Russell’s Moral Theories

Bertrand Russell has consistently advocated ideals and expressed beliefs which have made him, along with Shaw and Wells, if not quite with Marx and Freud, one of the formative influences on the modem mind.
Bertrand Russell

by D. H. Monro


If Bertrand Russell had lived in an earlier century, no one would have hesitated to call him a moral philoso­pher. In our more finicking age, some academics may want to say that, great as his achievements have been in other branches of philosophy, he is less a moral philosopher than a moralist. That is to say, he has consistently advocated ideals and expressed beliefs which have made him, along with Shaw and Wells, if not quite with Marx and Freud, one of the formative influences on the modem mind; but he has usually addressed these writings to the general public, and, although writing always with great force, clarity and skill, he has not always troubled his readers with the minutiae of philosophical argument. But this point should not be exaggerated. Even in his most popular works, Russell never loses sight of the philosophical problems in his concern for the political or psychologi­cal ones, and he certainly has views on meta-morals and meta-politics as well as on morals and politics. Indeed, his attempts to reconcile the two are highly illuminating; for they show one of the clearest minds of our time faced with one of the central problems of our time: how to justify passionately-held moral con­victions when all the evidence seems to lead to moral scepticism. (To guard against misunderstanding, I should perhaps say that I do not mean religious scepticism. It is demonstrable, though it would be irrelevant here to demonstrate, that religious beliefs, whether justified or not, cannot provide an intellec­tually satisfying basis for morality.)

Russell’s moral and political doctrines themselves are too well known to need more than a brief refer­ence. I should put first his insistence on “the scientific outlook”: “the doctrine . . . that it is undesirable to believe a proposition when there is no ground what­ever for supposing it true”.1 No one has insisted more cogently on the need for weighing evidence, for fol­lowing the argument whithersoever it leads, for sus­pending judgment whenever there is reasonable ground for doubt. These doctrines seem trite only when stated, not when applied; Russell is quite right in saying that “if accepted, they would absolutely revolutionize human life”.2 It is often said that that revolution has actually been proceeding since about the seventeenth century; and there are those today who argue that the time is ripe for a counter­revolution. Article One in Russell’s creed is that, on the contrary, our troubles today are caused by the partial failure of the scientific revolution, not by its too complete success.

The nature of the transformation which Russell en­visages (but does not expect) is quite clear, at least in its outlines. There is to be tolerance, sympathy and understanding. There is to be equality: the good life should be possible for all men; and Russell is quite clear that under the present social and economic sys­tem most men lead cramped and frustrating lives. Above all, there is to be freedom. “Government and law, in their very essence, consist of restrictions on freedom, and freedom is the greatest of political goods. . . . I do not say freedom is the greatest of all goods: the best things come from within—they are such things as creative art, and love, and thought.”3 Russell’s ideal state, then, will help, rather than hin­der, its citizens in cultivating these goods; and to this end there will be needed a mixture of socialism and anarchism. Socialism (or at least the abolition of capi­talism) is necessary to free men from the tyranny of uncongenial work; but Russell saw, much sooner than most socialists, that socialism could be a real danger to freedom. “These results are not foreseen by Socialists, because they imagine that the Socialist State will be governed by men like those who now advocate it. This is, of course, a delusion. The rulers of the State then will bear as little resemblance to the present So­cialists as the dignitaries of the Church after the time of Constantine bore to the Apostles. The men who advocate an unpopular reform are exceptional in dis­interestedness and zeal for the public good; but those who hold power after the reform has been carried out are likely to belong, in the main, to the ambitious executive type which has, in all ages, possessed itself of the government of nations. And this type has never shown itself tolerant of opposition or friendly to free­dom.”4 These were, in 1918, prophetic words. As safe­guards against this danger, Russell proposes devolu­tion, along the lines advocated by Guild Socialists and pluralists generally; special provisions for freedom of publication, to prevent the State from acquiring a monopoly of propaganda; and the device of “the vaga­bond wage”, by which all citizens would be given a subsistence wage whether they worked or not. This would deprive the State (or any other employer) of its most powerful coercive weapon, the threat of star­vation; and it would be unlikely to deplete the labour force much, since, Russell points out, most people with small independent incomes are glad enough to increase their income by working. At the same time, the way would be open for the artist or scholar who wished to devote himself to uneconomic pursuits. This seems reasonable enough; but in general Russell treats economic problems rather cavalierly. He is content to accept, without much examination, the view of Kropot­kin and others that, if waste were eliminated, a very few hours’ work a day would be enough to maintain us all at a high standard of living.

Now it is obvious that in all this Russell is commit­ting himself to certain propositions: that love is better than hatred, that the good life for all is better than the good life for a few, that creative impulses are bet­ter than destructive ones, that one ought not to accept a belief because it is useful or comforting, but only be­cause it is true. And the question that obviously pre­sents itself is: What is the evidence for these proposi­tions? By what rational arguments could one defend them against an aristocrat, an authoritarian, or a mis­anthropist? Is the belief that one should never rely on mere dogma itself a piece of mere dogma?

These are, of course, the problems that have always perplexed moral philosophers, especially those who have been imbued with the empirical spirit. And there are, roughly, three traditional ways of tackling the difficulty.

1) All knowledge, it may be argued, must start somewhere. In science we start with the evidence of the senses. This means that there are certain “atomic propositions”, known immediately, which no one seri­ously doubts. Now it is arguable that in morals, too, there are atomic propositions, known to us perhaps through a special moral sense. If this can be made out, the special difficulties of moral investigation vanish, and moral philosophy is no less empirical than science.

