Sunday, January 31, 2010

Human Society in Ethics and Politics, Chapter XI

Chapter XI (pages 130-137), “Production and Distribution”

Russell opens Chapter XI by reiterating his preference-satisfying approach to the terms intrinsic value and right conduct. But ethics concerns the distribution of satisfaction, and not just the total amount. People are biased with respect to their views on desirable distributions of satisfactions – we care most about our own satisfaction and that of our intimates. “Morality is to a very large extent an attempt to combat this partiality and to lead people in action to attach as much importance to the good of others as to their own [p. 131].” While people tend to agree as to what things have intrinsic value – especially for basic goods like food, shelter, and health, as well as friendship, security, and belonging – they tend to disagree about the proper distributions of value.

Russell distinguishes between three types of desirable goods or features. One type would be called by modern economists non-rival, in that one person’s enjoyment of the good does not impede someone else’s enjoyment: friendship and love are two examples that Russell provides (eliding the possibility that love or friendship with a particular person may well come at the expense of someone else’s access to that same person). The other two types of goods display rivalry: if I have the good, then you cannot. Thus the apple that I eat cannot be eaten by you. Nevertheless, with enough apples, it might be the case that all can have apples. The other sort of rival good depends on aggregate scarcity to provide satisfaction. This type of good involves what economists now would call positional externalities. Only one person can finish first in a race, or be the most respected person in the room: if I am that person, you cannot be. For positional goods, abundance of supply cannot relieve the fundamental scarcity – at least without undermining the intrinsic value of the good.

What can be said about ethical distributions of the three types of goods? Starting with rivalrous goods like apples, Russell indicates that, holding total intrinsic value constant, he does not believe that a society in which that value is evenly distributed is necessarily better than one in which it is not. If inequality breeds resentment and fear, then equality surely is preferred, but some societies can have inequality without resentment, and possibly there are even desirable consequences arising from inequality. Russell endorses distributive justice in means, not necessarily in ends: equality of opportunity, not of result. Further, he thinks that justice in means will produce outcomes that are fairly equal, too. Many traditional moral teachings aim at inculcating just behavior, but these precepts alone have a hard time exerting influence in situations where there is a large gulf between individual and social interests. Better political and economic institutions would ensure that goods such as food would be distributed evenly enough that the allocation of these goods would be removed from the moral sphere.

Positional goods such as power cannot be so easily divorced from the realm of morality. Virtually everyone wants more power, at least within their (perhaps quite restricted) domain, and the love of power is at the root of most wars and revolutions. Unconstrained power is almost always misused, so there is much to be said for equalizing the distribution of power – and indeed, progress in this direction has been considerable. “Kings, slave-owners, husbands and fathers have been successively deposed…[p. 135].”

Moral suasion alone generally proves insufficient at curbing abuses of power. A complementary approach, one employed by democracies, is to cultivate resistance among the victims of power. Education can channel the passion for power into socially beneficial paths. “In regard to power, as in other directions, the best ethical maxims are not ascetic, but consist rather in encouraging and providing outlets which are not destructive [p. 135].”

Oddly, goods that can be available to everyone, such as basic health care and joy at creative works, are not all that equally distributed. Any pleasure that requires access to higher education or significant amounts of leisure time is accessible only by a minority, though again, improved political and economic institutions could alter this situation.

We owe to posterity a protected environment and an improved civilization, though we are far too cavalier in guaranteeing these bequests. We are reckless in putting the future survival of humanity at risk through warfare. Our evaluation of a society must go beyond the happiness of its members, to include its additions to civilizational capital.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Human Society in Ethics and Politics, Chapter X

Chapter X (pages 119-129), “Authority in Ethics”

Quotidian morality overdetermines proper behavior: an act is praiseworthy because God, Truth, the Community, and Conscience all support it. “In face of this ethical broadside, it is hoped that your carnal desires will shrink abashed [p. 119].” But actual behavior doesn’t seem to be improved when people accept the whole pantheon of ethical authority – monks in 13th century Italy seem to have been all but addicted to rape, for instance, despite the universal condemnation of rape, and the widespread belief that it would be punished with eternal damnation.

