THE LAST DITCH An Englishman returned after twenty years abroad blogs about liberty in Britain
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Railing at Grayling

Link: A.C. Grayling - Professor of Philosophy at Birkbeck College, Univ. of London. Tn_grayling

Yesterday, I attended a lecture by Professor A.C. Grayling. His subject was Responding to Socrates: Philosophy and the Making of the Best Life. Grayling is a good, if rather affected, speaker. He's big on affectation actually, with his flowing locks and cravat. I welcome such signs of rebellion against the grey, puritan spirit of modern Britain.

There is little of the rebel in his thinking, however. A regular contributor to Pravda the Guardian, he seems to me, while undoubtedly a serious thinker, very much an apologist for New Labour's and now Blue Labour's despotic approaches to government. His political views have, as he has put it himself, "a permanent list to port."

His subject was how to respond to the challenge in Socrates' statement that "the unconsidered life is not worth living." This thought is at the heart of post-Enlightenment values in the West. I could not agree with Socrates more. I could hardly agree with Grayling less. As he spoke, he seemed the model of the reasonable man. Everyone, he argued, should try to plan his goals in life, based upon his inclinations and according to his talents. As his life unfolds, he should consider the extreme responses to every choice that faces him, only so as to steer the middle path between them.

Grayling's opinions, rooted firmly in the classical tradition, seemed sagely liberal. The ancients, he explained, valued the martial virtues of courage, strength and endurance but Socrates favoured the "civic virtues". These, according to Grayling, mean that a man should follow his own inclinations only insofar as they do not conflict with the interests of society.

Man is, of course, a social animal. A civilised man should respect others in his community. The danger, however, is in the nature of that "respect" and the way in which it is enforced. I accept I have a duty to do no physical harm, but reject (mere politeness apart) any duty to spare another's feelings. My freedom to express myself is not limited by the sensitivities of those around me. I expect of them pre-Socratic virtues in the face of my words, if not my deeds. Unlike most in modern Britain (and unlike the law) I therefore respect the freedom of Umran Javed to call for the bombing of Denmark and the United States, while not respecting his right (had he the martial virtues) actually to do it. What he says may be infuriating, but I claim no right to assault him, either personally, or by the use of State power on my behalf, for saying it. In return, I expect equal forbearance if I call (for example) for the abolition of the the Commission for Equality & Human Rights, or the bombing of Tehran.

Professor Grayling would consider me lacking in "civic virtues" on all these counts. I also consider that I should be able to choose whomever I please as my friends, colleagues, customers and suppliers. Professor Grayling disagrees. He pompously declaimed that he was against "discrimination of all kinds." Let us pass lightly over the fact that, in saying this, he abuses the English language. It was clear from the cut of his clothes, for example, that he discriminates firmly in his choice of tailor. I assume he meant to say that, with tedious conventionality, he disapproves of discrimination on certain specific grounds; the currently fashionable ones being race, sex and sexual orientation. On this basis, he was firmly against the Catholic position in relation to the new Sexual Orientation Regulations.

He is strongly anti-clerical in his views (although he was sickeningly unctuous to the religious in his audience in regretting his strong tone against churchmen in the past). It seems to be his view that the religious man by definition lives an unconsidered life, perhaps on the basis that faith is the opposite of reason. As my readers know, I am as much an atheist as Grayling. However, I hope I have the humility to accept that others may arrive at different conclusions, even after all due consideration.

Given the failure of the Socialist idea as a justification for State power, would-be totalitarians are on a quest for a replacement. The members of the proletariat having proved resistant to the temptations of the dictatorship offered them by Socialist Statists, today's "true believers" have sought to replace them in the vanguard of tyranny with "oppressed minority groups." Ever greater powers are demanded to prevent others (to most of whom the idea had never occurred) of "discriminating" against such groups. So effective has this tactic been that a ludicrous game of "trumps" is now underway, as the Statists try to work out which victim group outranks the others on any given issue. Meanwhile, all except the hapless, despised white working classes (the last acceptable hate figures, as Jade Goody recently found) vie with each other for victim status, so as to increase their claims to the "protection" of the State and the money extorted from its taxpayers.

The more victims clamour for protection, the more powerful it seems the State must be. The more our every move is seen to cause nebulous harm to such groups, the less free we are to live as we please, however considered our choices may be. It is possible so much to qualify a thought as to make it meaningless. That seems to be Professor Grayling's approach. I was sad to see him so well-received by an audience that should have known better.


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Steve Roberts

[quote]a man should follow his own inclinations only insofar as they do not conflict with the interests of society[/quote]
Of course the snag is, whoever subscribes to this view is giving a blank cheque to the persom or institution which decides what the interests of society are, so that such institution can prevent him from doing whatever may displease it. This is the ethic which led to Socrates' execution.
I think it is plain wrong, and would substitute something along the lines of: A man owns his own mind and will think what he likes; a man owns his own voice and may say as he likes; a man owns his own person and may associate with whom he likes; a man owns his own property and may do with it what he wishes except to injure another person or harm another person's property.

NB one good argument for free speech is that, we can only decided who to associate with if people are free say what they really want to say, and thus reveal themselves.