2) Alternatively, it may be said that morality is not indeed concerned to establish objective facts, like science, but to discover rules or recipes for the gratifi­cation of human desires. This is, however, a suffi­ciently objective study, in much the way that medicine is objective. For the pursuit of health is simply the at­tempt to discover the physical conditions which men in general find agreeable. And, although what suits one man does not always suit another, these differences are not great enough to prevent us from re­garding some physical conditions as desirable, and others as undesirable, for all men. The pursuit of happiness (or well-being, to use a less tendentious term) is not significantly different from the pursuit of health: there are some ways of life that suit human nature, and others that do not. This is itself an objec­tive fact; and, just as the truths of medicine apply equally to the doctor and the Christian Scientist, so the truths of morals apply equally to those who ac­knowledge them and those who do not. So that, al­though morality is concerned with the gratification of desire, the rules which it lays down are objective and applicable to all men, and their study is an empirical one like any other.

3) Finally, it may be contended that morality is * not objective in either of these ways and that moral statements simply express the wishes of the person uttering them, or possibly of the community to which he belongs. (There are of course many refinements of this view, as indeed of the other two, but this should do for the present purpose.)

Russell has, at various times, adopted each of these positions, in the order in which I have given them: the first and the third explicitly, the second by impli­cation. In his early paper, “The Elements of Ethics”,5 he accepts without reserve Moore’s account of moral­ity: we know immediately that certain things are good, and the right action is the one that produces most good. “Good” itself is a non-natural quality, appre­hended directly just as natural qualities are. But here and there he shows traces of uneasiness.

“In this, as in all philosophical inquiries,” he writes, “after a preliminary analysis of complex data we pro­ceed again to build up complex things from their sim­ple constituents, starting from ideas which we un­derstand, and from premisses which we know though we cannot prove them. The appearance of dogmatism in this procedure is deceptive, for the premisses are such as ordinary reasoning unconsciously assumes, and there is less real dogmatism in believing them after a critical scrutiny than in employing them implicitly without examination.”6

This procedure works well enough if the object is to explore the implications of our ordinary judgments about the external world. It would seem less service­able for the moralist concerned to urge unpopular re­forms. Of course the reformer may be able to show that his conclusions follow if only the assumptions of the man in the street are taken to their logical conclu­sion; and many reformers have in fact made some such claim. Nevertheless, the assumptions made in ordinary reasoning about ethics are notoriously less uniform than those made in ordinary reasoning about percep­tion or knowledge; and it is hard to see how the mor­alist is to escape dogmatism except at the cost of confining himself to the safest and most tepid of gen­eralizations. Moore, it is true, did not do this; but his account of the good life was based on the unconscious assumptions, not of the man in the street, but of the Cambridge or Bloomsbury aesthete of 1904; it seemed dogmatic enough to many of his contemporaries. And, apart altogether from this, it seems unlikely that so thoroughgoing an empiricist as Russell could long be satisfied with the notion of non-natural qualities.


It is perhaps significant that “The Elements of Ethics” was written before the war of 1914-18; for Russell himself has often said that it was that war that first awakened his interest in social and political re­forms. Accordingly we find his next writings more concerned with practice than with theory; and the theory that shines through seems to owe more to Freud, or perhaps even to Hobbes, than to Moore.

It is true that he begins Principles of Social Recon­struction by dividing human impulses into “two groups, the possessive and the creative, according as they aim at acquiring or retaining something that cannot be shared, or at bringing into the world some valuable thing, such as knowledge or art or goodwill.” And he adds: “I consider the best life that which is most built on creative impulses, and the worst that which is most inspired by love of possession.”7 This is quite in accordance with Moore: some impulses just are good, and others just are bad. Moreover the list of good things (knowledge, art, goodwill), and the account of what makes an activity valuable (bringing good things into existence) are almost straight Moore.

Yet Russell was, in spite of Moore, worried by the assumption that an end can be rational or irrational in itself. “There is no objective reason to be given”, he tells us, only a few pages after his Moorean beginning, “to show that one of these attitudes is essentially more rational than the other. If a man finds people repul­sive, no argument can prove to him that they are not so. But both his own desires and other people’s are much less likely to find satisfaction if he resembles Carlyle than if he resembles Walt Whitman.”8

It is no longer enough, apparently, to say that good­will has the non-natural quality of goodness. And, once this belief has been given up, there seems to be only one reason for choosing any course of action: that we want to. The obvious difficulty about this, however, is that desires conflict. Take one of Russell’s own examples. “Those who believe that man is a ra­tional animal”, he writes, “will say that people boast in order that others may have a good opinion of them; but most of us can recall occasions when we have boasted in spite of knowing that we would be despised for it.”9 But why is this irrational? Only on the assumption that one wants to be admired and does not want to be despised. One gets satisfaction from the admiration of one’s friends; moreover, that admiration may have further consequences agreeable in them­selves, such as invitations to dinner. All right. But boasting itself, apparently, is a source of satisfaction. Why, then, should the one satisfaction be preferred to the other? There seems to be no reason, unless one can be shown to be greater, or more lasting, than the other.

This line of thought leads straight to the hedonic calculus. It leads straight, too, to a distinction, which Russell duly makes, between a passing impulse and a settled purpose. But Russell does not draw the con­clusion that one might expect. For so far the implica­tion is clearly that purpose, as the source of greater and more lasting satisfaction, is to be preferred to impulse. The man who acts morally is, on this view, very much in the position of the industrious appren­tice: he finds it worth while to repress some inclina­tions, such as a taste for idleness and dissipation (or for boasting), for the sake of later but greater rewards.

What Russell actually says, however, is that this subordination of impulse to desire is to be condemned.

“Almost all paid work is done from desire, not from impulse: the work itself is more or less irksome, but the payment for it is desired. The serious activities that fill a man’s working hours are, except in a few fortunate individuals, governed mainly by purposes, not by impulses, towards those activities. In this hardly anyone sees an evil, because the place of im­pulse in a satisfactory existence is not recognized. . . . The complete control of impulse by will, which is sometimes preached by moralists, and often enforced by economic necessity, is not really desirable. A life governed by purposes and desires, to the exclusion of impulse, is a boring life; it exhausts vitality, and leaves a man, in the end, indifferent to the very pur­poses that he is trying to achieve.”10

Now this is not necessarily inconsistent with hedon­ism. The point may be, not that the hedonic calculus itself is at fault, but that the accountancy methods of the calculators are often mistaken. There are unsus­pected items to be added on the debit side: sources of unhappiness that Bentham never dreamed of. They had been dreamed of since, of course, by Freud. Rus­sell’s emphasis on impulse in Principles of Social Reconstruction undoubtedly stems from Freud: if not directly, at least from the popular Freudianism of the period. The repression of impulse, it was argued, exacted too high a price, so that lives were warped and the spontaneous joy in living killed. The industrious apprentice himself came under fire: perhaps he had nothing much, after all, to show at the end of his life except stomach ulcers and a soured disposition.

