Sunday, December 6, 2009

Human Society in Ethics and Politics, Chapter VIII

Chapter VIII (pages 100-109), “Ethical Controversy”

Does ethics have anything to offer in helping to decide which of two situations is desirable, when both sides have their champions?

Why might people (or groups) hold different opinions? First, they might have shared goals, but differ on the preferred means to achieve those goals. Second, one side, but not the other, might think that a course of action is evil, irrespective of consequences. Third, people might disagree about what ends to pursue. Many political issues are about ends – labor unions favor shorter work weeks, capital owners longer work weeks – but the public discussion will be undertaken under the pretense that the difference is about the means to achieve the highest productivity. When disputes really are about the best means to a shared goal, there is no ethical loading: the right answer is an empirical matter.

Disagreements about whether a course of action is evil cannot be settled via a logical proof. Nevertheless, Russell suggests that evidence of harmful consequences, or lack thereof, from a course of action should have some bearing upon opinion. The Amish think of buttons as evil, but careful historical evidence that no harm has been associated with button-wearing might, and ought to, shake that belief. Likewise, if an Amish person can demonstrate the harm of button-wearing, the rest of us should adopt the opinion that button-wearing is evil.

Nonetheless, Russell makes concessions to irrational beliefs or repugnance. If a person is repulsed by an objectively innocent act, then he would be distressed to witness the act. “If you had a guest who thought it wicked to play cards on Sunday, while the rest of the company had no such scruple, you would be guilty of unkindness if you ignored his feelings [p. 103].” So the belief that an act is wrong might render it wrong – if the rightness of acts is associated with satisfying desires, as Russell has stipulated.

Supporters of slavery in the US and of serfdom in Russia were incapable of seeing how the interests of slaves and serfs should matter. “In both countries, when men could no longer deny that the oppressed had the same capacity for joy and sorrow as their oppressors, the oppressive institution was abolished [p. 103].” The controversy over slavery and serfdom resulted from an empirical matter – the emotional lives of slaves and serfs – and that controversy ended when the empirical matter was resolved.

Other arguments for slavery are that it is essential, or that slaves are means not ends, unworthy of standing in the social cost-benefit calculus. Perhaps in the past slavery really was essential for civilization, but Russell explicitly rejects further pursuit of this topic. Slaveholders who treat slaves as means live in fear and adopt cruel tactics – they cannot achieve contentment or inner peace. The same fear, the same sacrifice of tranquility (and embrace, perhaps, of war and annihilation) is the lot of those who do not grant social standing to people of other nations, or ethnicities, or religions. You needn’t invoke ethics to make a case for treating others as ends in themselves – “enlightened self-interest [p. 106]” often will point you in the right direction. Paradoxically, in these matters of contempt and rivalry people are more persuaded to take socially useful acts by appealing to their altruistic side than to their self-interest: their judgment is so clouded that they will not be able to understand their own interest. [Russell here is very close to Adam Smith’s view in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Nationalism and faction, according to Smith (see Part VI, Chapter II, "Of the order in which Societies are by nature recommended to our Beneficence"), generally corrupt our impartial spectator, the being we develop inside our breast whose lack of partiality to our own interests is our guide to proper behavior.]

The interests of different people, however, might generally conflict. I might be better off (and you worse off) if I can steal from you, though the opposite might be true if you can steal from me. (Russell is positing a sort of prisoners’ dilemma situation, where the general interest would be well-served by constraints against stealing that bind both of us.) “Law and government are institutions by which it is sought to bring the general interest to bear on the individual; so is public opinion in the form of praise and blame [p. 107].” As a result, in places with effective policing, most individuals see no gain from engaging in crime. But the international arena lacks police officers, so many people have difficulty seeing how restraining their behavior to avoid imposing on the rest of the world is beneficial.

“What a man will consider to constitute his happiness depends upon his passions, and these in turn depend upon his education and social circumstances as well as upon his congenital endowment [p. 107].” Young people can be led to develop interests that harmonize with social utility, and to behave as global citizens; the current practice is to indoctrinate the young to act in their nation’s interests. A world government could be established, with tremendous benefits to humanity, but it requires the solution to the prisoners’ dilemma played out among the powerful nations.

Russell concludes this chapter by returning to the difficulties of a Nietzschean scheme that openly promotes the interests of only a subset of humanity, the supermen. (See Chapter V.) This philosophy will be opposed by all who do not belong to the chosen group, though the oppressed might adopt the philosophy, with themselves as supermen, were they to become sufficiently powerful. “It is obvious that this doctrine of the supremacy of a section of mankind can only breed endless strife, with periodic changes as to which group is to be dominant [p. 108].” The current rulers will be cruel and fearful, like slaveholders. They will be miserable and eventually forcibly usurped – why would anyone choose to live in such a way?

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Human Society in Ethics and Politics, Chapter VII

Chapter VII (pages 89-99), “Sin”

Even people who proclaim that they are liberated from all traditional sources of shame nevertheless probably do view some behaviors as sinful. The sense of shame is so universal that many people think it is innate, but Russell believes that it is instilled in youth by the threat of punishment or disapproval from respected authority figures. (Disobedience only feels shameful when it is directed against those who really are respected.) This early childhood experience of disapproval leaves a lasting legacy, a vague (or not so vague) sense of sin for acts committed in adulthood. Adults can even feel shame when the only person (or deity) who disapproves of an action is the actor himself. Historically, and today, sin is associated not with acts that harm others, but with acts that are perceived as taboo – and of course sin is a central element in Christian theology.

Even if sin is divorced from a religious context, and is viewed as an act against conscience as opposed to an act against the will of God, it generally is felt to merit punishment. Sometimes the punishment – including everlasting perdition – is seen as justifiable solely on grounds of retribution. Another view, however, is that punishment should be inflicted only to deter socially harmful acts. Further, retribution cannot be sensible if it is inflicted upon people whose choices are not the result of free will. But Russell’s approach to "free will" seems to equate it with a lack of any systematic tendencies in choice, so that standard incentives and disincentives would have unpredictable effects. “If free will were common, all social organization would be impossible, since there would be no way of influencing men’s actions [p. 97].”

The usual incentives and disincentives, including praise and blame, do make sense, however, if we reject the Russellian version of free will: then society can reliably direct behavior towards desirable ends. But the notion of sin does not add anything useful. Punishing sane people who murder has a deterrent effect. Criminally insane people cannot be deterred by the threat of execution, however, and hence it is useless to execute them. “Murder is punished, not because it is a sin and it is good that sinners should suffer, but because the community wishes to prevent it, and fear of punishment causes most people to abstain from it [p. 97].”

So the concept of sin is unnecessary or worse than unnecessary: it leads to cruelty towards others, “and a morbid self-abasement when it is ourselves whom we condemn [p. 98].” Punishment as retribution alone is an evil; punishment can be tolerated only on the grounds that it helps to reform or deter malefactors. If the public could be led permanently to believe that criminals were being imprisoned, when in fact they were being sent to live far away in idyllic circumstances, that would be better than actually inflicting punishment. A similar notion applies to the application of blame. That people strive to be praiseworthy and to avoid blame is useful to society. But once a person has done something blameworthy, the actual bestowal of blame has little to be said for it.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Human Society in Ethics and Politics, Chapter VI

Chapter VI (pages 72-88), “Moral Obligation”

So far Russell has promulgated the debatable notion that people should choose in ways to promote the public good. But this principle provides little guidance to someone seeking knowledge of what acts to undertake. Of what, more precisely, does moral obligation consist?

It does not consist of obedience, to God’s will or to some mortal’s will. Even if God’s will is always right, our notion of right takes precedence: if God’s will required murder, it would not be right. That is, we cannot start by defining “right” as “God’s will” – nor can what we “ought” to do be defined by obedience to any divine or mortal will. A similar argument indicates that the approval of others or the approval of a specific person cannot be the rule for moral behavior.

But what about our individual consciences? Should a person “ought” to do what his or her own conscience recommends? The idea that this is a proper moral rule is not contradicted by the fact that different people have consciences that approve vastly different behaviors. Further, though I might prefer that someone’s conscience were different, I can’t convince him of the superiority of my view – conformity of his actions with his conscience is his only (and arguably proper) moral guide. Even if that guide leads to terrible consequences, what of it? Logic cannot overrule the moral appropriateness of obeying one’s own conscience, “for every man who follows his conscience is morally perfect [p. 76].” In fact, as habit tends to dull the pangs of conscience, this approach suggests that the longer you persist in doing sin, the more virtuous your behavior becomes.

In practice, how do people come to believe that certain behaviors are proper? The typical source is the approval or disapproval that various actions meet with in childhood, from parents and others. In adulthood, even if the sense of blame is dissipated, it leaves an impression. Young people also adjust their moral views to their environment. “The boy who has been taught at home that it is wicked to swear, easily loses this belief when he finds that the schoolfellows whom he most admires are addicted to blasphemy [p. 76].”

Nevertheless, moral views are not entirely dependent on praise and blame. People adopt moral views that go against the grain, and those views have some source. What is praised and what is blamed is not random, either. “It would seem that the moral qualities which are most actively admired are courage and self-sacrifice on behalf of one’s own group [p.78].” While the desire for praise and the avoidance of blame motivate much useful behavior, so do other emotions. Conscience is a sort of praise/blame calculus, but directed inward at contemplated actions – and the internal assessment might run afoul of the generally prevailing accounting. Someone who follows the dictates of his own conscience might be said to take subjectively proper actions, though those actions might not be objectively proper.