Tom Paine

Professor Grayling, welcome. I sincerely appreciate your taking the time to put me straight. I also welcome your position on civil liberties issues. I bought your book "The Meaning of Things" after your lecture and will be reading it with care.

All we bloggers particularly enjoy your tendency to "flame" when criticised (your attack on those who criticised your blog in the Guardian recently was a gem). I guess the sort of status-based respect you enjoy as a Professor does not equip you well for the hard knocks of the blogosphere. In any event your penchant for the snooty ad hominem attack on critics does your arguments much harm. Keep it up.

If I may respectfully point out a few errors in your comment;

I linked you to a general trend towards communitarian thinking ("New Labour and Blue Labour"), so I didn't make the assumption you deemed facile. Now that you mention it however, I would bet £100 as to what your vote was at the last election. I would even do you the honour of taking your word for it. Let me know who needs to provide whom with a bank account number to make the transfer.

A careful reading of my post would clarify to the meanest intellect, let alone yours, that I did not conflate "discrimination" and "unfair" or "unlawful" discrimination. I took a pot shot at you for, as I saw it, lazily failing to distinguish between the two. Such lazy use of the word is part of the reason that the categories of legally-sanctioned opinion will probably increase in the coming years. Britain's addiction to the suppression of public expression of "inappropriate" views certainly seems to me to be growing.

I take the view that words are just words, opinions (however distasteful) are just opinions. Had we not started (with good intentions and sloppy thinking) down the path of outlawing certain categories of "discrimination", we would not be at risk of more categories being added. As an influential part of the consensus on that subject, I suggest you are partly to blame for our being in that position. Your "...and the like" at the end of your clarification in your comment is a dark form on the horizon of our liberties.

I hear contemporary reports that all it takes to close down an argument at Britain's leading Universities is to allege one of the current categories of unlawful "discrimination". The fear that engenders is enough to suppress further thought. I would have hoped that a philosopher would find that uncomfortable.

As for religion, I share your atheism but not your contempt for the religious. Your comments to the religious lady who questioned you did strike me as unctuous, but I accept the correction that you did not "ratchet back" but rather distinguished between your impatience and others' intolerance.

My point was simply that if you believe (as Blair, Cameron and their respective cohorts seem to) that every individual action has some impact on "society" or at least "others," (e.g. passive smoking, carbon emissions, expression of inappropriate opinions about racial and other minorities) you soon end by removing the individual's rights to lead his own considered life.

I based my comments entirely on your speech and your Guardian columns. I apologise entirely if that led me into error. Somehow I suspect it hasn't but if I find I am wrong when I have read your book (which I guess is what a man like you means by "read more widely" and "make more effort") then I shall certainly apologise here.

a. c. grayling

Dear Tom Paine
One of those who gave me such a courteous welcome at the Ladies' College on Saturday kindly forwarded your blog to me. If like me you welcome opportunities to learn stuff, and to be put straight when going wrong, the following might help. Evidently you don't read widely enough, listen hard enough, or take enouch care over the assumptions you make. The first and third of these might have alerted you to the fact that I've been attacking the Labour government for some time over its assaults on civil liberties, especially ID cards and limits on free speech, and especially deprecate Blair's attitudes in this regard. It doesn't stop me holding liberal left opinions; it is facile to assume that because someone is interested in social justice and forms of communitarianism that they automatically support Blair's Labour Party. You make that facile assumption. You might also have picked up the fact that in not liking religion and its works, I include Islam and mad-dog mullahs in the genre. Why would the latter be exempted from the former? An odd inference. As to listening hard: I did not ratchet back on attacking the clerics, but explained the difference between impatience with their demands for exemptions &c and tolerance of their absurd beliefs providing they do not harm others. What was difficult about understanding that? Finally, you of course know that by "all kinds of discrimination" I meant racism, sexism, hostility to gays, and the like, and not the homophone denoting careful distinctions in matters of taste, friends, and the like. To conflate the two is not just cheap-shot stuff, it is a plain mistake. "Tom Paine" is quite a name to live up to: you should make the effort. - By the way, I don't in the least mind people having a go at me, but (as in your case) occasionally respond, as now, if their doing so arises from ignorance and prejudice, for it might be of use. In your case you seem to have a bee in your bonnet about anyone who writes for the Guardian, who has long hair, who tries to start relationships with people by respecting them until they do something to lose that respect (throw a bomb, write an ill-tempered blog): these are prejudices on your part, and then you launch an irritated assault based on misinformation: not good. You can have a better-informed go at me another time, and if you get it right, I'll be the beneficiary. - Good wishes to you - Anthony Grayling


Another political philosopher (rather than philosopher of politics) is Ted Honderich: a flavour of whose "philosophy" is in this>column by Nick Cohen.

Tin Drummer

Good post. Matt M has been writing a little about Grayling recently and he does seem to be one of these philosophers whose views are remarkably simple and consistent with modern left-liberal politics. I had always thought philosophers were seekers after knowledge, fearless investigators of truth, and not declaimers of received wisdom, but there you go. It's interesting that you comment on his changing tone slightly towards churches & churchmen - as I pointed out on Matt's blog, I found him in private a much more tolerant writer than in his columns.

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