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].”