The problem of defining objectively correct behavior remains. Russell posits that objectively correct behavior is “that which best serves the interest of the group that is regarded as ethically dominant [p. 80].” But what group? (We might even want to take account of the interests of non-human animals.) There doesn’t seem to be any logical reason to prefer one group to another.

Russell returns to the reason for wanting to understand objectively correct behavior in the first place: to serve as a guide to such behavior. So the approach, to be helpful, should be capable of distinguishing correct from incorrect behavior, and provide some motive to take the preferred action.

A reflective person, seeking to find a rule for determining ethically proper actions, will realize that the rule cannot give himself or some group he belongs to a privileged position – unless the group is strong enough to dominate all others. But two different rules still suggest themselves: (1) Every person should pursue his own good; or (2) every person should pursue the general good. (Recall that Russell has defined “good” as satisfying a desire.) If my most intense selfish preference is to promote the general good, then the two rules produce identical results -- likewise, if my selfish preference doesn’t refer directly to the general good, but nevertheless leads to acts that simultaneously serve the public interest.

Can we differentiate good from bad desires, without asking what the likely consequences are of acting upon those desires? Russell suggests that the reason we think more highly of love than of hate as a motivation is because of the consequences that tend to stem from actions motivated from those two emotions. Any rule of behavior that we support through ethical intuition is one that also leads to desirable consequences. We do not need ethical intuition: we can generate guidance for actions simply by following the principle that it is objectively right to act to promote the general good.

People will pursue their own good. How can it be that telling them to pursue the general good will actually provide them with motivation to do so? Of course, the carrots and sticks of law and society can be used to align individual and social incentives. But of the many possible desires that I might hold, some of them intrinsically are more in line with the social good than are others. These desires might be considered “good” or “right,” and are worthy of “more moral respect than those [desires] that run counter to the general interests of the community [p. 85].”

A possible rule that indicates moral correctness cannot involve a specific individual. Even if that person is all wise, the rule needn’t name him: the rule could be to follow the all-wise individual, who might be someone else tomorrow. Alternatively, perhaps we ought to like one type of person and hate another type. Then, satisfaction of the desires of those whom we hate would not be good. One reason to reject this approach is consequential: hate will breed hate. In addition, we might possess an emotional commitment to neutrality or universal benevolence. Still, in searching for a rule of moral obligation, the dividing up of mankind into a good group and a bad group cannot be ruled out on logical grounds.

Russell concludes the chapter with a summary (pages 87-88), and I for one am glad, because I found the chapter itself to be nonlinear and hard to follow. What to make of the notion, “’A right act is one which aims at the greatest possible satisfaction of the desires of sentient beings [p. 88]’”? By this statement, Russell intends to imply that (1) he experiences a feeling of emotional approval of such acts; (2) he has an emotional commitment to equality such that the desires of every person count the same; (3) his approach could be universally adopted, which non-egalitarian alternatives would have a hard time with; and (4) he would like his view to be adopted by everyone. Russell postpones discussing whether ethical argument admits an impersonal standard of truth.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Human Society in Ethics and Politics, Chapter V

Chapter V (pages 60-71), “Partial and General Goods”

The general good is the overall satisfaction of desires in a society. In a competition for a political post, only one candidate will win, so his satisfaction (and his supporters’) comes at the expense of the satisfaction of the opposed party. This is inevitable – laws and ethics can mitigate such conflicts, but not eliminate them.

Love your neighbor-type precepts aim to make individuals care about the general good; nationalism tends to restrict the society whose interests you want to promote to be that of your country, and racism to those who share your race. Class connections, whether aristocratic or proletarian, also can serve as the border for whose preferences are deemed worthy of regard. Some philosophers limit the in-group still further, to family, perhaps, or even, in the case of psychological hedonists, oneself. This latter group (the psychological hedonists), which includes the early utilitarians, believes that people necessarily choose to promote their own interests or pleasure, so that it is society’s duty to make those interests coincide as closely as possible to the public good – perhaps even invoking divine rewards and punishments for the purpose.

People do not desire only their own pleasure, however, though it is easy to think they do, since people enjoy meeting their desires and the pleasure they take from preference satisfaction can be mistaken for the object of their behavior. The desire for food, which all humans and animals have, can be distinguished from the desire for the pleasure of food that gourmands display.

The pleasure of satisfying a desire comes in two forms; one form arises simply from meeting your goal, while the second is the pleasure that inheres in the goal itself. “If you chase round the town in search of oranges, and at last obtain some, you have not only the pleasure that the oranges would have given you if you had obtained them without difficulty, but also the pleasure of success [p. 63].”

People desire things beyond their own pleasure; further, they often desire things beyond their own lifetime, beyond their own capacity for pleasure, such as the future prosperity of their family or friends. (Russell echoes (page 64) his thoughts in The Conquest of Happiness by noting how a zest for life can be maintained into old age through broad interests.) To some extent this is the common condition: most people on the brink of death would be rendered still more unhappy if they learned that mankind would shortly annihilate itself in a nuclear catastrophe. Interests beyond one’s own pleasure can lack compossibility just as much as hedonistic interests can. People who desire that the whole world share their religion will find little fellow-feeling on that score with people who actually do feel similarly, but are of a different religion.

What positions can be adopted by people who have a limited view of what group’s interests are to be served, whether that group be religious or national or class-based or whatever? How can they justify ignoring the preferences of the rest of humanity? One possibility is to believe that the interests of all of mankind are indeed equivalent to the interests of the chosen group, even though those outside the group do not understand this. (Russell subsequently (p. 65) terms this position “enlightened imperialism.”) Second, a person might believe that the preferred group possesses a special quality that gives them standing, while people outside the group can be used as means to serving the ends of the special ones. Third, a person might believe that all groups have standing, but that it is admissible for a member of a group to advocate only for his group’s interests, that is, to be openly biased, and to contend with the advocates of other groups.

The ancient Greeks and Romans were enlightened imperialists, believing that their way of life was better than those of the barbarians they conquered. Christians and Muslims feel similarly, as did many proponents of the British Empire. Hegel and Marx both provide theoretical underpinnings for related views, where selected nations or classes are vehicles of global progress.

The second belief, that the interests of those outside the chosen group do not have any ethical standing, is the way most people feel about animals, which serve either as means to human ends or as obstacles to be overcome. With respect to humans, the theory of Christianity argues for good treatment of all people, though Christianity in practice generally falls short of this ideal. White men in North America have not regarded the interests of blacks or Native Americans as worthy of much respect -- a view now in decline. Nietzsche is a spokesperson for the idea that the mass of humanity is unimportant, and should be enlisted to serve the purposes of the handful of enlightened people. Who is enlightened? Here, Nietzsche’s approach is less obvious than that of those who use race or nationality or class to distinguish the chosen few; it seems to come down to people “whom Nietzsche admires [p. 68].” One could imagine, however, a more precise Nietzschean standard, based, for instance, on an IQ threshold.

The third view, that one should advocate for one's own group even while recognizing that the interests of others have more or less equal ethical weight, is quite commonly held. In matters of foreign relations and war, for instance, it is thought right that people should serve their own government’s policy – even if it is a bad policy when the interests of the world at large are considered. People often do not respect traitors from enemy countries, though those traitors might be betraying an evil government, one that has earned betrayal. Similarly, people can be sympathetic towards those who serve their family’s interest at society’s expense. This third view separates the general good from a view of “right” conduct: behavior can be considered “right” even when it is not “good,” that is, when the behavior does not promote the interests of people overall. There is a certain fragility to this approach, since once it is accepted that all groups have ethical standing, there isn’t a strong argument for choosing to ignore the interests of other groups in evaluating the propriety of your own conduct, or for selecting one partition of people into groups over another.

The three views outlined above, in which only the interests of a specific sub-group of humanity are directly attended to, are not very compelling. There is no theoretical reason to believe that enlightened imperialism really does serve the long-term interests of the unenlightened: it is an empirical matter. The Nietzschean approach presents the prickly problem of identifying the supermen. “In practice, vanity and conceit furnish the definition: I am, of course, a superman, and I must admit enough people of approximately equal merit to give the group a chance of surviving the indignation and ridicule of the rest [p. 70].” The idea that one should work exclusively for one’s own group has practical utility, as I am better informed about, and more able to promote, the interests of my group than the interests of distant others. Nevertheless, ignoring foreign countries, as the world becomes more interconnected, can lead to acts that impose much suffering elsewhere. The principle of promoting the general good seems to survive the challenge posed by alternatives that focus on the interests of specific subgroups of humanity.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Human Society in Ethics and Politics, Chapter IV

Chapter IV (pages 51-59), “Good and Bad”

Russell posits that something is good if it is valued for itself, and not solely as a means to some desirable consequences. Painful behaviors that promote health are useful but not good. Pleasures such as wine that perhaps undermine health are good but not useful. [There seems to be an immediate issue of reductio here – why cannot it be said that the pleasure afforded by wine is the consequence sought, and that wine consumption is but a means to that end? – RBR] Without endorsing utilitarianism, Russell nonetheless maintains that most pleasures are good in his accounting, and most pains bad.

