Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Unpopular Essays, Chapter 7, part 3

This, the third and final part of a summentary of "An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish," covers pages 109-123.

Abnormal human behavior – say, repeated bedwetting or exhibitionism – is typically met with punishment, even when punishment is clearly inefficacious: “most people enjoy punishing anyone who irritates them [p. 109]…” Punishment is misapplied at the national level, too. Rank and file Nazis should be considered to be something like lunatics, not criminals. Lunatics are restrained, but not punished, “and so far as prudence permits we try to make them happy [p. 110].” Punishing everyday Germans in the wake of WWII will make them hate the victors, and render peace precarious.

Lots of current superstitions derive from the nonsense of ancient philosophers. Plato and Aristotle are steeped in absurd claims. “Man is a credulous animal, and must believe something; in the absence of good grounds for belief, he will be satisfied with bad ones [p. 111].” Many behaviors we now take for granted, including activities important for health, such as cleaning and washing, were once considered unnatural. “Every advance in civilization has been denounced as unnatural while it was recent [p. 112].” Birth control is often considered unnatural, though celibacy (perhaps due to its antiquity) is not so attacked. [Hmmm -- see "All's Well That Ends Well."]

Ideas about women are frequently fallacious – including the notion of their superior virtue, which was used as both a reason to keep women out of politics and a reason to admit them into it. Russell doubts all generalisations about women, which arise “from paucity of experience [p. 114].” Generalisations about national characteristics also are fallacious, and often have been revised over time, as in the case of Germans, the French, and Russians. “The truth is that what appears to one nation as the national character of another depends upon a few prominent individuals, or upon the class that happens to have power [p. 115].”

One can avoid silly errors by following some precepts. First, make personal observations if possible – this would have saved Aristotle from promulgating some whoppers. “Thinking that you know when in fact you don’t is a fatal mistake…[p. 115].”

“If an opinion contrary to your own makes you angry, that is a sign that you are subconsciously aware of having no good reason for thinking as you do [p. 116].” We feel pity for (not anger towards) people who sincerely spout obvious untruths. If you find yourself getting angry during a discussion, this is a signal that “your belief is going beyond what the evidence warrants [p. 116].” You can guard against dogmatism by living abroad, or by exposing yourself to contrary opinions. If a live opponent is not at hand, you should invent an imaginary opponent, and put up the best argument for an opposing viewpoint. [Here, Russell is echoing a point made by his godfather in Chapter 2 of On Liberty: "...if opponents of all important truths do not exist, it is indispensable to imagine them, and supply them with the strongest arguments which the most skilful devil's advocate can conjure up."] Be wary of any opinion that happens to conduce to your own self esteem. We might also keep in mind that in other parts of the universe there might be beings vastly superior to humans.

Fear undermines rationality and promotes superstition. “To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom, in the pursuit of truth as in the endeavour after a worthy manner of life [p. 118].” But one way of dealing with fear – persuading yourself that you are immune from danger – is itself a spur to superstition. Plato laid down, for his Republic, that a belief in the happiness of the next world would be inculcated, to diminish the fear of death among soldiers. Other religions and philosophies also have tried to provide talismans against fear. Stoicism preaches that virtue is the only thing that matters; so as long as you are virtuous, the fact that your enemies might harm you is of no concern – they cannot deprive you of your virtue. “The difficulty was that no one could really believe virtue to be the only good…[p. 120].” Teaching indifference to your own suffering, were it to succeed, would lead to indifference towards the suffering of others.

“Collective fear stimulates herd instinct, and tends to produce ferocity towards those who are not regarded as members of the herd [p. 121].” Fear promotes cruelty, which in turn engenders those beliefs that “seem to justify cruelty. Neither a man nor a crowd nor a nation can be trusted to act humanely or to think sanely under the influence of a great fear [pp. 121-122].”

“Many a man will have the courage to die gallantly, but will not have the courage to say, or even to think, that the cause for which he is asked to die is an unworthy one [p. 122].” [In a column dated today (April 2, 2008), Garrison Keillor provides a slightly different take: "Many men have been carried to the cemetery with honor guards and rifle salutes who, if the truth be known, knew their missions were not worth the price but went anyway. Many, many of our honored dead were dissenters." Keillor is praising (in the military, though not among civilians) this willingness to risk everything without sufficient cause.]

But superstitions can be fun. “A wise man will enjoy the goods of which there is a plentiful supply, and of intellectual rubbish he will find an abundant diet, in our own age as in every other [p. 123].”

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