The title of A.C. Grayling's delightful book refers to the critical choice offered to the hero Hercules, between seductive Pleasure - a life of wine, women and song - on the one hand, and grim Virtue or Duty on the other. Hercules, as Grayling notes, must have looked like a pushover for Pleasure, since he was a brawling hooligan, a wanton murderer and a rapist. Against the odds, though, he chooses Virtue, much to the delight of subsequent artists, including Veronese, Rubens and, in music, Handel. Ogden Nash, for one, would have understood him going the other way: "O Duty,/Why hast thou not the visage of a sweetie or a cutie?/Why glitter thy spectacles so ominously?/Why art thou clad so abominously?"
Of course, the stark choice represented by the legend is not so stark in reality. You cannot have a life with many pleasures in it without an admixture of virtue. You could not, for instance, enjoy the pleasures of friendship without the virtues of benevolence, loyalty, courage when needed, and fairness or justice. There is no reason to deny pleasure to the virtuous life. Indeed many thinkers, especially in classical times, tried to close the circle, proving that the only real life of pleasure was identical with that of virtue. The exercise of virtue is itself frequently pleasurable, since pride is an agreeable emotion, and our ability to bear our own self-survey is an essential part of tranquillity. But the classical claim is too ambitious, since there are unfortunately nasty pieces of work who flourish by what the late Bernard Williams called the ecological standard of the bright eye and the glossy coat. Add the kind of insensitivity we have been taught to admire in an era of greed and individualism, and there can be some moderately enviable but less than virtuous lives. Hence, there is room for work spelling out the advantages of Hercules's choice, and Grayling rises to the task admirably.
It is difficult to write books about ethics without appearing pious, or smug, or predictable. Once a tone has been set, for instance as liberal or conservative, religious or secular, the rest is likely to unroll without many surprises. It is also difficult to do it without surreptitiously talking down to the audience. As Hume was fond of pointing out, we all came to learn a lot of ethics simply by learning our language, and in particular we know the difference between virtues and vices. If we are called cowardly, indecisive, mean or boring we know we are being denigrated; if we are called, as we hope, brave, generous, cheerful and interesting, we can legitimately blush with pleasure. Even the amoralist, cursing society from his self-imposed exile in Bohemia, will prefer being called insightful, heroic or honest to being thought of as self-deceived or stupid. We do not need the reminders that BBC Radio 4 torments us with at 15 minutes to eight every morning, and still less the idiotic belief that distinguishing between virtue and vice is the unique achievement of the Church of England, or indeed any other.
Grayling avoids all these pitfalls. His book is liberal and secular, but it is also impassioned and forceful, rising to a genuine plea for something better than we are used to when it comes to public debate, the frenzies of moralism that frequently sweep over us, or the blind indifference to human rights and needs across much of the world.
It has been fashionable in recent years to denigrate the term "humanism" as implying a Pollyannaish belief in human nobility and capacity, ignoring the dark side of our actual natures. This is a pity. Used properly, the term reminds us only that in ethics we stand on our own feet. There are no self-extracting archives of ethics, for to accord authority to any particular text or tradition is itself to make an ethical choice. It is sad that their cultures offer many people only one, bad, choice in such a matter, and excellent that lucid, humane, and intelligent philosophers such as Grayling can help us to do better.
Simon Blackburn is professor of philosophy at the University of Cambridge. His recent books include Truth: A Guide for the Perplexed (2005) and Plato's Republic (2006)
The Choice of Hercules: Pleasure, Duty and the Good Life in the 21st Century
By A.C. Grayling Weidenfeld & Nicolson
Published 8 November 2007