None of this would affect the hedonic calculus as such: it is still assumed that desires really do conflict and that one must choose the most satisfying and re­press the others. The difference of opinion is merely about which desires are the most satisfying. But it is possible to take a different line. It is possible to argue that the conflict of desires is more apparent than real; or rather that, while the conflict is real enough, some of the desires are not. More intelligibly put, this amounts to a distinction between desires or impulses which are an innate part of “human nature” (the “real self”) and those which are socially acquired.

Some such distinction was forced on the Freudians fairly early. Sexual desire, for example, is innate; but the feelings of horror and guilt often roused by sex ? are socially acquired. Eliminating such feelings, then, is not repression. On the contrary, it is a kind of liberation. We are to think of the “natural” man as hav­ing been cramped or warped by social conventions; the task is simply to remove the fetters. It should be emphasized that this is not so much Freud as popular Freudianism. But the point at the moment is that Russell seems at least partly inclined to adopt this view. As he develops it, there are interesting echoes, both of the eighteenth-century view that man is natu­rally good and corrupted by society and, rather sur­prisingly, of the Idealist view that moral rules are prescriptions for “realizing” the true self.

In the first place, he makes a good deal of the point that the repression of impulse is not merely tiring and destructive of vitality but also the source of “new im­pulses . . . of cruelty and destruction”. These impulses, then, are socially acquired. The suggestion is that men will not behave aggressively unless their “natural” de­velopment has been thwarted. And, secondly, this leads Russell to say, quite in the manner of the Ideal­ists, that men have “a central principle of growth, an instinctive urgency leading them in a certain direction, as trees seek the light”.11 It looks, then, as if the initial division into good (or creative) and bad (or posses­sive) impulses really rests on another: into natural impulses, which proceed from the principle of growth within, and artificial ones, which are produced when these natural impulses are cramped, checked and dis­torted.

Russell agrees with the men of the eighteenth cen­tury, and disagrees with the Idealists, in suggesting that social institutions are responsible for the cramp­ing or distorting. It may be said of the Freudian Revo­lution (though somewhat misleadingly) that, like the Marxist one, it stood Idealism on its head. The Idealist view was, roughly, that “the real self” is what Freud came to call the super-ego: the moral sentiments of parents, teachers and society generally so far as these are taken over by the individual and made part of himself. The Freudians (though not, perhaps, Freud) declared that, on the contrary, it is the id that is the real self. Russell seems to share this view, at least to the extent of being suspicious of the super-ego. He tells us, for example, that we should not try to “mould” the young, but to “equip and strengthen” them “for the ends which the child’s own spirit is obscurely seek­ing”. And he goes on: “Certain mental habits are com­monly instilled by those who are engaged in educat­ing: obedience and discipline, ruthlessness in the struggle for worldly success, contempt towards op­posing groups, and an unquestioning credulity, a pas­sive acceptance of the teachers wisdom. All these habits are against life.”12 It is clear that, in Russell’s opinion, a man is cramped, not merely by being pre­vented from taking a mistress, travelling abroad, sleep­ing in on a week-day, fishing in a privately owned stream, or taking up art and literature instead of go­ing into an office, but also by having certain prejudices and habits of thought instilled into him. To follow the argument whithersoever it leads, to examine the opinions of others with complete tolerance and im­partiality, is, apparently, part of what he means by “nourishing the growth within”.

Now one may certainly doubt whether it is “natu­ral”, as the Idealists seemed to think, to submerge oneself selflessly in the ends of society. There were good grounds for arguing that society’s rules about sexual indulgence imposed a considerable strain on human nature; and one could even write cogently, as Russell did, “in praise of idleness”, and argue that the industrious apprentice, too, was doing violence to his “real self”. But is it really more natural to be tolerant than to be intolerant, or to acquire the habit of care­ful and critical thinking than to accept uncritically the dicta of authority?

The truth is that it is not really possible to main­tain that the sort of world that Russell wants to see can be obtained merely by giving free rein to the id. It is very doubtful, indeed, whether this policy will even lead to the happiness of the individual, or whether Freud himself ever advocated it. “The poor ego”, Freud tells us, “has to serve three harsh masters, and has to do its best to reconcile the claims and demands of all three. The three tyrants are the external world, the super-ego and the id.”13 The id, so far from be­ing the source of all freedom, is, it seems, itself a tyrant. The point is that the “pleasure-principle”, which alone governs the id, needs to be modified by the “reality-principle”. Left to itself, impulse drives blindly towards its ends without taking account of those factors in the outside world (including the ex­istence of other men with impulses of their own) which make those ends unattainable. The external world, too, is a tyrant, no doubt, but one not to be denied. The tendency of the id to believe only what it wants to believe is to be resisted, if only in its own in­terests.

Now Russell recognizes this. “Instinct,” he says to­wards the end of Principles of Social Reconstruction, “is the source of vitality . . . but instinct by itself leaves us powerless to control the forces of nature, either in ourselves or in our physical environment, and keeps us in bondage to the same unthinking impulse by which the trees grow.”14 So it now appears that to allow “the natural principle of growth” to have its way is, after all, to be in bondage, not to be free. For the way to control the forces of nature is, at least in part, to adapt ourselves to them. If we are to gratify our impulses it must be in ways which do not attempt to flout the laws of physics (or physiology, including, for example, digestion). A rational morality will cer­tainly need to take account of this.

