A C Grayling: In search of the Holy Grayling

Lion-maned philosopher A C Grayling isn't afraid to leave his ivory tower to dispense his own brand of bracing moral advice. Sholto Byrnes meets him to find out why he's now turned his attention to the Allied bombings of Germany

The Birkbeck College professor is one of the few contemporary British philosophers to have become a household name. Here he is with his trademark shoulder-length hair, popping up on Newsnight; staring owlishly from the top of newspaper columns; or producing a stream of books on subjects as varied as Descartes, Hazlitt, Chinese literature, and, most recently, whether the Allied bombing of civilians in the Second World War was a war crime.

The philosopher, thinks Grayling, should not confine himself to debating ever-finer points of conceptual analysis, thus allowing himself to be caricatured as Mencken's jackass. His job is to get out there and engage with the big issues. "Not drawing philosophers into public discussion," he says, "is like having doctors but not employing them in hospitals.

"Just after the Second World War, during the height of the Oxford 'ordinary language' philosophy of the 1950s and 1960s, people went so far as to say: 'it's not up to us to advise anyone on what is right and wrong. All we're doing is looking at the way people speak about right and wrong.' And that isn't right. Gnosis [seeking to know] is not enough. Praxis [doing] has to come into it too. We've got to go out in the world and debate."

No one could accuse Grayling of failing in this duty. He has been a Booker judge, is involved in UN human rights initiatives, helped lawyers acting for Diane Pretty, and has just returned from the World Economic Forum in Davos when we meet at his cluttered basement study on Gower Street, next door to the UCL campus. As he rootles around behind piles of books to offer me a choice of teas, he chats away about the gathering.

He's particularly tickled about an incident when a Nigerian delegate stood up to praise President Obasanjo's encouragement of entrepreneurship; he had now, said the delegate, become his country's second biggest manufacturers of public lavatories. Obansanjo was amused, and growled into the microphone, "the shit business is good business". Grayling went one better, and thanked the president for helping them all "get to the bottom" of this particular issue. "Obasanjo liked that very much," he chuckles.

One can imagine Grayling standing in his red braces, delivering the line in the soft tones which still bear traces of an East African childhood. This may be the lighter side of his public life; about the importance of having such a life, however, Grayling is very serious. In Among the Dead Cities, his new book about the Allied bombings, he writes: "In the seminars of philosophers it is easier to find objections, refutations and counter-examples to any proposed definition of morality than it is to secure general agreement about what any of these fundamentally important notions mean. This is not to claim that we do not know what 'right' and 'wrong' mean, it is instead an indictment of contemporary philosophy, which has allowed the term 'academic' in the phrase 'it's only academic' to mean 'empty and futile'."

I ask him about this passage. "If you look at the time of Athens and Pericles," he says, "they wanted to try to resolve the question of what justice is, what the right thing to do is, and not merely be pragmatic. As professional philosophers we've abdicated from that approach. We've left a vacuum. And who steps in? The bishop, who will say predictable things." Philosophers, he says, would be able to offer more "richness of suggestion and insight", if only they were asked.

What do his peers think about his willingness to put himself forward? "There is a divided attitude about this," he admits. "There are a lot of purists who think this is selling out, or dumbing down, or just becoming someone who pops up on the media. They're a bit disdainful about it, because they want to keep their purity. But there are some very good people who are keen to parlay their thinking into public debate." He mentions Roger Scruton - "he's on the opposite side of the argument, but it's great that he's involved" - Ted Honderich, and Simon Blackburn. Proper philosophers, in other words.

"There's a slight danger that the very, very superficial, self-help kind of quasi-philosophy gets mistaken for it," he warns. "When people consume that, it's like eating cream out of a spray can. They find it very shallow and dissatisfying, and then they think philosophy's nonsense. So it's important that the people out there should have a serious anchorage."

Not all philosophers are so convinced it is their duty to weigh in to ethical debates. But the impulse to distinguish different forms of moral conduct was instilled in Grayling from an early age. He was born in 1949 in Luanshya, Zambia, where his father was a banker for Standard Chartered. In Zambia and then Malawi, the young Anthony enjoyed the privileged life of the expatriate whites. The family's servants were shocked, for instance, when Kenneth Kaunda visited and sat on the verandah with Grayling's father. "They couldn't believe that there was a black man talking to the bwana."

Even the family's chauffeur, James - "they were all called James, so we could say, 'Home, James!'" says Grayling - embraced the racial hierarchy, considering himself a touch above the other locals by virtue of his employment with a white family. "If there were people in the way, he would wind down the window and shout, 'I'll kill you, you black bastard,' which is what my mother said to him."

One day his family were driving in the bush and passed some African women, who were carrying baskets on their heads. As the Graylings overtook them at speed, their car sent up a huge dust cloud which enveloped the women. "I can still remember kneeling, looking out of the back window," he recalls, "and thinking that something wasn't quite right." It was "maturing reflection on this exploitative style of life," he says, which gave his political views "their permanent list to port".

