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.

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