Sunday, October 27, 2013

New Hopes for a Changing World, Chapter Seventeen

“Fear,” pages 161-178

Russell writes quite a bit about fear! Education and the Good Life features a chapter entitled “Fear,” while The Conquest of Happiness contains a chapter entitled “Fear of Public Opinion.”

The opening of Chapter 17 of New Hopes for a Changing World involves, unusually for Russell, some all-caps shouting: “The greatest obstacle to a good world is now FEAR [p. 161].” The scarcity of resources, including necessities, used to be the binding constraint on human happiness, but this scarcity is now capable of being eliminated everywhere. History indicates that man has always had both reasonable fears, and superstitious fears that arise from a fear mechanism that operates excessively out of habit. Today the unreasonable fears are proportionally larger still, as the conditions generating reasonable fears have diminished.

As we delve deeper into our brains, we find levels that code for feelings that were valuable earlier along the human evolutionary path. We can do better with conscious thought, but even then, our feelings lag behind, by a couple of centuries, what would be appropriate. Feelings lie at the root of many cherished beliefs, but if those feelings are hidden, it is hard to correct wrong beliefs.

The biological substrate of our brain is limiting but still permits environmental factors, experience, to shape our thoughts; hence, much about how our brain works is malleable.

Russell divides up fears into three categories, which happen to correspond to the conflicts that are examined in the three parts of New Hopes for a Changing World: fear of nature, fear of other men, and fear of our own desires. Fear of nature is now much exaggerated, though once it was absolutely central to survival, and some such fears still are reasonable. “Hymns represent heaven as a refuge from the storms of life, not as a place where one escapes the dangers of being run over by a motor-bus, although the latter danger is a much more frequent experience in modern urban life [pp. 163-164].” People are so accustomed to physical dangers that they voluntarily expose themselves to risks to escape boredom. That is, our emotional life is based on an environment that no longer is relevant for city dwellers – so we seek the appropriate environment in our leisure. This is fine if the danger we expose ourselves comes only with risks to ourselves, such as mountain climbing. But engaging in wars is another matter entirely. (Recall that in The Conquest of Happiness Russell speculated that boredom might be responsible for wars.)

Fear of other men cannot be said to be baseless, even when looking at just small-scale social relations. “Most men have in their nature a certain amount of malevolence, and are not reluctant to do a bad turn to another man if they can do so with safety [p. 164].” Rivalry is common, but in different circumstances, could be reduced. America seems to be peculiarly fecund in generating workplace and income rivalry. (Again, there are multiple reflections of points made in The Conquest of Happiness.) Eminent authors are exceedingly petty and envious in their relations among themselves – so says (p. 165) this winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature. Politicians are no better. It is insecurity, a common human emotion that goes beyond reason, that is the source of all this rivalry; that is, rivalry is fear-motivated, even though the days are gone when pre-eminence was the best insurance against starvation.

Schoolboys who do not conform with their peers are subjected to physical and emotional damage. Intelligent boys therefore learn to conceal their true natures, so as not to stick out; this habit can become ingrained, resulting in stunting for life. Women, too, take extraordinary efforts to avoid social disapproval. (This material around page 167 echoes Chapter 9 of The Conquest of Happiness.) People are quick to condemn as subversive or worse an opinion that is not mainstream within their circle – even if they secretly are of the same opinion.

Fears of other groups are common, especially among those who lack exposure to those other groups. “Whatever is strange is terrifying so long as it remains strange [p. 168].” This observation applies to religious (and non-religious) and political groupings. Maybe some of this fear is reasonable, given that societies are knit together through less-than-rational beliefs that outsiders might question. But to go far in this direction would cut off all exposure to new ideas and make reform, even in the face of new circumstances, impossible. Better to live with the risks that come with openness to change.

