The Scientific Outlook, Part 7 – Freedom and Equality in a Scientific Society

Freedom and Equality in a Scientific Society

Originally posted August 10, 2008

“There will, of course, be a universal language, which will be either Esperanto or pidgin-English. The literature of the past will for the most part not be translated into this language, since its outlook and emotional background will be considered unsettling: serious students of history will be able to obtain a permit from the Government to study such works as Hamlet and Othello, but the general public will be forbidden access to them on the ground that they glorify private murder; boys will not be allowed to read books about pirates or Red Indians; love themes will be discouraged on the ground that love, being anarchic, is silly, if not wicked. All this will make life very pleasant for the virtuous.” – Bertrand Russell, 1931 (p214)

Individual Freedom versus the Collective

From The Scientific Outlook:

[Italicised text is original emphasis and bolded text is added by author.]

“The nineteenth century suffered from a curious division between its political ideas and its economic practice. In politics it carried out the Liberal ideas of Locke and Rousseau, which were adapted to a society of small peasant proprietors. Its watchwords were Liberty and Equality, but meantime it was inventing the technique which is leading the twentieth century to destroy liberty and to replace equality by new forms of oligarchy. The prevalence of Liberal thought has been in some ways a misfortune, since it has prevented men of large vision from thinking out in an impersonal manner the problems raised by industrialism. Socialism and Communism, it is true, are essentially industrial creeds, but their outlook is so much dominated by the class war that they have little leisure to give to anything but the means of achieving political victory. Traditional morality gives very little help in the modern world. A rich man may plunge millions into destitution by some act which not even the severest Catholic confessor would consider sinful, while he will need absolution for a trivial sexual aberration which, at the worst, has wasted an hour that might have been more usefully employed. There is need of a new doctrine on the subject of my duty to my neighbour. It is not only traditional religious teaching that fails to give adequate guidance on this subject, but also the teaching of nineteenth-century Liberalism. Take, for example, such a book as Mill on Liberty. Mill maintains that while the State has a right to interfere with those of my actions that have serious consequences to others, it should leave me free where the effects of my actions are mainly confined to myself. Such a principle, however, in the modern world, leaves hardly any scope for individual freedom. As society becomes more organic, the effects of men upon each other become more and more numerous and important, so that there remains hardly anything in regard to which Mill’s defence of liberty is applicable. Take, for example, freedom of speech and of the Press. It is clear that a society that permits these is thereby precluded from various achievements which are possible to a society that forbids them. In time of war this is obvious to everybody, because in war-time the national purpose is simple, and the causation involved is obvious. Hitherto it has not been customary for a nation in peace-time to have any national purpose except the preservation of its territory and its constitution. A government which, like that of Soviet Russia, has a purpose in peace-time as ardent and definite as that of other nations in war-time, is compelled to curtail freedom of speech and of the Press as much while it is at peace as other nations do when they are at war.

The diminution of individual liberty which has been taking place during the last twenty years is likely to continue, since it has two continuing causes. On the one hand, modern technique makes society more organic; on the other hand, modern sociology makes men more and more aware of the causal laws in virtue of which one man’s acts are useful or harmful to another man. If we are to justify any particular form of individual liberty in the scientific society of the future, we shall have to do it on the ground that that form of liberty is for the good of society as a whole, but not in most cases on the ground that the acts concerned affect nobody but the agent.” 216

