Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Human Society in Ethics and Politics, Chapter V

Chapter V (pages 60-71), “Partial and General Goods”

The general good is the overall satisfaction of desires in a society. In a competition for a political post, only one candidate will win, so his satisfaction (and his supporters’) comes at the expense of the satisfaction of the opposed party. This is inevitable – laws and ethics can mitigate such conflicts, but not eliminate them.

Love your neighbor-type precepts aim to make individuals care about the general good; nationalism tends to restrict the society whose interests you want to promote to be that of your country, and racism to those who share your race. Class connections, whether aristocratic or proletarian, also can serve as the border for whose preferences are deemed worthy of regard. Some philosophers limit the in-group still further, to family, perhaps, or even, in the case of psychological hedonists, oneself. This latter group (the psychological hedonists), which includes the early utilitarians, believes that people necessarily choose to promote their own interests or pleasure, so that it is society’s duty to make those interests coincide as closely as possible to the public good – perhaps even invoking divine rewards and punishments for the purpose.

People do not desire only their own pleasure, however, though it is easy to think they do, since people enjoy meeting their desires and the pleasure they take from preference satisfaction can be mistaken for the object of their behavior. The desire for food, which all humans and animals have, can be distinguished from the desire for the pleasure of food that gourmands display.

The pleasure of satisfying a desire comes in two forms; one form arises simply from meeting your goal, while the second is the pleasure that inheres in the goal itself. “If you chase round the town in search of oranges, and at last obtain some, you have not only the pleasure that the oranges would have given you if you had obtained them without difficulty, but also the pleasure of success [p. 63].”

People desire things beyond their own pleasure; further, they often desire things beyond their own lifetime, beyond their own capacity for pleasure, such as the future prosperity of their family or friends. (Russell echoes (page 64) his thoughts in The Conquest of Happiness by noting how a zest for life can be maintained into old age through broad interests.) To some extent this is the common condition: most people on the brink of death would be rendered still more unhappy if they learned that mankind would shortly annihilate itself in a nuclear catastrophe. Interests beyond one’s own pleasure can lack compossibility just as much as hedonistic interests can. People who desire that the whole world share their religion will find little fellow-feeling on that score with people who actually do feel similarly, but are of a different religion.

What positions can be adopted by people who have a limited view of what group’s interests are to be served, whether that group be religious or national or class-based or whatever? How can they justify ignoring the preferences of the rest of humanity? One possibility is to believe that the interests of all of mankind are indeed equivalent to the interests of the chosen group, even though those outside the group do not understand this. (Russell subsequently (p. 65) terms this position “enlightened imperialism.”) Second, a person might believe that the preferred group possesses a special quality that gives them standing, while people outside the group can be used as means to serving the ends of the special ones. Third, a person might believe that all groups have standing, but that it is admissible for a member of a group to advocate only for his group’s interests, that is, to be openly biased, and to contend with the advocates of other groups.

The ancient Greeks and Romans were enlightened imperialists, believing that their way of life was better than those of the barbarians they conquered. Christians and Muslims feel similarly, as did many proponents of the British Empire. Hegel and Marx both provide theoretical underpinnings for related views, where selected nations or classes are vehicles of global progress.

The second belief, that the interests of those outside the chosen group do not have any ethical standing, is the way most people feel about animals, which serve either as means to human ends or as obstacles to be overcome. With respect to humans, the theory of Christianity argues for good treatment of all people, though Christianity in practice generally falls short of this ideal. White men in North America have not regarded the interests of blacks or Native Americans as worthy of much respect -- a view now in decline. Nietzsche is a spokesperson for the idea that the mass of humanity is unimportant, and should be enlisted to serve the purposes of the handful of enlightened people. Who is enlightened? Here, Nietzsche’s approach is less obvious than that of those who use race or nationality or class to distinguish the chosen few; it seems to come down to people “whom Nietzsche admires [p. 68].” One could imagine, however, a more precise Nietzschean standard, based, for instance, on an IQ threshold.

The third view, that one should advocate for one's own group even while recognizing that the interests of others have more or less equal ethical weight, is quite commonly held. In matters of foreign relations and war, for instance, it is thought right that people should serve their own government’s policy – even if it is a bad policy when the interests of the world at large are considered. People often do not respect traitors from enemy countries, though those traitors might be betraying an evil government, one that has earned betrayal. Similarly, people can be sympathetic towards those who serve their family’s interest at society’s expense. This third view separates the general good from a view of “right” conduct: behavior can be considered “right” even when it is not “good,” that is, when the behavior does not promote the interests of people overall. There is a certain fragility to this approach, since once it is accepted that all groups have ethical standing, there isn’t a strong argument for choosing to ignore the interests of other groups in evaluating the propriety of your own conduct, or for selecting one partition of people into groups over another.

