In defence of the late Bertrand Russell
The second volume of the biography of Bertrand Russell by Ray Monk seems to have brought out the worst in both author and most reviewers. (Bertrand Russell, Volume II. 1921-1959: The Ghost of Madness). The typical response has been 'Silly old man. He was lost when he left the rarefied world of mathematical logic and proceded to make a mess of both his family life and his intrusions into politics.'
To which my riposte would be 'Silly old reviewers.' I brought myself up on the later Bertrand Russell and found much of what he had to say on ethics and politics eminently sensible. He only went to pieces between the ages of 90 and 98 when his pronouncements were taken over by the American radical Ralph Schoenman. It was in that period that he gave up all pretence at even-handedness between the Soviet Union and the USA. Pronouncements of the 'Bertrand Russell Foundation' started describing American and British leaders as war criminals, entirely responsible for the threat to humanity. But the few people who managed to see him in his North Wales home did not find his perfectly coherent conversations at all resembling those of the 'Foundation', and most of us would be delighted if we could do as well if we lived to that age. In the end Russell did repudiate Schoenman, even if the lead in so doing was taken by his fourth and final wife, Edith.
There is no need to deny that he made a mess of relations in his marriages and with his children. Even here a more charitable interpretation is possible than Monk's. He was undoubtedly — and with good reason — haunted by the fear of madness, which had afflicted so many in his family. It is also possible that, like some other intellectuals of his generation, he felt it necessary to demonstrate his rejection of Victorian Christian ethics by an aggressive promiscuity. But his personal behaviour does not invalidate his reflections on the ethics of war or other political pronouncements.
Russell continued to produce philosophy in the second half of his life; and I wish that Monk had said more about his later works and given less, ultimately boring, detail about the day-to-day vicissitudes of his marriages. And although Russell's educational pronouncements are dutifully mocked, his biographer tells us little about the actual methods of the progressive school, Telegraph Hill, which he helped his wife to run in the 1920s, except that his children were unhappy with the impartiality with which their parents felt they had to treat them! But if I had to choose between the occasional dottiness of progressive educational circles of that time and the moralistic sadism of so many of the public and convent schools I have no doubt which side I would have been on.
Although Russell wrote nothing of the complexity of Principia Mathematica in his later philosophical writing this does not make it worthless. On the contrary, according to the general consensus Russell failed in his earlier period to demonstrate either that mathematics could be derived from logic or that either of the two disciplines could be established on a cast-iron foundation. His adolescent desire to put the mathematical proofs of the textbooks on a completely rigorous basis was destined to remain unfulfilled.
Russell's less formal later work may indeed stand the test of time better. Monk mocks his final view that all our knowledge is of precepts which are quite literally 'in our heads'. But this seems to me quite convincing, and controversial mainly because it goes against both postwar English common sense philosophy and the insistence of traditionalists on more elevated explanations.
The later Russell also came to believe that logical and mathematical propositions were useful tautologies which by themselves told us nothing about the world. Indeed I had not realised until I saw his autobiographical reminiscences that in his earlier period he had hoped to find in mathematics some absolute truth, safe from the hurly-burly of human existence. He said that his conversion to a more conventionalist standpoint was due to the writings of the early Wittgenstein. I leave to others the task of extracting what Wittgenstein 'really meant'. As in the case of Keynes, this will remain a forever elusive quest.
Rather more unfortunate was the lost opportunity of exchanging views with the logician Kurt &Mel who formulated a theorem saying that in any mathematical or logical system there was at least one proposition that could not be refuted or demonstrated in terms of that system itself. Sadly, a contribution by Godel to a 1944 symposium on Russell's philosophy arrived too late for Russell to consider it in his published response.
The academic world resented the fact that Russell's influence on the public was at its height following the publication in 1945 of his bestseller, A History of Western Philosophy, just when his reputation among fellow philosophers was plummeting. But this is all too pious. Russell's History is a witty, bird's-eye view of the main figures in Western thought from the pre-Socratics onwards, enlivened by references both to the historical background and to the personalities and quirks of the thinkers themselves. Of course it was not the last word on any of the philosophers covered. But it was a good first word that often scored. I wish somebody would write anything as irreverent, but as informed, on political economy. Monk is right that he was in an obvious hurry to finish the last few chapters; but anyone who has written such a wide-ranging book, which does not contain weaknesses, should cast the first stone.
