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].”

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