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].”

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