We think that the pleasure that accompanies the taking of a beneficent act is good, while the pleasure that accompanies taking a cruel act is bad. But this view reflects a means/end confusion. Imagine that we could experience the pleasure of behaving cruelly in a manner that brought no harm to anyone else – then that pleasure in cruelty might be fine, no? Intoxicants that brought no hangovers or family troubles, even to over-indulgers, might be all to the good as well. We can’t value something as a means unless we already have placed a value on the end to which it serves as a means. “It follows that intrinsic value is logically prior to value as means [p. 52].”

Forethought, and the willingness to make present sacrifices for future gains, is what distinguishes the civilized from savages, and adults from children. Moralists put great stress on these sacrifices, sometimes even divorcing their inherent goodness from the value of the subsequent reward. Excessive devotion to means and not ends takes the joy out of life; this is recognized in extreme cases such as that of misers, but the malady is common and even celebrated in less pronounced forms. Suppression of the enjoyment of ends leads to its eruption in negative contexts, “in war or cruelty or intrigue or some other destructive activity [p. 53].”

Capitalists preoccupied with means, not ends, will engage in deceptive practices if it brings higher profits – and will be esteemed for their acumen. Workers view their jobs and pay as more important than the value of what they produce, and will try to suppress new methods that reduce the need for labor in manufacturing. An economic view of the productive system might look at tractors as an input to produce food to keep men alive to produce still more tractors, and so on, without considering ultimate ends. The teaching of mathematics is approached the same way at university, to train people who can teach math to more people… (The case for state support escapes this logic by focusing on the military advantages that can be achieved through mathematics.) A concern with ends relaxes the focus on production for its own sake, and rather asks, “what has there been in the lives of consumers and producers to make them glad to be alive [pp. 54-55]?”

If we had no desire for pleasure or for the avoidance of pain, we would think of nothing as either good or bad. So a definition of the “good” must implicate human desires, and Russell suggests that indeed, good may be defined as “‘satisfaction of desire [p. 55].’” One state of affairs is better than another if the first “satisfies more desires or a more intense desire [p. 55].” These definitions seem to accord well with common ethical understandings (and though Russell does not say so, again his approach jibes well with utilitarianism). People act in ways to satisfy their own desires, but their acts might not be good, because the acts might not serve well the desires of others. To act in a manner to satisfy your desires does not imply selfishness, as your desires can include the welfare of your family, friends, or nation, for example. “But though my wishes may be unselfish, they must be mine if they are to affect my actions [p. 56].” Given the reality of diminishing marginal utility, a benevolent disposition (that leads to sharing of a windfall of chocolates, for instance), leads to a better outcome than arises from a more self-centered personality.

An action is right, then, if it tends to promote the general good. There is be little to be said for expressing the grand sentiment that one should take such right actions, in the absence of some incentive to do so. These incentives can come in many forms, including legal sanctions, popular approval, or the development of a generous nature. A statement that one should promote the general good, if it is to have meaning, implies that social pressures to provide inducements to right behavior are themselves good, and should be applied.

(Instead of defining “good” and then defining “right,” as Russell is doing, we could go the other way around. But societies greatly differ on what they think of as right, partly because, as in the case of taboos, differing beliefs exist about the consequences of various types of conduct.)

What about a desire for cruelty? Is satisfaction of such a desire good? Russell argues (page 58) that if one person’s desire for cruelty could be considered in isolation, and could be satisfied without actually involving the suffering of someone else, then even satisfying such a desire would add to overall happiness.

Sometimes the desires of different people are compatible – Russell, citing Leibniz, employs the term “compossible” – and sometimes the satisfaction of one person’s desire implies that someone else’s desire cannot be satisfied. Overall satisfaction is greater with compossible desires, as opposed to incompatible wants. As means, therefore, compossible desires are preferable: mutual love is better than enmity, peace is better than war, and so on. Desires themselves can be judged to be good or bad (or right or wrong) in this fashion. Generally speaking, right desires are those that largely are compossible: that is, the satisfaction of such desires does not require the thwarting of the desires of others.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Human Society in Ethics and Politics, Chapter III

Chapter III (pages 44-50), “Morality as a Means”

Though there are various ethical codes, people do not believe that one is just as good as another. Ethics cannot be reduced to the admonition to do what the ethical code of your community recommends. This realization does not rule out the view that ethics consists of (everywhere) following the moral code of my community – many of the theologically inclined take this approach. There are conflicting theologies, however, so philosophically minded people still need a reason (beyond proclaimed revelation) to prefer one moral code to another. An appeal to the priority of individual conscience suffers from the same detriment, given that consciences vary.

Rules such as “thou shalt not kill” are very coarse, and admit some exceptions – though people might disagree about when homicide is justifiable. It seems that the only resolution is to posit some end that behavior should serve. Behavior that serves a good end is then proper behavior. The utilitarians take this approach, where good behavior is that which serves a useful end; further, for the utilitarians, the useful end is the greatest happiness. But their consequentialist approach can be adopted even if the goal of happiness is replaced with some alternative criterion. Most ethical codes, perhaps implicitly, are of this nature. Breaking a taboo is wrong because bad consequences will ensue. (Later [p. 50], Russell notes that some taboos [such as that against masturbation] outlive the belief in the dreaded consequences that once were associated with their violation.) Being meek will lead to inheriting the earth. Even those codes that assert divine revelation as their basis often provide additional consequential arguments. If not, the codes could state the opposite, requiring murder as much as prohibiting it. Theologians assert that divine decrees are good, and this assertion indicates that goodness is a more primitive concept for them than is divine promulgation. “God could not have enjoined [required] murder, since such a decree would have had evil consequences [p. 48].” Aquinas (consequently!) defends Christian morality through utilitarian arguments.

The Stoics and Kant both argued that virtue was an end in itself, and not desirable only because it served other desirable ends. For the Stoics, adverse conditions were those best suited to promoting virtue. Nevertheless, Stoic leaders such as Marcus Aurelius did not seek out adverse circumstances for their subjects. Instead, Aurelius, for instance, labored intensely to ensure his subjects’ happiness, even though his philosophy claimed that happiness was immaterial. Kant thought that a good deed done to promote some end (other than being virtuous itself) was not praiseworthy. Helping someone because you like him is morally indifferent, but helping someone you despise because the virtuous act consists of such help is laudable. Nevertheless, Kant holds out the prospect of an eternal afterlife where good people will be rewarded with happiness. “If he really believed what he thinks he believes, he would not regard heaven as a place where the good are happy, but as a place where they have never-ending opportunities of doing kindnesses to people whom they dislike [p. 49].”

Russell concludes by adopting (somewhat less-than-wholeheartedly) the consequentialist approach. Some ends are good, others are bad. Proper behavior is that which promotes, on net, desirable consequences. “If this view is accepted, the next step must be to investigate what can be meant by ‘good’ and ‘bad’ [p. 50].”

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Human Society in Ethics and Politics, Chapter II

Chapter II (pages 38-43), “Moral Codes”

Most acts, especially those that are self-regarding, are morally neutral. Nevertheless, in every society there are certain behaviors that are required and others that are forbidden. Individuals who violate these social precepts bring scorn upon themselves, though rich people are given more scope to choose without incurring disapproval. The moral codes that are active in different societies vary greatly. "In view of this diversity of moral codes, we cannot say that acts of one kind are right or acts of another kind wrong, unless we have first found a way of deciding that some codes are better than others [p. 39].” Most people make their decision about the relative value of a moral code based on a highly parochial viewpoint.

Perhaps people cannot be blamed for following their local moral code, but surely it often is praiseworthy to deviate from it. Many social advances, such as the abolition of cannibalism or slavery, have emanated from moral reformers who rejected part of their received code. While it is admitted that such disobedience was helpful in other times and places, the general feeling is that our current moral code is essentially perfect.

For the most part, avoiding sin is all that is required to be reputed a moral man – you needn’t take actions that are positively kind or beneficial to others. The fears of sinning that are inculcated in people lead to excessive self-centeredness and timidity. Great lives are made of sterner stuff. Positive duties are imposed in each profession, however, from king to firefighter; occupations develop their own morality, which sometimes is codified in law.

Two ethical codes can both be current, though they are contradictory. Christian non-violence long coexisted with codes of honour that required dueling (and hence homicide) over insults among gentlemen. Despite the absurdities and the tragedies that have been connected with it, the ethic of honour also roused people to a higher regard for others and a distaste for betrayal. “When the conception of honour is freed from aristocratic insolence and from proneness to violence, something remains which helps to preserve personal integrity and to promote mutual trust in social relations [p. 43].”

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Human Society in Ethics and Politics, Chapter I

Chapter I (pages 25-37), “Sources of Ethical Beliefs and Feelings”

Ethics is based on feelings, which give meaning to claims about what “should” be done. A non-sentient world that operated mechanically (like distant, lifeless astronomical processes) would have no good or bad attached to its behavior. [Russell avoids the Hamlet quote: “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”] Is there ethical knowledge, that is, is there any sense in which a statement that something is good can be true or false? Russell claims that there is no easy answer to such an inquiry. There seems to be a difference between the proposition that a food is good and that torture is good; people who disagree might be willing to fight about the latter, but not about the former. Maybe not all ethical propositions are subjective. Further, the persuasive power of some ethical claims is tied to theological beliefs: loss of the beliefs undermines the influence of the claims. Nineteenth century philosophers argued (and demonstrated in their lives) that non-religious people needn’t be wicked, though the totalitarian tragedies emanating from some twentieth century non-believers have rekindled the question.