Moreover, it seems to follow that a rational moral­ity will also take account of the super-ego. For the ex­ternal world, let us repeat, includes other human beings, whose likes and dislikes affect us quite as inex­orably as the laws of physics; so that we are also forced to gratify our impulses only in the ways that our fellow-men will tolerate. And the super-ego, at least in part, embodies the demands which other men, in their own interests, are bound to make upon us.

Only in part, it is true. The super-ego may often en­force irrational taboos, based on false beliefs about nature, including human nature. Nevertheless, a ra­tional man will certainly take account of the super­ego, so far as it merely represents the demands which the reality-principle makes upon the pleasure-principle. For other men are certainly real.

So far I have argued that, in Principles of Social Reconstruction, Russell at least dallies with the view that the way of life he believes in is the one which the id will adopt once it is freed from the corrupting in­fluences of superstition and indoctrination. But, for all his lauding of “impulses”, his “principle of growth within” is not quite Freud’s id. Sometimes at least he seems to be putting forward the more moderate view that his version of the good life is the one that will re­sult if the demands of the id are modified by nothing but the demands of reality. This gives us ample ground for rejecting superstition; and indoctrination, too, so far as it is unsupported by valid argument. Moreover, it provides justification for the scientific outlook, and the open, enquiring attitude of mind, which is necessary if we are to know what the reality-principle really does enjoin upon us.

A rational morality will, on this view, take the maximum possible satisfaction of desire as its aim. It will recognize the need to suppress some impulses: when they conflict with too many others, or when the nature of the external world (including the demands of other men) makes their realization impossible; but it will also recognize, more fully than the earlier utilitarians did, that the suppression of impulse is a very potent source of misery. And for that reason the alleged demands of the external world must be scruti­nized very carefully. Many of the alleged facts which have been advanced in the past as reasons for repress­ing impulse can be shown not to be facts at all. And many of the restrictions imposed by other men can be shown to be quite unnecessary for the happiness of those men.

All this fits in well enough, up to a point, with Rus­sell’s beliefs: with his advocacy of tolerance and free­dom, his impatience with asceticism considered as an end in itself. Certainly it is much more in accordance with his whole-hearted belief in reason than the other view we have been considering. But it is doubtful if he is really prepared to accept all its implications. For one of Russell’s fundamental beliefs is that we ought to desire the good life for others as well as for ourselves; and the view we are considering does not really justify this belief. The tolerance and freedom it justifies is, after all, tolerance and freedom for oneself, not neces­sarily for other people. It is true that we must, in ac­cordance with the reality principle, pay attention to other men’s search for happiness as well as our own; but only so far as they will make things unpleasant for us if we don’t. For the only rational ground we have found for action is still the satisfaction of desire: our own desire, not anyone else’s.

We are, in short, back with Hobbes. We might, in­deed, call this theory Freudian Hobbism. And the Hobbist belief that most people have found most ob­jectionable is precisely this one: that there is no good reason to consider other people’s happiness unless it affects our own. It is, of course, arguable that Hobbes is right about this; and it may even be said that Freud’s discoveries about the super-ego explain why we are so reluctant to believe that he is right. For the super­ego is essentially a means by which the demands of society are impressed upon us so that they become “internalized”, part of ourselves. This means that we feel guilty if we entertain any beliefs likely to under­mine their influence; for it is the super-ego which, in Freud’s system, plays the important role of censor. It is easy to see, then, why it should censor the view that the happiness of other men is not important in its own right. Nevertheless, if we are to submit the dictates of the super-ego to rational criticism, it is hard to see what reason there can be for considering the interests of other men except that advanced by Hobbes.

But whether Hobbes is right or not is hardly the point. The point is that Russell does not think he is. Towards the end of Principles of Social Reconstruc­tion he introduces us to a rather curious mental entity which he calls “Spirit”. He has been talking about the clash between “instinct” and “mind”. To leave instinct unchecked, it will be remembered, is after all to be in bondage; and the function of mind is to “liberate us from this bondage, by the power of impersonal thought, which enables us to judge critically the purely biological purposes towards which instinct more or less blindly tends”.15 Unfortunately, mind exacts a high price for its liberating services. “Mind”, we are told, “in its dealings with instinct is merely critical: so far as instinct is concerned, the unchecked activity of the mind is apt to be destructive and generate cyni­cism.”16 The choice, then, would seem to be be­tween blindly pursuing the ends instinct sets before us and refusing to be a mere tool in the hands of natu­ral impulses. If we choose the first alternative we are happy but deluded: we find ourselves, for example, cherishing such patently false beliefs as that the girl next door is the most beautiful in the world, or that the country we happen to have been born in is far su­perior to any other. If we choose the second, our eyes are opened but there is nothing much worth looking at: we are left quite passionless, and, consequently, aimless.

“Spirit” comes in to release us from this dilemma. Spirit enables us to preserve intact the emotions that spring from instinct and at the same time “makes them impervious to mental criticism”. How does it do this? Quite easily, it seems: all it needs to do is to “univer­salize” these emotions.

“The man who has the life of the spirit within him”, Russell says, “views the love of man and woman, both in himself and in others, quite differently. . . . He sees, in his moments of insight, that in all human be­ings there is something deserving of love, something mysterious.”17

But will this satisfy “mind”? “Mind” may well object that “spirit” (or Russell) has shifted his ground. The original false belief was that Angelina is more beauti­ful, etc., than other women: “spirit” renders this im­pervious to criticism by substituting the belief that Angelina is worthy to be loved. But Edwin might be­lieve this, rationally enough, without subscribing to the further belief that all other women are worthy to be loved too. It is true that, so far as Angelina is no more beautiful, intelligent, good-tempered, etc., than other women, it may be argued that she cannot be worthy to be loved unless they are equally so. But this argument rests on certain highly dubious assump­tions. It is assumed that emotions are fitting or rational only if called forth by certain qualities and that, if other objects possess the same qualities, it is irrational not to feel the same emotions for them. But these are assumptions which “mind”, if thoroughly imbued with the empirical spirit, may well question. For what is meant by saying that some qualities are to be loved, or worthy of love, and others to be hated? We can attach meaning to these expressions if we interpret them on Hobbist lines: a quality is to be loved if it is important for our own happiness. And, if this is what is meant, then Edwin (or his instinct, with the full approval of his mind) can retort that Angelina is im­portant to his happiness in a way that other women are not.