Why should I act in the way that you recommend? One possible answer is that to act in that manner is in keeping with God’s will. But why should I act to serve God’s will? The traditional Christian argument appeals to long-term self-interest: you will be damned if you don’t, and receive heavenly rewards if you do. The suggestion to obey God’s will, then, has the same ethical loading as other prudential advice, such as to “Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy”.

How is God’s will to be known? How can I convince you of what God’s will consists, if you do not already share my opinion? For centuries Jews and Protestants have disagreed about what day, Saturday or Sunday, God desires that we abstain from work. This disagreement cannot be settled through any legitimate, objective means. Hundreds of thousands of people have been massacred in the recent past thanks to irreconcilable differences over what types of animals God commands us not to eat. “It can hardly be said, therefore, that the Will of God gives a basis for an objective ethic [p. 121].” Nevertheless, shared beliefs about the divine will can inspire your side in a conflict. British military honchos believe that an acceptance of Christianity heartens “those who have to drop hydrogen bombs [p. 121]” – perhaps not much of an endorsement for Christian ethics.

A secular equivalent to a reliance upon God’s will is an appeal to conscience (or Truth), where it is believed that acts that your conscience approves are as objectively obvious as the notion that grass is green -- but they aren't that obvious. “There are just the same sort of disagreements as to what conscience prescribes as there are about the Will of God, and there is not, as in science, a recognized technique for resolving disagreements [p. 122].” Communities and governments might be able to establish a local uniformity about what acts conscience dictates, but these views will be far from universal.

As in previous chapters, Russell argues that our notion of what one “ought” to do must be connected with sentience and human preferences – appeals to divine will or conscience are not enough. He appends to this starting point a sort of anonymity axiom, the notion that when person A tells person B what B “ought” to do, the truth of that assertion should not depend on the identity of person A. Injunctions arising from specific religious or nationalistic predilections, then, can have no objective ethical force (at least absent other justifications). Nevertheless, the proper role of ethics, like that of law and custom, is to induce (as if by an invisible hand, as it were) individual behavior that helps to promote the social good. But for the anonymity axiom to be met, the society whose good is at issue has to include everyone, and perhaps include non-human sentient beings, too.

Some disagreements that appear to be ethical actually are factual disagreements over the best means to achieve a shared end. More information can settle these disagreements, and reveal that they were not ethical controversies at all. For an actual ethical disagreement, Russell again invokes (as he did in Chapters VII and IX) the example of vindictive punishment. Proponents of Hellfire support vindictive punishment, as there is no redemption in Hell. (Russell implicitly is ignoring the deterrence aspect of punishment, though he did discuss it in Chapter VII and immediately brings it up here in the case of post-World War I Germany.) Russell cannot prove that it is wrong to embrace vindictive punishment, but he offers two arguments in this direction. The first is that of Chapter VII, that the whole notion of sin is misguided. The second is that vindictive punishment doesn’t work (even with respect to satisfying the desires of the punishers) – witness the Nazi rise after Versailles.

Practical disputes often are about not what things possess inherent value, but about who will get to enjoy the value: disputes about shares of the pie, not the overall size. Power tends to be the decider. Of course, this suggests a meta-analysis, as to the type of system that best can regulate these power struggles.

Consider cruelty. To serve overall preferences, cruelty should not be countenanced – the disapproval of cruelty is desirable, as it diminishes the amount of cruelty. But the laudable disapproval of cruelty does not extend to the use of cruelty towards those who employ cruelty. The best policy to adopt against cruel people is that which is most effective at reducing the overall amount of cruelty – and this might require kindness towards cruel people. (A variation on Hamlet: one must be kind, only to minimize cruelty?) “Such considerations, I maintain, show that our ethic justifies a proper horror of cruelty without justifying the excesses to which this horror often leads [p. 129].”

While ethics might primarily concern meshing individual interest with social interests, individuality must be protected. The great contributions of the past often came from people who were working in the face of popular disapproval. Like his godfather J.S. Mill, Russell suggests that to protect the interests of the individual, and to continue to secure currently unpopular advances, society should only constrain individual activity when that activity is a clear source of harm to others.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Human Society in Ethics and Politics, Chapter IX

Chapter IX (pages 110-118), “Is there Ethical Knowledge?”