Ethics come from two sources, one political, the second personal (and often religious). “Without civic morality communities perish; without personal morality their survival has no value [p. 28].” Much of the praise and blame attached to actions in primitive societies is based on superstition – even those precepts that serve a rational purpose often have had their genesis in superstition. Taboo (Russell writes “tabu”) is the mechanism of much primitive morality – and a good deal survives in civilized countries, too, including marriage and sex codes, and food-related rules like not eating beef or pork. Taboo sometimes does prohibit acts that really would be dangerous to society, however, such as murder or regicide, and does so more efficaciously than other methods of promulgating norms. There is a danger that in throwing off even otherwise irrational religious taboos, rule adherence in general will decay – perhaps leading to dictatorship. Nevertheless, Russell favors abandoning “tabu morality [p. 31].”

One problem with maintaining taboos is that you might have to handicap the educational system, to keep people from understanding the superstitious nature of taboos. “The necessary degree of stupidity [for maintaining respect for taboos] is socially harmful, and can only be secured by means of a rigidly obscurantist rĂ©gime [p. 32].” A second problem is the loss of what modern economists would call “marginal deterrence”: once someone sees no reason to abide by an irrational taboo, he might extend his disobedience to the rational ones. Further, every taboo system includes precepts that create positive harms, such as promulgating capital punishment for witches, or preventing access to birth control and assisted suicide.

Imagined divine commands tend to replace taboos as civilization progresses. Morality comes to mean obedience to the will of God, and extends to obedience towards established power relations in society. The Protestant view that every person’s conscience (interpreting the Divine) should be the ultimate arbiter, without blind obedience to any earthly priest or sovereign, proved transformative. It has justified disobedience towards those established power relations when they are unjust, thereby fueling religious toleration, the rights of women, and diminished parental authority. Nevertheless, the reliance on individual conscience does not provide a stable ethic – it is inherently anarchic. Today as in the past, however, the overarching ethical system is complemented by a more pragmatic but less intense norm of quid pro quo restraint and toleration.

People have an instinct for sacrificing their own interests for their family’s well-being, but such natural restraint does not extend easily beyond the family. “To cause their actions to be in accordance with the public interest, vast forces of law, of religion, and of education in enlightened self-interest, have had to be called into play, and their success has been very limited [p. 35].” It is easier to win a war if you have more people, however, so war has been a traditional force for increasing the cohesion of large groups. War has helped to generate two different moralities, one for members of your herd, and a second for outsiders. Some religions, with roots in Stoicism, have tried to erase the distinction, encouraging people to treat everyone as they treat those within their group. These encouragements have not met with great success.

Russell now devotes himself to within-herd morality. Most societies employ the institutions of law and property to promote social cohesion, backed by justice as the moral principle. Law provides a monopoly of legitimate force to the state, prohibiting private coercion. Even a rule of bad law is preferable to anarchy, so respect for the law is rational. The protection of the property of individuals makes it easier for people to respect the law.

People equate good laws with justice, but different societies and different people hold widely varying views of what is just. Russell yields to this diversity of opinion when he offers, as an almost utilitarian definition of justice, “‘that system which gives the least commonly recognized ground of complaint [p. 37].’” Social ethics and politics are nearly identical. There also is a sphere of personal ethics, reflected, for instance, in a desire to do worthy work, even if other approaches to labor would be more remunerative. At any rate, taboos, religion, a respect for law – all of these sources of morality can be developed “into forms that can influence highly civilized men [p. 37].”

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Human Society in Ethics and Politics: Introduction

Introduction (pages 15-21)

People’s desires are those that typically promoted survival throughout primitive times. They tend to reflect a division of other people into friends (with whom we cooperate) and enemies (with whom we compete). Our intelligence informs us that as society has become more complex, we could do better by curbing our competitive instinct and nurturing our cooperative interest. “Ethics and moral codes are necessary to man because of the conflict between intelligence and impulse [p. 15].”

Humans are semi-social. Completely social animals such as ants always serve their community’s interests. Humans need ethics to indicate goals, and moral rules to guide actions towards those goals. But human nature cannot countenance complete submission of our un-social, solitary side. A moralist whose recommendations ignore instinct will encounter a public that ignores the moralist. Nevertheless, much human activity sublimates our instincts, allowing us to serve our future good through current sacrifice of instinctual desires. “It is because of this power of acting with a view to a desired end that ethics and moral rules are effective, since they suggest, on the one hand, a distinction between good and bad purposes, and, on the other hand, a distinction between legitimate and illegitimate means of achieving purposes [pp. 17-18].”

Man in society has fundamental desires connected with survival. But [here, Russell invokes a sort of mini-Maslovian hierarchy of needs – RBR] if our survival needs are met, secondary desires, especially “acquisitiveness, rivalry, vanity, and love of power [p. 18]” assert themselves.

While we cannot resolve the nature v. nurture debate in general terms, it nevertheless is quite clear that “the impulses and desires which determine the behavior of an adult depend to an enormous extent upon his education and his opportunities [p. 19].” The impulses of different individuals can conflict, but a desirable social system is one that discourages conflictual impulses through education and public policy.

The two great revolutions in human history – the adoption of agriculture and industrialization – both brought enormous pain. We have yet to learn the full scope of potential harm from industrialization, but it includes greater destructiveness in war and the concentration of power and its subsequent misuse by those whose love for some system is pursued at the expense of the interests of individuals. Though our fears regarding modernity are quite vivid, we have reason to hope, too, and our hopes can be realized with the aid of imagination and commitment.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Human Society in Ethics and Politics, Preface

Preface (pages 7-11)

Russell explains that the first nine chapters were written in 1944-45, with the rest (with one exception) written in 1953, the year prior to the publication of Human Society in Ethics and Politics. The exception is the chapter “Politically Important Desires,” which formed Russell’s speech when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950. His goals are to “set forth an undogmatic ethic; and second, to apply this ethic to various current political problems [p. 7].”

Russell laments that he is frequently misunderstood as someone who exaggerates the role of reason or rationality in human affairs. He claims the misunderstanding comes from his critics' failure to understand that reason is about choosing the appropriate means for given ends – without being able to say anything about the ends themselves. (This also is the usual approach towards rationality taken by modern economics.) Russell quotes Hume, arguing that the quote expresses an obvious truth: ‘Reason is and ought only to be, the slave of the passions [p. 8].’ The passions provide the goals; they are the spur to action. Reason channels action in the direction chosen by the passions. (Slightly later (page 11), Russell says that “There is no such thing as an irrational aim except in the sense of one that is impossible of realization.”)

People who accuse others of being coldly rational may well be looking for rationales to continue to hold views contradicted by facts. Worse still, politicians might promote the notion of irrationality to try to enlist the citizenry to support, not the citizens’ interests, but the politicians’. Whipping people up into an emotional state is a time-tested method for inducing unthinking responses. In any event, to oppose reason is to support having people adopt means that are calculated not to achieve the desired ends. You would do this only if you want to deceive them about the (in)appropriateness of the means, or if you want them to support other ends (without telling them so). “The world that I should wish to see is one where emotions are strong but not destructive, and where, because they are acknowledged, they lead to no deception either of oneself or of others [p. 11].”

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Next Up: Human Society in Ethics and Politics

The original Reading Russell plan, sanctified by tradition and popular apathy, called for an idiosyncratic summary/commentary (henceforth, “summentary”) of A History of Western Philosophy to fill this space in our virtual noteworld. The call was made with trepidation, however, due to an inchoate suspicion that A History of Western Philosophy might not submit readily to the Reading Bertrand Russell, er, method. The suspicion has now become more substantial, so we offer what we hope is a serviceable substitute, a summentary of Human Society in Ethics and Politics. [Update: A quick web search indicates that I am not the only person to ever employ the term "summentary."]

Human Society in Ethics and Politics
first was published in 1954. Reading Bertrand Russell is using the Routledge paperback edition of 1992, which opens with an introduction by John G. Slater. (Russell offers his own introduction, too.) Slater recounts the influence of G.E. Moore on Russell’s early ethical thinking, and Russell’s subsequent change of views circa World War I. Ethics, for Russell, came to be closely associated with argument and persuasion, explaining to those with different desires why your own preferences are better – an explanation that generally takes the form of comparing the probable consequences of the alternative worldviews. Slater provides more detail concerning Russell’s published thoughts on ethics prior to Human Society in Ethics and Politics, noting the many decades of substantial consistency in Russell’s ideas.

Following the Slater Introduction is a Preface by Russell, the Table of Contents, and then Russell’s Introduction. The 23 chapters are divided into two parts: Part One is entitled “Ethics” and Part Two is “The Conflict of Passions.” Here is a list of the chapter titles:

Part One: Ethics
I. Sources of Ethical Beliefs and Feelings
II. Moral Codes
III. Morality as a Means
IV. Good and Bad
V. Partial and General Goods
VI. Moral Obligation
VII. Sin
VIII. Ethical Controversy
IX. Is there Ethical Knowledge?
X. Authority in Ethics
XI. Production and Distribution
XII. Superstitious Ethics
XIII. Ethical Sanctions

Part Two: The Conflict of Passions
I. From Ethics to Politics
II. Politically Important Desires
III. Forethought and Skill
IV. Myth and Magic
V. Cohesion and Rivalry
VI. Scientific Technique and the Future
VII. Will Religious Faith Cure Our Troubles?
VIII. Conquest?
IX. Steps Towards a Stable Peace
X. Prologue or Epilogue?