It is clear, however, that this is precisely what Rus­sell does not mean. For, he tells us, “the life of the spirit centres round impersonal feeling, as the life of the mind centres round impersonal thought. … It is possible to feel the same interest in the joys and sorrows of others as in our own, to love and hate in­dependently of all relation to ourselves, to care about the destiny of man and the development of the uni­verse without a thought that we are personally in­volved”.18

It is clear, I think, that Russell is clinging here to the conviction, which most of us want to urge against Hobbes, that the happiness of other men is desirable for its own sake. I think it is clear, too, that he has not found any rational ground for this conviction other than the Moorean one we had supposed him to be rejecting. For what he is saying really amounts to this: that the attitude recommended by spirit just is good, and is impervious to the criticism of mind just because mind recognizes this. It is significant that, in one of the passages quoted, he contrasts blind sub­servience to the ends of Nature with being a willing minister to the impersonal desires that one sees to be good.

I have discussed Principles of Social Reconstruction at length, because I think that it shows very clearly the different and inconsistent moral theories that Rus­sell was struggling with at this period. It shows this the more clearly because moral theory is in the background; the book is mainly concerned with social and political problems. Consequently the theoretical in­consistencies were allowed to appear, whereas if the book had been explicitly devoted to moral theory Rus­sell would presumably have done something to elimi­nate them. He was to do this later. But the inconsist­encies are illuminating, because they are those of which most of us are guilty when we come to use moral concepts, however neatly we may tidy them up when we are merely talking about them. It is worth while, then, seeing clearly what the opposing positions are. There is first of all the conviction, which most of us have, that some ways of behaving just are good and others bad. There is, secondly, the uneasy suspicion that this may be a mere dogma, which anyone with a scientific outlook is bound to question, especially since people do genuinely disagree about which ways of behaving are good and which bad. This leads one to take the safer line that, finally, the only justification for doing anything is that one wants to do it. But this is not really very helpful, since the problem is often to choose between conflicting desires. But perhaps some of these desires may turn out not to be real ones? This comforting hypothesis seems to be supported by the Freudian discovery that, on the one hand, we have many desires of which we are unconscious, and that, on the other, many purposes we think we have are the products of convention and leave us unsatisfied when we have attained them. The conclusion is drawn that it is safer to trust instinct, from which these un­conscious desires spring, than conventional notions of what we ought to do. But then it appears that to fol­low instinct is, as Spinoza pointed out, to be in bond­age to the passions: in particular, we are led to cherish beliefs which are demonstrably false. Instinct, then, needs to be corrected by reason, if only in its own interests. But reason, it seems, can do nothing but dampen enthusiasm, leaving us cynical and aimless. What we need are passions of which reason can ap­prove. But it is the function of reason to pass judg­ment on the truth or falsity of propositions: so that if reason approves of some passions or purposes this must mean that we apprehend the truth or falsity of propositions of the form: This emotion is fitting or This end is good. We are back, then, where we started; and the cycle of argument and counter-argument be­gins once more.


In the other books on social and political problems written about this time, Russell’s underlying moral the­ory does not develop very much. In The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism (1920) he seems to abandon his never very wholehearted belief that men would be tolerant, affectionate and full of zeal for disinterested learning if only their impulses were not repressed by a tyrannical social system. In that book he lists four fundamental passions, which (apart from the instinc­tive desires for food, sex and shelter) dominate human nature. They are acquisitiveness, vanity, rivalry and love of power; and the prime error of Marxist theory, he tells us, is that it concentrates on the first to the exclusion of the other three. All of these, presumably, would rank among the “possessive”, or bad, impulses; so that the “creative” impulses from which he hoped so much in Principles of Social Reconstruction appear to have vanished entirely. In that book he had said: “I consider . . . the worst [life] that which is most inspired by love of possession”;19 so that it is a little startling to find him now writing: “The progress or retrogression of the world depends, broadly speaking, upon the balance between acquisitiveness and rivalry. The former makes for progress, the latter for retro­gression.”20 It is true that he is speaking here of ma­terial progress; the point is that, as scientific discoveries “provide improved methods of production, these may be employed either to increase the general share of goods, or to set apart more of the labour power of the community for the business of killing its rivals”. But he can hardly be using “progress” wholly in this sense when he declares: “One who believes, as I do, that the free intellect is the chief engine of human progress, cannot but be fundamentally opposed to Bolshevism, as much as to the Church of Rome.”21

Russell’s view of the good life has not changed: he objects to the Soviet regime mainly because it stifles free inquiry and fosters bigotry and a rigid orthodoxy. But he now sees little sign that “the love of mental adventure” or the “creative instincts” are among the basic forces in human nature. He may have been con­firmed in this more pessimistic view by the way in which Freudianism was developing. Freud himself was beginning to elaborate the hypothesis that the impulse to hate was as fundamental as the impulse to love; that the primary tendencies of the id included the death-wish, with its accompanying desire for de­struction and aggression. If this is accepted it seems to dispose finally of the view that the good life can be attained by liberating the id from the repression of society. On the other hand, it provides an added reason for being suspicious of the super-ego; for the super-ego, Freud tells us, is influenced, not merely by the reality-principle, but also by the sadistic and masochistic tendencies that rise from the id. But, once it is admitted that the id is not dominated solely by the pleasure-principle, doubt is cast on the whole basis of Freudian Hobbism. The contention was that the rational way of life consists in following the pleasure-principle, as modified (of necessity) by the reality-principle. But this does not involve the assumption that pleasure is, in the Moorean sense, good, but sim­ply that pleasure is the goal at which human beings do, as a matter of fact, aim. But it now appears that it is only one of the things at which they aim; the other is death and destruction. “The meaning of the evolution of culture”, Freud writes, “is no longer a riddle to us. It must present to us the struggle between Eros and Death, between the instincts of life and the instincts of destruction, as it works itself out in the human species.”22 But why prefer one of these to the other, unless one is (in the Moorean sense) good and the other evil?

