Thursday, August 7, 2008

Unpopular Essays, Chapter 10

Chapter 10 (pages 160-180), “Ideas That Have Harmed Mankind.” There is an e-version of this chapter available here. [Update: Apparently the entirety of Unpopular Essays is available online here.]

People are harmed by the non-human environment, and by other people. Over time, the harm caused by other people has become a larger proportion of total harm. For instance, famine was once primarily a natural phenomenon, but now is chiefly brought on by people. Our mortality is due to nature, but medical advances mean that “it will become more and more common for people to live until they have had their fill of life…. For the future, therefore, it may be taken that much the most important evils that mankind have to consider are those which they inflict upon each other through stupidity or malevolence or both [pp. 160-1].”

Evil passions probably lie at the heart of most human-inflicted harms, though ideas and beliefs tend to bolster these evil passions. Many people seem to enjoy cruelty, the flogging of youths, and even war, “provided that it is a victorious war and that there is not too much interference with rape and plunder [p. 161].” Many opinions held in former days that are now considered absurd, including those in the areas of medicine and moral education, generally were such as to justify cruelty. “The reformative effect of punishment is a belief that dies hard, chiefly I think, because it is so satisfying to our sadistic impulses [p. 162].”

Many religious or superstitious beliefs, including human sacrifice and the extermination of enemies, have been harmful. Religious ascetics are allowed the mental pleasure of contemplating the eternal torments of the heretical. Asceticism does not breed kindliness. “On the contrary, when a man tortures himself he feels that it gives him a right to torture others, and inclines him to accept any system of dogma by which this right is fortified [p. 164].” Asceticism comes in other than the Christian variety; Nazism and communism are cases in point. There is the same division of mankind into saints and sinners, with the sinners liquidated or otherwise punished. “The twin conceptions of sin and vindictive punishment seem to be at the root of much that is most vigorous, both in religion and politics [p. 165].”

People tend to think that their own fortunes, either good or ill, are the result of purposive action by other people. Bad fortune can be perceived as the just punishment for sin. When a completely virtuous person falls into bad times, a traditional resort has been to dream up some witch or other who purposed the outcome. The belief in witches long provided fodder for cruelty – multiple outlets, as those who proclaimed themselves disbelievers in witchcraft could be punished as heretics. Scientific advances have undermined the belief in witches, but the impulse to cruelty can still be serviced by fear of foreign nations.

Envy is the source of many false beliefs. We often greet the news of the rise of others with incorrect, envious assertions that their fortunes are unmerited. Nations adopt a zero-sum attitude in economic matters, as if their prosperity could only come from the destitution of others, and is threatened by economic growth elsewhere. This is a false belief that leads to war – which lends a sort of self-justification to the belief, because wars really do have a substantial zero-sum element.

Taking pride in nationality, race, sex, and so on, also leads to conflict. Citizens of great states tend to view the intense rivalries between small states as absurd, but do not think that their own feelings of superiority are unmerited. “The superiority of one race to another is hardly ever believed in for any good reason. Where the belief persists it is kept alive by military supremacy [p. 171].” Education should aim to eradicate these false beliefs in superiority, but it does not do so. There has never been “any reason to believe in any innate superiority of the male, except his superior muscle [p. 171].” Male domination has turned the marital relationship into a master and slave one, instead of one involving equal partners. (Once again, we hear echoes of John Stuart Mill’s The Subjection of Women.) The seclusion it has foisted upon respectable women makes them uninteresting, while the resulting dullness, Russell claims, promotes homosexuality among the most civilized men. Though male domination has been ended in advanced countries, it will be a long time before its effects vanish.

Claims of class superiority also are eroding, except in the Soviet Union. In America, people do not think of others as being socially superior to themselves, though they do think of themselves as superior to some others, such as those born on the wrong side of the tracks. Class distinctions are hard to erase when there are large income differentials; class snobbery in England, however, now is more about “education and manner of speech [p. 174]” than about income or the old type of social class.

Our happiness seems to require self esteem, which is bolstered by beliefs that our nation, race, creed, gender, region, and mode of employment are superior. We even think that human beings are the purpose of creation. These beliefs allow us to face the world. We could do without them if we really accepted the sentiment of equality, but we do not.

A particularly harmful delusion is when people think they are “special instruments of the Divine Will [p. 175].” This delusion has been common throughout history, from the Israelites in the Promised Land to ancient Romans to Muslims to Cromwell to Andrew Jackson to the Marxian proletariat. But rational people can make no special claim to understanding the will of the Divine, and the belief that they have such understanding is used to justify extreme cruelty. “Most of the greatest evils that man has inflicted upon man have come through people feeling quite certain about something which, in fact, was false [p. 176].” Be wary of undertaking present evil for the promise of some doubtful future good. [This point was a theme of Chapters 1 and 2.] “In public, as in private life, the important thing is tolerance and kindliness, without the presumption of a superhuman ability to read the future [p. 177].” Almost every current prediction of human events ten years from now will prove to be incorrect, which is some comfort to Russell when he reflects on his own gloomy prognostications.

As evidence of the uncertainty over the long-run effects stemming from current policies, consider Bismarck’s unification of Germany and successful prosecution of three wars. “The long-run result of his policy has been that Germany has suffered two colossal defeats [p. 178].” Why? German aggressiveness and indifference to the interests of others – traits Bismarck nourished – eventually brought the rest of the world together in opposition.

The world today needs political, economic, and educational organization, as well as moral qualities such as charity and tolerance. These needs are complementary, and progress must be made on both simultaneously. “There will have to be a realisation at once intellectual and moral that we are all one family, and that the happiness of no one branch of this family can be built securely upon the ruin of another [p. 180].” Russell concludes his essay by suggesting that perhaps “the hydrogen bomb will terrify mankind into sanity and tolerance. If this should happen we shall have reason to bless its inventors [p. 180].”

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