"All who are not lunatics are agreed about certain things. That it is better to be alive than dead, better to be adequately fed than starved, better to be free than a slave. Many people desire those things only for themselves and their friends; they are quite content that their enemies should suffer. These people can only be refuted by science: Humankind has become so much one family that we cannot ensure our own prosperity except by ensuring that of everyone else. If you wish to be happy yourself, you must resign yourself to seeing others also happy."
- Bertrand Russell in "The Science to Save Us from Science," The New York Times Magazine (1950)
My own thoughts on the quote:
In the end, Bertrand Russell talks about strategies for survival of the societies in this quote. The very old way was just to ensure the maximum gain for oneself and one's family and leave the others fend for themselves. Taxes were at first used just for upkeep the of the system of justice, government and defense. The first, crude human societies were always like this.
However, this strategy will lead to a society where immense wealth and immense poverty do exist at the same time. This process did happen in the ancient Rome or in the United States of today. In fact, in the modern world and most of all in a democracy this kind of greedy strategy will work only as long as enough people will believe that they can get someday to be among the rich themselves. This is normally quite impossible. However, the important thing is just keeping up the belief, and not its real truth-value.
Crime is often rampant in such societies. It is often seen as a road to achieve the goal that is otherwise quite unobtainable in the real world. One can try to solve this problem also by putting more and more people in prison. However, they can also just perfect their skills and find new contacts there.
The long tradition of European humanism, on the other hand, does start from similar ideas that Bertrand Russell states here. A stable and good society is one where there are not all too great differences of wealth. All people are taken care of to a degree. The rich take their part in this by paying taxes also to pay for transfers of income to the poorest.
Here, the stability of a society is seen as a value in itself. Its worth is seen also by the rich. They can have a little less of wealth when they share some of it, but they can enjoy them in much greater security in a more stable society.
On the other hand, the words of Bertrand Russell have an all new kind of meaning in the modern globalized economy. People are now paid a pittance for their work in India or China and elsewhere. Manual work will continue to flow there from countries where work is much more expensive.
In the long run, we can ensure our own happiness in the old developed world only by ensuring that Chinese and Indian and African and South-American workers will some day gain similar kinds of benefits from their own work as we already do.
Only this kind of process can make the mass-production of many goods in expensive countries a viable option again. On the other hand, the other possible goal of making work in the developed world as cheap as it is in the developing world will never benefit any of the societies that choose erroneously to try it. It will just lead into a dramatic lowering of living-standards everywhere.
Bertrand Russell also says here also that the effects of many decisions can be observed in the real world in an objective, scientific way. We can objectively compare how these decisions affect the level of human flourishing in certain fields.
This can be done especially when there is no real doubt that something is really harmful, like a person being starved or a slave or without some basic human right. However, it is a bit different thing to say what is morally good or bad and what actions can have harmful effects on human life. The difference just is hair-thin at times.
(This piece was completely refurbished on 4th of December, 2012)
Bertrand Russell is in Facebook at:
"Bertrand Arthur William Russell, 3rd Earl Russell, OM, FRS (18 May 1872 – 2 February 1970) was a British philosopher, logician, mathematician, historian, and social critic."