Yet the objections to Moore remain. When he comes to write Power, in 1938, we find Russell repeating em­phatically that Reason cannot determine the ends of life. The whole passage is worth quoting:

“It is customary nowadays to decry Reason as a force in human affairs, yet the rise of science is an overwhelming argument on the other side. The men of science proved to intelligent laymen that a certain kind of intellectual outlook ministers to military prow­ess and wealth; these ends were so ardently desired that the new intellectual outlook overcame that of the Middle Ages, in spite of the force of tradition and the revenues of the Church and the sentiments asso­ciated with Catholic theology. The world ceased to believe that Joshua caused the sun to stand still, be­cause Copernican astronomy was useful in navigation; it abandoned Aristotle’s physics, because Galileo’s the­ory of falling bodies made it possible to calculate the trajectory of a cannon-ball; it rejected the story of the flood, because geology is useful in mining, and so on. . . .

“From this example, something may be learned as to the power of Reason in general. In the case of Science, Reason prevailed over prejudice because it provided means of realizing existing purposes, and because the proof that it did so was overwhelming. Those who maintain that Reason has no power in human affairs overlook these two conditions. If, in the name of Reason, you summon a man to alter his fun­damental purposes—to pursue, say, the general happi­ness rather than his own power—you will fail, and you will deserve to fail, since Reason alone cannot determine the ends of life. . . . But if you can prove, by evidence which is convincing to every sane man who takes the trouble to examine it, that you possess a means of facilitating the satisfaction of existing de­sires, you may hope, with a certain degree of confi­dence, that men will ultimately believe what you say.”23

By this time, it is clear, Russell no longer believes either that some ends are good in themselves, and so recommended by Reason alone, or that the ends which men actually pursue (or would pursue, if they followed Reason in the sense of allowing the pleasure-principle to be modified by nothing but the reality-principle) are those which he himself advocates. Moore and Freudian Hobbism have both failed him. It is not surprising then, to find him turning to the third method of reconciling empiricism with morality —subjectivism. In Power he outlines a subjectivist ethic, quite explicitly. In doing so he merely repeats, and expands a little, the chapter on “Science and Eth­ics” in the little volume called Religion and Science24 which he had published in 1935. There is a further statement of this position in Human Society in Ethics and Politics; but the chapter in Religion and Science is probably his clearest and most forceful exposition of it.

Moral beliefs, Russell now tells us, are essentially expressions of desire. But it is important to distinguish between two different kinds of desire: purely personal ones, like my desire for a glass of wine with my din­ner, and impersonal ones, like my desire for a peaceful world in which men will refrain from dropping bombs on one another. The point about impersonal desires is that we want something for others as well as for ourselves; moreover, we want others to want it. The Tolstoyan, for example, wants other men (and himself as well, of course) to want to be kindly and peaceable; the Nietzschean wants himself and others to pursue a life of strenuous heroism. This is just a matter of personal preference: the Tolstoyan happens to prefer to live in one kind of world, the Nietzschean in another. There is no objective reason for preferring one to the other; no reason, that is to say, for calling one better than the other except that one happens to prefer it. In precisely the same way, there is no reason, except one’s own preference, for saying that it is better to drink wine than beer. It is true that we do not re­gard our taste in drinks as a matter of morality; but this is because a desire for wine or beer is a personal desire. We reserve the category “moral” for imper­sonal desires; but there is no other important differ­ence.

It has commonly been thought that this is an ethical theory which destroys morality. If people are con­vinced that the difference between good and evil is a mere matter of taste, it is argued, they will lose all incentive to do good (which is often hard) and to avoid evil (which is tempting and easy). Russell ar­gues, with considerable cogency, against this conten­tion. If I desire something, I have every incentive to pursue it; ultimately, indeed, no other incentive is pos­sible. Morality may, in a sense, be a matter of taste; but people are, after all, eager enough to gratify their tastes. This is true, he might have pointed out, even of purely personal desires. If I want wine with my dinner rather than beer, I may join a campaign to com­pel restaurants to provide it at a reasonable price, vote in favour of a European Common Market, and turn a deaf ear to the arguments of the Hopgrowers5 Asso­ciation and the Brewers5 Federation. If you prefer beer to wine, I may find you opposing me in these controversies. Personal tastes, that is to say, will lead each of us to join movements, propound social policies, extol some proposals and denounce others. The same is true, to an even greater extent, of impersonal de­sires. If I want the land of world in which men live comfortably and at peace with their neighbours, I will advocate one kind of social policy; if you want a world made fit for Nietzschean heroes to live in, you will advocate a different kind of policy. Neither of us, then, will sink into the mood of cynical indifference which, according to the critics, necessarily accompa­nies a subjectivist ethic. It is true, Russell adds, that neither of us will think the other wicked and sinful; one’s opponent is seen as simply someone whose im­personal desires are different from one’s own, not as a monster of corruption. Subjectivism, then, makes for tolerance; but not for any lack of moral zeal. And this is, of course, a gain rather than a loss.

Subjectivism is a highly important, and in many ways a highly attractive, moral theory. There is ob­viously no space here to discuss it at all fully. But I should like to make three comments on Russell’s ver­sion of it.

1) Is it true that subjectivism makes for tolerance? There is no room, Russell tells us, for “sin” in the sub­jectivist vocabulary. But why not? True, the sinner has lost his bad eminence and become simply a person whose tastes are different from mine. But why should that lead me to tolerate him? On the subjectivist view, to say that something is good means that it is in ac­cordance with my impersonal desires; and to say that something is evil means that it is opposed to my im­personal desires. My opponent, then, is a wilful seeker of evil and so, one would think, sinful. If we persist in feeling that it is not after all very sinful merely to have aims opposed to our own, doesn’t this mean that we are not really subjectivists? Objectivists, no doubt, believe that we ought not to condemn anyone merely because his desires differ from ours, but only because his desires are bad. But, on the subjectivist view, to say that desires are “bad” is just to say that they are “differ­ent from mine”.