“The man who dreams of a scientifically organized world and wishes to translate his dream into practice finds himself faced with many obstacles. There is the opposition of inertia and habit: people wish to continue behaving as they always have behaved, and living as they always have lived. There is the opposition of vested interest: an economic system inherited from feudal times gives advantages to men who have done nothing to deserve them, and these men, being rich and powerful, are able to place formidable obstacles in the way of fundamental change. In addition to these forces, there are also hostile idealisms. Christian ethics is in certain fundamental respects opposed to the scientific ethic which is gradually growing up. Christianity emphasizes the importance of the individual soul, and is not prepared to sanction the sacrifice of an innocent man for the sake of some ulterior good to the majority. Christianity, in a word, is unpolitical, as is natural since it grew up among men devoid of political power. The new ethic which is gradually growing in connexion with scientific technique will have its eye upon society rather than upon the individual. It will have little use for the superstition of guilt and punishment, but will be prepared to make individuals suffer for the public good without inventing reasons purporting to show that they deserve to suffer. In this sense it will be ruthless, and according to traditional ideas immoral, but the change will have come about naturally through the habit of viewing society as a whole rather than as a collection of individuals. We view a human body as a whole, and if, for example, it is necessary to amputate a limb we do not consider it necessary to prove first that the limb is wicked. We consider the good of the whole body a quite sufficient argument. Similarly the man who thinks of society as a whole will sacrifice a member of society for the good of the whole, without much consideration for that individual’s welfare. This has always been the practice in war, because war is a collective enterprise. Soldiers are exposed to the risk of death for the public good, although no one suggests that they deserve death. But men have not hitherto attached the same importance to social purposes other than war, and have therefore shrunk from inflicting sacrifices which were felt to be unjust. I think it probable that the scientific idealists of the future will be free from this scruple, not only in time of war, but in time of peace also. In overcoming the difficulties of the opposition that they will encounter, they will find themselves organized into an oligarchy of opinion such as is formed by the Communist Party in the U.S.S.R.” – 233

Freedom in a Scientific Society

“In suggesting any curtailment of liberty there are always two quite distinct questions to be considered. The first is whether such a curtailment would be in the public interest if it were wisely carried out, and the second is whether it will be in the public interest when it is carried out with a certain measure of ignorance and perversity. These two questions are in theory quite distinct, but from the point of view of the government the second question does not exist, since every government believes itself entirely free from both ignorance and perversity. Every government, consequently, in so far as it is not restrained by traditional prejudices, will advocate more interference with liberty than is wise. When, therefore, as in this chapter, we are considering what interferences with liberty might be theoretically justified, we must hesitate to draw the conclusion that they should be advocated in practice. I think it probable, however, that almost all interferences with liberty for which there is a theoretical justification will, in time, be carried out in practice, because scientific technique is gradually making governments so strong that they need not consider outside opinion. The result of this will be that governments will be able to interfere with individual liberty wherever in their opinion there is a sound reason for so doing, and for the reason just given, this will be much more often than it should be. For this reason scientific technique is likely to lead to a governmental tyranny which may in time prove disastrous.” – 223

“Let us take some examples of traditional principles which appear no longer defensible. […] To take a more important illustration: consider the immense sums of money that are spent on advertising. It cannot possibly be maintained that these bring any but the most meagre return to the community. The principle of permitting each capitalist to invest his money as he chooses is not, therefore, socially defensible.” – 218

“Take again the question of work, both the kind of work and the method of performing it. At present young people choose their own trade or profession, usually because at the moment of their choice it seems to afford a good opening. A well-informed person possessed of foresight might know that the particular line in question was going to be much less profitable a few years hence. In such a case some public guidance to the young might prove extremely useful. And as regards technical methods, it is seldom in the public interest that an antiquated or wasteful technique should be allowed to persist when a more economical technique is known. At present, owning to the irrational character of the capitalist system, the interest of the individual wage-earner is very often opposed to the interest of the community, since economical methods may cause him to lose his job. This is due to the survival of capitalistic principles in a society which has grown so organic that it ought not to tolerate them. It is obvious that in a well-organized community it should be impossible for a large body of individuals to profit by preserving an inefficient technique. It is clear that the use of the most efficient technique should be enforced, and no wage-earner should be allowed to suffer by its enforcement.” – 220

