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.

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