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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars This book and secular humanism are part of the answer, 26 Mar. 2009
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This review is from: What is Good?: The Search for the Best Way to Live (Hardcover)
Broadly speaking, there are two "ways of understanding the nature and sources of value": the secular and the transcendental. Since the rise of science in the seventeenth century these attitudes "have come increasingly into competition, and the resulting accumulation of tension between them is one of the greatest problems faced by the modern world." So begins A. C. Grayling's inspiring exploration of what it means to be good. "My claim is that the great ethical debate that has always confronted mankind, and does so still, is between a fundamentally humanistic view and the religious moralities it opposes." There is no doubt which side Grayling himself takes and that voices like his need to be heard, given the power and privileges and deference still demanded by some religious groups. Many continue to believe in the supernatural origin of good and would nod approvingly at the church sign that says "good" without "God" is "o" or nothing. That this is false is made clear throughout this tremendous book.

The historical scope is daunting, the subject challenging philosophically and yet personally important to each one of us, the positions entrenched - it's a tribute to Grayling's professional expertise and commitment to clarity of thought and writing that he marshals the material so well. The tour begins in ancient Greece with Thales, "the first known Enlightenment thinker", whose rejection of "superstition or reliance on traditional beliefs" was "an essential feature of the Greek mentality". Socrates thought that scientific knowledge was "of no practical use to mankind" and that the more important question was that "of the good life and how to live it." For Aristotle, we were "part of the natural world" and our "defining mark or essence" was our reason, which we as moral agents could use "to determine, from the actual facts of an individual case, what is the right course of action in that case". There is no code or list of rules. What a difference that would make today: how often do we hear a politician or a banker plead - I did not break any rules! - when they have clearly done wrong? Diogenes preferred his barrel of happiness to "the intellectual path to enlightenment." Epicurus advised a clear understanding of "god, death, pleasure and suffering" in order to "make ourselves strong and secure from harm".

Into this variety and complexity of ethical thought steps St Paul, with his simple focus on sin "as an offence to God". Unlike many religions, Christianity is "expressly ethical" with "a central commitment to a morality of divine command". A "god commands and we must obey" - "divine ethics rests on a demand and a threat, not on reasons, and certainly not on reasons prompted by reflection on the facts of human nature and human experience." Indeed, "faith is a commitment made in direct opposition to reason, in the very teeth of the evidence."

Grayling argues convincingly that Christian morality, far from being essential to a good life, actually gets in the way of living a moral life in the modern world. Apologists draw "a perfumed smokescreen over the evidence of religion's own signal failures to be moral" while mourning the loss of power that once enabled the church to "coerce compliance with its orthodoxy". They promote the notion, without evidence (remember, faith circumvents the awkward business of having to provide good reasons), that we're living in a moral vacuum. Nothing could be further from the truth. For a secularist, "the notion of the intrinsic worth of others and of nature is the only true source of morality." Contrast this with the Christian doctrine of the Fall: "human nature is corrupt, infected by original sin; there is nothing man can do on his own account to save himself." Why bother to get out of bed in the morning, why not kill yourself now and have done with it?

The Enlightenment made explicit the importance of "science and reason" and denied revelation as a source of knowledge. David Hume, however, argued that reason alone could not lead to moral values, but that neither did we need God since we have "an innate human moral sense that determines what we think is good and bad". His natural virtues include "friendship, faithfulness, generosity, courage, mercy, fairness, patience, good humour, perseverance, prudence and kindness" and compare favourably with "the whole train of monkish virtues" - "celibacy, fasting, penance, mortification, self denial, humility, silence, solitude".

Grayling lists "as the elements of the good life" the positive humanist values of "individual liberty, the pursuit of knowledge, the cultivation of pleasures that do not harm others, the satisfaction of art, personal relationships, and a sense of belonging to the human community" - all of which do not require that we believe preposterous claims regarding supernatural events or beings. Unfortunately, inquiry into what is good also involves an unflinching and unsentimental appraisal of where we have gone wrong in history and why. Neither atheism nor secular humanism nor Darwin were responsible for inquisitions, burnings at the stake, witch-hunts, crusades against heretics and infidels, and wars of religion. Such mass murder and immense suffering can be laid directly at the vestry door of Christianity, which has dominated Western civilization for much of the past two millennia and enjoys an unparalleled heritage of pain. In contrast to the dogmatic assertions of faith, the scientific attitude "values inquiry, curiosity and observation, rigorous testing of ideas, experiment, open-mindedness, preparedness to think again in the face of new evidence" - all of which virtues are as valuable in the living room as they are in the laboratory.
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