Monk believes that Russell's books on topics such as the conquest of happiness or 'in praise of idleness', were simply potboilers written out of a need for ready cash. Like many other writers, Russell's attitude to his own works varied. He was quite capable of mocking the view that a philosopher has some special expertise in how to cope with the problems of daily life, even while he profited from it. This is most true of the 1920s when he was at his most disillusioned with academic philosophy and had left the university wotld.
But his later general books, especially after the second world war, give all the appearance of sincerity. The one which happened to influence me most was the 1954 Human Society in Ethics and Politics. The first part of it had originally been intended for his 1948 volume, Human Knowledge: Its Scope and Limits, but was omitted there because of his doubts about how far there was such a thing as ethical knowledge.
The 1954 version is undoubtedly an old man's book. The first section moves uneasily between struggles to work out the epistemological basis of ethics and specific remarks on substantive ethical problems. But for all that it contains more wisdom than many more portentous volumes.
One of my favourite chapters debunks the notion of sin as a muddled concept
calculated to promote needless cruelty and vindictiveness when it is others who are thought to sin, and a morbid self-abasement when it is ourselves whom we condemn.
Punishment is always an evil; and if it were possible to persuade the public that burglars go to prison, while in fact they were made happy in some remote South Sea island, this would be to the general good. The British philosopher did not claim that there was anything original in this non-doctrinaire utilitarianism, but he put it to good use in exposing morbid beliefs that linger with us to this day.
I have always treasured Human Society for a particular quotation which I have often inserted into my own works:
If men were activated by self-interest, which they are not — except in the case of a few saints — the whole human race would cooperate. There would be no more wars, no more armies, no more navies, no more atom bombs
I do not deny that there are better things than selfishness, and that some people achieve these things. I maintain, however, on the one hand that there are few occasions upon which large bodies of men, such as politics is concerned with, can rise above selfishness, while on the other hand there are a very great many circumstances in which populations will fall below selfishness, if selfishness is interpreted as enlightened self-interest.
And among those occasions on which people fall below self-interest, are most of the occasions on which they are convinced they are acting from idealistic motives. Much that passes as idealism is disguised hatred or disguised love of power.
This passage comes from a section dealing with national and political rivalries, where he argues that if human beings really did consult their self-interest they would not blow each other to pieces or inflict hor rible injuries for the sake of extending state frontiers or in a vain quest for ethnic purity or ideological truth.
But can it also be applied to economics? Readers of Adam Smith will understand the apparently paradoxical view that more misery results from people attempting to curb their own or others' earnings in the interests of fairness and equality than from a frank attempt to enrich themselves, at least in societies based on the rule of law. Whether Russell would have accepted the economic inference is difficult to say. He once said that he thought of studying economics, but abandoned the subject as too difficult. Why this is so would make an essay in itself.
His own economic pronouncements, such as they were, varied. He became a member of the Labour party in the first world war as a result of his disillusionment with the Liberal government which took Britain into the war. He said at the time that he would put up with socialism for the sake of peace. How I sympathise! He later seemed to subscribe to standard left-wing notions that warmongering was inspired by the quest for profits of monopoly capitalists. But by the time of his 1954 volume he came round to the more sober, if boring, view that men and women could be induced to act within the law and moral conventions by a mixture of three different motivations: fear of punishment, desire to receive praise and to avoid blame.
In any case, the quoted passage is the bridge between my own neo-liberal economic views and a non-Christian neo-pacifism in foreign affairs. The combination is paradoxical only to those who insist on seeing the world in terms of Left and Right.
Russell's increasing preoccupation with the control of nuclear weapons may be difficult to understand on the part of those who only remember the long stalemate of the last few decades of the Cold War and the period since. Yet the fear of mutual annihilation in horrifying circumstances was a dominating concern between the Hiroshima bomb in 1945 and the detonation of the first H-bomb in 1954.
