Friday, May 14, 2010

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

Part Two, Chapter IX (pages 228-234), “Steps Towards a Stable Peace”

Russell quotes from the final chapter of his 1953 book, The Impact of Science on Society, on what it would take for a scientific society – a society where politics and the economy are based on science – to remain stable for long periods. (Human Society in Ethics and Politics first was published in 1954, one year after The Impact of Science on Society.) Russell believes that stability would require that the society be global, feature high living standards without poverty, and keep population growth in check – while individual liberty and political decentralization would be given the widest possible scope. Alternative future paths seem to lead to chaos and destruction, so people should want to move towards a stable, scientific society.

Soviet ideology is based on the conflict between capitalism and communism, and part of the Marxist myth is the inevitable triumph of communism. But Soviet fanaticism should not be met with the Western fanaticism of preaching the evils of communism and the need to fear them, while censoring information about what communism actually means. Instead of the East-West cooperation that we need, mutual suspicion fuels an arms race. Russell thinks that the allaying of this suspicion can begin through the good offices of a neutral power like India. Indians could prepare a forecast of what would be likely to happen should the cold war heat up. The great powers would be invited to comment and to disagree – but at the end of the day, it should be obvious that aggression by either side would not be in anyone’s interest. Once everyone understands, and knows their rival to understand, that war is not a feasible option, negotiations can begin. The negotiations would have their eye towards creating a stable peace. For instance, surely stability requires that Germany not remain divided, and that the ruling power in China be acknowledged. With current tensions eased, the long-term problem of establishing international control over atomic energy can be addressed.

Russell hopes for an East-West détente that will allow the realization to grow that in a crowded world, like in a crowded city, some liberties that are reasonable in isolated areas must be sacrificed for stability. “The anarchic liberty enjoyed hitherto by nations is just as impossible in the modern world as would be anarchic liberty for either pedestrians or motorists in the streets of London or New York [p. 233].” Establishing an international government will require an embrace of science and a rejection of fanaticism. “One of the first things that would have to be done during a period of détente would be a cessation everywhere of governmental encouragement to fanatical blindness and the hatred which it generates [p. 233].”

All humans have the capacity to suffer. We can operate below capacity if we end the mutual, irrational enmity between East and West. Humane and wise statesmanship should aim to relieve suffering.

Monday, May 10, 2010

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

Part Two, Chapter VIII (pages 222-227), “Conquest?”

Insecurity might cause either the West or the communist bloc to launch a war. If the conflict didn’t end in a draw, the remaining power could institute a world government. (Here Russell is going over some ground that he covered a few years earlier in Unpopular Essays, Chapter 3.) What if the Soviets won, and they established military control of the US and Western Europe? Russell does not think that they would be able to maintain quiet client states like those (at the time) in Eastern Europe. “The problem of holding down by force a very large and bitterly hostile population, such as that of the United States would be, is one which the resources of terrorism and secret police would soon find beyond their powers [p. 223].” So a global Soviet empire would collapse, but the thirst for revenge in the West would lead to a long period of turmoil. If, instead, the West were to win the initial encounter, nationalist passions would re-emerge in Russia and China, and the current tension would be back. There is not much hope that a great power war will bring a better world, even discounting the destruction and anarchy that it would involve. (Later, on page 226, Russell details the sort of anarchy and starvation that would develop after cities and industry are destroyed in the war – if mankind survives at all.) The hope for the future lies in cooperation between East and West, not in military conquest. An alliance between these great powers could establish a world government, though to make the institution fully global might require some use of force against smaller, recalcitrant states.

As a great power war would now be devastating, both East and West must be brought to believe that the other side, while fully capable of defensive action, has no interest in initiating an attack. “If both sides were convinced of this, genuine negotiations and a real diminution of tension would become possible [p. 225].” A toning down of hostile propaganda on both sides would be helpful in bringing about the conditions for cooperation. The removal of barriers to the flow of truthful information about the other side also would be a step in the right direction – blatant censorship in the Soviet Union does not imply that people in the West do not face some barriers to acquiring truthful information, too.

