Bertrand Russell: What I Believe

What I Believe outlines Russell's philosophies, and sometimes prescriptions, for both society and the individual of the path to the good life. Published in 1925, many of the ideas he espouses are no less true today. His take on religion, ethics, morality, love, even for criminals, reminds us how far we as a society still have to progress.

About My Book Notes

  • This is a part of my book notes project where I publish detailed book notes on every book I read. Read more about how and why I do it.

  • What I Believe, Bertrand Russell (Amazon page)

1.  Nature and Man

Man is a part of Nature, not something contrasted with Nature. His thoughts and his bodily movements follow the same laws that describe the motions of stars and atoms.

Fear is the basis of religious dogma, as of so much else in human life. It is fear of nature that gives rise to religion.

Religion is an attempt to overcome the antithesis between things that can be affected by our desires and things that cannot be so affected.

Belief in God still serves to humanize the world of nature, and to make men feel that physical forces are really their allies. In the like manner immortality removes the terror from death.

Religion has dignified certain kinds of fear, and made people think them not disgraceful. In this it has done mankind a great disservice: all fear is bad.

Happiness is none the less true happiness because it must come to an end, nor do thought and love lose their value because they are not everlasting.

The philosophy of nature is one thing, the philosophy of value is quite another. Nothing but harm can come of confusing them.

We cannot be forbidden to value this or that on the ground that the non-human world does not value it, nor can we be compelled to admire anything because it is a ‘law of nature’.

The great world, so far as we know it from the philosophy of nature, is neither good nor bad, and is not concerned to make us happy or unhappy. All such philosophies spring from self-importance, and are best corrected by a little astronomy.

But in the philosophy of value the situation is reversed. Nature is only a part of what we can imagine; everything, real or imagined, can be appraised by us, and there is no outside standard to show that our valuation is wrong. We are ourselves the ultimate and irrefutable arbiters of value, and in the world of value Nature is only a part.

It is we who create value and our desires which confer value. In this realm we are kings, and we debase our kingship if we bow down to Nature. It is for us to determine the good life, not for Nature — not even for Nature personified as God.

2.  The Good Life

The good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge (scientific knowledge). Love is more fundamental, as it will lead us to seek knowledge to benefit those we love.

Love is an emotion that moves between two poles: pure delight in contemplation on one side; pure benevolence on the other.

Love at its fullest is an indissoluble combination of the two elements, delight and well-wishing.

I do not believe that we can decide what sort of conduct is right or wrong except by reference to its probable consequences. Given an end to be achieved, it is a question for science to decide how to achieve it.

Since all behavior springs from desire, it is clearly that ethical notions can have no importance except as they influence desire.

Outside human desires there is no moral standard.

What distinguishes ethics from science is not any special kind of knowledge but merely desire.

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.

3.  Moral Rules

The practical need of morals arises from the conflict of desires.

Two methods of enabling men to live together in a community in spite of the possibility that their desires may conflict: There is the method of criminal law, which aims at a merely external harmony by attaching disagreeable consequences to acts which thwart other men’ desires in certain ways. This is also the method of social censure. But there is another method, more fundamental, and far more satisfactory when it succeeds. This is to alter men’s characters and desires in such a way as to minimize occasions of conflict by making the success of one man’s desires as far as possible consistent with that of another’s. That is why love is better than hate, because it brings harmony instead of conflict into the desires of the person concerned.

Current morality (1925) is a curious blend of utilitarianism and superstition, but the superstitious part has the stronger hold, as is natural, since superstition is the origin of moral rules.

Boys and girls should be taught respect for each other’s liberty; they should be made to feel that nothing gives one human being rights over another, and that jealousy and possessiveness kill love.

The peculiar importance attached, at present, to adultery is quite irrational. It is obvious that many forms of misconduct are more fatal to married happiness than an occasional infidelity.

Even more harmful than theological superstition is the superstition of nationalism, of duty to one’s own State and to no other. It is contrary to the principle of love which we recognized as constituting the good life.

The view that criminals are ‘wicked’ and ‘deserve’ punishment is not one which a rational morality can support.

Take murder as the plainest case. This problem should be treated in a purely scientific spirit. What is the best method of preventing murder? Of two methods which are equally effective, the one involving the least harm to the murderer is to be preferred. The harm to the murderer is wholly regrettable, like the pain of surgical operation. It may be equally necessary, but it is not a subject for rejoicing. The vindictive feeling called ‘moral indignation’ is merely a form of cruelty. Suffering to the criminal can never be justified by the notion of vindictive punishment.

4.  Salvation: individual and social

One of the defects of traditional religion is its individualism, and this defect belongs also to the morality associated with it.

When Plato wanted to describe the good life, he described a whole community, not an individual; he did so in order to define justice, which is an essentially social conception.

With the loss of Greek freedom comes the rise of Stoicism, which is like Christianity, and unlike Plato, in having an individualistic conception of the good life.

In all that differentiates between a good life and a bad one, the world is a unity, and the man who pretends to live independently is a conscious or unconscious parasite.

The good life must be lived in a good society, and is not fully possible otherwise.

Salvation is an aristocratic ideal, because it is individualistic. For this reason, also, the idea of personal salvation, however interpreted and expanded, cannot serve for the definition of the good life.

There is no short cut to the good life, whether individual or social. To build up the good life, we must build up intelligence, self-control and sympathy.

5.  Science and Happiness

In the ordinary man and woman there is a certain amount of active malevolence, both special ill-will directed to particular enemies and general impersonal pleasure in the misfortune of others.

It is shown in a thousand ways, great and small: in the glee with which people repeat and believe scandal, in the unkind treatment of criminals in spite of clear proof that better treatment would have more effect in reforming them.

The causes are, I think, partly social, partly physiological.

Reactionaries everywhere appeal to fear, and the sole effect of their appeals is to increase the danger against which they wish to be protected. It must, therefore, be one of the chief concerns of the scientific moralist to combat fear. This can be done in two ways: by increasing security, and by cultivating courage.

Everything that increases the general security is likely to diminish cruelty. But nothing is accomplished by an attempt to make a portion of mankind secure at the expense of another portion. Only justice can give security; and by ‘justice’ I mean the recognition of the equal claims of all human beings.

There is, so far as I know, no way of dealing with envy except to make the lives of the envious happier and fuller, and to encourage in youth the idea of collective enterprises rather than competition.

To respect physical nature is foolish; physical nature should be studied with a view to making it serve human ends as far as possible, but it remains ethically neither good nor bad.

Nature, even human nature, will cease more and more to be an absolute datum; more and more it will become what scientific manipulation has made it.

This phase will pass when men have acquired the same domination over their own passions that they already have over the physical forces of the external world. Then at last we shall have won our freedom.