This was vividly captured in the 1957 novel On the Beach by Nevil Shute in which Australia was spared a nuclear holocaust for a brief period, before it too became contaminated with radiation. During this interval a ship was sent to New York searching out an apparent sign of life, only to find that this was due to the swinging of a pendulum against the wall with no living creature in sight.
Unfortunately these perils are by no means behind us in a world of nuclear proliferation. The least that British governments could do to contribute their mite to reducing it would be to give up the socalled British nuclear deterrent and the post-imperial illusions that go with it. To say this is quite compatible with relying for the time being on the US nuclear shield as Europe's best defence against aggressors big or small.
It is true that Russell did advocate a preventative war against Russia at least once at a meeting in Westminster School in 1948. He had earlier been very impressed by American readiness to share control of nuclear materials with the Soviet Union under the postwar Baruch Plan. But the USSR refused and it was clear to Russell that the Russians were determined to have the atomic bomb. He was convinced that there would then be an atomic war between the two great nuclear powers which would be the ultimate horror that would spell the end of civilization. To avoid this, he believed that it was urgent for the US to drop the bomb on the Soviet Union and obliterate it as a great power. But once the Soviet Union — and eventually China — had the bomb it was in any case too late: and Russell came to regard mutual nuclear disarmament as the only way of avoiding the ultimate honor.
Russell underestimated the role of the balance of terror in maintaining peace. But this is not something that can be relied upon indefinitely. There was nothing at all senile in his most famous 1954 radio utterance: 'Remember your humanity and forget the rest.' Nor did one have to be a fellow traveller to praise the wisdom of Nikita Khrushchev in pulling his nuclear warheads out of Cuba in 1962 to avoid a confrontation with the USA. Interestingly enough his climbdown was announced in a letter to Russell himself. Doubtless he would have found some alternative facesaving form of retreat had the British philosopher not existed.
Russell was frequently chided with overestimating the role of reason in human affairs. He replied with a much-needed reiteration of David Hume's famous statement: 'Reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions.' He added: 'Reason signifies the choice of the right means to an end that you wish to achieve.' What is gained by rejecting that in favour of the wrong means?
Russell's lifelong disappointment was that he could not find any logical justification for his hatred of cruelty. He could not reconcile himself to the view that a dislike of torture was similar to a dislike of strawberry ice-cream. But here he really tried too hard. There is no way in which ethical judgments can either be empirically established by scientific methods or logically deduced. They are not that type of thing.
There is a difference between disliking cruelty and disliking strawberry ice-cream. But it is not that one judgment is more objective than the other. It is that a person who dislikes one kind of ice-cream will not need to care whether others share his tastes and aversions; but someone who abhors cruelty would want these judgments acted upon by as many people as possible. Richard Hare's theory of moral judgments as universal prescriptive utterances does show that there is a limited sense in which one can argue logically about ethics; but only, in my view, if some non-demonstrable value judgments are taken as given.
On a personal level Russell always believed that the best way to counter the fear of old age and death was to merge one' 5 concerns more and more with that of the human species in general. This is a course of wisdom which few are able to follow. Many of us respond with the quip, 'What has posterity done for me?' Most people achieve a half-way house by identifying their interests with their families and close friends — and more dubiously with those of the nations and other collective groups to which they belong.
Russell was rightly very concerned with the contrast between the conscientious feelings that people sometimes have towards members of their own herd, and their often very hostile attitudes to individuals or groups outside that herd. He concluded that the best long-term hope for the human race lay in the development of a genuinely scientific psychology which would enable us to understand and master these pathologies. This still rings true; but unfortunately he wrote before either the present developments of evolutionary psychology or its more physical counterpart in molecular genetics. He therefore had to rely on a smattering of Freud together with Pavlovian behaviourism. Maybe we can move on to a fuller understanding if religious fundamentalists or environmental fanatics can be stopped from preventing all further progress.
Other articles by Samuel Britian can be found on his website: www. samuelbrittan.co.uk.