Onward then, not to A History of Western Philosophy, but to Human Society in Ethics and Politics.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

The Conquest of Happiness, Full Time

Perhaps the main theme of Part Two (“Causes of Happiness”) is the importance of being connected to the stream of life. (My halftime report on Part One is here.) Children and work are the usual vehicles for achieving this connection.

My favorite chapter of Part Two is Chapter 15, “Impersonal Interests.” (My favorite chapter in Part One is Chapter 8, “Persecution Mania”; I am worried about what these preferences say about me!) One of the features of the Russellian view that stands out is the recognition of fairly severe limits on the extent of human altruism that can be expected. People are willing to sacrifice for their family and friends, but as the degree of separation increases, the philanthropic impulse decreases considerably. Russell notes how requiring substantial sacrifices even for one’s children – as by mothers who must give up careers for their families – is a recipe for unhappiness. Compared to Peter Singer, for example, Bertrand Russell elucidates a sort of moral code that is easier to implement, and therefore I suppose I want to believe that it also is closer to being correct – though I possess no intellectual refutation of Singer’s more demanding morality. How (comparatively) liberating for the conventionally selfish is Russell’s notion that the counsels of a hedonist and that of a “sane moralist [p. 190]” should essentially be identical!

In the Preface, Russell announces his belief that by “well-directed effort,” many people who are unhappy could become happy. In Part Two, he adumbrates more fully his views on how that effort should be directed. One of the curiosities of the recommended behavior is that it can’t really be pointed squarely at happiness; rather, happiness is sort of a beneficial side effect of efforts made for other reasons. Taking direct aim at happiness is apt to result in perverse consequences. You need affection to be happy – but if you express that need too openly, other people will withhold affection. You must take delight in others to be happy, but if you try to simulate delight, they will sense that you are merely tolerating them, and again your plan will be thwarted. You need the admiration of others to be satisfied, but if securing admiration is the motivation for your work, you will achieve neither admiration nor satisfaction. Friends are requisite for happiness, but excessive kindness or generosity directed towards winning friends will backfire. You need success to be happy, but if success comes too easily, it will not bring happiness. Even to focus too intently on how to cure your unhappiness is apt to make you inner-directed, and thereby cut off your opportunities for contentment.

The happiness arena is replete with virtuous circles, while the unhappiness realm is a slough of despond, from which it is hard to extricate yourself. If you are unhappy you will (1) lack zest which will (2) tend to make you unlovable which will (3) probably make you introspective, and then conditions (1), (2), and (3) will make you unhappy… and so on. If you are happy you will (1) be zestful and you will (2) take a lively interest in people and things and you will (3) approach your work with more energy which will (4) tend to make you successful, and then conditions (1) through (4) will make you happy… and so on. Switching from the vicious circle to the virtuous circle seems to me to be extremely hard, even if one scrupulously tries to apply Russell’s “well-directed effort.” For people near the margin of happiness, the Russellian approach would seem to have much to offer. But how common are those folks at the margin? In the final chapter, Russell suggests that his self-help plan can overcome garden-variety unhappiness, while severe cases might require professional assistance. The strongly reinforcing nature of the vicious circle, however, makes me suspect that the typical unhappiness is that which Russell considers severe, and unlikely to be adjusted even by a good faith effort to implement his advice. Russell does a better job of identifying the features and correlates of happiness (and unhappiness) than he does at providing a recipe for making lemonade out of (perceived) lemons.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

The Conquest of Happiness, Chapter 17

Chapter 17 (pages 186-191), “The Happy Man”

When it comes to happiness, cause and effect frequently are confused. Neither our adopted creeds nor our intellectualized narratives cause us to be happy or unhappy. “The man who is unhappy will, as a rule, adopt an unhappy creed, while the man who is happy will adopt a happy creed...[p. 186].” There are basic ingredients that are all but pre-requisites for happiness, such as adequate food and shelter, love and respect – for some people, parenthood could be added to the list. With these ingredients in place, unhappiness has a psychological source, which in the usual, not-too-severe cases, can be self-cured – but the self-cure is to lessen self-involvement! Passions to avoid (and to educate people to avoid) in the name of happiness include fear, envy, the sense of sin, self-pity and self-aggrandizement (as discussed in Part One). These passions imprison us in self-focus. Fear nurtures self-deception, but living a life of deceit is precarious and leaves us vulnerable to a massive shock when the truth can no longer be dodged – while the intuitive knowledge of this danger causes apprehension.

“The happy man is the man who lives objectively, who has free affections and wide interests, who secures his happiness through these interests and affections and through the fact that they, in turn, make him an object of interest and affection to many others [p. 188].”

How to escape from the happiness-robbing self-focus? First the cause of self-focus should be diagnosed. If it is a sense of sin, then recognize that cause (and its disconnect from anything actually sinful) in your conscious mind, where this realization can seep into the unconscious. If you are self-centered due to self-pity, or out of fear, then these conditions can be understood and combated, too. Outside interests then will emerge spontaneously.

There is substantial overlap between a good life and a happy life. Moralists who teach that a good life is about self-denial generate a self-centeredness (in carefully watching over your appetites) that redounds to neither happiness nor goodness. There needn’t be such a sharp distinction between an individual and everyone else. Broad interests connect individuals with the “stream of life [p. 191].” A healthy, but not excessive, interest in your own well-being promotes happiness in yourself and in others. Unhappiness arises when a person is internally disjointed (with a chasm between the conscious and unconscious mind) or externally disconnected, cut off from society. “The happy man is the man who does not suffer from either of these failures of unity, whose personality is neither divided against itself nor pitted against the world [p. 191].” Even death engenders no dread for someone who is instinctively connected to the ongoing parade of life.

Friday, April 17, 2009

The Conquest of Happiness, Chapter 16

Chapter 16 (pages 178-185), “Effort and Resignation”

The golden mean is a banal concept, but there is wisdom in it, including in its application to the question of whether you should exert effort or resign from worldly matters. Happiness generally requires attention (hence “conquest”), given all the problems and misfortunes of this world. The necessary attention involves some outward effort -- and perhaps some inward effort to inculcate resignation.

Effort is needed to earn your daily bread, but happiness also requires a feeling of success that a subsistence income alone will not provide. Income has become a measure of success; only a small percentage of people can achieve relatively large incomes, however, suggesting a helpful degree of resignation with respect to earnings. A desirable marriage might require effort, especially for the gender that is in the majority. Successfully raising children is quite an operose undertaking.

“[O]ne may say that some kind of power forms the normal and legitimate aim of every person whose natural desires are not atrophied [p. 181].” The power over others that is sought varies with one’s disposition –- perhaps power over thoughts, actions, emotions, or the power to mitigate pain. The desire for power is intertwined with the spur to the appropriate effort, and harnessing this passion and effort for good ends helps build society.

But passion can be an obstacle to success, especially if the fear of failure becomes a source of excessive anxiety. A temperate resignation to the possibility of failure and to unpreventable misfortune is helpful. “The attitude required is that of doing one’s best while leaving the issue to fate [p. 182].” The paralyzing resignation of despair must be avoided, but the resignation associated with hopes that are larger than our narrowly personal ends is helpful. A researcher who yearns for scientific progress may not achieve that progress personally, but can avoid despair if the larger enterprise moves ahead.

Russell provides a sort of compartmentalization story for how he believes the desirable type of resignation should operate. If your marriage turns unhappy, you shouldn’t let it interfere with your (important) work. Oh well, you presumably say, these things happen, and in the meantime, I have work to do.

Some people work themselves into a lather over trivialities, like their laundry being delayed or a train missed. Wise people handle these minor problems (they needn’t ignore them) without an expenditure of emotion. Perhaps irritable or anxious people cannot overcome their emotional roadblocks, short of dedicating themselves to a larger, impersonal enterprise which will render minor matters less meaningful. “The man who has become emancipated from the empire of worry will find life a much more cheerful affair than it used to be while he was perpetually being irritated [p. 184].” He takes a detached, almost ironic approach to the inevitable trials of everyday life. Allow yourself a multiplicity of views of yourself. Do not be consistently a hero in a tragedy, nor a comic clown, but take on many roles, if you cannot be entirely detached.

Your effort to succeed at a task will not be undone by a dose of humor or by a healthy understanding of the relative unimportance of the enterprise. In the long-run, self-deception will undermine the quality of the work, and perhaps even turn it to bad ends. “Half the useful work in the world consists of combating the harmful work [p. 185].” Facing the truth about ourselves is painful at first, but an eventual salvation. “Nothing is more fatiguing nor, in the long run, more exasperating than the daily effort to believe things which daily become more incredible [p. 185].”

Monday, March 30, 2009

The Conquest of Happiness, Chapter 15

Chapter 15 (pages 170-177), “Impersonal Interests”

This chapter concerns leisure pursuits that are not closely connected to one’s occupation, such as a scientist’s reading of advances in other fields. “One of the sources of unhappiness, fatigue and nervous strain is inability to be interested in anything that is not of practical importance in one’s own life [p. 171].” Without outside interests, the brain is always brooding about some practical matter, depriving the subconscious of the opportunity to play its role of leavening the valleys and disproportions in our mental states. We end up irritable and tired, and then the tiredness distances us further from impersonal interests, until the situation cascades to a breakdown.