“I come now to a matter which touches the individual more intimately: I mean the question of propagation. It has hitherto been considered that any man and woman not within the prohibited degrees have a right to marry, and having married have a right, if not a duty, to have as many children as nature may decree. This is a right which the scientific society of the future is not likely to tolerate. In any given state of industrial and agricultural technique there is an optimum density of population which ensures a greater degree of material well-being than would result from either an increase or a diminution of numbers. As a general rule, except in new countries, the density of population has been beyond this optimum, though perhaps France, in recent decades, has been an exception. Except where there is property to be inherited, the member of a small family suffers almost as much from over-population as the member of a large family. Those who cause over-population are therefore doing an injury not only to their own children, but to the community. It may therefore be assumed that society will discourage them if necessary, as soon as religious prejudices no longer stand in the way of such action. The same question will arise in a more dangerous form as between different nations and different races. If a nation finds that it is losing military superiority through a lower birth-rate than that of a rival, it may attempt, as has already been done in such cases, to stimulate its own birth-rate; but when this proves ineffective, as it probably will, there will be a tendency to demand a limitation in the birth-rate of the rival nation. An international government, if it ever comes into being, will have to take account of such matters, and just as there is at present a quota of national immigrants into the United States, so in future there will be a quota of national immigrants into the world. Children in excess of the licensed figure will presumably be subjected to infanticide. This would be less cruel than the present method, which is to kill them by war or starvation. I am, however, only prophesying a certain future, not advocating it.

Quality as well as quantity of population is likely to become a matter for public regulation. Already in many States of America it is permissible to sterilized the mentally defective, and a similar proposal in England is in the domain of practical politics. This is only the first step. As time goes on we may expect a greater and greater percentage of the population to be regarded as mentally defective from the point of view of parenthood. However that may be, it is clear that the parents who have a child when there is every likelihood of its being mentally defective are doing a wrong both to the child and to the community. No defensible principle of liberty therefore stands in the way of preventing them from such behaviour.” – 221

Equality in a Scientific Society

“Equality, like liberty, is difficult to reconcile with scientific technique, since this involves a great apparatus of experts and officials inspiring and controlling vast organizations. Democratic forms may be preserved in politics, but they will not have as much reality as in a community of small peasant proprietors. Officials unavoidably have power. And where many vital questions are so technical that the ordinary man cannot hope to understand them, experts must inevitably acquire a considerable measure of control. Take the question of currency and credit as an example. William Jennings Bryan, it is true, made currency an electoral issue in 1896, but the men who voted for him were men who would have voted for him whatever issue he had selected. At the present time, calculable misery is being caused by a wrong handling of the question of currency and credit, but it is impossible to submit this question to the electorate except in some passionate and unscientific form; the only way in which anything can be done is to convince the officials who control the great central banks. So long as these men act honestly and in accordance with tradition, the community cannot control them, since if they are mistaken very few people will know it. To take a less important illustration: everyone who has ever compared British and American methods of handling goods traffic on railways knows that the American methods are infinitely superior. There are no private trucks, and the trucks of the railways are of standard size capable of carrying forty tons. In England everything is higgledy-piggledy and unsystematic, and the use of private trucks causes great waste. If this were put right, freights could be reduced and consumers would benefit, since there would be no obvious gain either to railway companies or to railway workers. If a more uniform system is ever imposed, it will be done not as a result of a democratic demand, but by government officials.

The scientific society will be just as oligarchic under socialism or communism as under capitalism, for even where the forms of democracy exist they cannot supply the ordinary voter with the requisite knowledge, nor enable him to be on the spot at the crucial moment. The men who understand the complicated mechanism of a modern community and who have the habit of initiative and decision must inevitably control the course of events to a very great extent. Perhaps this is even more true in a socialistic State than in any other, for in a socialistic State economic and political power are concentrated in the same hands, and the national organization of the economic life is more complete than in a State where private enterprise exists. Moreover, a socialistic State is likely to have more perfect control than any other over the organs of publicity and propaganda, so that it will have more power of causing men to know what it wishes known, and not to know what it wishes unknown. Equality, therefore, like liberty, is, I fear, no more than a nineteenth-century dream. The world of the future will contain a governing class, probably not hereditary, but more analogous to the government of the Catholic Church.

And this governing class, as they acquire increasing knowledge and confidence, will interfere more and more with the life of the individual, and will learn more and more the technique of causing this interference to be tolerated. It may be assumed that their purposes will be excellent, and their conduct honourable; it may be assumed that they will be well informed and industrious; but it cannot, I think, be assumed that they will abstain from the exercise of power merely on the ground that individual initiative is a good thing, or on the ground that an oligarchy is unlikely to consider the true interests of its slaves, for men capable of such self-restraint will not rise to positions of power which, except when they are hereditary, are attained only by those who are energetic and untroubled by doubt.” – 224

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