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].”

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