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.

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