The Choice of Hercules

Two attractive women approach you. Introducing themselves, one tells you that she is the personification of Duty, and invites you to follow her down the road of virtue, piety, sacrifice and hard slog. The second beauty represents Pleasure: she wants to guide you down a path of indolence, vice and hedonism. Which do you choose?

This was the famous ‘choice of Hercules’, put to him while he was a farm labourer in exile: appropriated by various religions and mythologies, it can be argued that millions of people who have never read the classics still think of life in these terms of virtue versus pleasure: the good life versus the Good Life. A C Grayling’s achievement is to expose this dichotomy as false.

Of course people can’t truly dedicate themselves either to duty or pleasure alone. The majority of lives are a combination of both, and people who walk one road – Florence Nightingale or Hunter S Thompson – tend to become legendary for their choice of mistress. Yet the convention has it that duty is always worthwhile whereas pleasure is generally worthless self-indulgence.

But is this true? Ideas of duty animate terrorists and suicide bombers but the outcome of these drives tends to be destruction of life, including their own. Those who dedicate themselves to pleasure, by contrast, tend to be happier and therefore better disposed to those around them. Yet even those of us who dedicate ourselves to hedonism will suffer pain and loss at some time.

And surely the purpose of duty in a society – having people who commit themselves to defending their country or pounding the streets in uniform on Friday nights – is so that others will be free to experience pleasure: i.e. not murdered, raped, assaulted or vapourised.

Duty as an end in itself, though, is no goal at all, as Grayling, in his erudite, conversational style, effortlessly shows:

If anything, the example of humourless, disapproving, repressive moralisers whose pointing fingers have blighted enough lives to fill armies many times over, ought to be enough to remind us that the phrase ‘the good life’ genuinely merits its double meaning: for the valuable life (the life truly worth living for the one living it) and the pleasurable life (of which affection, laughter, achievement and beauty are integral characteristics) are one and the same.

In a series of essays on social taboos Grayling shows how the false dichotomy of Hercules has corrupted the twenty-first century. One major aspect is that longevity of life has been prioritised over quality of life. On her visit to London this year, the Iranian writer Marjane Satrapi gave her impressions of British society:

Anything that has a relationship with pleasure we reject it. Eating, they talk about cholesterol; making love, they talk about Aids; you talk about smoking, they talk about cancer. It’s a very sick society that rejects pleasure… Why should we live like sick people just to give some fresh meat to the ground?

An obvious example is the war on drugs. Governments are happy to destroy Afghan poppy crops that could be developed into morphine to help the sick. Politicians have always used the drug issue as an opportunity for macho posturing on crime policy, yet continued criminalisation leaves the power and the money in the hands, not of the Treasury (who could put it to good use) but of gangster scum that terrorise communities.

My Shiraz Socialist
colleague, Caroline S, is doing some sterling work in showing how the prohibitionist line on prostitution inflicts real harm. In response to the sickening murders of five Norfolk prostitutes – murders that would almost certainly not have happened had these women been working in a legal, unionised, regulated sex industry – Britain’s Home Secretary plans to introduce more of the same: proposals for more criminalisation, pushing women underground and putting them at risk. The war on the world’s oldest profession will get Jacqui Smith some nice headlines but in the long term, it is as doomed as the war on drugs: a pointless and unwinnable battle fought in quicksands of blood.

Advocates of decriminalisation point out that illegal drugs are actually a lot less harmful that alcohol and tobacco. Government seems to have taken this advice to heart: now as well as policing use of illegal drugs it is policing the use of legal ones. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the UK smoking ban: a policy of social exclusion masquerading as a public health initiative. Banner campaigns and strategy documents suggest that bevvy is going the same way.

You can find similar intellectual writhings in contemporary attitudes to sex and relationships. Already hammered by millennia of state-sponsored virginity cults, the modern conception of romance is now driven almost entirely by social status and the fear of dying alone. Grayling points out that adultery, divorce and open marriages are better alternatives than condemning people to lonely, loveless partnerships: our puritan climate makes his common sense revolutionary.

And yet people complain that society is too permissive, yearning for a time a hundred years back, of child labour and child prostitution, when, as Grayling says, ‘if a man’s wife were pregnant or menstruating he might turn to his eldest daughter’ – the Victorian age. Before discussing the petty morality of the twenty-first century, though, Grayling says this:

The great moral questions – the most moral and urgent ones – are not about sex, drugs and unmarried mothers. They are, instead, about human rights, war and genocide, the arms trade, poverty in the Third World, the continuance of slavery under many guises and names, interreligious antipathies and conflicts, and inequality and injustice everywhere. These areas of concern involve truly staggering horrors and human suffering. In comparison to them, the parochial and largely misguided anxieties over sex, drugs, gay marriage and the other matters that fill newspapers and agitate the ‘Moral Majority’ in America and Britain, pale into triviality. It is itself a moral scandal that these questions preoccupy debate in comfortable corners of the world, while real atrocity and oppression exist elsewhere.

Too true, and perhaps the real choice of Hercules should be neither duty nor pleasure but the duty of bringing as much of the world to a state where pleasure is, at least, a possible.

The Choice of Hercules, A C Grayling, Orion 2008

Comments are closed.