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.

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