Impersonal interests require no decisions, which are fatiguing. The notion of “sleeping on” an important decision demonstrates wisdom, as the subconscious can undertake its processing overnight – or while an impersonal interest is being pursued. The appropriate type of impersonal interest is one that does not require the same modes of thought as work, does not involve a financial interest (unlike work), and is not so exciting that the subconscious remains riveted to the leisure pursuit. Golf, theatre, spectator sports – these are just a few of the many types of impersonal pursuits that fit the bill.

Russell speculates that working women tend to be less able than are men to take their minds off their work and lose themselves in some impractical diversion. Though it may appear as if this conscientiousness improves work performance, Russell suspects that its long-run effects are deleterious from the point of view of workplace productivity.

Impersonal pursuits help put the relative significance (and the cosmic insignificance) of one’s main pursuits in useful perspective. Someone who overvalues their work might become a fanatic, and be willing to impose large costs to promote their work ends. “Against this fanatical temper there is no better prophylactic than a large conception of the life of man and his place in the universe [p. 173].” Without a generous survey of the world and its history, you will succumb to expedience, choosing dubious means as the efficient path to serving what might be worthy ends. The result often will be short-term success, but long-term pain. If you imbue your mental outlook with the proper sense of proportion, “you will realize that the momentary battle upon which you are engaged cannot be of such importance as to risk a backward step towards the darkness out of which we have been slowly emerging [p. 174].” A loss in today’s battle, or even a serious setback in your personal fortune, will also pain less, if you know that your efforts are connected to the long-term struggle of raising mankind out of barbarism.

Russell provides his vision for education, in which children are made aware of man’s small place in the universe and the minuteness of a single human lifespan within the current of mankind’s past and future journey on earth. Simultaneously, Russell would hope to “impress upon the mind of the young the greatness of which the individual is capable, and the knowledge that throughout all the depths of stellar space nothing of equal value is known to us [p. 175].” People, provided with such training, who become capable of greatness of soul develop a stoicism that allows them to be infused with joy even when external circumstances are trying.

Helping one to deal with those inevitable trying circumstances is another benefit of impersonal pursuits. The distraction that they provide, at moments when troubles cannot be addressed but must be endured, is a great salve to anxiety. Even grief in the death of a loved one must be moderated, and the right type of impersonal pursuits – not degrading practices such as excessive consumption of alcohol or drugs – can aid in that process. “To bear misfortune well when it comes, it is wise to have cultivated in happier times a certain width of interests, so that the mind may find prepared for it some undisturbed place suggesting other associations and other emotions than those which are making the present difficult to bear [p. 172].” All our loves, all our pursuits, are mortal, so we can only insure against devastation by diversifying the risk, by holding a wide portfolio of interests.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Conquest of Happiness, Chapter 14

Chapter 14 (pages 162-169), “Work”

Work, even dull work, tends to be better than idleness. Leisure time requires that decisions be made as to how to fill it – decisions that will bring no happiness as they are subject to constant second-guessing. Most people prefer to be told what to do and when to do it. So work alleviates tedium, and allows greater pleasure to be taken in intermittent vacations. Work also serves as an outlet for ambition and for generating a favorable reputation. “Continuity of purpose is one of the most essential ingredients of happiness in the long run, and for most men this comes chiefly through their work [p. 163].” The domestic work of housewives does not possess the same advantages (money, reputation, and satisfaction) as outside, paid work.

Though tedious work is better than idleness, some forms of work provide opportunities for profound pleasures. “Two chief elements make work interesting: first, the exercise of skill, and second, construction [p. 164].” People with special skills enjoy utilizing those skills, at least as long as those skills can continue to be honed. Some professions, such as politician or businessman, hold the potential for improvement, and hence happiness, into old age. “Construction” refers to the idea that there are varieties of work in which something ordered and lasting is left behind, as opposed to the rubble generated by destruction. While some destruction is a necessary prelude to further construction, many people engage in wholly destructive work; such people like to delude themselves that they are motivated by constructive purposes, when they actually are motivated by hate. Revolutionaries often are most detailed and eloquent when discussing their destructive purposes, but at a loss for any nuance when asked about constructing better alternatives. They might find pleasure in destruction, but destruction can be complete, and then their pleasure ends. Construction generally is ongoing, and even when complete brings joy in contemplation. Opportunities for constructive work are themselves an antidote to hate. “The satisfaction to be derived from success in a great constructive enterprise is one of the most massive that life has to offer, although unfortunately in its highest forms it is open only to men of exceptional ability [p. 167].” [Among the men of art and science whom Russell singles out as creators are Shakespeare and Lenin, the latter for generating order out of chaos; recall that Russell is not all that enamored of Lenin, however – RBR.] Later (page 169), Russell notes that bringing up passable children is a form of constructive work that can bring real, lasting satisfaction.

Great artists often are of a temperament that limits happiness; nevertheless, their artistic work, while perhaps not making them happy, makes them less unhappy. Successful scientists tend to be happy, with their work being the chief source of their satisfaction. (Russell is here returning to a topic that he discussed in Chapter 10, the happiness of scientists and (at least relative) unhappiness of artists -- RBR.)

Modern literary creators (including journalists) often are unhappy, because their work is directed by corporate Philistines, who commission output that the literary men “regard as pernicious nonsense [p. 168].” It is better to have such a corporate job, even if you disagree with the aims of your employer, than to starve. Nevertheless, it is better to receive less pay for work that you view as valuable in itself, than to receive a higher salary for work of which you are ashamed. Happiness doesn’t come easily without self-respect.

There is a good deal of variation in the extent to which people can view their lives as a whole. It is an advantage to do so, as then over time you can amalgamate the disparate parts of your life into a unified structure that is conducive to your own happiness, instead of going this way or that as current expedience dictates. “The habit of viewing life as a whole is an essential part both of wisdom and of true morality, and is one of the things which ought to be encouraged in education [p. 169].”

Friday, March 13, 2009

The Conquest of Happiness, Chapter 13

Chapter 13 (pages 145-161), “The Family”

Family life could be the great fount of happiness, but under current conditions, both parents and children typically find the whole exercise trying. The subject of this chapter, however, is limited to what can be done about familial unhappiness by individuals, without reforming society at large. [Nevertheless, this is the longest chapter of the book – RBR.]

Women used to be “driven into marriage by the intolerable conditions of life for the spinster [p. 146],” which included financial dependence on a male relative and, if unchaste, being socially scorned as a fallen woman. The entrance of women into careers and the decline of the domestic services industry means that parenthood comes at a heavier price than before for well-to-do women. In particular, career women almost invariably have to stop working if they give birth, reinstituting a life of financial dependence. Further, they are then confronted with “a new and appalling problem, namely the paucity and bad quality of domestic service [p. 147].” [An old complaint that was apparently not yet a chestnut in 1930, and a reminder of just how large a change it was when middle-class (particularly British?) folks could no longer afford to hire servants -- RBR.] So a former career woman either undertakes the domestic labor herself or becomes shrewish in dealing with the maids. “Weighed down by a mass of trivial detail, she is fortunate indeed if she does not soon lose all her charm and three-quarters of her intelligence [p. 147].” Husbands and children find her company to be problematic. She is so aware of all that she has given up for her children that she demands a repayment of which they are incapable. The paradox is that by performing her domestic duties faithfully she loses the affection of her husband and children – affections which would not have been threatened by a carefree neglect of those duties.

Urbanization combined with family life can generate unhappiness. Cities are much more densely packed than before, and cramped apartment dwellers do not have a yard (or simply the great outdoors) in which the children can play. So parents in cities have a hard time escaping the noise of children, whereas suburban life involves a happiness-threatening commute to work for the father and his marginalization in his family’s lives.

The movement from master-slave relationships towards democracy, even within the family, has undermined traditional roles and created some uncertainty about proper behaviors. Obedience of children towards parents is no longer taken for granted. Psychoanalysis has rendered parents fearful that whatever they do, they will be psychologically scarring their offspring; the “simple and natural happiness [p. 150]” of family life is compromised. Wealthier, more civilized, and more intelligent people become less likely to have children, though the uncivilized remain relatively fruitful. Western nations will be seeing their populations fall, except to the extent that immigration compensates for the natural decrease. Civilizations that cannot reproduce are unstable, and will find their places usurped by those who multiply. Governments and clergymen can exhort all they want, but the blandishments of neither patriotism nor holiness are particularly successful at inducing breeding. Ignorance of how to prevent pregnancy can be an effective spur to population growth, and governments do their best to spread this ignorance, but this, too, is a losing battle. Parenthood will only be popular if the interest (that is, happiness) of the parents can be enlisted into the cause.

As a general proposition, being a parent can provide the best and most lasting happiness, for men almost as well as for women. Russell recounts his own experience: “…speaking personally, I have found the happiness of parenthood greater than any other that I have experienced [p. 153].” People who pass up this happiness develop a profound listlessness. As you get older, happiness requires that you are not atomized, but are “part of the stream of life flowing on from the first germ to the remote and unknown future [p. 153].” Perhaps a lasting work product can produce the same feeling of connection, but for most folks, children are the only means. Without children, your interests appear to be limited to your lifespan, lending a sense of futility to any endeavor.