After studying at Sussex University, and then Magdalen, Oxford, where his tutors included A J Ayer and P F Strawson, Grayling moved into academia, first at St Anne's, Oxford, and then at Birkbeck. His early publications were those of the more conventional don - studies of Berkeley, Russell and Wittgenstein, as well as one work, An Introduction to Philosophical Logic, which became so ubiquitous among the student body that it was nicknamed "the Holy Grayling".

But with the privilege of being an academic philosopher, he thought, came the responsibility of relating his thinking to practical problems. This, as well as a boyhood fantasy of being a Spitfire pilot in the Battle of Britain, was why he wanted to look at the bombing campaigns of the Second World War, over both Germany and Japan. "So many people who have written about it have said, 'whether it was right or wrong is for the philosopher to decide'." he says. "So I thought that this was a challenge that had to be taken up one day. This was very close to my heart."

The book is dedicated to seven children: his daughter, Madeleine, from his second marriage to the writer Katie Hickman; his step-son; the couple's nephews; and his god-daughter. "It's for them that we've got to get the past right," says Grayling. He answers the question that he posed himself, "was the Allied bombing of civilians a necessity or a crime?", in forthright terms. The bombing, he concludes, was neither necessary, proportionate, in accordance with humanitarian principles, nor conforming to general moral standards agreed in the West over the last 2,000 years. "In short and in sum," he writes, "was area bombing wrong? Yes. Very wrong? Yes."

But he doesn't stop there. In the last pages of the book he goes on to say that the same moral judgement applies to the Allied bombing of Hamburg, the atomic bomb being dropped on Hiroshima, and the attack on the World Trade Centre of 11 September 2001. I ask if he's planning to visit the US in the near future, and if so how he thinks this judgement will be greeted there. "I am going, in fact, in April to do a book tour," he says, "and I do have quite a lot of trepidation about it." But he's confident in his argument. "9/11 was the most frightful attack on civilians and non-combatants - an atrocity. All you have to do is turn 15 degrees, and look at the indiscriminate dropping of thousands of tonnes of high explosive incendiary bombs on a city, night after night, week after week. That's 9/11s every day for years. People have got to look at the comparison and to feel the point."

He has a good case, I think, on this. On the clash between European secularism and increasingly assertive hardline Islam, I'm not so sure. One of the many bodies Grayling sits on is the World Economic Forum's C-100 group, which deals with relations between the Islamic world and the West. Given that he describes himself as an "uncompromising atheist", I say, that doesn't sound like a very promising position from which to engage in dialogue.

"Well, under different circumstances I'd be as robust as anything, saying that I think that theistic commitments are non-rational, absurd and all the rest of it," he says. "But the practicalities are that the majority of people have some kind of faith commitment; and since in the past these have resulted in the most terrible conflicts, we've got to do something to try to lubricate the interfaces between them, and keep talking to one another."

Grayling has a lot of sympathy for the French defence of the secular state, such as the battle over whether the hijab can be worn in schools. "In France you can wear the hijab 16 hours a day. But for the eight hours you're in school, you are there are as a human being, not as somebody who makes a big show of adherence to a sectarian view," he says. "People say that the French experiment has failed, by not counting Muslims and people of North African extraction in the census. But actually it's not France's fault. It's the fault of people who have elected to come to France, and to some respect throw in their lot with France, but then refuse to go along with some of the essential parts of the game."

The French invitation, he says, is: "come to us, be French. But be French. And to be French is first and foremost to be a civilised human being, not someone who carries round a huge badge which says, 'treat me differently'. I think the French are right on this principle."

It's quite thrilling to hear so unqualified a defence of secularism; and yet fascinating, too, to reflect on the absolutism of the argument. Telling immigrants quite so forcefully that their religious beliefs must come second to an established culture places Grayling in curious company. Many on the Powellite right, for instance, have long come to the same conclusion, albeit from a different starting point. He does say that his own preference is for the "British dispensation, to give people a big margin, providing they don't overstep the mark and try and force their views on other people". But he repeats that the French attitude should command tremendous respect. "I think it's up to people who feel that they've got to grow a beard, or wear the hijab, to think very seriously about how they're going to relate to something which, after all, pre-exists them," he says. "It's part of the very fabric of the way that a whole people is trying to organise itself."

If that seems a very forceful position to take, one should expect no less from Grayling. In his new book he quotes the historian Robin Neillands, who noted that "wars are not usually fought by moral philosophers." No, they're not, admits Grayling. "But there are moral philosophers aplenty who will come and poke around your dustbin afterwards," he says. "They will find out what you were up to and will hold you to account in the court of history."

And herein lies the difference with Grayling, and the reason why he is most certainly not one of Mencken's jackasses eternally discussing the validity of "if p, then q": he is willing to judge. A philosopher-tribune of the people, if you like. "I think it would be pretentious to say that we're going to sally forth and educate the community," he says, "but we should jolly well be saying, by the way, you know, this could be part of it too."

To order a copy of 'Among the Dead Cities' by A C Grayling (Bloomsbury £20) for £18 (free p&p), contact Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897

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