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16 of 59 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Below par from Russell, 23 May 2006
This review is from: What I Believe (Routledge Classics) (Paperback)
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.
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Showing 1-2 of 2 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 27 Aug 2008 17:06:36 BDT
Last edited by the author on 28 Aug 2008 11:48:37 BDT
N. Gilmartin says:
This review is very unfair to Russell and I think it misinterprets him. Russell says that knowledge is an essential ingredient of the good life, and that the only way to knowledge is through the methods of science. He certainly does not say that science will of necessity lead to the good life: in fact, he wrote an entire book, called Icarus, in which he writes of the dangers of a misuse of scientific discoveries. Russell also uses the word `science' in a far broader sense than the reviewer suggests. `Science' as used in this book is not simply facts about the natural world independent of human beings: it also encompasses facts about us, what makes us tick, how our physiology affects our mental states, and so on. His point is simply that the good life combines love with knowledge, and that because both of these can be extended indefinitely, the good life can always be improved upon.

Nor do I think that Russell falls prey to the objection that his ethical theory can justify atrocities such as those committed by the Nazis. In fact, he explicitly rejects Bentham's criterion of what makes for a good action by himself citing the example of a tyrant who allows a prisoner to live only in order to prolong his suffering.

Russell wants more scientific research in the field of psychology to uncover and defuse anti-social drives that he sees as the primary cause of disharmony in communities. Ultimately, he believes that the only way to a deeper knowledge of human beings is through science (psychology/physiology, and the like), and so the only way to change human behaviour in such a way as to achieve harmony will be with the aid of science.

In reply to an earlier post on 12 Sep 2009 14:12:27 BDT
B. Coffey says:
That comment goes a long way to balance the "spin" put on Russell's book by the previous commentator. But I can concur with the previous commentator in his overall summary that this is not by any means one of Russell's best thought ou works. His "Conquest of Happiness" deals with many of the same issues in a more simple and logical way.
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