Fears of misunderstood groups lead to all sorts of wars and repression. The US had less understanding of the Japanese than of the Germans, making the Japanese seem to be fitter targets for nuclear weapons. “The way to diminish the operation of fears of this sort is to make people more aware of the common human characteristics of people who at first sight seem very different from ourselves, and also to bring about the realization that in the modern world, conflicts of interest are unnecessary [p. 169].” Motion pictures and education can help to build such an awareness. [Russell was a longtime proponent of the educational value of the cinema.] Fears of other people come with a high price. They lead nations to submit to a man on horseback – a strategy that might be necessary in times of peril but is counterproductive in normal times. Leaders will recognize that their popularity is based on fear, so they will try to stoke that fear, against both imagined internal enemies and external foes; the result is “witch-hunts within, and wars without [p. 170].”

Onto fear of oneself. People occasionally are rash or angry, and sophisticated people try to shield themselves from situations that will trigger their less-than-rational side. Sexual attraction and jealousy are particularly strong impulses that require careful monitoring to prevent bad outcomes. [Recall that Russell believes that the instinctual basis for male jealousy is much overrated.]

There is a morality of fear and a morality of hope. “Fear morality seeks to avoid disaster, whereas hope morality seeks to create something that is felt to be good or delightful [p. 170].” Traditional ethics, full of notions of sin and guilt, tend to feature fear morality. [Russell writes as much about sin as he does about fear, it seems.] Fear morality is aimed at deterrence: by enhancing (perhaps through the threat of hellfire) the dangers of some impulses, it hopes to extirpate choices to act upon them.

The precept to love one’s neighbor (or else) is practical, shielding you from attack, but this sort of love displays no ardent affection. Don’t confuse actual love with this cheap imitation, prudential version. The sincere delight you take with intimates or from great art has no connection to fear, and evaporates aggressive tendencies – but this wholly positive love cannot be commanded, nor can it be manufactured just from the conscious realization of its utility. “It can, I think, be promoted by a manner of life, and by wisdom in education [p. 172].”

Traditional sexual morality is permeated by fear, including fear of jealousy – a fear that probably underlies the oldest prohibitions, such as those on incest and on adultery with a married woman. Men who violate these prohibitions are apt to provoke violent responses. So, such violations are dangerous, and the fear of one’s own impulses to engage in such violations leads the behavior to be considered sinful. The origin of the notion of sin, more generally, is an internal conflict, a man-versus-himself conflict, between a person’s desires and wellbeing. “We may sum up this discussion by saying that since murder and adultery are alike dangers, the moral law enjoins that you must love your neighbor, but not your neighbor’s wife [p. 173].” [Russell’s use of “enjoins” is always, I believe, as a synonym for “requires” or “encourages”; most of the time that I read “enjoin” in modern writing, it seems to mean almost the opposite, on the order of “prohibit”. “Enjoin,” like “sanction,” thus is one of those legalistic words which means its antithesis! -- RBR ]

Irrational fears, such as those of revengeful ghosts or angry gods, have been superadded to rational fears. In Christianity, calling your brother a fool would be enough to earn eternal hellfire. Sincere Christians do not necessarily avoid speaking badly of their brothers, however. [Russell made a similar point in Human Society in Ethics and Politics.] The punishment being so excessive, the inability to reliably avoid the punishment bespeaks of rationality lapses in human decision making. Eternal torment is not the only resort of moralists, of course; they invoke shorter term sanctions, too, as when they counsel honesty on the grounds that it is an optimal policy.

The reliance upon either short-term or long-term punishments to provide deterrence is a reliance upon self-control, which is an excessively costly approach. Though people need self-control, when it is unduly nurtured it takes away energy and engagement. What it does not take away, even when the control works, is the underlying impulses: they are checked but not eliminated. “Energies which we do not allow their natural outlet in furthering our own life either become atrophied or find an outlet in thwarting the lives of others [p. 175].” The inability (through cowardice) to express your hatred of your neighbor can be manipulated into the approved hatred of criminals, outcasts, or the people of some foreign land. Obeying conventional morality avoids trouble with the powerful, while still allowing you safe outlets, in the form of the approved targets, for expressing aggression (page 176).