Is the notion that cruelty is bad (or that the world is better if people are happy) just an opinion, no more ethically valid then the opposite assertion? Is what we call ethics simply our preferences, or is there some objective sense in which cruelty is ethically worse than kindness? Do ethical terms such as “ought” and “good” apply to people in general, or are they inextricably tied up with one person’s inclinations – in which case ethical disputes cannot be resolved through logical reasoning?

Russell defines a “good” act to be one that possesses “intrinsic value,” independently of its consequences. Further, for this approach to work, we have to be able to assess intrinsic value, to have an ethical intuition of what acts have (or don’t have) intrinsic values, as well as the magnitude of those values. Then, one “ought” to choose that act which, among the feasible alternatives, possesses the highest net intrinsic value – where we subtract the intrinsic disvalues from the intrinsic values of an act. Intrinsic value and intrinsic disvalue are measured in comparable units for Russell, so that an act has zero (net) intrinsic value if its intrinsic value equals its intrinsic disvalue. [More precisely, Russell states this proposition the other way around, where an intrinsic value equals an intrinsic disvalue if the act that brings both of these quantities into being has zero (net) value.]

Russell claims that “intrinsic value” assessments are subject to fewer disagreements than occur when starting with assertions about what ought to be done. Disagreements over what should be done usually can be traced to differentiated views of the likely consequences of actions – even when guides to behavior are stated in absolute terms, as with taboos. Any judgment of the ethical quality of an act based on its consequences will be akin to the net valuation approach Russell has outlined. Nevertheless, difficulties remain in assessing value, such as whether there is a positive value in vindictive punishment (as believers in hell must believe – and as Russell discussed and rejected in Chapter VII).

Intrinsic value seems to be attached to pleasure and to the understanding of that pleasure – what could be said to have intrinsic value in a world without sentience? [Russell here is reprising some of his thoughts from Chapter I.] So pleasure naturally presents itself as a gauge to intrinsic value. The claim that pleasure is good and pain bad – is that just another way of saying that “‘we like pleasure and dislike pain [p. 113]’”? Russell suggests that our notion that pleasure is good goes deeper. Desires of different people – to win a prize, for instance – can be at odds, so we can’t just say that things desired are inherently valuable. We can sidestep this problem by de-personalizing the situation. In that case, something (such as winning a prize) has intrinsic value if it is desired by the person who experiences it.

Russell explicitly rejects the idea that pleasure is good, but adopts it as a working hypothesis, on the grounds that a more exact rendering of the good does not add much in the way of understanding ethics. For civilized societies, Russell largely endorses Henry Sidgwick’s approach in Methods of Ethics, that the ethical rules (such as “don’t lie”) are consistent with the pleasure principle, as are the exceptions that we admit to those rules.

Blame and praise carry with them emotions and judgments. To find an act blameworthy is to disapprove of it, and to believe that the disapproval is proper. Or perhaps both elements are emotional, the disapproval as well as the approval of the disapproval. A person with different ethics might not agree that the act is blameworthy – but his view is just voicing an alternative emotion. When can a judgment be objectively “right”? Surely a “right” act should be one that typically meets with approval. Russell asserts (page 115) that most acts which garner approval share a common feature; further, approved acts that lack this feature eventually fall into disfavor. We ought to choose acts that are the most right.

Why did people in the Middle Ages approve of burning witches, while we do not? Because views towards the effects of actions have changed. We would still condemn witches if we thought their acts had the same ill effects previously attributed to them. “We are thus led to the conclusion that there is more agreement among mankind as to the effects at which we should aim than as to the kind of acts that are approved [p. 117].” Perhaps the broadest commonly desired effect – though not the exclusive one – is the promotion of pleasure. But Russell appends “intelligence and aesthetic sensibility [p. 117]” to other commonly-approved-of features: “If we were really persuaded that pigs are happier than human beings, we should not on that account welcome the ministrations of Circe [p. 117].” [Russell’s godfather, John Stuart Mill, in Chapter II of Utilitarianism, famously voiced a similar sentiment: “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, is of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question. The other party to the comparison knows both sides.”] Nor is it the case that the value we put on activities directly reflects the pleasures that they bring.

So by this type of approach, we can say that a judgment of approval of an act that does not promote pleasure is a wrong judgment. Ethical statements can have an objective basis. Nevertheless, these objective truths are grounded in emotions and feelings: emotions are our basis for differentiating right from wrong, and feelings (of satisfaction) underpin our conceptions of the inherent values of acts.