Greatest Happiness

Brian Barry

‘There shall be a day when a shorthand citation like “McMaster 8:279” will be sufficient affidavit for the scholar of the authenticity and location of any quotation of Russell’s written word.’ With this ringing prophecy, William Ready, the General Editor of the McMaster University Library Press and the man who brought the Russell archives to McMaster in 1968, introduced a prospectus of The Collected Essays of Bertrand Russell in Russell, the journal of the Bertrand Russell Archives. The prophecy may come true, but even if I were to survive as long as Russell, I am unwilling to bet that I should be around to see it fulfilled.

The prospectus appeared in Volume XII of Russell, the date of which was Winter 1973-4. Now, ten years later exactly, we have the first volume of what has been renamed the Collected Papers. (Ready, alas, did not live to see it, as appears in the Acknowledgments.) After this, we can expect the pace to accelerate, since the remaining 27 volumes are projected to appear between now and the year 2000. That, however, will just be the beginning. Russell published seventy-odd books in his own lifetime. (To avoid double counting, though, we should allow that some of them were collections of essays.) In addition to all that, Russell was a prolific and accomplished correspondent whose epistolatory habits were formed during the golden age of letter-writing bounded by the introduction of the postal service and the widespread use of the telephone. The collected letters will therefore surely contribute many more volumes. (We are told in the Introduction that ‘the process of collecting them has not yet been completed.’) Ready spoke of the Essays as ‘but the foothills of the monumental Complete Works’ and referred to the whole undertaking as ‘a challenge’ which ‘new generations of editors’ would ‘rise to face’.

There is something awesome in the thought that one man could in his lifetime produce so much as to keep successive generations of scholars busily at work editing him. (This volume alone has five editors and a sizeable research staff behind it.) Admittedly, Russell did live to the great age of 97. Equally important, he started writing early and continued to the end. The first item included in the volume under review is a journal that he began at the age of 15; he published his first book at the age of 24; and he was still writing (or at any rate putting his signature on things) right up to the day of his death. But what makes the record so prodigious is that, while quite possibly out-producing P.G. Wodehouse, whose life centred on the typewriter, Russell, especially in his middle years, lived a tempestuous personal life; and among many other activities, played important public roles as a feminist, an opponent of the First World War, and a leader in the nuclear disarmament movement.

Although nothing will, or should, diminish our sense of wonder at the quantity, range and overall quality of Russell’s achievement as a writer, the early pieces included in this first volume of the Collected Papers throw some light on how it was possible at all. It is striking how early he attained the basic convictions that he continued to hold for the rest of his life. In 1888, a month before his 16th birthday, he wrote in a journal he was keeping:

April 20th. Thus [this refers back to the previous entry] I think that primitive morality always originates in the idea of the preservation of the species. But is this a rule which a civilised community ought to follow? I think not. My rule of life, which I guide my conduct by and a departure from which I consider as a sin, is to act in the manner which I believe to be most likely to produce the greatest happiness, considering both the intensity of the happiness and the number of people made happy. I know that Granny considers this an impractical rule of life and says that since you can never know the thing which will produce greatest happiness, you do much better in following the inner voice. [She ‘submitted ethical conundrums to me, telling me to solve them on utilitarian principles’ – Autobiography.] The conscience however can easily be seen to depend mostly upon education (as for example common Irishmen do not consider lying wrong), which fact alone seems to me quite sufficient to disprove the divine nature of conscience. And since, as I believe, conscience is merely the combined product of evolution and education, then obviously it is an absurdity to follow that rather than reason. And my reason tells me that it is better to act so as to produce maximum of happiness than in any other way. For I have tried to see what other object I could set before me, and I have failed. Not my own individual happiness in particular, but everybody’s equally, making no distinction between myself, relations, friends or perfect strangers.

The editors’ annotations tell us that in 1894 Russell transcribed extracts from the journal for Alys Pearsall Smith, a few months before their marriage in December of that year, and supplied comments along with them. The comment on the first part of this passage ran: ‘This seems to me rather good, considering I had not read a syllable of any book on the subject, but had thought it all out for myself – beyond having just heard that there was a Greatest Happiness Principle, and having wondered why anything so obvious was called a principle, or how any one could dispute it – I myself no longer believe in it now.’

Now it is true that in 1894 Russell had (as he wrote to Alys in February) ‘revolted from pure Hedonism which has annoyed Sidgwick’. The essay to which this refers was on ‘Ethical Axioms’ and was written for Sidgwick’s course on Ethics. (The editors, as well as giving us the text of the essays, tell us about Sidgwick’s marginal comments.) In it we find that Russell is adopting ‘self-realisation’ as the standard. But this is still a morality in which we postulate some broadly-defined end and make everything else a means to it. And this style of moral reasoning he retained all his life: Granny’s worry that the relevant calculations could not be done never took hold with him.

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[*] Moore: G.E. Moore and the Cambridge Apostles (Weidenfeld, 1979) was reviewed by Gareth Evans in Vol. 2, No 2.