosopher and author A.C. Grayling is known to audiences here through his writing and rock star like appearances at writers’ festivals (a standing ovation at Byron Bay last year). He may also be familiar to you from his frequent appearances on ABC’s Q&A where he invariably brings a certain rational calm to heated debate.

Grayling has written more than 30 books on not only philosophy but biography, the history of ideas, human rights and ethics. There’s certainly something enigmatic about philosopher as a job title and Grayling has many stories about people requesting an answer to the meaning of life upon hearing of his profession. He is the Master of the New College of the Humanities in central London where he was just beginning the day when Rebecca Lamoin had this chat.

RL: YOU WROTE 'THE GOOD BOOK: A SECULAR BIBLE', AS WELL AS 'WHAT IS GOOD?: THE SEARCH FOR THE BEST WAY TO LIVE'. COULD YOU SLIDE US INTO THIS DISCUSSION WITH A SHORT OVERVIEW OF WHAT YOU MEAN BY ‘GOOD’?

ACG: Important values that we care about. We talk about the ‘good’, meaning something which, in all its implications and all its connections has genuine value for us. Genuine value in a way that we care about and that we always seek to realise if we plan what we do and how we organise our lives.

RL: THE TENSION BETWEEN DUTY AND PLEASURE – ASIDE FROM BEING A VERY EFFECTIVE NARRATIVE DEVICE – IS A DIVIDE IN ETHICAL THEORY. CAN YOU GIVE US AN OVERVIEW?

ACG: Yes, this is a trope which was discussed very, very intently from classical antiquity right up until the modern period. The tension, or alleged tension, between duty and pleasure, is the idea being that to do your duty you have to accept that you’ve got to defer or set aside the possibility of pleasure and that by embracing pleasures you are altogether too likely to fail to do your duty.

Think of the endless paintings of the so called Choice of Hercules – this is where Hercules is approached by two women, one very beautiful and voluptuous who tried to seduce him away to a night of pleasures, and the other a tall, stately, grey eyed lady who said that as the son of a God he must fulfil his duty and his destiny. As if the choice were an absolute one; that you can’t do your duty if you ever had pleasures, or you can’t have pleasure if you’re going to do your duty.

In my view, people are quite likely to do their duty better in life. The duties that we impose on ourselves or that we agree to with others in our moral lives – we do them better if we also acknowledge that pleasure is an important part of life.

The pleasures of companionship and of learning and enquiry, of relaxation, of the enjoyment of beauty, of the encounter with things that give us an opportunity to grow as personalities. So, in my own personal view there isn’t a conflict. Rather, there is a question of balance and a judgment about when we should really focus on our duties and when we should allow ourselves the pleasures that make life good.

But in the traditional debate, they’ve been regarded as the polarities. Beauty versus pleasure, the danger of pleasure subverting beauty.

'...people are quite likely to do their duty better in life… if we also acknowledge pleasure is an important part of life.'

Artist painting of Hercules

Artist: Paolo de Matteis

RL: PARADISE IS OFTEN FRAMED AS A REWARD FOR THE VIRTUOUS. WHAT ARE THE ORIGINS OF THE IDEA THAT GOOD GETS REWARDED, BAD GETS PUNISHED, AND HOW DO YOU THINK THAT HOLDS UP IN A CONTEMPORARY WORLD?

ACG: It’s so interesting isn’t it that the concept of paradise, which of course originally means garden, implies that it’s an escape from the suffering and struggles and demands of a life of difficulty.

So, the idea that paradise is a reward, that it’s a good thing to be free from making an effort, is in itself questionable. Step back a pace or two and think about it. The life of endeavour, the life of always trying to move forward, getting things done, changing things and so on, is intrinsically in itself a life of very great value.

But leaving that aside, in a way it’s kind of obvious that having all things good – having as much as you want to eat, having leisure, having repose, not being cold or too hot, being in a delightful place such as the garden – has always struck people as being a lovely kind of reward. They fail to recognise that after a while they would get incredibly bored.

But it’s obvious that good and easy and pleasant things would be a reward for toeing the line. For being virtuous according to whatever conception of virtue is in play, and that if you don’t do that, if you don’t toe the line, if you don’t do the things that are virtuous, then of course you’re going to suffer pains and torments and terrors.

It’s a very natural thing to think, that reward and pleasure has to take those types of forms. It’s interesting, because again, if one takes a few steps back and thinks about it and looks at it clearly, one recognises that many of the things that people think are part of punishment – that is, endeavour, effort, striving for something – are actually in themselves a reward in life. So, this contrast between reward and punishment and how they are conceived sometimes blurs the picture about what really matters.

RL: YOU OFTEN QUOTE SOCRATES’ FOUNDATIONAL INQUIRIES "WHAT SORT OF PEOPLE SHOULD WE BE?" AND HOW SHOULD WE LIVE? HOW DO THESE KINDS OF INQUIRIES TRANSLATE INTO OUR EVERYDAY LIVES?

ACG: Well, they have a very, very direct effect. The interesting, subtle thing about the Socratic challenge – the challenge to think and to provide ourselves with an answer to the questions, how should we live and what sort of people should we be – is that each one of us individually has to provide that answer individually. Because it’s going to be a different answer for each of us.

Sometimes people go to the philosophers – they go to Plato, they read about Socrates – and they’re looking for the recipe. They’re looking for the advice or the instruction which tells them how to do it. But what Socrates effectively says to everybody is that you’ve got to work it out for yourself. This is something you’ve got to think through.

It’s going to be predicated on your best efforts to understand yourself and to think sympathetically and generously about other people. To recognise that as social beings, social animals, at the very heart of whatever we do there are going to be collections of other people that make a difference to us. And therefore, good connections, good relationships are going to be really central to the kind of life we choose to live, given our own talents and capacities will make life good and flourishing.

It’s very much an individual endeavour and it is not something which once you take it, like a pill or like an injection, transforms you. It is a work. Living is a work. And if it’s a journey that is directed towards things that you care about deeply and that you value, then it is going to be a good work.

So, that is what the Socratic challenge is about. The minute that anybody understands it, the minute anybody reads that and understands it, immediately the opportunity to be living that kind of life – the Socratic life, the good life, the life of self-creation, the life of finding and seeking answers, which may not come quickly or easily, but the very process of looking for them – is what it is to be living that kind of life.

A.C. Grayling

C. Grayling CBE MA DPhil (Oxon) FRSA FRSL is the Master of the New College of the Humanities, London, and its Professor of Philosophy. He is also a Supernumerary Fellow of St Anne's College, Oxford. He is the author of over 40 books, most recently The History of Philosophy; Democracy and its Crisis, and The Age of Genius: The Seventeenth Century and the Birth of the Modern Mind. He was for a number of years a columnist on The Guardian, The Times and Prospect magazine. He has contributed to many leading newspapers in the UK, US and Australia, and to BBC radios 4, 3 and the World Service, for which he did the annual Exchanges at the Frontier series; and he has often appeared on television. He has twice been a judge on the Booker Prize, in 2014 serving as the Chair of the judging panel. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, a Vice President of the British Humanist Association, Patron of the UK Armed Forces Humanist Association, Honorary Associate of the Secular Society, and a Patron of Dignity in Dying.

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