on 23 May 2006
Bertrand Russell manages to show in this book that he is a far better polemicist than philosopher. His tries, in this very short booklet, to tackle complex issues of science, rationality, morality, ethics, organized religion and the age old problem of what makes a 'good life'. He fails dismally almost uniformally across the board to convince that he's thought any of what he's writing about through properly.
He seems highly inconsistent to me in two different senses of the word. Firstly, his musings are often inconsistent with reality, and secondly with each other. To give a simple example, Russell writes in his booklet What I Believe that scientific knowledge, in the sense of hard facts, is an essential ingredient for a 'good life'. Presumably life is better and better the more scientific facts are known. If we go the other way, it means that the fewer scientific facts are known, the less good life is. So presumably people living before the Enlightenment were condemned to a life of utter misery, seeing as they hadn't a clue about the "laws" of gravity, or quantum electrodynamics! What is clear from some modern studies is that whatever boons science and technology affords us today, we're no happier for it - that is, we're no more fulfilled as individuals or as a society.
Here's another example: "The whole effectiveness of any ethical argument lies in its scientific part, i.e. in the proof that one kind of conduct, rather than some other, is a means to an end which is widely desired."
It is obvious what Russell is getting at: if an action brings about a result that in generally the thing that people desire, then that is good. There are some obvious problems with this. Firstly, what is "widely desired" isn't necessarily "good". (Nazi germany suggests itself as a good example of my counterpoint.) Secondly, that a "scientific" aspect of something is deemed such according to whether or not it complies with what is "widely desired" is an audacious usurpation of the word "science"! Science does not hold public opinion as the arbiter of what is "effective". If we take my criticisms into account and factor them out of Russell's statement accordingly, something still survives, but it is rather useless: he is saying that the effectiveness of any ethical argument boils down to whether it is a good ethical argument or not. Well gee whizz. Who would have thought that!
Such problems continue throughout the book and at the end of it one is satisfied that the the book has explained what Russell believes (which is the claim in the title), but completely diappointed to learn that what he believes is such half-baked tripe.
I don't want to imply that Russell is utterly useless. He has produced some things worth reading. For example, on the topic of his atheism and the reasons for it, see his "Why I Am Not A Christian" book, which offers far more value for money. In fact, there is a sense in which I admire Russell for his stance on the First World War; he resisted it tooth and nail and, like most intellectuals who don't comply with the system, wound up in prison and lost his lectureship at Cambridge. Obviously, Russell is a man of some moral stature, but unfortunately this book does nothing for his reputation in my eyes.
This book is VERY short (about 40 pages), so keep that in mind too before you spend the full price on it.