If a World War is inevitable, then every delay will render it more destructive, as the means for warfare advance. But rather than hope for a quick conflagration, Russell chooses to hope that statesmanship can develop sufficiently to prevent a major military conflict. “The measures required will be drastic, and will run counter to powerful prejudices, but perhaps the danger will nevertheless force their adoption [p. 227].”

Saturday, May 8, 2010

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

Part Two, Chapter VII (pages 213-221), “Will Religious Faith Cure Our Troubles?”

Some people believe that the erosion of religious faith is responsible for our current troubles. But our beliefs tend to be the result of our circumstances, not the other way around. [Existence (or being) determines consciousness, as Marx says? -- RBR] The deterioration of those circumstances has followed a sort of tragic inevitability that has sprung from the characters of the leaders involved. Russell provides (pages 213-214) a capsule summary of European relations (including the US and Russia) from 1914 through to the Cold War. The political forces were what they always have been among great powers, even as the destructive forces accelerated; the same evolution would have occurred whether Russia “believed” in Orthodox Christianity or in Marxism. Indeed, the First World War was fought by leaders who by and large were devout Christians. (Atheist politicos tended to be against the war.) Russell doesn’t use the term, but he indicates that he adheres to a “realist” conception of great power politics.

Russell rejects the view that some faiths (such as Christianity) are forces for good while others (such as Communism) are forces for harm. “What I wish to maintain is that all faiths do harm [p. 215].” Faith exists when someone believes something, profoundly, despite a lack of evidence to support that belief: it involves substituting emotion for evidence. (If there is evidence, faith is superfluous.) As different groups will have different emotions, faith tends to lead to conflict. If holders of faith also have political power, they will use the state to promote their faith and suppress others. History indicates that people of faith, even the Christian faith, do not avoid war. “Indeed, some of the most ferocious wars have been due to disputes between different kinds of Christianity [p. 216].”

Russell does not accept the view that some religious skeptics might endorse, that Christianity can be socially helpful, despite being false – though he holds a very low opinion of one alternative to Christianity, Marxism. [Russell’s godfather, John Stuart Mill, argued against suppressing minority views in the belief that the prevailing views, though possibly wrong, were nonetheless socially useful; further, “The usefulness of an opinion is itself matter of opinion: as disputable, as open to discussion, and requiring discussion as much, as the opinion itself.”] Russell recognizes that belief in the useful lie has a long provenance, and enlisted the support of Plato. The contribution of faiths to war is the hatred that they engender against non-believers; war brings out the worst in faiths. History gives the lie to the notion that fanaticism is beneficial to military enterprise. Science, useful to winning wars, is compromised by fanaticisms: Nazi hatred of Jews and Soviet embrace of Lysenkoism did not add to the power of their states: “without intellectual freedom, scientific warfare is not likely to remain long successful [p. 218].” More generally, the idea that national success depends on everyone adhering to some irrational belief is both ahistorical and wrong. It is hard to compartmentalize rationality, so those who accept fantastic beliefs in one realm tend to ignore evidence in other realms. At one time belief in a flat earth was reasonable. But now, people who believe in a flat earth must “close their minds against reason and to open them to every kind of absurdity in addition to the one from which they start [p. 220].”

“There is something feeble, and a little contemptible, about a man who cannot face the perils of life without the help of comfortable myths [p. 219].” Further, he sort of knows, but is unwilling to openly recognize, that they are myths; this knowledge makes him react harshly to any criticism of his creed. He wants to constrain education so that such criticism is suppressed. Authoritarian rulers can successfully limit education and instill timidity in the populace, but at the cost of achieving progress. Beliefs based on reason can be altered by discussion; beliefs based on faith are beyond reason, so they are supported by repression and mis-education. A decline in the hold of dogma, whether of the traditional kind, or Nazi and Communist variants, is an unalloyed blessing. Science and a recognition of the horror of mass torture are what the world needs.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