Well, then, it may be argued, it follows that the subjectivist does not condemn anyone; for he believes that desires are never bad in the objectivist sense, but only in the sense of “different from mine”. It is true that this subjectivist sense of “bad” carries with it some of the implications of the objectivist sense: e.g. “to be avoided”, “to be opposed”. (Not to recognize this is to be exposed to Moore’s strictures on the natural­istic fallacy.) But it does not carry with it one further implication: “to be condemned”. The subjectivist con­demns no one; he merely opposes, firmly but with good humour, policies which don’t happen to chime with his own.

This may be true, as a psychological generalization about subjectivists. They may all be tolerant and char­itable in their treatment of opponents. But there is no reason why they should be: tolerance does not fol­low, as Russell seems to think it does, as a logical con­sequence of their ethical theory. It can be made to follow only if we accept the premiss: “We ought not to condemn anyone merely because his desires differ from ours, but only because his desires are bad.” Then it might be added: But no desires are bad (in this sense); therefore no one is to be condemned. But there seems no special reason why a subjectivist should accept the first premiss. It is doubtful, indeed, whether that premiss is consistent with subjectivism at all.

2) Russell, then, is mistaken in supposing that tol­erance necessarily follows from subjectivism. But there is, I think, a more fundamental, though quite incon­clusive, objection to his position. There can be no doubt that his subjectivism stems, ultimately, from his firm belief in “the scientific outlook”. We apply the scientific attitude to our moral and political beliefs as well as to our beliefs about the external world, and we find that there is no sound reason for accepting one set of moral beliefs rather than another. Or, at least, there is no sound reason for regarding any set of moral beliefs as objectively valid, in the sense that our be­lief that water flows downhill is objectively valid. Now, what follows from this? Why, that we ought not to regard any set of moral beliefs as objectively valid. But does it? Only if we make a prior assump­tion, viz. that one ought not to accept any proposition unless the evidence appears to support it. And, if no moral propositions are objectively valid, this one is not.

There are, no doubt, several possible replies to this objection. Russell might simply reply that he is not concerned to draw the conclusion that one ought not to regard moral beliefs as objectively valid. As a phi­losopher, he is not concerned to tell his readers what they ought to do, but what is the case. It is the case that moral beliefs are not objectively valid; but if his readers choose to ignore this disturbing truth and con­tinue to nourish comforting fictions, that is purely their own concern.

This is, I say, a possible reply. 1 am not sure how relevant it is that, in Russell’s mouth, the reply is not very convincing. For, in fact, much of his writing is concerned with a quite passionate advocacy of “the scientific outlook”: facing the facts, following the argu­ment whithersoever it leads, and so on. Certainly most readers will carry away the conviction that this is, in some sense, what they ought to do.

But, of course (and here we have a second possible reply) it is part of Russell’s case that subjectivism is quite compatible with advocacy. Russell himself, it may be said, happens to prefer a world in which peo­ple do follow the argument whithersoever it leads, at whatever cost to their own comfort. Naturally, he tries to persuade other people to adopt this attitude.

But how, on this view, can he hope to persuade them, since there is no objective principle whose truth may be brought home to them? All that Russell can do is to play on a belief that they themselves already hold. If they do not already hold it, there is no earthly reason (and still less any transcendental rea­son) why they should, except that Russell would like them to.

Now it probably is true that most people do believe, to a greater or less degree, in following the argument whithersoever it leads. It is also true, I think, that, except in the comparatively small minority with the academic temperament, this is one of the very weakest of human passions. To give one illustration, there are very many people who, convinced that a belief in God is comforting, conducive to good actions, and in­capable of causing any harm, simply cannot under­stand anyone who passionately attacks this belief for no other reason than that he believes it to be false. Russell himself, it will be remembered, says that peo­ple were brought to accept the teachings of scientists only because of their practical utility. It is highly doubtful, however, whether a belief in subjectivism has any practical utility. Russell says it makes men tolerant, but most men probably do not want to be made tolerant. And there seems little doubt that, in the game of trying to persuade others to adopt one’s own impersonal desires, it is a great advantage to be­lieve that one’s own desires (but not one’s opponent’s) are eternal and immutable verities. It may be said, in general, that a grasp of the truth about any state of affairs, however unpalatable, always helps one to cope with that state of affairs; but this is not always true, and it may be doubted whether it is ever true about the nature of moral beliefs.

What follows from this is not merely that Russell, and subjectivists generally, have little chance of win­ning adherents, and that any they may win will belong to the small class of academics in whom the disinter­ested desire for truth has become hypertrophied. This is probably true anyway and to that extent confirms Russell’s views. What also follows from the subjectiv­ist position is that there is no sound reason why other people should accept subjectivism, even if it is true.

This objection is certainly not conclusive. It is no more than a special case of an objection which Rus­sell himself considers and perhaps refutes: that a be­lief in subjectivism undermines moral zeal. The earlier Russell, no doubt, believed that everyone had a duty to follow the argument wheresoever it led, and to sus­pend judgment where the evidence was inconclusive; he certainly thought these things good in themselves. It is from these beliefs, applied to ethics, that his sub­jectivism springs. The later Russell no doubt believes merely that he happens to have an abnormally keen desire to follow the argument whithersoever it leads, and that this is an impersonal desire—he wants others to want it too. There is, however, no reason why those others, if they do not already share this desire, should try to acquire it. In a sense his subjectivism has kicked away the ladder by which it climbed; but this does not really matter, since it does not need the ladder for support. All the same, the paradox is, I think, worth noticing.

