Listened to A C Grayling talk to the Central London Humanist Group last night at Conway Hall. He’s a favourite speaker because he is such a good talker, drawing on deep knowledge of the history of philosophy since the greeks, interspersed with anecdotes from real life politics and stories from classic literature. All done naturally without slides and minimal (if any) notes.
Content-wise, his messages were pretty straightforward, his title redundant. All the values being talked about are humanist, or were humanistic anyway. Pretty well all philosophy on values, virtues and morality from the Greeks onwards is humanistic. About good behaviour of humans. Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics remains the classic standard work. The clear transition from the masculine warrior virtues to those civic virtues of a civilised society. Freedom of thought and action, think for yourself with thoughtful consideration for others, minimum harm, golden rule, etc.
Thinking for yourself and giving consideration for others at all times may be inconvenient, messy and inefficient, but it is that very muddle that helps preserve the freedoms. Legality should be case law, not detailed rules codified with comprehensive legislation and objective definition – cast in stone. And systems of enforcement should be multiple and loose, not directly constrained by technology. Bi-cameral governance should be clear on different roles and responsibilities and on different bases for membership – eg not both by popular voting.
Diversity, imperfection and redundancy are messy but good. Hear, hear say I.
Conversely, the religious and totalitarian alternatives of stricter codification and the psychological and physical means of enforcement, provided plenty of anecdotal and Q&A content for such a talk with a group of liberal, atheist, secular, humanists. “Simple, no need to think for yourself, we’ve got some clear rules for you.” Even if applied benevolently, such a scheme ossifies the natural evolution of value and, if too efficient and effective, is too easily open to malevolent or misguided misapplication. The messier, distributed, diverse approach wins. So far so good.
But, what about those values. After virtues, virtue? After virtue? Freedom and Consideration. That’s it?
All variations on that, all additions, are essentially pragmatic and contingent, towards smoother, efficient running of society, leaving more time to live life, more time free from worrying about difficult decisions, more opportunity to delegate and share the workload of governance of that society. Free society open to question and challenge, naturally, but self-sustaining and smooth running.
With only those basic values, not all decisions can be straightforward or self-consistent to work out the balance of freedoms and consequences of every decision and action. Life is full of inconsistency and conflicting pressure across multiple time-scales. It’s good that everyone – as many as possible, including the youngest in education – appreciate the philosophical questioning and thinking processes, but not that we all spend all our time being philosophers, fully working out the solution to every problem. We’d get nothing done, we’d live no lives.
So my question. Where and how do we agree practical values, useful rules of thumb for typical real life situations?
Grayling’s reply was “nowhere; we don’t”. As soon as we do record them, they risk being documented definitively, cast in stone and abused. Fair point, but.
Interestingly however, in his response Grayling used the “story” of The Good Samaritan to illustrate the message that encoding the specific values of the specific situation, would never have the same power by parallel association to apply the “story” as a parable on good behaviour in wider life situations. How often will we actually get the opportunity as a bystander to help the innocent victim of a mugging in the street?
Clearly the place we document, in order to learn, communicate and educate values of living is in stories. Parables and literature that are clearly not intended to cast values as rules in stone, but which nevertheless contain the values in ways we can appreciate in their literary (fictional, mythical, apochryphal) context yet “slip”(*) sideways into our individual daily lives, lived now in the present.
We need great works of literature. We need good books.
What was it Samira Ahmed said – the story of Ishmael reminds how good a work of literature the Old Testament is.
(*) For “slipping” see Hofstadter.
[Post Note ; And same day today, BHA tweets on The Golden Rule.]
[Post Note : and to reinforce Samira Ahmed’s point, here is Samira Shackle in New Humanist, interviewing Azar Nafisi, writer of “Reading Lolita in Tehran”]