Sunday, April 25, 2010

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

Part Two, Chapter IV (pp. 188-198), “Myth and Magic”

Humans seem to have considerably more imagination than other animals. They believe some things because of evidence, but they believe many other things because they feel these things to be right, despite the absence of (any further) evidence. “On the whole, as men become more civilized, the sphere of evidence in the formation of beliefs becomes larger, and the sphere of imagination smaller [pp. 188-189].” Imaginative beliefs still form a significant part of our belief systems. Even though any connection between truth and imaginative beliefs is coincidental, they allow us to make our way through the world and suggest ideas that sometimes lead to improvements in art and science. An intense imagination, as Shakespeare knew, can lead to belief in the reality of what is imagined.

The intensity and drama of dreams might be the source of the power we allow our imaginations. From dreams and daydreams, which often derive from imagined fears, “men have fashioned the vast systems of magic and ritual and myth and religion which have influenced human life at least as profoundly as the skills and observations out of which scientific knowledge has grown [p. 190].” Other beliefs held without evidence, such as the effect of the phase of the moon on weather, are not based on deep emotions, and so do not present serious social concerns.

Hopes and fears lead to imaginary beliefs because of inflated senses of self-importance, ideas that the universe itself must care about what we care about. We even believe that natural processes have causes that mimic the causes of human action. “Eruptions and earthquakes seem like manifestations of anger, and so we imagine an angry spirit which is causing them [p. 191].”

Beliefs held without evidence speak to the passions of the people who hold them. The cruelty with which these beliefs have been operationalized suggests that the underlying passions are dark. All sorts of terrors are inflicted through imaginary beliefs, yet few charitable acts possess similar sources. Fear of death led to the invention of afterlives that often were themselves full of torment. Irrational fears of happiness have led to self-inflicted torments though asceticism and self-abasement. “The things that men have thought pleasing to the gods throw a strange light upon their own emotions [p. 193].” Self-hatred frequently finds its expression in cruelty towards others, including in the form of human sacrifices to placate or honor an angry god. (Here we have an echo of a passage from Chapter Ten of Unpopular Essays: “…when a man tortures himself he feels that it gives him a right to torture others, and inclines him to accept any system of dogma by which this right is fortified.”)

Desires for dominance and for submission are strong human passions. The mutual existence of these passions – even within a single individual, both passions can abide – has helped to stabilize unequal societies, where the leaders get satisfaction from dominating and others obtain satisfaction from being dominated. The leaders can satisfy their desire to be dominated by inventing a god who rules over them. This can allow them to enjoy a type of submission that does not hinder their accumulation of earthly power. Their attempts to force others into virtue are justified by their own abstemious behavior. Their asceticism with respect to sensuality does not extend to the enjoyment of power. “It is the prevalence of this type of psychology in forceful men which has made the notion of sin so popular, since it combines so perfectly humility towards heaven with self-assertion here on earth [p. 195].” And this self-assertion can take the form of inflicting pain on the less virtuous, without remorse.

We imbue the cosmos with human emotions. Good outcomes are caused by love, bad outcomes by hate or anger. We try to influence the extent to which the cosmos loves and hates us, through piety and faith. The scientific approach is much different – causality does not reflect our hopes and fears, but is determined (imperfectly and probabilistically) through the accumulation of evidence. Scientific knowledge has liberated us from much cruelty inflicted by mythical beliefs.

Science now provides us with the possibility of self-extermination as well as the liberation from myths. To prevent the self-extermination, we should not retreat into myths. “If salvation is to be found, it must be by the help of more science, not less…[pp. 197-198].”

Friday, April 16, 2010

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

Part Two, Chapter III (pages 175-187), “Forethought and Skill”

Human infants are pretty similar to the newborns of other mammalian species, especially with regard to instincts and passions. Human intelligence and imagination offer broader vistas for the passions, however, than those available to other species. Despite more opportunities for satisfaction, humans seem to be less happy than they were when in a more primitive state, and less happy than apes. Russell compares the carefree life of a monkey in the jungle to the stress and monotony of the suburban-dwelling, commuting office drone; the monkey is in the more enviable position, though the human specimen is among the happiest of his tribe. Nevertheless, Russell maintains that there is a variety of happiness available to humans that goes beyond what other mammals are capable of. This happiness could be nearly universal among men and women, but currently is achieved by very few. Unhappiness is preventable by known methods, but those methods are not employed.

