For the Good of the World: Is Global Agreement on Global Challenges Possible?

AC Grayling

OneWorld, £14.99

Review by Iain Macwhirter

Philosopher AC Grayling believes the world is headed for disaster and only a new system of universal ethics can save us. Climate change is incinerating the planet as a result of mass ignorance promoted by “climate deniers, distractors and delayers” orchestrated by evil corporations. A technological nemesis draws near as artificial intelligence, AI, robs us of our jobs and develops autonomous weapons and viruses. Meanwhile the world remains divided and unequal, languishing in a pre-Enlightenment gloom. Injustice and conflict are everywhere.

Professor Grayling's book sometimes reads like the sum of all newspaper and Hollywood dystopias. At any rate, there is little in his diagnosis that will surprise anyone who has been reading Guardian editorials for the past five years.

Which doesn't make it wrong. Grayling writes with admirable clarity and great conviction. He is clearly one of the good guys and is appalled by the universality of infamy: climate nationalism, religious bigotry, gender inequality, forced marriage, genital mutilation. He wants us to live in harmony and is mystified that we don't when humanity faces clear and present dangers that threaten us equally.

But everyone agrees that we should save the planet, do unto others and give peace a chance. I expected something more profound, more insightful from one of our most distinguished philosophers. I hoped for radical new thinking about the ethical underpinnings of humanity's omni-crisis. Is a system of universally accepted values possible? If so, what does it look like? How have we got here; how do we get out?

Well, after a discussion of human rights philosophers like Bentham, Locke, Rawls and Nozick, Grayling concludes that the Big Answer is, er, proportional representation (PR). “To repeat,” he states in his final chapter, “genuine and effective democracy is the real key to solving the world's problems.” Yep. That's it. All those horror weapons, religious sectarianism, the burning world can be solved if we just vote Liberal Democrat.

There are merits to PR, of course, but I find it hard to regard an electoral system as a guarantor of planetary survival, still less a foundation for a new “universal ethics”. There are a couple of subordinate elements to Grayling's elective prospectus. He thinks that voting should be compulsory from the age of 16 and that electorates should be better educated.

He also broadly upholds the concept of codified natural rights as embodied in United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) of 1948. However, he acknowledges that rights such as due process, private property, freedom of thought or privacy are abstract, and that many now regard them as a “Western imperialist notion”. Islamists see the UDHR as incompatible with Sharia and the Qur'an.

However, he doesn't really attempt to resolve this problem: the clash between “Western” values and multiculturalism. Instead, he looks to the democratic system to address “the central cause at issue: finding ways for everyone to co-operate in dealing with what are problems for everyone”. And the best of all possible worlds can only be achieved, Grayling believes, through fair voting – by abandoning the sham democracy of Westminster's first-past-the-post (FPP) system, which tends to give inflated majorities that do not exactly reflect the popular vote.

Yet, all electoral systems have drawbacks, anomalies, unfairnesses. None are perfect. Professor Grayling says that PR “tends to produce coalitions, and coalitions formed on a programme of compromise are less likely to enact extreme versions of political ideologies”. That assertion is hard to justify. Extremist parties of the far right and left often derive undue influence in proportional systems by holding the balance of power.

The far right leveraged itself into government in Norway (Progress Party) and Finland (True Finns) and achieved significant influence in Denmark (Danish People’s Party) as well as Sweden (Sweden Democrats). Permanently hung parliaments in Israel's Knesset have handed the balance of power to small ultra-orthodox parties who demand extreme policies in the occupied territories as a condition of supporting one or other of the larger parties. Palestinians would laugh at the idea that PR can heal wounds and promote compromise.

Grayling is disgusted by the horse-trading and compromise that goes on within our broad-church political parties. But what of the horse-trading and compromise that arises after elections conducted on proportional representation? It takes months in Germany to produce coalitions in which principles get lost along the way. The result is often stasis: groundhog government, as pale and stale as anything under FPP.

Grayling does not agree with moral relativists and post-modernists who say there is no such thing as objective morality, no universal standards applicable to all irrespective of religion or race. He is clearly appalled by Islamist extremism and its apologists. He finds it “incomprehensible that tens of thousands of people can want to kill someone for printing satirical cartoons, while themselves condoning or at least tolerating the practice of FGM”. “Muslims are the least generally tolerant,” he says, “on the grounds that they take non-Muslims – infidels, kafirs – to be dangerously mistaken”. Some might find that offensive and ethnocentric.

Tolerance, like fair voting, is often in the eye of the beholder. Grayling, a prolific tweeter and supporter of the ultra-Remain hashtag, #FBPE (Follow Back Pro-EU) shows very little of it in his own publicised utterances. He has described Brexit politicians (including Theresa May, a Remainer) as “political vermin”. He called for a general strike to reverse the result of the 2016 EU referendum supported by 17.4 million voters. So much for fair representation.

In the context of Covid-19, he has accused our democratically-elected Prime Minister of pursuing a policy of “euthanasia and mass murder”. He also tweeted: “Kim-un Johnson the Mad Butcher of Downing Street, embodiment of the Fuhrerprinzep”. I hold no brief for Boris Johnson and I share Grayling's opposition to Brexit, but such intemperate abuse makes it difficult for him to lecture anyone on tolerance and respect.

Professor Grayling loathes “tabloid newspapers” and fake news spread by social media. This makes it all the more regrettable that he recycles one egregious conspiracy theory himself. He quotes uncritically Observer reports that "Cambridge Analytica was instrumental in the success of the pro-Brexit campaign in the UK” and insiders saying that “AI won it for Leave”.

In fact, the data analysis firm had nothing to do with Brexit. After a three-year investigation, the Information Commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, wrote that she "found no further evidence to change [her] earlier view that SCL/CA were not involved in the EU referendum campaign in the UK". Nor did she find evidence of Russian involvement which had also been alleged by the Observer. Grayling seems unaware of the ICO report or that now defunct Cambridge Analytica were exposed as digital self-promoters.

Big Data manipulation is a danger. The ideological filter bubbles created by social media algorithms like Twitter are encouraging anger and division – as Professor Grayling has rather vividly demonstrated by his own remarks. Hard though it may be for some to accept it, Brexit was not an evil conspiracy but a result of people voting for it.

That’s the trouble with democracy. It doesn’t always deliver the result you want.