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.
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.On humanism and ethics:
“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.
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.’’And I'll have to read more about his university:
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 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 well-wishers so that anyone, rich or poor, can attend. “My aim in the long term is to have a means-blind admission policy, so you don’t bother about whether people can pay or not, you just take the best people,’’ he says.I agree with his views on the Booker prize:
“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.’’And I agree with 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 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.All in all, Grayling sounds like an interesting character.