Passions can be separated into the automatic (or nearly automatic) impulses, and demands induced by deliberative thought about the best means to secure a desired end. The implementation of the actions recommended by deliberation might require that impulsive acts be successfully restrained. Impulses for indulging resentment, for overcoming obstacles, or for consuming alcohol and drugs, might be hard to suppress, though, despite rationality demanding such suppression. Further, excessive control of impulse saps life of joy. “Impulse must be allowed a large place in human life, but ought not to lead, as in fact it does, to vast systems of individual and collective self-deception [p. 177].” Humans are better positioned to have desire control impulse than are other animals.

Human intelligence manifests itself in forethought and in skill. Forethought, a derivative of memory, induces people to take actions that bring no immediate pleasure or reward but make future pleasures more likely. (Russell suspects that apparent forethought in other animals, such as the storing of nuts by squirrels, actually provides immediate pleasure to the squirrels, in the same way that sex does.) The adoption of agriculture reflected forethought, and the whole notion of “capital” (goods not intended for consumption but used to produce other goods) indicates the sacrifice of current for future satisfaction. Russell suspects that people with infinite forethought would invest rather than consume any resources, if those savings earned any positive amount of interest. [Presumably a small probability that one will not survive to consume later would be enough to prevent full disdain for instantaneous gratification, even with positive interest rates – RBR.] Adults impose their forethought on children (who have less forethought) by insisting upon education, even though it goes against the impulses of many children.

The child grows up, and engages in work that he would never take on for the immediate reward alone. If he has children, again he sacrifices current pleasures for the sake of their futures. He seeks to be uncontroversial and successful at work, and his prudence eventually becomes an impulse. This depiction is an accurate rendering of the majority of people in advanced countries.

Policy and the public sphere likewise are dominated by forethought, including the work of those important folks who contemplate how best to kill foreigners. But one needn’t only think of forethought as being a barrier to happiness: sometimes it is a lack of forethought that threatens happiness. For instance, too little attention is paid to how to prevent war and overpopulation.

Humans display skill, as do animals, but skill plays a much larger role among humanity. Skill, for Russell, means engaging in activities that are inputs to desired ends – activities that would be eschewed if they did not promote the ends. Complex skills require language, to allow knowledge to be accumulated and transmitted through the generations. Agriculture, animal husbandry, and tool making are all skills that humans acquired long ago. The making of tools, weapons, for military purposes, continues to spur most scientific thinking. Skills did not grow much for thousands of years, but the previous two centuries have seen an explosion in skills.

The accumulation of skill and its embodiment in technology allows for a long time to elapse between the recognition of a want and its satisfaction. Even with agriculture, the planting occurs only a few months before the reaping. But with modern machinery, the process of supplying today’s food began long ago, when the machines to help grow and transport the food were manufactured (out of raw materials that themselves had to be gathered). “In this long intricate combination of forethought and skill, there is, throughout, a dependence upon an elaborate social and economic organization, which may break down, with disastrous consequences, in time of war [p. 184].”

Skill makes it easier to satisfy our wants; so, has the improvement in skill led to more happiness? Advances in skill tend to be, at first, monopolized by a few people, who can use that skill to subjugate others. Agriculture ties people to land; lacking exit options, cultivators of land becomes slaves or serfs to landowners. Industrialization (outside of the United States) had a similar tendency, with capitalists gaining but the well-being of workers often compromised. Spreading the benefits from skill improvements requires a more equal distribution of power.

Successful species establish an equilibrium between their impulses and the opportunities for satisfying those impulses. When opportunities to satisfy impulses are no longer scarce, overconsumption can be devastating – the introduction and easy availability of distilled alcohol provides numerous examples. A desire for power is one impulse that can be more readily gratified as societies expand and their capabilities develop; an addiction to power can more socially destructive than an addiction to alcohol. “That is why elaborate safeguards in the form of Rights of Man and democratic government become important in highly organized communities [p. 186].” With advances in military skill, uncontrolled rivalry now threatens not only the combatants, but the survival of the human species.

Increased skill and intelligence allow us to support a larger human population. This would be good if people were happy. It is possible, however, that population will outstrip the food supply (in part because of longer lifespans), and then more misery will result.

It is too soon to know if increased human intelligence will be a blessing or a curse. If it is a curse, however, it will be because of too little intelligence, not too much.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

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

Part Two, Chapter II (Pages 159-174), “Politically Important Desires”

As Russell mentioned in the Preface, this chapter forms the speech given upon his receipt of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950.

