Friday, March 15, 2013

New Hopes for a Changing World, Chapter Six

“Social Units,” pages 53-58

“Every man feels himself at once an individual and a member of a group, and it is because both these feelings are so deeply engrained in his nature that he has found it necessary to make moral codes and prohibitions and a vast apparatus of praise and blame [p. 53].” Problems arise when individual self-interest takes precedence, despite harm to overall human flourishing.

The need for infants – and for moms engaged in childrearing – to be protected lies at the basis of family relations. But long ago, in-groups expanded beyond the family, to larger agglomerations such as tribes. People tend to be cooperative to those in the in-group, but rivalrous towards outsiders. Harmony within the in-group is threatened by sexual competition, and various customs – including the incest taboo and rules concerning exogamy – help to mitigate that competition. The power of custom can be glimpsed by means of the incest taboo. Almost no one seems constrained by it, yet it requires a serious subjugation of instinct.

Social groups could find themselves competing for food, with war as the predictable result. Larger groups have an advantage in physical conflicts, pressuring tribes to take on larger populations. The larger social units do not have the same instinctual basis for loyalty and cooperation as does the family, however. Nonetheless, when even a group as large as a nation is threatened, its citizens rally to the cause. “So long as we have common external enemies, hostility between England and Scotland will be kept within limits, but incidents like the Stone of Scone show how easily it could break out [p. 57].” A major question (p. 58) exists as to the extent to which a psychological connection to large groups can be inculcated through education and propaganda, when it does not exist naturally.

New social groups erode the power of old ones; thus, the welfare state has diminished the role of the pater familias (and his sometimes despotic wife), which used to extend both broadly and deep. [Russell is echoing an argument he made in multiple places in Marriage and Morals.] Now, much of the world is centered around nuclear families. A totalitarian state might eliminate the family, as in The Republic.

The notion that centralized centers of power tend to undermine smaller, decentralized ones holds beyond the family. Large organizations enervate smaller ones. “But sometimes the larger organizations fail to flourish, and centrifugal forces prevail [p. 57].” A precipitate step towards a global state might fall into one of those “fail to flourish” cases, and strengthen nation-states. The tiny moves that actually have been attempted towards global governance so far perhaps are a case in point.

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