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.”

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