Demographic and economic facts abound, but we know fairly little about people’s psychology and their motives for action. “If one man offers you democracy and another offers you a bag of grain, at what stage of starvation will you prefer the grain to the vote [p. 159-160]?” It is wrong to think that people can overcome their desires through their sense of duty, because it begs the question of why anyone desires to be dutiful. “If you wish to know what men will do, you must know not only, or principally, their material circumstances, but rather the whole system of their desires with their relative strengths [p. 160].” Sexual desires, though strong, typically are not important determinants of political actions. Basic needs for food, shelter, and clothing, however, have and remain major impulses for migration, war, and other political movements. Insatiable drives for acquisition and power, along with rivalry and vanity, motivate much human action, too. Those who suffer great deprivation seem particularly committed to excessive acquisitiveness. Overall, however, rivalry seems more powerful than acquisitiveness: people will sacrifice enormously if by doing so their rivals can be ruined still further.

Vanity, the desire to be noticed and admired, is both potent and self-propagating. “Mankind have even committed the impiety of attributing similar desires to the Deity, whom they imagine avid for continual praise [p. 163].”

But the most important motive in the realm of political action – and the common wellspring for the behavior of energetic men – is the love of power. (Vanity’s object is glory, not power: people can be powerful without seeking or achieving glory.) As with vanity, the love of power is both insatiable and subject to positive feedback. “Since power over human beings is shown in making them do what they would rather not do, the man who is actuated by love of power is more apt to inflict pain than to permit pleasure [p. 164].” But scientific and political advances also are motivated by a love of power. A person’s capabilities and the social system help to determine whether the love of power will serve beneficial or nefarious ends. Military geniuses might be actuated by a love of power, and be indifferent as to which country they serve – though vanity as well as power fueled Napoleon. People who remain out of the spotlight, while exerting influence behind the throne, are the exemplars of those motivated by an unalloyed love of power.

Humans also find motive power in a desire to avoid boredom – a notion Russell previously explored in Chapter 4 of The Conquest of Happiness. The tendency for the populace to welcome the outbreak of war is driven by emotions similar to what drives interest in football, “although the results are sometimes somewhat more serious [p. 166].” Our love for excitement presumably draws from our past as hunters; people who had to engage in physical exertions the equivalent of a day’s hunting would not applaud “an announcement that the government has decided to have them killed…[p. 167],” as they now do. Safe outlets to satisfy the desire for excitement need to be nurtured, but moralists condemn them. “I have never heard of a war that proceeded from dance halls [p. 168].” Reducing harms from the love of excitement requires that socially innocuous outlets for this passion be provided.

Fear and hate are powerful motive forces. Humans have a tendency to both hate and fear outsiders, even as they treat well those within their tribe. Travel and the study of international politics can help people overcome the instinctive hatred of foreigners. Nevertheless, extending our good offices to the whole world doesn’t come easily. “We love those who hate our enemies, and if we had no enemies there would be very few people whom we should love [p. 169].” We might be able to conjure up Nature as a common and recalcitrant enemy to mankind, one from whom we must wrest our living. But the instruments of persuasion, the newspapers, politicians, and schools, have no interest in promoting this psychological expedient.

Life would be much improved if the international system could provide security against military attack, reducing or eliminating the fear of foreign powers. Ideology or religion or other markers of difference often are identified as the causes of enmities between nations, but Russell thinks these are just convenient ways of dividing the herd. The source of finding these matters divisive is that we fear the hostile intent of other countries.

Negative emotions such as fear are quite powerful, but positive emotions such as altruistic feeling also spur political behavior – witness the anti-slavery movement in the 19th century: “British taxpayers paid many millions in compensation to Jamaican landowners for the liberation of their slaves…[p. 171].” Sympathy has been an effective motive in improving the treatment of the insane, orphans, prisoners, and animals. “Perhaps the best hope for the future of mankind is that ways will be found of increasing the scope and intensity of sympathy [p. 172].”

Throughout most of human history, victors in war found the killing cheap, the benefits in terms of more territory worthwhile, and the experience exciting. Now, the cost of killing has risen, and the control of new territory has lost its allure: war no longer presents a good business model. Enlightened self-interest dictates cooperation and the elimination of war, but people generally are not motivated by self-interest: they prefer wretched neighbors to their own happiness. Moralists will not allow us to embrace real self-interest, despite the salutary effects that would flow from such an embrace. Idealistic motives often are worse than self-interest: what people consider to be idealism often “is disguised hatred or disguised love of power [p. 174].” Distrust seemingly noble motives when they are actuating mass movements. Intelligence can help us to understand these matters more clearly – a heartening conclusion “because intelligence is a thing that can be fostered by known methods of education [p. 174].”