These approved hatreds do not bring inner peace, because the underlying problem is hatred of a part of oneself, and destructive behavior will not end the self-knowledge of being a sad, fearful man. The cure must come from instilling in young people the potential to lead a vibrant life that does not require the stifling of others.

A similar approach applies to sexual jealousy. Feelings of jealousy come from a fear of losing love. The maintenance of love cannot be secured, however, by trying to rein in the freedom of our partner; the answer instead is to be lovable. Excessive fear undermines the lovability that we all have at our disposal. Our own rigidity can render us unlovable, and then our attempts to ameliorate the symptom make the problem worse. Wide interests will yield satisfaction and the happiness will enhance our lovability – a parallel point was made by Russell in The Conquest of Happiness. Rejoice in the love you have; do not destroy love through fear of its loss.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

New Hopes for a Changing World, Chapter Sixteen

“Ideas Which Have Become Obsolete,” pages 147-160.

Russell’s Unpopular Essays was published in 1950, one year prior to New Hopes for a Changing World. Unpopular Essays contains one chapter entitled “Ideas That Have Helped Mankind,” and another entitled “Ideas That Have Harmed Mankind.” Chapter Sixteen of New Hopes, which initiates the book’s third section devoted to man’s internal contest with himself, examines a different (though somewhat intersecting) subset of the universe of ideas.

Custom and tradition have allowed the gains achieved by generations past to be utilized by their descendants. Respect for custom, therefore, has many benefits – but it can be taken too far, and some societies are brought to ruin by excessive veneration of ancient ways. [Russell’s godfather again: “The despotism of custom is everywhere the standing hindrance to human advancement, being in unceasing antagonism to that disposition to aim at something better than customary, which is called, according to circumstances, the spirit of liberty, or that of progress or improvement.”] Modern science and technology will only achieve their potential for improving human welfare if our ways of thinking change. “In an age of machines and skilled scientific production, we retain the feelings and many of the beliefs that were appropriate to the ages of scarcity and primitive agriculture [p. 148].” Ideas about politics – even the ideas of communists – are stuck in the 1700s or earlier.

Our Malthusian past was one of poverty and population pressure, famine, war, and oppression. The ongoing transition to better outcomes got under way only about the time of the French Revolution. The principal change has been the scientific revolution and mindset, unleashed most productively with the advent of democracy and low birthrates.

Widespread human prosperity has become a possibility. “What the West has discovered (though as yet the realization is incomplete) is a method by which practically everybody can have as much of material goods as is conducive to happiness, without excessive hours of labor, and with that degree of mental culture that is needed to make leisure delightful [p. 149].” The productive society that provides this happy possibility is vulnerable to destruction by envious outsiders, and by insiders whose ideas are no longer appropriate. Chief among these ideas is that one must fight over scarce resources to survive – only the winners in prior struggles survived to bequeath their beliefs. War became sanctified, despite the ritual Sunday obeisance to peace. Love was fine for dealing with insiders, but outsiders were fit subjects for just, patriotic wars.

Further, the characteristics associated with the economically powerful, the landowners, naturally became popular. They had come by their position as descendants of those who were military successes, those who had achieved victory in zero-sum struggles. Again, ruthless struggle achieved social luster.

The industrial revolution made constant struggle even more central, because factory wealth had a shorter half-life than land-based wealth, and because the poor, those who lost at the struggle, at first got poorer. Even when the nouveaux riches could not be admired themselves, the mechanism that produced their riches, the competitive market, could become an object of veneration. “And so industrialism, which is technically capable of bringing peace to mankind, in fact brought not peace but a sword [p. 151].”

Market competition was designed to be limited, but it could not be contained, and spread to social classes and to nations – socialism and war were the unintended consequences of a free trade ideology. When industrialization has proceeded far enough, the costs of competition, which include wars and strikes, become more significant. All can benefit from increased cooperation, but from long habit, people maintain a zero-sum view of trade (and the resulting wars seemingly justify the zero-sum perspective). [Russell made a similar point in “Ideas That Have Harmed Mankind.”] Now, Westerners view Russian economic gains as a cost to them, and Russians feel similarly about the West. “But the difference between their interests is caused by their sentiments, not by any external natural cause, and so it is with the public enmities in the modern world [p. 153].”

