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 régime [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].”

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