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In conversation with .... A.C. Grayling

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The world may have reached its pinnacle of freedom in 1989, the year the Berlin Wall collapsed, argues the prominent British humanist philosopher A.C. Grayling.

Since then, citizens of many western countries, including the United States and Canada, have been in danger of losing some of the basic rights they have struggled to gain for 500 years.

Grayling, who has written some 30 books, will be in Winnipeg on Monday at 7:30 p.m. to give the inaugural talk in an international lecture series, Fragile Freedoms, organized by the University of Manitoba's Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics. The event is sold out.

The series, which will feature seven other world-renown public intellectuals, is being held at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, even though the institution is not slated to open formally until next year.

Grayling, whose topic will be "the past and future of human rights," recently spoke with the Free Press's Morley Walker by telephone from London, England.


FP: What motivates you to cross the ocean for this event?

ACG: I have a great interest in the debate over human rights. I see it as an attempt to get a global acceptance of a way of thinking about other people, and how one accommodates the choices other people make, even if they are not one's own choices. The discussion about human rights is one of our best opportunities for a humanity-wide global ethics. Also, of course, I'm very impressed by the idea of a human rights museum and the work the U of M is doing on this subject.


FP: The subtitle of your 2007 book Toward the Light of Liberty is "the struggles for freedom and rights that made the modern western world."

ACG: Struggle is the quite the right word. Think of the people, for example, in the 18th century who fought against slavery. It took 100 years for slavery to be abolished. It required a tremendous type of heroism.


FP: No doubt you think we have a long way to go yet.

ACG: There needs to be much more debate in philosophy and jurisprudence about what we mean by rights. Take, for example, the right to life. Every human rights document has in it the "right to life." But what do we mean by that? Does it mean we can't choose when and how to die if we agree very ill or very old?

I've had a lot of experience in the U.K. as a patron of the voluntary euthanasia society, Dignity in Dying, where we have tried to argue legally that the right to life means the right to a certain quality of life. And if you no longer feel you have that quality of life you should have the autonomy to choose when to end your life and get help from a doctor.


FP: In Light of Liberty, you argue that some progress has been slipping away since 1989.

ACG: Both the increase in anxiety about terrorism and the rapid development of electronic technologies for surveillance have meant that the liberties we fought for so hard and long for have been eroded to some extent. We have to remember what Benjamin Franklin said: "Those who would give up their liberties in exchange for security don't deserve either."


FP: What does a philosopher bring to the study of the history of human rights that, say, a historian doesn't?

ACG: Philosophers interested in concepts, what things mean and how concepts develop and evolve. Most concepts -- like goodness, truth, beauty -- are very capacious. Lots of things can be fitted into them.

The task of clarification, the task of seeing what the implications are, the task of getting a more accurate, crisp, clear and fundamental grasp of what's really important in ideas like liberty or rights is terribly important.


FP: In your most recent book, The God Argument, you say that, overall, religion is hindrance to the development of human rights.

ACG: You only have to look at the practical effect of religious commitments on the lives of women and children, in education, on public policy matters and scientific research.

Religion is deeply conservative and very often retrogressive. In areas regarding women and gays, for instance, religion has always had its foot planted very firmly on the brake. It gets in the way of progress and involves a direct denial of rights.


Grayling is also giving a free lecture on atheism, secularism and humanism at 12:30 p.m. Wednesday at the U of M's University College concourse lounge. All are welcome.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 14, 2013 D3

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