Friday, March 26, 2010

Human Society in Ethics and Politics, Part Two, Chapter I

Part Two, Chapter I (pages 155-158), “From Ethics to Politics”

The first half of Human Society in Ethics and Politics might make it seem easy. Educate people correctly, situate them within a conducive institutional environment, and their preferences generally will not conflict with those of others. But a glance at history or the present day suggests that we are far from this nirvana. “There is love of power, there is rivalry, there is hate, and, I am afraid we must add, a positive pleasure in the spectacle of suffering [p. 155].” The strength of these passions is such that those who preach against them are suppressed. “Intelligence has been used, not to tame the passions, but to give them scope [p. 156].” The powerful exploit the powerless. Russell thinks that aggregate human suffering was probably greater in the preceding 25 years (Human Society in Ethics and Politics was published in 1954) than ever before, what with Nazi genocide and the Soviet gulag and collectivization. The nuclear threat undermines happiness in western countries, too. “There is so strong a tendency in human nature towards the fiercer passions that those who oppose them almost always incur hatred, and that whole systems of morals and theology are invented to make people feel that savagery is noble [p. 157].”

We are in uncharted territory, however, in that a continued inability to harness our “fiercer passions” threatens the survival of our species. We might have to tolerate the prosperity of our enemies for our own good. We won’t have to sacrifice real satisfaction, however, as those who live via the exploitation of others live in fear. “All who profit by injustice have to curb their more generous emotions, and remain ignorant of some of the greatest joys that human life has to offer [p. 157].”

The chapters of Part Two will try to examine how we, in the past, have been led into organized conflict; the hope is that this examination will help us avoid such conflict in the future. Russell suggests that people’s passions are mutable, though little effort is devoted to altering them for social benefit. Russell remains optimistic, despite the sad history of conflict. “I cannot bring myself to believe that the human race, which has in some directions shown such extraordinary skill, is in other directions so unalterably stupid as to insist upon its own torment and destruction [p. 158].”

Monday, March 8, 2010

Human Society in Ethics and Politics, Halftime

When the Reading Bertrand Russell project got underway I noted that I was not particularly interested in Russell’s work within the disciplines of mathematics or philosophy. Human Society in Ethics and Politics is a piece of applied philosophy, and one that surely has tested me. Nevertheless, I have found it to be stimulating – though a bit repetitive, and not quite as straightforward (for this amateur, at least) as I might have hoped. Here’s what I managed to make of the first half.

My main reaction is that Russell is a natural economist. Rationality, for both Russell and economists, involve choosing the proper means to given ends. Russell is a consequentialist: actions should be judged by their likely consequences, not by whether they are virtuous or sinful. Russell’s idea of proper action is one that promotes overall wellbeing – or maximizes the size of the pie, as an economist might say. (The pie represents not material wealth, but preference satisfaction. And “overall” well-being means that the preferences of all humans are implicated, and possibly even the preferences of other sentient beings; some of the most convincing argumentation in the first half is where Russell shows that restricting the social ethic to a subset of humanity is not tenable, even if not provably wrong as a matter of logic.) He recognizes that people must have a motive for behaving in this manner, and thinks such a motive generally can be provided (and often is provided) through social institutions, education, and advances in psychological science. Social institutions can cause people to internalize externalities, by punishing crime, for example, or by requiring damage payments in the event of accidental harm. Social institutions also can channel our passions, including our desire for power, into directions that comport with the general good. Education can help to shape preferences – here Russell goes beyond standard economics – to reduce the gulf between perceived individual well-being and social benefit. Praise and blame can be allocated, too, in ways to generate a motive for desirable behavior.

While society should aim to influence both preferences and choices, individuality must be protected – it is only in the face of the prospect of real externalities that the social system should intervene in individual decision making. Nevertheless, even superstitious preferences of people – such as a belief that card playing on Sunday is wicked – should be given some attention in aiming at maximizing overall satisfaction. My reconciliation of these two positions (based, I hope, on the hints that Russell provides) is that the law should focus on real externalities, whereas the notional externalities connected to beliefs about sin can be addressed informally. Though cognizant of the sources of many of our beliefs in taboo and superstition, Russell nonetheless thinks that for the most part, our ethical intuitions are consistent with his consequentialist, satisfaction-maximizing approach. This concordance renders ethical intuitions to be superfluous, or counterproductive in those cases where they do not align with probable consequences. The goal of overall happiness should make us suspicious of ethical rules whose attraction for us is that they involve unhappiness for people we dislike.

While Russell talks mostly about aggregate satisfaction, he does address distributional issues in Chapters IV, X, and XI. He endorses equality of opportunity, but goes somewhat further. Russell is a sort of soft egalitarian, who believes that in a desirable social system basic goods would be fairly evenly distributed. In part this is due to diminishing marginal utility – an additional loaf of bread does a better job of promoting overall preference satisfaction if it is consumed by a starving person than by a well-fed person.

Overall preference satisfaction generally can be served by limiting suffering. As a result, Russell opposes retributive punishment (even retributive allocation of blame) and bans on euthanasia.

One of the nuggets that will stay with me is Russell’s thought experiment about criminal punishment – where criminals are only believed to be punished, while in fact they lead an idyllic existence. His quick aside in Chapter XII about the traditional moral code -- “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]” – appears to me to particularly apt in light of recent media feeding frenzies concerning perceived lapses by public figures.

Onward to Part Two, “The Conflict of Passions.”