3) The final comment I want to make is of a rather different kind. Consider the following passage from Power:

“The great ethical innovators have not been men who knew more than others; they have been men who desired more, or, to be more accurate, men whose de­sires were more impersonal and of larger scope than those of average men. . . .

“All great moralists, from Buddha and the Stoics down to recent times, treated the good as something to be, if possible, enjoyed by all men equally. They did not think of themselves as princes or Jews or Greeks; they thought of themselves merely as human beings. Their ethic had always a two-fold source: on the one hand, they valued certain elements in their own lives; on the other hand, sympathy made them desire for others what they desired for themselves. . . . Sym­pathy is in some degree instinctive; a child may be made unhappy by another child’s cry. But limitations of sympathy are also natural. The cat has no sympathy for the mouse. . . . Where there is limitation of sym­pathy there is a corresponding limitation in the con­cept of the good: the good becomes something to be enjoyed only by the magnanimous man, or only by the superman, or the Aryan, or the proletarian, or the Christadelphian. All these are cat-and-mouse ethics. . . . Such creeds, inevitably, appeal only to the cat, not to the mouse; they are imposed on the mouse by naked power.”25

So far the point might be simply that the proponents of cat-and-mouse ethics cannot expect to have as many adherents as those moralists whose sympathies are uni­versal: “great” in “the great ethical innovators” may simply mean “most influential”. But there is little doubt that Russell means more than this; that he wants to condemn narrowness of sympathy, and hence cat-and-mouse ethics, as such. Speaking of the great re­ligions, he says: “Their founders were men whose sym­pathy was universal, and who were felt, on this account, to be possessed of a wisdom surpassing that of temporary and passionate despots. The result was not all that the founders could have wished. . . . Nev­ertheless, the principle of universal sympathy con­quered first one province, then another. It is the analogue, in the realm of feeling, of impersonal curi­osity in the realm of intellect; both alike are essential elements in mental growth.”26

And a little later he says, still more definitely: “Whatever our politics may be, there can be no valid argument for an undemocratic ethic. I mean by an undemocratic ethic one which singles out a certain portion of mankind and says: ‘these men are to enjoy the good things, and the rest are merely to minister to them’.”27

The use of the expression “valid argument” here, and, rather less clearly, of “mental growth” in the earlier passage, suggest that Russell still regards “dem­ocratic” ethical systems as intrinsically better, in some objective sense, than undemocratic ones. This seems clearly inconsistent with his subjectivism.

It will be noticed, moreover, that the “principle of universal sympathy” which he speaks of here is iden­tical with the “spirit” which, in Principles of Social Reconstruction, is to reconcile instinct with reason. Further, there is a close resemblance between the qualities of “the great ethical innovators” and the de­fining characteristics of moral principles moral prin­ciple is, properly understood, the expression of an im­personal desire: i.e. something one desires for others as well as for oneself. Now it is clear that Russell ap­proves of breadth of sympathy and disapproves of cat-and-mouse ethics; and he seems to think of this approval and the accompanying disapproval as more than a personal idiosyncrasy. Earlier, it will be remem­bered, he had said that the impersonal desires of “spirit” were the only ones Reason (or “Mind”) could approve of. Now he has come to believe that Reason cannot approve of any desire more than any other; but he is reluctant to relinquish these earlier beliefs. Consequently he resorts, as other contemporary moral philosophers in the same difficulty have resorted, to the device of a loaded definition. Only impersonal de­sires are to be called “moral”. Russell thinks of men as genuinely wanting others to have the type of good life which they want for themselves. This does not necessarily exclude cat-and-mouse ethics, since a man might want to spend his life abasing himself before the superman; or he might be genuinely convinced that he would want to do this, if he did not have the good luck to be a superman himself. But the man who gen­uinely wants to make exceptions in his own favour is ruled out, simply by definition. And to rule him out in this way is, in effect, to assume the objective validity of a basic principle: that one ought not to make ex­ceptions in one’s own favour.

* * *

It is fairly easy to pick holes in any of the three main ethical theories which Russell has, in the course of his development, put forward. It is much harder to find a more satisfactory theory to put in their place. The importance of Russell is that he is not only exception­ally clear-headed, but also exceptionally candid. And any candid person who tackles seriously the problem of finding a philosophical basis for his moral beliefs will, I think, find himself doing what Russell did: in­clining to each of these three theories in turn, and in the end finding that none of them is wholly accepta­ble, but also that it is difficult to dispense with any of them. (Russell does appear, in the end, to be satis­fied with subjectivism; but we have seen that his subjectivism incorporates—illegitimately—elements of the two earlier theories.) This is, I think, the central problem that confronts moral philosophers in our time. If Russell has not been able to solve it, at least it is illuminating to see what happens when a mind of the calibre of his grapples with the problem.


1. Sceptical Essays, 1928, p. 11.

2. Ibid., p. 13.

3. Roads to Freedom, 2d ed., 1919, p. 121.

4. Roads to Freedom, p. 117.

5. Reprinted in Philosophical Essays, 1910.

6. Philosophical Essays, p. 4.

7. Principles of Social Reconstruction, 1916, p. 5.

8. Ibid., p. 36.

9. Principles of Social Reconstruction, p. 12.

10 Ibid., pp. 17-18.

11. Principles of Social Reconstruction, p. 24.

12 Ibid., p. 155.

13. New Introductory Lectures in Psycho-analysis, 1933, p. 103.

14. Principles of Social Reconstruction, p. 209.

15. Principles of Social Reconstruction, p. 209.

16. Ibid., p. 209.

17. Principles of Social Reconstruction, p. 219.

18. Ibid., p. 205.

19 Principles of Social Reconstruction, p. 5.

20. Practice and Theory of Bolshevism, p. 131.

21. Practice and Theory of Bolshevism, p. 114.

22. Civilisation and Its Discontents, 1930, p. 103.

23. Power, 1938, pp. 142-43.

24. Home University Library, 1935.

25. Op. cit., pp. 238-39.

26. p. 260.

27. Op. cit., p. 282.

This essay first appeared in Philosophy, Vol. XXXV, 1960.


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