Sunday, February 21, 2010

Human Society in Ethics and Politics, Chapter XIII

Chapter XIII (pages 145-151), “Ethical Sanctions”

What can provide a motive for promoting the Russellian ethical view that aggregate satisfaction is the chief guide to right conduct? Russell begins examining this question by re-iterating that the pursuit of personal satisfaction is not identical to selfishness or to pleasure-seeking. Moralists who fetishize self-abnegation fail to see the potential breadth of interests a person can hold. “Nor is it always the case that desires concerned with other people will lead to better actions than those that are more egoistic [p. 146].” An artist motivated to support his family, for example, might sacrifice his talent and the production of timeless masterpieces for financial security. Nevertheless, the general tendency is to feel too much for ourselves and too little for others, so exhortations to counter this tendency can be beneficial.

Many theological reasoners, such as Locke, appeal to self-interest – the achievement of heaven and the avoidance of hell – to motivate good behavior. Any prudent person will choose the path to heaven. Bentham believed that “good institutions here on earth could have much the same effect [p. 147],” despite lacking the otherwordly incentives. Bentham’s panopticon allowed the head jailer [gaoler for Russell] to watch the behavior of every one of the poor imprisoned. Seeing all, the gaoler could bestow rewards, god-like, for good behavior, and punish bad behavior: rational criminals would choose to be good. But as an overall system, Bethnam’s pantopticon is lacking, as some people remain outside of prison: who will watch them? And will the gaoler be trustworthy?

The seemingly strong incentives in the theological-type system prove to be insufficient in practice. In the Middle Ages people really believed in Heaven and Hell, and yet major crimes were much more common than they are now. People do things in passionate rages that they reject in their rational moments. The doctrine of absolution allows an out, too, for those who choose to sin.

No system can assure only good behavior. Nevertheless, moralists and politicians should aim their work at aligning self-interest with the social good. Individual preferences can be molded by education, and actions depend on both preferences and the social system. Russell echoes Adam Smith on the butcher, the brewer, and the baker (omitting the brewer, actually): “The butcher and the baker minister to my happiness, not because they love me, but because the economic system makes what serves me useful to them [p. 149].” Many people have psychological issues that lead them to be motivated by anti-social passions – advances in psychological science hold some promise to treat these conditions. “Many character defects are as little to be cured by preaching as are bodily ailments [p. 149].”

Praise and blame emanating from public opinion influence actions – but not always to the good. Napoleon, for instance, was widely praised, and not only in France, while superstitions generate blame where none is due. Nevertheless, “[g]iven good institutions, and a socially desirable ethic, and a scientific understanding of the training of individual character, it would be possible for conflicts between individual and general satisfaction to become very rare [p. 150].” This has already been achieved to a large extent with respect to the domestic affairs involving advanced Western nations. The criminal law and the economic system provide strong incentives toward socially beneficial behavior. Nevertheless, “better institutions, better education of the emotions, and a better apportioning of praise and blame, would increase the already considerable extent to which people’s actions further the well-being of their community [p. 151].”

Monday, February 8, 2010

Human Society in Ethics and Politics, Chapter XII

Chapter XII (pages 138-144), “Superstitious Ethics”

Russell contrasts his view, that “the rightness or wrongness of an act depends upon its probable consequences [p. 138],” with the more prevalent and more influential superstitious ethics. The strictures that arise from superstition or supposed divine decree, such as rules against fornication, homosexual activities, and the eating of certain foods, are not only widely believed but often enshrined in law. An employer who overworks his employees in terrible conditions can be admired, but if he is discovered to have had sex with one of them, he is condemned. “Indeed, a cynic might be tempted to think that one of the attractions of a traditional code is the opportunities which it affords for thinking ill of other people and for thwarting what should be innocent desires [p. 139].” Russell singles out the ban on euthanasia – a ban he had previously attacked in Unpopular Essays -- as one current rule that is based on superstitious ethics. Those opposed to euthanasia on the grounds that it involves playing god do not seem similarly opposed to capital punishment and war. “The traditional moral code stands out stark and cruel and immovable against the claims of kindly feeling [p. 141].” The fact that those who hold traditional morals tend to be single-issue voters who will turn against anyone advancing a liberalized view – while supporters of liberalization are not so narrowly focused – tends to buttress the political forces against progressive reforms. Russell notes his own public pummeling and the loss of his City College post stemming from the views he expressed in Marriage and Morals.

While laws against adultery and homosexuality continue to be quite harsh, some might take solace in the fact that such laws generally are not enforced. Nevertheless, such laws should be changed. They bring the law in general into disrepute, and they are employed selectively to castigate or blackmail wayward spouses or political opponents. Offering official imprimatur to ethical views that are not held by most people is not costless.

Ethical rules against homosexuality or birth control derive from religious principles that were promulgated in a much crueler world. “Affection towards intimates and kindly feeling towards the world at large are the sentiments most likely to lead to right conduct [pages 142-3].” A belief in the wickedness of sinners makes punishment for sin seem like a benefit, whereas necessary punishment should be seen as an unavoidable evil. Further, a belief in sin underlies and seemingly justifies most of the group hatreds that afflict our planet, and it is these collective animosities that put the future of mankind at risk. Superstitious ethics often spring from the worser angels of our nature, and those disreputable sources should be a signal that we might want to re-examine such ethics. Moral rules worth accepting are those that promote overall happiness, as opposed to rules that please us by harming those whom we hold in low regard.