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].”

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