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.