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.

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