Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Human Society in Ethics and Politics, Full Time

This running summentary of Human Society in Ethics and Politics has been more of a walking summentary, a journey of nearly a year’s duration. The measured pace is not evidenced by any deep insights – except for those borrowed directly from BR.

Part One (“Ethics”) established that for Russell, a guide for right action could be found in terms of maximizing overall satisfaction – where the interests of all humans, and perhaps all sentient beings, have to be included in the benefit calculus. But Russell understands that it is not enough to preach about socially desirable behavior; rather, people must have incentives to actually take those beneficial actions. Part Two (“The Conflict of Passions”) looks at the passions that make it hard to induce people to make choices that maximize social welfare. Part of the problem arises because some things that people enjoy – power, for instance, or respect – almost of necessity come at the expense of others’ enjoyment (of relative power or respect). Further, darker emotions such as fear or hate tend to make us exclude others from the group with whom we are willing to cooperate, and spur the reciprocation of fear and hate directed towards us from the excluded folks, too. So human history is marked by significant cooperation within a group – extending as far as a nation-state in modern times – with rivalry and conflict dominating relations between groups. The within-group cooperation has achieved amazing things. The inter-group conflict, alas, has led to war after war, though with the side benefit of extending the size of successful groups (as bigger groups are more militarily successful). [Are chimpanzees caught up in the same blood sport?]

This might be a glass mostly full story, where living standards and population have increased and civilization has been extended – despite the wars, despite the rivalry and conquest. But Russell notes a new ingredient: thanks to technological advance, wars among the great powers will destroy civilization, not just for the losers and for a short time, but for everyone and potentially forever. Continuation on our historical and current path is not sustainable. We must cooperate with virtually everyone – and it is in the self-interest of both superpowers that we do so.

Unfortunately, the foresight that recognizes that we are all in this together, and incentives to act in ways that recognize this foreknowledge, are not widespread. So Russell wants to help us to understand that our future survival depends on superpower cooperation, and he suggests methods by which cooperative behavior can be induced. Of course, a sound understanding of one’s own long-term interest can go a long way to providing appropriate incentives. Education, then, is part of the mix. A greater awareness of foreigners and foreign cultures can reduce fear and increase the probability of cooperation; such awareness can be fostered by free information flows and by foreign travel. Business connections also tend to be supportive of cooperation and the spread of civilization. The establishment of a world government, one that would limit national sovereignty just as a national government limits individual sovereignty, will be necessary to ensure that our destructive potential is not unleashed. Two steps that Russell explicitly cites as necessary for a stable peace have subsequently taken place: recognition of the Communist government of China and the re-unification of Germany.

Human Society in Ethics and Politics follows in the tradition of Adam Smith (and others, including Machiavelli and Spinoza), of taking human beings not as we might wish them to be, but as they are: possessed of both benevolent and selfish sentiments, motivated by vanity and love of power, and also by fellow-feeling. Preaching to such crooked timber will not be enough to improve (at least sufficiently) their (our) behavior. The answer lies not in telling people to ignore their passions, but rather, in creating social institutions that will channel those passions into socially desirable ends.

For Russell, those institutions include a democratic government (of worldwide scope) with significant protections for self-regarding individual behavior and human rights. Equality of opportunity, and enough equality of distribution to eliminate poverty, also are ingredients in the recipe. Education, science, the overcoming of superstition, exposure to other cultures, criminal and civil law – all can be enlisted to help make individual choices compatible with social welfare. Rivalry can take on benevolent forms, such as sporting events or competition over quality of life. Love of power can be combatted by controls that ensure that there are limits to the power that can be exercised, and by a relatively equal wealth distribution. Adults teach children foresight and delayed gratification; a similar foresight and forbearance (to avoid global annihilation) must be demanded of the electorate and their representatives. We must require of our leaders a quality that they currently do not display, an understanding that humanity forms “…a single species with possibilities that may be realized or thwarted [p. 239].” The glass may be mostly full, but there is much work to be done, much consciousness to be raised, to ensure that Russell’s optimistic outlook is itself warranted by the evidence, and not just another superstition.

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