Normal parental affection towards one’s children is a different order of feeling than other types of affection – and a similar point seems to apply to non-human animals, too. “If it were not for this special emotion there would be almost nothing to be said for the family as an institution, since children might equally well be left to the care of professionals [p. 155].” Other types of affection tend to be granted conditional on good behavior or good health or what have you – parental affection remains strong even when other claims to affection have been lost. The affection of your parents might not seem all that important when times are good, but at times of failure, it provides an invaluable security.

In human relationships that involve one dominant and one submissive partner, such as employer and employee, securing happiness for the dominant party is relatively easy. The world has become more interested in making these relationships happy for both parties; therefore, parents now draw less happiness from their children, while children suffer less from their parents.

Caring for an infant “gratifies not only the parent’s love towards the child, but also the parent’s desire for power [p. 156].” As the child develops, however, its well-being demands that the parent cede power, allowing the child more independence. Some parents continue to play the tyrant. Other parents validate their child’s claims to independence, but at the cost of their own happiness, as the child chooses directions that do not coincide with parental interests. The parental impulse towards possessiveness is hard to overcome, even when acting upon it does not conduce to the welfare of the child. Parents who recognize this problem become indecisive, and their very uncertainty undermines their value for the child. “Better than being careful, therefore, is to be pure in heart [157].” If you really put your child’s welfare above your own, you can guide your child confidently, and the mistakes that assuredly you will make will not prove costly.

The ingrained respect for a child’s personality that engenders wise parenting also is a necessary attitude for successful marriages and friendships. “In a good world it would pervade the political relations between groups of human beings, though this is so distant a hope that we need not linger over it [p. 158].” The respectful stance greatly adds to parental happiness, as parents with this respect can act in the best interests of their children without seeking the shallow joys of gratifying their desire of power.

Mothers recognize that they are not expected to teach calculus to their children, but they are less willing to contract out other duties of child-rearing, even when specialists are better placed to fulfill these duties. For some months around the birth of a child, perhaps, mothers generally will not be able to continue fulltime in their professional capacities; nevertheless, motherhood and careers should be compatible. If society expects otherwise, the sacrifice required by mothers will be too large, and the mothers themselves will seek excessive emotional compensation from their children. “It is important, therefore, quite as much in the interests of the children as in those of the mother, that motherhood should not cut her off from all other interests and pursuits [p. 160].” Those who are good at child rearing should specialize in it, providing paid services for other parents, many of whom are baffled by the demands of child care. It is almost received wisdom that fathers are not accomplished at child rearing, and there is no shame for them in taking a back seat in such domestic duties. Yet children love their fathers as much as their mothers. It would liberate women and benefit children if mothers similarly could leave many of the tasks of child raising to adept professionals.

Monday, March 2, 2009

The Conquest of Happiness, Chapter 12

Chapter 12 (pages 137-144), “Affection”

Being beloved promotes the zest for life, whereas the feeling of being unloved destroys it. Those who feel unloved might try to win the love of others through extraordinary kindness or generosity, though this tactic is likely to fail: “human nature is so constructed that it gives affection most readily to those who seem least to demand it [p. 137].” Alternatively, those who perceive themselves to be unloved might take revenge upon the world, perhaps through violence, or perhaps, like Jonathan Swift, through a biting satire. The most common response to feeling unloved, however, is to fall into quiet despair, punctuated by bouts of ill feeling towards others. “As a rule, the lives of such people become extremely self-centered and the absence of affection gives them a sense of insecurity from which they instinctively seek to escape by allowing habit to dominate their lives utterly and completely [p. 138].” They seek to stay on their tried and true paths to avoid encountering a hostile world.

A sense of security leads to happiness, unless the feeling of invulnerability induces foolish risk-taking. Even in risky endeavors, like crossing over a chasm on a dodgy bridge, the feeling of security can lower the risk – a similar proposition applies to many types of activities. This useful self-confidence grows out of receiving sufficient, appropriate affection: receiving, not giving, though the symmetric type of affection is the standard case. Admiration works as well as affection in generating zest: public performers who receive admiration keep up their spirits. But for those who cannot call upon the admiration of a large, diffuse crowd, more concentrated affection is required. Children take the affection of their parents for granted -- affection that is essential for their happiness, as it is their guarantee against disaster. Children who lack parental affection do not meet the world with the same optimistic curiosity, and they become gloomy introverts at a young age, later turning to some unsound philosophy or theology to provide an inadequate alternative. The stochastic world does not fit into the deterministic boxes provided by these creeds. Children who receive affection do not have to create an artificial world for the safety they cannot find in the real one.

The appropriate type of affection that produces inquisitive, happy children cannot itself be too focused on safety above new experience. It might be satisfying to a parent to have a child who only feels secure in the vicinity of the parent, but this dependence will have deleterious long-term effects for the child. Adults with such an upbringing seek refuge from reality in their romantic connections, looking for the same unconditional admiration and protection from harsh truths.

We should try to minimize the extent to which our affection for others reflects fears for misfortunes that might befall them. We might use such apprehensions to cloak our own possessiveness. Some men prefer timid women, whom they can control via the provision of protection.

The ability to inspire sexual feelings in someone else is extremely important to the happiness of adults; sexual love provides joy directly, and by sustaining a zest for life, also indirectly aids happiness. Women tend to love men for their characters, while men are more moved by looks. Characters, however, can be unlovable thanks to their deformation from childhood. We probably know better how to foster good looks than good characters.

It is one thing to be beloved; but what about the affection that we have for others? The better type of affection emanates from a person who is confident and secure; the lesser type comes from a need for security. Both types generally are present simultaneously, and both are helpful. Nevertheless, the version of affection that reflects insecurity is far inferior, both because it is a product of fear and because it promotes self-centeredness. “In the best kind of affection a man hopes for a new happiness rather than for escape from an old unhappiness [p. 142].”

Mutual affection can be mutually invigorating. But the benefits of affection also can be wholly one-sided, where one person’s affection comes at the expense of the other person’s vitality. A person who uses his partner to promote his own good, but does not think of how to generate mutual benefits, misses out on one of life’s joys; his ego is his prison.

People are conditioned, through social and private sanction, to be excessively cautious in their bestowal of affection. The result is too little affection in the world, and too much unhappiness. Those who exceed the norm in their bestowal of physical affection are not necessarily better off, however; sex can be undertaken without breaking down the walls of self. “[T]he only sex relations that have real value are those in which there is no reticence and in which the whole personality of both becomes merged in a new collective personality [p. 144].”

Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Conquest of Happiness, Chapter 11

Chapter 11 (pages 124-136), “Zest”

Zest is the mark of the happy person. You can see a parallel in the attitude some people adopt when sitting down for a meal. [Russell offers an amusing portrait of people of various characters, such as epicures and gluttons, taking nourishment.] One version of diner is a person who possesses a healthy appetite, enjoys the meal, but doesn’t overeat. This is the approach that a happy person of zest brings to all of life’s offerings. “What hunger is in relation to food, zest is in relation to life [p. 125].” Those unhappy Bryonic types are like folks who are bored by eating. Nevertheless, most people who don’t enjoy, or don’t allow themselves to enjoy, the feast of life view the healthy partaker as somehow inferior. But the more aspects of life from which you can draw pleasure -- whether dining or football or reading -- the better. Broad interests allow you to avoid introversion and unhappiness.

Russell tells a parable of two sausage-making machines. The first takes pleasure in the pigs that are its inputs and in turning them into sausage, while the second spends its time reflecting upon its own inner machinery, eventually failing to function at sausage making at all. “This second sausage machine was like the man who has lost his zest, while the first was like the man who has retained it [p. 126].” Our minds need to reflect on the outer world, even if we are to be successful at meaningful introspection. It is our interest in things that converts events into experiences. We are better adapted to our world, the broader our interests. A keen specialized interest alleviates tedium, though holding a wider array of interests is a more reliable aid to happiness.

When we travel, we are exposed to many different people. Some travelers will take stock of their surroundings, and try to imagine the thoughts and circumstances of those around them, while others will pay them no heed. Some people find everyone else boring, while others quickly develop friendly feeling towards those nearby. Even unpleasant experiences such as an earthquake hold value for people possessing zest, though some forms of illness can destroy zest.

Russell takes up again the issue of the difference between the man of zest (the man with the healthy appetite) and the man of intemperance. A glutton sacrifices all of life’s other pleasures to indulge in eating, with consequent cost to overall happiness; those addicted to other pleasures suffer a similar fate. For happiness, our passions must fit within a sensible framework of living. “If they are to be a source of happiness they must be compatible with health, with the affection of those whom we love, and with the respect of the society in which we live [p. 130].” The acceptable limits of a passion depend upon one’s circumstances: a rich bachelor can devote much more time and energy to chess, in a manner consistent with happiness, than can a man with familial and economic obligations. Alcoholism and gluttony, as they undermine health, are roads to unhappiness even for those who have the time and means to indulge. Passions become miseries if not contained within a solid lifestyle, which includes physical and mental health, income sufficient for necessities, and adequate attention to social and familial duties. To sacrifice these essential elements to an interest is wrong, whether the interest be alcohol or chess. It is one thing to work during the day with some savor of that evening’s forthcoming chess match; it is something else entirely to play chess all day instead of working. The latter is a violation of the classic virtue of moderation. Society, however, sometimes is willing to forgive the neglect of familial duties, especially if the military or creative passion that draws the sacrifice meets with success.

