For the Good of the World by A. C. Grayling

Reviewed by E.B. Heath

The linguistic agility of some writers has the effect of organising the mind – much like a librarian applying the Dewey Decimal system to a pile of dusty books – Professor Grayling is one such writer. He makes light work for the reader despite the dense subject matter concerning significant threats to our existence on planet Earth.

In his latest book For the Good of the World, Professor Grayling outlines the immediate threats to our continued survival under three headings: climate change, technology, and justice and rights.  Climate change has been thoroughly expounded within academia and the media whereas problematic issues within technology and justice are legion, public debate is sparse. Grayling’s account of each is most timely; unravelling the subject matter to form a coherent synopsis, he proposes that issues within justice and rights have a bearing on our success in containing a problematic climate and run-away technology.

In a final short chapter entitled ‘Solutions’, he forwards ideas regarding true democratic processes; while this veers towards utopian thinking, it does provide a foundation for further debate. What follows is a brief overview of a thorough work.

Grayling states the obvious – we desperately need a set of universal ethics in order to address the threats confronting human existence – he explains what stands in the way of this happening.  There is a long list that he captures within his Laws of Self Interest:

Anything that CAN be done WILL be done if it brings advantage or profit to those who can do it. 

What CAN be done will NOT be done if it brings costs, economic or otherwise, to those who can stop it.

This awful short-termism plagues economic and government policy decisions, spurred by competition and mistrust between nation states. Ideology embedded in religious and cultural beliefs add to this toxic mix.  Grayling presents worst case scenarios not to be alarmist rather to allow focus on what is required by way of solution.

Climate change is covered in thirty-eight pages and worth readers’ attention even if up-to-date with all aspects.  There are some issues that cannot be reiterated too much, particularly the shocking loss of many animal and plant species.  Twenty per cent of animal species and forty per cent of plant species are close to extinction. As Grayling is at pains to point out: The planet is a single organism, and an interconnected system forming a single ecology.Biodiversity matters because it maintains the system of interdependencies that link the chain of life … from bacteria to plant and animal life to the composition of the air in the earth’s atmosphere. (p.19).  This is equally as important and has a bearing on water lapping at the feet of South Pacific Islanders, soon to be experienced by river cities globally.

Grayling briefly details Bill Gates’ comments on climate regarding the need for a systemic approach, strong links between government policy and funding, university research and corporate development.  As we have experienced in Australia, lack lustre government policy influenced by commercial interests has resulted in very slow progress tackling a very urgent global threat.

In ‘Technology and the Future’, Grayling illustrates the rapidity of technological advancement along the lines of: halving the time to the next stage, doubling the efficacy of what the next stage can do.  With this in mind, he discusses the tremendous advantages to be had but also strongly suggests that there needs to be debate about the possible worst consequences concerning what is presently being done. Grayling lists hazards within: Artificial Intelligence (AI), autonomous weapons, neuropsychological brain chip interfaces (BCHIs), and social/political media.  If readers are not abreast of the issues, they can expect to be troubled by the possible implications of future developments, particularly concerning warfare, manipulation of democracy, and a separate breed of super humans.  I can’t help but think with the Law of Self Interest in mind, getting some semblance of global agreement on these issues will make climate change accord look like an international love fest.  Furthermore, there is a limit to how many alarm bells can be heard at the same time, but it is clear that these issues require their own champions to alert the general public and governments.

In Chapter 3, Grayling turns to ‘Justice and Rights’.  History shows that allowing vastly disadvantaged social and economic cohorts to exist within a society will eventually result in revolution, or at the very least serious social disruption. Welfare payments, or the work of NGOs, do not sufficiently redress expanding inequity across the globe.  To quote Desmond Tutu:  There comes a point where we need to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they’re falling in.  Grayling takes his analytical mind upstream and provides a well- reasoned report.

In a most readable way, Grayling defines justice, rights, fairness and equality, referring to philosophers past and present, also providing a useful account of John Rawls’ influential view of justice as fairness, along with Robert Nozick’s libertarian viewpoint, more to the right of politics.  He applies the self-interest laws discussing why poverty can be a global disadvantage for everyone. And, of course he does not ignore intrinsic moral imperatives.  It is hard to disagree that … It is a culpable matter that in the same society some should be living in conspicuous luxury while others sleep on the streets …   Using Bangladesh as an example, he details forms of structural injustice, along with their causes, and how that country has lifted living conditions by adopting population control, investment in female education, and stimulated business with micro loans, also used to benefit women’s small business endeavours.

Grayling details how poverty is further enflamed by intersectional variables of gender, race and age. He dedicates much of his efforts here to gender inequality, how women have been and still are discounted as an inferior minority, despite the fact that they represent half of humanity.  He gives an account of the achievements of each of the four waves of feminism, also critiquing feminism’s neglect of the abuse women suffer in under developed countries.  On the latter, he might have mentioned that post-modern theory privileges race and culture to the detriment of gender; judging, or even commenting on another culture’s treatment of anything is considered a form of colonialism in itself and attracts large dollops of censure.  However, in the penultimate chapter ‘Relativism’ he does gently point out that whereas the desire to promote reciprocal cultural respect is admirable, post-modernism lacks guide-rails for dealing with the very real problems faced by the world and the people in it. (p. 174) He goes on to discuss tolerance, that is: what can and cannot be tolerated, and provides guidelines for a morality that he argues is universal given that it is based on a shared human nervous system.

In the final chapter, ‘Solutions’, Grayling sums up and promotes various ideas worthy of further thought.  One of which campaigns for true global democracy detailing what that would entail.  He admits his solutions are utopian in nature but they do act as a foundation for further deliberation.  Certainly, democracy needs to be creatively renovated towards true representation and fairness.  Grayling might be criticised here as taking a western-centric position, although it is clear that populations desire to have agency within their nation and community often demonstrating against controlling regimes – without much success. Unsurprising since demonstrations taking place within democratic states do not have a high success rate. His position on tolerance perhaps holds more hope for global agreement, particularly with the threat of destruction looming on the horizon.

For the Good of the World is a timely exposition of the threats facing humans across the globe, Grayling argues across a broad range of topics that if self-interest prevails it will not end well for anyone.  To put aside religious and cultural differences, pool resources, co-operate and compromise is in everyone’s self-interest.

Highly Recommended

For the Good of the World

By A.C. Grayling


One World Publications

ISBN:978 086154 266 6

$34.99; 232pp

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