Sunday, December 6, 2009

Human Society in Ethics and Politics, Chapter VIII

Chapter VIII (pages 100-109), “Ethical Controversy”

Does ethics have anything to offer in helping to decide which of two situations is desirable, when both sides have their champions?

Why might people (or groups) hold different opinions? First, they might have shared goals, but differ on the preferred means to achieve those goals. Second, one side, but not the other, might think that a course of action is evil, irrespective of consequences. Third, people might disagree about what ends to pursue. Many political issues are about ends – labor unions favor shorter work weeks, capital owners longer work weeks – but the public discussion will be undertaken under the pretense that the difference is about the means to achieve the highest productivity. When disputes really are about the best means to a shared goal, there is no ethical loading: the right answer is an empirical matter.

Disagreements about whether a course of action is evil cannot be settled via a logical proof. Nevertheless, Russell suggests that evidence of harmful consequences, or lack thereof, from a course of action should have some bearing upon opinion. The Amish think of buttons as evil, but careful historical evidence that no harm has been associated with button-wearing might, and ought to, shake that belief. Likewise, if an Amish person can demonstrate the harm of button-wearing, the rest of us should adopt the opinion that button-wearing is evil.

Nonetheless, Russell makes concessions to irrational beliefs or repugnance. If a person is repulsed by an objectively innocent act, then he would be distressed to witness the act. “If you had a guest who thought it wicked to play cards on Sunday, while the rest of the company had no such scruple, you would be guilty of unkindness if you ignored his feelings [p. 103].” So the belief that an act is wrong might render it wrong – if the rightness of acts is associated with satisfying desires, as Russell has stipulated.

Supporters of slavery in the US and of serfdom in Russia were incapable of seeing how the interests of slaves and serfs should matter. “In both countries, when men could no longer deny that the oppressed had the same capacity for joy and sorrow as their oppressors, the oppressive institution was abolished [p. 103].” The controversy over slavery and serfdom resulted from an empirical matter – the emotional lives of slaves and serfs – and that controversy ended when the empirical matter was resolved.

Other arguments for slavery are that it is essential, or that slaves are means not ends, unworthy of standing in the social cost-benefit calculus. Perhaps in the past slavery really was essential for civilization, but Russell explicitly rejects further pursuit of this topic. Slaveholders who treat slaves as means live in fear and adopt cruel tactics – they cannot achieve contentment or inner peace. The same fear, the same sacrifice of tranquility (and embrace, perhaps, of war and annihilation) is the lot of those who do not grant social standing to people of other nations, or ethnicities, or religions. You needn’t invoke ethics to make a case for treating others as ends in themselves – “enlightened self-interest [p. 106]” often will point you in the right direction. Paradoxically, in these matters of contempt and rivalry people are more persuaded to take socially useful acts by appealing to their altruistic side than to their self-interest: their judgment is so clouded that they will not be able to understand their own interest. [Russell here is very close to Adam Smith’s view in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Nationalism and faction, according to Smith (see Part VI, Chapter II, "Of the order in which Societies are by nature recommended to our Beneficence"), generally corrupt our impartial spectator, the being we develop inside our breast whose lack of partiality to our own interests is our guide to proper behavior.]

The interests of different people, however, might generally conflict. I might be better off (and you worse off) if I can steal from you, though the opposite might be true if you can steal from me. (Russell is positing a sort of prisoners’ dilemma situation, where the general interest would be well-served by constraints against stealing that bind both of us.) “Law and government are institutions by which it is sought to bring the general interest to bear on the individual; so is public opinion in the form of praise and blame [p. 107].” As a result, in places with effective policing, most individuals see no gain from engaging in crime. But the international arena lacks police officers, so many people have difficulty seeing how restraining their behavior to avoid imposing on the rest of the world is beneficial.

“What a man will consider to constitute his happiness depends upon his passions, and these in turn depend upon his education and social circumstances as well as upon his congenital endowment [p. 107].” Young people can be led to develop interests that harmonize with social utility, and to behave as global citizens; the current practice is to indoctrinate the young to act in their nation’s interests. A world government could be established, with tremendous benefits to humanity, but it requires the solution to the prisoners’ dilemma played out among the powerful nations.

Russell concludes this chapter by returning to the difficulties of a Nietzschean scheme that openly promotes the interests of only a subset of humanity, the supermen. (See Chapter V.) This philosophy will be opposed by all who do not belong to the chosen group, though the oppressed might adopt the philosophy, with themselves as supermen, were they to become sufficiently powerful. “It is obvious that this doctrine of the supremacy of a section of mankind can only breed endless strife, with periodic changes as to which group is to be dominant [p. 108].” The current rulers will be cruel and fearful, like slaveholders. They will be miserable and eventually forcibly usurped – why would anyone choose to live in such a way?

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