Nations separate the world politically and culturally. The cultural pluralism is quite positive on its own, and it is a mistake to think that it demands political rivalry. The British and the French considered themselves to be adversaries for years – and fought as adversaries – until they finally decided that their interests really didn’t conflict, and now they are friends. Imagine the peace dividend if Russia and the West did not believe that they were targeted for destruction by the other side. Neither side will be inclined to comprehend that their interests are not really threatened, because hostility, once it exists, takes on a moral imperative. If a drug could clear the minds of Truman and Stalin, they would see themselves as fellow imperfect beings, and work out a fair solution to the issues that currently seem to divide them so deeply. Their countrymen, however, without access to the drug, would oust them, and renew hostilities.

The moral of the drug fable is that the minds of everyday people – not just the government – must change for the political situation to change. A sophisticated view of self-interest is all that is necessary. Alas, that view cannot win in the marketplace of ideas against appeals to bravely undertake sacrifice for supposedly noble causes. But Russell does not want to be mistaken for one of those who assert that human nature is such that war is inevitable – an assertion whose adherents feign to take sorrow in, but in reality one in which they revel. The response to them is that war will surely soon end, either through a cooperative agreement or through the destruction of all the combatants. “The dictum that human nature cannot be changed is one of those tiresome platitudes that conceal from the ignorant the depths of their own ignorance [p. 155].” Experiments with babies indicate quite profound limits to what human nature compels, and many political ideologies are consistent with our biological substrate. Anthropologists know that one culture’s practices can seem, to people from another culture, as being inconsistent with human nature.

The claim that human nature demands a love of fighting has one interpretation that is true, and a second that it is false. The interpretation consistent with the facts is that people will become annoyed if they are sufficiently provoked or assaulted, such as by having their noses pulled. The interpretation that is not consistent with the facts is that people have an innate love of combat. There are people who do love aggression, but this love is socially constructed, not innate. “It is only these people that constitute a problem, since the other people can be placated by the simple technique of not pulling their noses [p. 156].”

The social sanction for aggression can be withdrawn, as has occurred in the case of dueling. And with dueling socially condemned, the supply of insults that formerly would have demanded a duel has dried up as well – insulting someone is just plain rude. This sort of transformation can be made more general.

Some nations (and some women) still offer succor to macho types, who develop into bullies – and they maintain their aggressiveness as adults, including when they deal (unfairly) with foreigners. At the time of Genghis Khan such tactics at least offered the possibility of riches. Now, any riches to be had in dealing with outsiders are more likely to be secured through cooperation. Macho types are put off by this; though they are not intelligent, they can see that intelligence is valuable. They can’t understand finance, and when the he-men take over banking, as in the 1920s, disaster ensues. They resented the policy that helped to limit the disaster, because they could not – or could not be bothered to – understand that policy.

“Hatred of intelligence is one of the great dangers of the modern world, because with each new advance in technique intelligence becomes more necessary [p. 158].” The prejudice against intelligence motivates politicians to appear to be denser than they actually are.

Better schooling is an antidote to outdated ideas. Schools now promote the sort of leadership appropriate for captains of pirate ships, not captains of commerce. The old zero-sum, us or them, cheer or boo, black or white outlook, appropriate for a world of intense scarcity, is terribly out of date in a world of plenty. Where there is scarcity today, it is a result of failures of intelligence, not of output. The old way of thinking helped lead to the depression, and to the Nazi and Bolshevik notions that riches would be secure once the right people were exterminated.

Global prosperity is available, if only people would recognize the value of cooperation, and set aside the rivalry and envy of the past. The mental revolution is not easy, but it is possible. People can be educated to be citizens of the world, not quarrelsome partisans of one small slice of the world. “We must learn to think of the human race as one family, and further our common interests by the intelligent use of natural resources, marching together towards prosperity, not separately towards death and destruction [p. 160].”