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

Part Two, Chapter VI (pages 208-212), “Scientific Technique and the Future”

The peaceful uses of atomic power hold great potential – but its military uses threaten the continued existence of life on earth. The old military logic, that of arming yourself beyond the capabilities of your likely rivals, implied that wars were as bloody as the prevailing technology permitted. In the nuclear age, this logic will bring doom, and not just for the warring parties. Nor are the existential threats only nuclear – biological weapons might have similar destructive potential. “It is impossible to foresee any limits to the harm which scientific ingenuity can enable men to inflict upon each other [p. 210].” Ingrained ways of thought are leading us to catastrophe, but these patterns of thought are proving hard to change. The idea that a war can be won is obsolete. Our salvation requires that our wisdom grow to match our skill. “It is the imperative duty of us all in the perilous years that lie ahead to struggle to replace the old crude passions of hate and greed and envy by a new wisdom based upon the realization of our common danger, a danger created by our own folly, and curable only by a diminution of that folly [p. 212].” Hatred is reciprocated, so people’s hearts must soften. And our well-being depends upon the well-being of others. This truth has long been known to sages, but the need to implement it in practice now is vital.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

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

Part Two, Chapter V (pp. 199-207), “Cohesion and Rivalry”

Cohesive and combative impulses shape the relationships among different human groups, like dominant and submissive impulses shape within-group hierarchies. The continuation of the species requires some family cohesiveness, which extends outwards to tribes. Tribes are rivals, however, except when they can maintain a precarious alliance to combat a common enemy. More populous groups have a military advantage: “…self-interest tends to enlarge the size of the social group [p. 200].” Common beliefs, common fears, and other sources of solidarity will develop, unifying large groups to the same extent as small tribes.

Conquest is the source of most states, with necessity, not shared beliefs or genealogy, securing the loyalty of the ruled. Extensive empire-building through military conquest characterized the approximately 1000 years between Cyrus and the end of Rome. “Throughout this time, it might have seemed that conquering armies were irresistible and that there was no limit to the extent of territory that a great military leader could bring under his sway [p. 201].” Rome provides a good example of how social cohesion can evolve from origins in military might. After the fall of Rome European history is dominated by highly decentralized rivalry among countless small powers, until authority was established in modern nation states. The Muslim world also has moved from unity to rivalry and back. “It is difficult in the history of the world hitherto to discern any long-term movement either towards more cohesion or towards more rivalry [p. 202].” But that is with respect to political cohesion – in terms of economic relations (and in culture), there has been a marked movement towards globalization. Commerce promotes civilization.

Western culture blossomed with the Renaissance and then spread widely. “There was every reason to expect that this process would continue until all the world was culturally unified, and the ideas of Jefferson and Macaulay could be preached without contradiction not only in India but in the plateaus of Tibet and the darkest recesses of African forests [pp. 204-205].” The First World War, an intra-west civil war, undermined the force of the western example. Now there is upheaval, with Russian Communism joining Islam as a militant faith, and China, Africa, and India all culturally unsettled. The centrifugal forces moving cultures apart also are spurring a dedication to economic autarchy and industrialization for the sake of military might; the long-term consequences include famine and war. “These evil consequences can only be avoided if mankind decide to conduct their affairs in a manner less insane than that now prevalent [p. 205].” Science, however, remains as a globally unifying force – bomb-making scientists can operate without missing a step when they move from the Soviet Union to the West, or in the opposite direction.

Information, previously held only locally and perhaps only by literate elites, now is available on a much wider scale. Unfortunately, the information about rival countries that is made available generally is filtered to stoke fear and hatred.

Recently, nations have begun to cohere within two large and opposed military blocs. “Cohesion and rivalry working together from the first clash of savage tribes to the present day, have gradually, by a process which has a terrible inevitability, come to the point where each reaches the greatest development that is compatible with the existence of the other [p. 207].” As technology advances, this process threatens human annihilation. Our only hope is that people can learn to be content with rivalry in milder forms, in sports, art, science, and quality of life.