Bertrand Russell the Passionate Skeptic: A Biography

By Alan Wood | Go to book overview
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'While Still at Work'

RUSSELL'S Human Society in Ethics and Politics was not published till 1954. But it is convenient to discuss it here, because most of it was originally meant for inclusion in Human Knowledge, and was written at the same time.

Human Society was remarkable for the candour with which Russell confessed his dislike of his own subjective theory of ethics. 'I find it quite intolerable,' he wrote, 'to suppose that when I say "Cruelty is bad" I am merely saying that I dislike cruelty.' He therefore laboured to find some objective foundation for ethical theory, deciding that 'Right desires will be those that are capable of being compossible with as many other desires as possible'. The word 'compossible' was due to an analogy from Leibniz's philosophy; what Russell meant was a repetition of an argument, in his Principles of Social Reconstruction, that creative impulses are good because the pleasure they give is not at the expense of any one else; while possessive impulses can only be satisfied by depriving others. If two people both want to possess the same thing, their desires are not 'compossible'.

To put it simply, it is all right to do what you want if it makes you happy, and doesn't do anybody else any harm. Russell even carried this to the logical extreme of saying that, if one man is filled with hatred of another, it may be a good thing for him to have the pleasure of a false belief that the other man is suffering.

Russell's teaching was, in effect, that of the greatest good (or pleasure) of the greatest number. If a schoolboy with a box of chocolates passes them round, he causes greater total satisfaction than if he eats them all himself and makes himself sick. Therefore benevolence is good, selfishness is bad. And Russell added to traditional Utilitarianism a way of measuring a pleasure


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Bertrand Russell the Passionate Skeptic: A Biography


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