Chapter VI (pages 72-88), “Moral Obligation”
So far Russell has promulgated the debatable notion that people should choose in ways to promote the public good. But this principle provides little guidance to someone seeking knowledge of what acts to undertake. Of what, more precisely, does moral obligation consist?
It does not consist of obedience, to God’s will or to some mortal’s will. Even if God’s will is always right, our notion of right takes precedence: if God’s will required murder, it would not be right. That is, we cannot start by defining “right” as “God’s will” – nor can what we “ought” to do be defined by obedience to any divine or mortal will. A similar argument indicates that the approval of others or the approval of a specific person cannot be the rule for moral behavior.
But what about our individual consciences? Should a person “ought” to do what his or her own conscience recommends? The idea that this is a proper moral rule is not contradicted by the fact that different people have consciences that approve vastly different behaviors. Further, though I might prefer that someone’s conscience were different, I can’t convince him of the superiority of my view – conformity of his actions with his conscience is his only (and arguably proper) moral guide. Even if that guide leads to terrible consequences, what of it? Logic cannot overrule the moral appropriateness of obeying one’s own conscience, “for every man who follows his conscience is morally perfect [p. 76].” In fact, as habit tends to dull the pangs of conscience, this approach suggests that the longer you persist in doing sin, the more virtuous your behavior becomes.
In practice, how do people come to believe that certain behaviors are proper? The typical source is the approval or disapproval that various actions meet with in childhood, from parents and others. In adulthood, even if the sense of blame is dissipated, it leaves an impression. Young people also adjust their moral views to their environment. “The boy who has been taught at home that it is wicked to swear, easily loses this belief when he finds that the schoolfellows whom he most admires are addicted to blasphemy [p. 76].”
Nevertheless, moral views are not entirely dependent on praise and blame. People adopt moral views that go against the grain, and those views have some source. What is praised and what is blamed is not random, either. “It would seem that the moral qualities which are most actively admired are courage and self-sacrifice on behalf of one’s own group [p.78].” While the desire for praise and the avoidance of blame motivate much useful behavior, so do other emotions. Conscience is a sort of praise/blame calculus, but directed inward at contemplated actions – and the internal assessment might run afoul of the generally prevailing accounting. Someone who follows the dictates of his own conscience might be said to take subjectively proper actions, though those actions might not be objectively proper.
The problem of defining objectively correct behavior remains. Russell posits that objectively correct behavior is “that which best serves the interest of the group that is regarded as ethically dominant [p. 80].” But what group? (We might even want to take account of the interests of non-human animals.) There doesn’t seem to be any logical reason to prefer one group to another.
Russell returns to the reason for wanting to understand objectively correct behavior in the first place: to serve as a guide to such behavior. So the approach, to be helpful, should be capable of distinguishing correct from incorrect behavior, and provide some motive to take the preferred action.
A reflective person, seeking to find a rule for determining ethically proper actions, will realize that the rule cannot give himself or some group he belongs to a privileged position – unless the group is strong enough to dominate all others. But two different rules still suggest themselves: (1) Every person should pursue his own good; or (2) every person should pursue the general good. (Recall that Russell has defined “good” as satisfying a desire.) If my most intense selfish preference is to promote the general good, then the two rules produce identical results -- likewise, if my selfish preference doesn’t refer directly to the general good, but nevertheless leads to acts that simultaneously serve the public interest.
Can we differentiate good from bad desires, without asking what the likely consequences are of acting upon those desires? Russell suggests that the reason we think more highly of love than of hate as a motivation is because of the consequences that tend to stem from actions motivated from those two emotions. Any rule of behavior that we support through ethical intuition is one that also leads to desirable consequences. We do not need ethical intuition: we can generate guidance for actions simply by following the principle that it is objectively right to act to promote the general good.
People will pursue their own good. How can it be that telling them to pursue the general good will actually provide them with motivation to do so? Of course, the carrots and sticks of law and society can be used to align individual and social incentives. But of the many possible desires that I might hold, some of them intrinsically are more in line with the social good than are others. These desires might be considered “good” or “right,” and are worthy of “more moral respect than those [desires] that run counter to the general interests of the community [p. 85].”
A possible rule that indicates moral correctness cannot involve a specific individual. Even if that person is all wise, the rule needn’t name him: the rule could be to follow the all-wise individual, who might be someone else tomorrow. Alternatively, perhaps we ought to like one type of person and hate another type. Then, satisfaction of the desires of those whom we hate would not be good. One reason to reject this approach is consequential: hate will breed hate. In addition, we might possess an emotional commitment to neutrality or universal benevolence. Still, in searching for a rule of moral obligation, the dividing up of mankind into a good group and a bad group cannot be ruled out on logical grounds.
Russell concludes the chapter with a summary (pages 87-88), and I for one am glad, because I found the chapter itself to be nonlinear and hard to follow. What to make of the notion, “’A right act is one which aims at the greatest possible satisfaction of the desires of sentient beings [p. 88]’”? By this statement, Russell intends to imply that (1) he experiences a feeling of emotional approval of such acts; (2) he has an emotional commitment to equality such that the desires of every person count the same; (3) his approach could be universally adopted, which non-egalitarian alternatives would have a hard time with; and (4) he would like his view to be adopted by everyone. Russell postpones discussing whether ethical argument admits an impersonal standard of truth.