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.

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