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by A. C. Grayling
Oxford University Press, 2003
Review by Joe Ulatowski on May 21st 2004

Life, Sex, and Ideas

Few philosophers in the history of western philosophy have written books targeting a popular audience. Most philosophers have written manuscripts their colleagues barely understand. Bertrand Russell's "shilling shocker" of 1912, entitled The Problems of Philosophy, is an exception to this rule. This book began a legacy of philosophical manuscripts accessible to the common person. Some philosophers have followed Russell's lead, e.g., Thomas Nagel's What Does it All Mean and, most recently, Simon Blackburn's Think. Grayling has authored a book surely to be ranked among these classic popular introductions to philosophy.

Grayling's book contains 60 brief essays drawn from works he had published in The Guardian, a major British newspaper. Each essay puts a philosophical spin on an issue we encounter in everyday life. Surveying the table of contents reveals a concentration in the moral, political, and religious issues of the day, e.g. sex, marriage, symbols, liberty, slavery, remembrance, and madness. The book divides neatly into seven categories, including Anger and War, Nature and Naturalness, and Reading and Thinking to name a few. The candid style of Grayling's writing gives his book a flavor that may be judged as unfashionable in the analytic tradition of the twentieth century.

Grayling's candor leaves comprehensiveness aside, which popular philosophy books tend to incorporate. For example, Russell gives equal consideration to empiricist and rationalist epistemologies, though Russell's empiricist predilections are clear. Grayling fails to consider both sides of the philosophical coin; instead, he lets the reader judge whether to agree or disagree. In the essay entitled, "Profit," he asserts that profit is good for those who work hard, but "wrong enters the picture when profits are made out of others' loss or suffering (p. 101)." He thinks that it is wrong for someone to acquire too much profit. Grayling cites the profit of oil producers and contends that oil companies unjustly earn $600 profit every second.

Grayling's view on profit deserves some scrutiny. First, Grayling fails to consider the tremendous skill required for oil drilling, refining, and distribution. Petroleum engineers work "very hard" to produce, refine, and distribute oil in an efficient and environmentally friendly manner. So, oil companies' profit seems justified by virtue of their hard work.

Second, with new domestic and international laws proscribing oil producers from drilling in parts of the world and the rising labor costs of skilled workers, it is hard to imagine that Grayling is correct in thinking that oil companies make as much as $36,000 profit every minute. Oil companies may accrue this much in revenue, but revenue is different from profit. The numbers seem askew in Grayling's account.

Finally, Grayling does not find consumers blameworthy for oil companies' profits. Consumers ought to be morally blameworthy because they always want more than they already have. Consumer demand is what keeps oil companies in business. If people want it, then why shouldn't the oil companies' profits be as high as they are? The only way to reduce the oil companies' profits is to stop driving gas guzzling sport utility vehicles and sport cars. Consumers ought to turn in their Masserati for a Hyundai or try electrically powered public transportation if they think that oil companies make too much money. We cannot blame oil companies for the high profit margins if all we want is more oil for our recreation.

Grayling's liberal attitude at times gives way to a weak conservatism. For instance, in the essay "Slavery," Grayling argues that those who feel they should be compensated for the suffering of their ancestors at the hands of tyrannical slave-owners would do a greater service by attending to present-day slavery instead. Since all of us had an ancestor who was a slave somewhere sometime, this fact should ease everyone's mind about past suffering. Though Grayling is no doubt correct that all of our ancestors could have been slaves, this does not give us a reason to ignore our ancestors' past sufferings. Slavery is morally reprehensible in all times no matter how long ago, five minutes ago or five hundred years ago. To say that slavery existent today deserves greater consideration than slavery in the past is tantamount to arguing that some forms of slavery ought to be dismissed. This cannot be correct. Slavery is wrong, regardless of when it occurred.

Despite Grayling's overwhelmingly liberal stance, the essays in the book provoke one to think about each topic, and the accessible style makes the book a joy to read. Even the most ardent critic will have to carefully consider each of Grayling's arguments. Anyone with an interest in political, moral, or religious issues is well advised to read this short introduction to philosophical issues. Grayling's lucid style and creative thoughts will delight any reader.


© 2004 Joe Ulatowski


Joe Ulatowski is a Ph.D. student in the department of philosophy at the University of Utah. His interests include metaphysics and epistemology, particularly the philosophy of logic, foundations of mathematics, and philosophy of science.