The three views outlined above, in which only the interests of a specific sub-group of humanity are directly attended to, are not very compelling. There is no theoretical reason to believe that enlightened imperialism really does serve the long-term interests of the unenlightened: it is an empirical matter. The Nietzschean approach presents the prickly problem of identifying the supermen. “In practice, vanity and conceit furnish the definition: I am, of course, a superman, and I must admit enough people of approximately equal merit to give the group a chance of surviving the indignation and ridicule of the rest [p. 70].” The idea that one should work exclusively for one’s own group has practical utility, as I am better informed about, and more able to promote, the interests of my group than the interests of distant others. Nevertheless, ignoring foreign countries, as the world becomes more interconnected, can lead to acts that impose much suffering elsewhere. The principle of promoting the general good seems to survive the challenge posed by alternatives that focus on the interests of specific subgroups of humanity.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Human Society in Ethics and Politics, Chapter IV

Chapter IV (pages 51-59), “Good and Bad”

Russell posits that something is good if it is valued for itself, and not solely as a means to some desirable consequences. Painful behaviors that promote health are useful but not good. Pleasures such as wine that perhaps undermine health are good but not useful. [There seems to be an immediate issue of reductio here – why cannot it be said that the pleasure afforded by wine is the consequence sought, and that wine consumption is but a means to that end? – RBR] Without endorsing utilitarianism, Russell nonetheless maintains that most pleasures are good in his accounting, and most pains bad.

We think that the pleasure that accompanies the taking of a beneficent act is good, while the pleasure that accompanies taking a cruel act is bad. But this view reflects a means/end confusion. Imagine that we could experience the pleasure of behaving cruelly in a manner that brought no harm to anyone else – then that pleasure in cruelty might be fine, no? Intoxicants that brought no hangovers or family troubles, even to over-indulgers, might be all to the good as well. We can’t value something as a means unless we already have placed a value on the end to which it serves as a means. “It follows that intrinsic value is logically prior to value as means [p. 52].”

Forethought, and the willingness to make present sacrifices for future gains, is what distinguishes the civilized from savages, and adults from children. Moralists put great stress on these sacrifices, sometimes even divorcing their inherent goodness from the value of the subsequent reward. Excessive devotion to means and not ends takes the joy out of life; this is recognized in extreme cases such as that of misers, but the malady is common and even celebrated in less pronounced forms. Suppression of the enjoyment of ends leads to its eruption in negative contexts, “in war or cruelty or intrigue or some other destructive activity [p. 53].”

Capitalists preoccupied with means, not ends, will engage in deceptive practices if it brings higher profits – and will be esteemed for their acumen. Workers view their jobs and pay as more important than the value of what they produce, and will try to suppress new methods that reduce the need for labor in manufacturing. An economic view of the productive system might look at tractors as an input to produce food to keep men alive to produce still more tractors, and so on, without considering ultimate ends. The teaching of mathematics is approached the same way at university, to train people who can teach math to more people… (The case for state support escapes this logic by focusing on the military advantages that can be achieved through mathematics.) A concern with ends relaxes the focus on production for its own sake, and rather asks, “what has there been in the lives of consumers and producers to make them glad to be alive [pp. 54-55]?”

If we had no desire for pleasure or for the avoidance of pain, we would think of nothing as either good or bad. So a definition of the “good” must implicate human desires, and Russell suggests that indeed, good may be defined as “‘satisfaction of desire [p. 55].’” One state of affairs is better than another if the first “satisfies more desires or a more intense desire [p. 55].” These definitions seem to accord well with common ethical understandings (and though Russell does not say so, again his approach jibes well with utilitarianism). People act in ways to satisfy their own desires, but their acts might not be good, because the acts might not serve well the desires of others. To act in a manner to satisfy your desires does not imply selfishness, as your desires can include the welfare of your family, friends, or nation, for example. “But though my wishes may be unselfish, they must be mine if they are to affect my actions [p. 56].” Given the reality of diminishing marginal utility, a benevolent disposition (that leads to sharing of a windfall of chocolates, for instance), leads to a better outcome than arises from a more self-centered personality.

An action is right, then, if it tends to promote the general good. There is be little to be said for expressing the grand sentiment that one should take such right actions, in the absence of some incentive to do so. These incentives can come in many forms, including legal sanctions, popular approval, or the development of a generous nature. A statement that one should promote the general good, if it is to have meaning, implies that social pressures to provide inducements to right behavior are themselves good, and should be applied.

(Instead of defining “good” and then defining “right,” as Russell is doing, we could go the other way around. But societies greatly differ on what they think of as right, partly because, as in the case of taboos, differing beliefs exist about the consequences of various types of conduct.)

What about a desire for cruelty? Is satisfaction of such a desire good? Russell argues (page 58) that if one person’s desire for cruelty could be considered in isolation, and could be satisfied without actually involving the suffering of someone else, then even satisfying such a desire would add to overall happiness.

Sometimes the desires of different people are compatible – Russell, citing Leibniz, employs the term “compossible” – and sometimes the satisfaction of one person’s desire implies that someone else’s desire cannot be satisfied. Overall satisfaction is greater with compossible desires, as opposed to incompatible wants. As means, therefore, compossible desires are preferable: mutual love is better than enmity, peace is better than war, and so on. Desires themselves can be judged to be good or bad (or right or wrong) in this fashion. Generally speaking, right desires are those that largely are compossible: that is, the satisfaction of such desires does not require the thwarting of the desires of others.