I introduced A C Grayling’s book, The God Argument, in two earlier posts. This post presents the professor’s views on good life.
Grayling posits seven characteristics of a good life.
The first characteristic is that a good life is a meaningful one. Meaning is “a set of values and their associated goals that give a life its shape and direction.” Having children to look after or achieving success in one’s profession or any other very ordinary goal can make life meaningful. But Grayling says quoting Oscar Wilde that everyone’s map of the world should have a Utopia on it. That is, everyone should dream of a better world and strive to materialise that dream, if life is to be truly meaningful.
Ability to form relationships with other people is the second characteristic. Intimacy with at least one other person is an important feature of a meaningful life. “Good relationships make better people,” says Grayling. Broken relationships are one’s own making, though others might have contributed to the failure.
Activity is the third characteristic. It is about doing, making or learning something. Life would be a big bore without its inevitable demands and obligations. Activity is about meeting those demands and obligations. “We are animals who thrive when engaged, and suffer from idleness,” says Grayling. The normal human occupations can take the place of activity. But Grayling recommends another important occupation: express one’s ideas and invite others to test them and criticise them. This is similar to what science does. Science invites others to test and challenge its inventions and discoveries. Our ideas mature when we do this. We become fuller human beings in the process.
A good life is consistently marked by honesty or authenticity. This is the fourth characteristic. This is about a “directness, emotional honesty, a refusal to escape into pieties, nonsense or comforting illusions, but above all an ability to ‘see things steadily and see them whole’...” We live in a world of compromises and pretences and bald untruths which enslave us. Authenticity gives us freedom. Autonomy is a better word. Autonomy means “being one’s own lawmaker at the core of one’s moral being.” It is the inner freedom one achieves in spite of the constraints imposed on one by one’s upbringing, society, and other external factors or forces.
The last three characteristics are highly inter-related and Grayling discusses them together. They are:
Fifth: Manifestation of one’s autonomy: This means that the individual accepts responsibility for the choices that shape the course of his/her life. Contrast this with what the fundamentalist does. The fundamentalist puts the blame for all evils on others and goes on to impose his narrow truths on others. The fundamentalist is one of the least autonomous individuals.
Sixth: A felt quality of life: A person who lives a good life (in Grayling’s sense) feels the richness of his/her life. Obviously this richness is absolutely different from the riches that most people run after.
Seventh: Integrity: This is a feeling of inner wholeness or completeness. The individual good consists in harmony between the different elements of the soul, said Plato. That harmony is what is meant by integrity.
Grayling presents this system in the beginning of the second part of his book. The first part is a criticism of religion and theism. The second part proposes humanism as a viable alternative to religion. Humanism is based on the simple assertion that human beings are rational enough to understand themselves and their positions in the world and hence make responsible and meaningful choices which in turn will make life much more beautiful and meaningful than any religion or belief in god(s) can.
When religions have done so much harm in the world, it is a good idea to think of an alternative.
The two earlier posts inspired by Grayling: