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.