Passions often are indulged to excess, as in the case of alcoholism, with a view to becoming oblivious to something painful. Seeking oblivion through dedication to a commendable end or the development of valuable faculties cannot be condemned. “It is otherwise with the man who seeks oblivion in drinking or gambling or any other form of unprofitable excitement [p. 132].” There can be some close calls, however, such as those people who seek escape through risky adventures that simultaneously might serve some public object.

“Genuine zest, not the sort that is really a search for oblivion, is part of the natural make-up of human beings except in so far as it has been destroyed by unfortunate circumstances [pp. 132-3].” Human children and animals of all ages show a natural curiosity. Much of the curtailment of zest in human adults is necessary to rein in liberties whose indulgence would threaten society. Our impulses arrive haphazardly, but we need regularity to get the trains to run smoothly or for the successful completion of any other task that requires considerable coordination. The constant fettering of our impulses, especially at work, makes it hard to remain zestful.

Health and energy are necessary for zest. Health seems to have been improving for the past century in developed countries, but energy, perhaps not. For women, “zest has been greatly diminished by a mistaken conception of respectability [p. 135].” Women are victimized by being taught not to be too lively in public and not to take too evident an interest in men. “To such women all that is ungenerous appears good and all that is generous appears evil [p. 135].” The stifling of interests and sociability in woman is pernicious. “For women as for men zest is the secret of happiness and well-being [p. 136].”

Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Conquest of Happiness, Chapter 10

Chapter 10 (pages 113-123), “Is Happiness Still Possible?”

It is tempting to believe that it is impossible to achieve happiness in the modern world, but Russell finds contrary evidence through “introspection, foreign travel, and the conversation of my gardener [p. 113].”

Happiness can roughly be said to come in intellectual and physical (or perhaps complex and mundane) varieties. Russell’s elderly gardener finds joy in physical exertion and his ongoing struggle against the depredations of rabbits. But even the highly educated can achieve the same species of happiness, which comes from overcoming obstacles to achieve success. To bring consistent joy, success should be the typical, though not the invariable, outcome. Someone who is overoptimistic will be unpleasantly surprised by failure, so there is something to be said for modesty, in that the surprises that are likely to come your way will tend to be pleasant. Nevertheless, you shouldn’t be overly modest, as then you will steer clear of worthy challenges.

Among the highly educated classes, scientists are particularly happy. “Many of the most eminent of them are emotionally simple, and obtain from their work a satisfaction so profound that they can derive pleasure from eating, and even marrying [p. 115].” Their intelligence is channeled into their work – work which is commonly understood to be progressive and important – and hence they do not over-complicate their emotional lives. Their work fully engages their intelligence. The public applauds scientific genius, even though it cannot understand the fruits of that genius, while the same public vilifies artistic genius which produces similarly incomprehensible outputs. So scientists typically are happy and artists typically are unhappy.

Intelligent young people in the West have a species of dissatisfaction that comes from not possessing appropriate outlets to engage their capacities. Their counterparts in Russia are probably quite happy, as they can be part of the creation of a whole new world, one in which they believe they hold the key to its creation. Older people in Russia have been rendered ineffectual (often through violence), reducing the constraints upon the activities of the young. Further, the belief that the Russian youth have in their creative potential is not misplaced – they probably can produce a better world than what existed in the pre-revolutionary era, even if it is a world sophisticated Westerners would want no part of.

Young people in India, China, and Japan also have work that they view as important and in which they can be successful. Western-style youthful cynicism “results from the combination of comfort with powerlessness [p. 117].” An Eastern youth, neither powerless nor comfortable, eschews cynicism for a reformer’s zeal: “…probably even while he is being executed he enjoys more real happiness than is possible for the comfortable cynic [p. 117].”

“The pleasure of work is open to any one who can develop some specialized skill, provided that he can get satisfaction from the exercise of his skill without demanding universal applause [p. 118].” This sentiment remains largely true despite our heavily mechanized economy. Indeed, peasants are less happy for having their output subject to the vicissitudes of nature, whereas those who work with machines can enjoy near-total control. Further, machines hold the potential to eliminate the most routine, uninteresting work. Humans gave up the satisfying occupation of hunting when they took to agriculture (an exchange made to reduce the risk of starvation), and entered “a long period of meanness, misery, and madness, from which they are only now being freed by the beneficent operation of the machine [pp. 119-120].” Young men can’t wait to leave the countryside for the companionship that can be found within the city and its factories.

Belief in a cause, even an absurd one, promotes happiness, though Russell is not suggesting that his readers take up ridiculous causes – there are plenty of solid ones. A similar type of happiness can be found in devotion to a hobby: “any pleasure that does no harm to other people is to be valued [p. 121].” Russell notes that he is a collector of rivers, in that he likes to visit as many as he can. But the happiness found in hobbies and such generally is not deep. “Fundamental happiness depends more than anything else upon what may be called a friendly interest in persons and things [p. 121].”

A friendly interest in people amounts to observing and taking pleasure in their individuality, interests, and quirks. This approach can not be taken on in a spirit of abnegation: it must be sincere. “People wish to be liked, not to be endured with patient resignation. To like many people spontaneously and without effort is perhaps the greatest of all sources of personal happiness [p. 122].” A similarly cheerful approach to things – like the attitude of geologists towards rocks – yields something of the same type of happiness, and provides a helpful respite from our focus on our personal concerns.

“The secret of happiness is this: let your interests be as wide as possible, and let your reactions to the things and persons that interest you be as far as possible friendly rather than hostile [p. 123].”

Monday, February 9, 2009

The Conquest of Happiness, Halftime

Chapter 9 marks the end of “Causes of Unhappiness,” which is the first section of The Conquest of Happiness. The second and final section, “Causes of Happiness,” picks up with Chapter 10. So now is an appropriate moment for a halftime report, especially as this timing preserves the RBR custom of declaring halftime at a point somewhat beyond the physical midpoint of the text: “Causes of Happiness” is a bit shorter than “Causes of Unhappiness.”

A lack of moderation is probably the most consistent component of Russell’s analysis of the causes of unhappiness. Excessive self-absorption; excessive love of power; excessive pursuit of excitement; excessive estimation of one’s own virtues, abilities, or interest for other people; excessive ambition, envy, or belief in the malevolence of others; excessive concern with public opinion, excessive labor, and even excessive altruism – these all are causes of unhappiness.

Rational thought is one of the cures for these ills, especially those that are based on false beliefs, such as the typical overestimation of one’s own talents and virtues. Other false (and probably subconscious) beliefs, in particular, those that associate pleasure with wickedness – which Russell thinks are quite widespread due to improper yet standard moral upbringing – also can be combatted by examining their untruth. Russell’s decision to begin his specific listing of the causes of unhappiness with “Byronic unhappiness” can be seen as part of the larger project of countering unhappiness with correct thinking. In Unpopular Essays, Russell takes aim at Leibniz and other philosophers for pushing too far their ambitions to uncover truths through reasoning, to believe that deep understandings can be generated “by merely sitting still and thinking…[Unpopular Essays, p. 60].” The major premise of The Conquest of Happiness, at least so far, is that unhappiness can be overcome by sitting still and thinking – but not too much!

In recent years there has been a burgeoning of research into happiness, and much of what Russell has to say anticipates this literature. Russell, like Adam Smith before him, recognizes that people adapt fairly quickly to the stable conditions in which they find themselves. [Here’s Smith, in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (III.I.72): “…in every permanent situation, where there is no expectation of change, the mind of every man, in a longer or shorter time, returns to its natural and usual state of tranquillity.”] Adaptation, the hedonic treadmill, is one of the chief tenets of modern happiness research. For Russell, adaptation is one reason to be moderate in pursuing excitement, because you will find you will need a larger dose for the same effect in the future. Russell also picks out (in Chapter 5) some conditions, such as noise and a hard commute to work, that current researchers believe people have less facility in adapting to – and hence these conditions undermine happiness. Despite our powers of adaptation, Russell notes that for full human flourishing, stability alone generally is not enough: a person has to dwell in an environment congenial to his or her tastes and beliefs. Russell does not believe that rationality per se crowds out other forms of happiness – otherwise reasoning one’s way to happiness would be a fool’s errand – though he does recognize that dwelling on oneself too much is a symptom of unhappiness.

Russell again follows Smith in regarding a quiet life as a key to happiness. Smith virtually equates tranquillity and happiness (TMS, III.I.72): “Happiness consists in tranquillity and enjoyment. Without tranquillity there can be no enjoyment; and where there is perfect tranquillity there is scarce any thing which is not capable of amusing.” Russell is only slightly less assertive: “A happy life must be to a great extent a quiet life, for it is only in an atmosphere of quiet that true joy can live [p. 56].”] Russell is in accord with much current thinking when he attributes some unhappiness to indecision or second guessing, a lack of commitment to a choice. Further, what is sometimes called “flow,” the losing of oneself in a challenging but doable task, is associated with happiness in modern discussions, and it looks as if Russell understands the importance of flow, too -- for instance, when he suggests in Chapter 2 that not having to struggle undermines happiness.

As usual, I find myself in broad agreement with Russell’s argument. Further, I believe that the process of reading the first half of this book has contributed to my own happiness! I have tried to employ Russellian advice, for instance, to moderate my envy and my fear of societal disapprobation. One of my consumption decisions has been affected by Russell’s admonition to avoid spending money on things that we only value because society expects certain sorts of expenditures. Now I have to read the second half of The Conquest of Happiness not just to avoid unhappiness, but to find happiness.