Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Unpopular Essays, Chapter 9

Chapter 9 (pages 137-159), “Ideas That Have Helped Mankind.” There is an e-version of this chapter available here. [Update: Apparently the entirety of Unpopular Essays is available online here.]

This is the first of two paired chapters, where the subsequent chapter reveals the malicious ideas.

How do we know what helps mankind? Population increase and greater foresight have been benefits, but greater happiness does not necessarily follow. Foresight itself is accompanied by anxiety, which undermines happiness – as does the curbing of impulse. We have a greater variety of pleasures than do other animals, though even this advantage can leave us prey to boredom. We are more kind (than other animals) to individuals within our herd, but no kinder to outsiders – and our intelligence broadens the power of the worser instinct.

Russell divides the helpful ideas into two types: “those that contribute to knowledge and technique, and those that are concerned with morals and politics [p. 139].”

Certainly one helpful idea in the knowledge/technique branch has been the development of language, which allows discoveries and inventions to accumulate over time. (Writing was a subsequent advance from language.) The control of fire and the domestication of animals have been boons. Agriculture was helpful, though it also encouraged bloody religious practices. “Moloch would not help the corn to grow unless he was allowed to feast on the blood of children [p. 140].” Six-year olds were also sacrificed to the cotton mills of Manchester, however. “It has now been discovered that grain will grow, and cotton goods can be manufactured, without being watered by the blood of infants [p. 141]” And perhaps there is evidence of progress in the fact that the realization took substantially less time for cotton than for grain.

Entering historic times, advances in mathematics and astronomy, starting in Babylonia, were valuable, and then Greece brought rationalism – to an extent, among some ancient Greeks, that is still unsurpassed. Though the Greek flower was wilting after the third century BC, enough was uncovered in the Renaissance to spark modern science. Alas, the Greek penchant for seeking for purpose in nature led science somewhat astray for quite awhile, too.

The next great advance was achieved by the likes of Newton, Galileo, Descartes, and Leibniz. Most of current technology and astronomy can be tied to these developments. Galileo’s law of inertia allowed science to dispense with the assumed different behavior of sublunar and superlunar objects. All motion could be traced to material, not mental or spiritual, processes.

The religious faith of European scientists was tested by the 17th century discoveries, but survived pretty well in Britain until Darwin. If humans evolved, at what point were they ensouled? (Indeed, the notion of a soul has proven to be scientifically useless.) Which of our animal ancestors had enough free will to justify eternal punishment for misdeeds?

Without moral progress, scientific progress might only enhance suffering. (Russell notes that he might view a nuclear holocaust without too much distress, if he thought that animals besides man might survive it. But others might want to see humans survive, so Russell will look at what moral ideas might promote this end.)

The Stoics, following on Alexander the Great’s martial stratagem of eviscerating the Greek/barbarian distinction, developed the idea of the brotherhood of man, that all men are children of Zeus. Rome spread this idea, and Christianity, too – Buddhism even earlier. Christianity proved to be a force against cruelty and in support of charity, despite the failings of individual Christians. It is the foundation of “modern Liberalism, and remains the inspiration of much that is most hopeful in our sombre world [p. 150].”

The Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity of the French Revolution are ideals with religious origins. Equality can be traced to Orphic Societies in ancient Greece, to Stoicism, and to Christianity. When it has landed on favorable ground, this commitment to equality has helped reduce inequities. For instance, it helped provide a Christian justification for ending slavery.

The term “liberty” has meant very different things in different times and places. But the two serious meanings are (1) freedom from foreign domination and (2) freedom of private pursuits. Both forms of liberty can be taken too far.

Individual liberty grew in practice from religious toleration, which itself resulted from the stalemate, following a century of bloodshed, between Protestants and Catholics in seventeenth century Europe. The idea of religious tolerance was mainly Dutch, and was imported to England; John Locke became the greatest of the theoretical proponents of individual liberty at that time.

By the nineteenth century, religious freedom was matched, in the western-style democracies, with freedom of the press, freedom of speech, and freedom from arbitrary arrest. “But their hold on men’s minds was much more precarious than was at the time supposed, and now, over the greater part of the earth’s surface, nothing remains of them, either in practice or in theory [p. 153].”

Russell supports representative democracy, “for those who have the tolerance and self-restraint that is required to make it workable [p. 153].” But democracy cannot successfully be introduced everywhere, immediately. [Russell returns to this theme towards the end of the subsequent chapter, at pages 178-179.]

Government and law are two political ideas that have improved social organization. Government is necessary for law, but not vice versa. Government controls its own citizens and resists outside pressures. “War has always been the chief promoter of governmental power [p. 154].” Power acquired to wage war is used by governments, where they can, to promote their own interest at the expense of individual citizens.

People with power will abuse it if they can do so with impunity. Democracy tries to fight this tendency, by granting power temporarily and through popular approval. Protection against abuses also derives from a commitment to personal liberty, which consists of two parts: (1) a reliance on due process of law before punishment can be meted out; and (2) the recognition of a private sphere where the government cannot interfere. “This sphere includes free speech, free press and religious freedom [p. 155]” – though none of these freedoms are absolute. Throughout history, the first step has been the establishment of a government, followed by pressure to make the government respect individual liberty.

In the international arena, that first step, establishing a government, has not taken place, “although it is now evident that international government is at least as important to mankind as national government [p. 155].” Russell counters the contention that an international government would be oppressive with the observation that this was originally the case with national governments, too (and still is in much of the world), but that is not a reason to prefer anarchy. The choice before us now, thanks to technology, is whether to see the human race greatly reduced in numbers, or to establish an international government.

Social cohesion in apes is confined to the family; humans have seen it expand into tribes and nations. But technology now only allows two states, the US and the USSR, to chart an independent course. The next step required to avoid disaster, a step to be taken by agreement, and not by war, is to move to a single independent state. If this is done, we will see a Golden Age beyond our imagining, one that brings the elimination of poverty and the diminution of disease, so that “the great mass of mankind may enjoy the kind of carefree adventurousness that characterises the rich young Athenians of Plato’s Dialogues [p. 158].”

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