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.

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