Thursday, November 26, 2009

Human Society in Ethics and Politics, Chapter VII

Chapter VII (pages 89-99), “Sin”

Even people who proclaim that they are liberated from all traditional sources of shame nevertheless probably do view some behaviors as sinful. The sense of shame is so universal that many people think it is innate, but Russell believes that it is instilled in youth by the threat of punishment or disapproval from respected authority figures. (Disobedience only feels shameful when it is directed against those who really are respected.) This early childhood experience of disapproval leaves a lasting legacy, a vague (or not so vague) sense of sin for acts committed in adulthood. Adults can even feel shame when the only person (or deity) who disapproves of an action is the actor himself. Historically, and today, sin is associated not with acts that harm others, but with acts that are perceived as taboo – and of course sin is a central element in Christian theology.

Even if sin is divorced from a religious context, and is viewed as an act against conscience as opposed to an act against the will of God, it generally is felt to merit punishment. Sometimes the punishment – including everlasting perdition – is seen as justifiable solely on grounds of retribution. Another view, however, is that punishment should be inflicted only to deter socially harmful acts. Further, retribution cannot be sensible if it is inflicted upon people whose choices are not the result of free will. But Russell’s approach to "free will" seems to equate it with a lack of any systematic tendencies in choice, so that standard incentives and disincentives would have unpredictable effects. “If free will were common, all social organization would be impossible, since there would be no way of influencing men’s actions [p. 97].”

The usual incentives and disincentives, including praise and blame, do make sense, however, if we reject the Russellian version of free will: then society can reliably direct behavior towards desirable ends. But the notion of sin does not add anything useful. Punishing sane people who murder has a deterrent effect. Criminally insane people cannot be deterred by the threat of execution, however, and hence it is useless to execute them. “Murder is punished, not because it is a sin and it is good that sinners should suffer, but because the community wishes to prevent it, and fear of punishment causes most people to abstain from it [p. 97].”

So the concept of sin is unnecessary or worse than unnecessary: it leads to cruelty towards others, “and a morbid self-abasement when it is ourselves whom we condemn [p. 98].” Punishment as retribution alone is an evil; punishment can be tolerated only on the grounds that it helps to reform or deter malefactors. If the public could be led permanently to believe that criminals were being imprisoned, when in fact they were being sent to live far away in idyllic circumstances, that would be better than actually inflicting punishment. A similar notion applies to the application of blame. That people strive to be praiseworthy and to avoid blame is useful to society. But once a person has done something blameworthy, the actual bestowal of blame has little to be said for it.