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.

We can follow the development of his moral views in a paper read to the Cambridge Conversazione Society (the band of ‘brothers’ better known as the Apostles) in 1899, two years after he had resigned from active membership (‘taken wings’, in the argot of the Society). I want in any case to say something about this paper because it is, in my judgment, the only hitherto unpublished piece in the volume that is of more than biographical interest. I am not, let me make it clear, dismissing the rest as worthless. But I do not think that one would turn to the other pieces for their intrinsic value. What makes them worth reading is not what they said but that Russell said it. The Apostolic essay ‘Was the world good before the Sixth Day?’ ranks as a genuine philosophical contribution with the one delivered two years before which was reprinted sixty years later in Why I am not a Christian, ‘Seems Madam? Nay, it is’. Possibly Russell was put off suggesting the publication of the later one by a lot of in-group facetiousness at the start.

Although G.E. Moore’s Principia Ethica still lay four years in the future, Russell had available to him the typescript of some lectures that Moore had given in London during the previous year on ‘The Elements of Ethics’. In his paper he takes issue with Moore’s view that there can be good or bad states of the universe that do not include any elements of consciousness. Russell’s mature style is already fully present in his concise and witty statement of the case:

Moore contends that God, when he looked upon the world in its early stages, was right in maintaining it to be good – that it was already good in and for itself, and would have continued so even if God had not been looking. A world of matter alone – so says our misguided brother – may be good or bad. For it may certainly be beautiful and ugly, and beauty is better than ugliness. It cannot be said – so the argument proceeds – that beauty is good only as a means to the production of emotion in us. For we judge the man who is moved by beauty to be better than the man who is equally moved by ugliness. This judgment can only be valid, if beauty is good per se; for in this case, the man who enjoys ugliness more is to be condemned for liking what is bad. But if beauty were only good as a means, ugliness would be equally good if it produced the same effect; this, however, is manifestly false. Hence beauty is good per se, and a purely material world, with no one to contemplate it, is better if it is beautiful than if it is ugly.

Paul Levy, in his biography of Moore, charges that Russell’s paper attacks a position that Moore did not hold.[*] He says that the paper ‘badly misrepresented the views Moore had expressed the week before’ and goes on to construct a puzzle about ‘how Russell could have had the cheek to distort Moore’s views so much in Moore’s presence’. The simple answer is that Russell’s paper was not a reply to the one delivered to the Apostles by Moore a week earlier. First, that paper was on quite a different subject, ‘Do we love ourselves best?’: so Levy’s inability to find anything in it corresponding to the claim Russell attacks is beside the point. And, second, Russell explicitly says (in a passage that Levy actually quotes) that he is addressing the content of Moore’s lectures in London.

The typescript of these lectures, with Russell’s comments and Moore’s replies, still exists, though it has never been published. The editors, in their annotation of Russell’s paper, confirm that Moore did in the lectures make the contention against which Russell argues: ‘that beauty is of value independently of the existence of consciousness, i.e. that a purely material beautiful world is of more value than a purely material ugly one.’ Moreover, Levy is quite wrong to suggest that the position taken by Russell ‘was to be the main assumption of the last chapter of Principia Ethica, that the only things that are good in themselves are states of mind.’ In fact, Moore argues in Principia Ethica that ‘the existence of a more beautiful thing is better in itself than that of one more ugly, quite apart from its effect on any human feeling ... ’ (The main discussion is in the third chapter but Moore refers to it in the last one.)

Russell begins his argument against Moore by discarding an obvious possible line: that ‘beauty is purely subjective, and exists only in the spectator, or begins when a spectator is seen to be coming.’ He goes on, in a way that immediately brings to mind the opening scene in Forster’s The Longest Journey: ‘This is rather like the Berkeleian theory, that when a house is tumbling down, it doesn’t begin to make a noise till some one comes along the road, and only then if the some one is not deaf.’ Compare Rickie’s ruminations: ‘One might do worse than follow Tilliard, and suppose the cow not to be there unless oneself were there to see her. A cowless world, then, stretched round him on every side. Yet he had only to peep into a field, and, click! it would at once become radiant with bovine life.’ In his Life, P.N. Furbank takes Forster’s professions of inability to follow abstract arguments so seriously as to suggest that his inattention to the discussions ‘helps to explain, what might appear puzzling, how it is that the problem which Ansell and his friends are discussing in that opening scene – about the cow in the field, and whether it is there when no one is looking – seems to belong more to the age of Berkeley than to that of Russell and Moore.’ Forster did not become an Apostle until two years after Russell’s paper, but there is obviously no reason for supposing that the issue never came up again at a meeting.

Russell continues, in vintage style:

Another course which might be taken, would be, to admit that ugliness is as good as beauty if it produces as much pleasure. This course would be unavoidable for a utilitarian, and is much to be commended as a method of irritating hedonistic but fastidious art-critics. The objection to it is, as Moore says, that it makes the person of bad taste as good as the person of good taste, provided only he enjoys bad art as much as the other enjoys good art – a proviso which, one must admit, is fully satisfied by the facts. To maintain that ‘Home Sweet Home’ gives less pleasure than a Bach fugue, would only be possible for one in bondage to a theory.

The positive view for which he will argue is, he says, ‘that among the things we know there is nothing good or bad except psychical states.’ How, then, if beauty is conceded to be a quality in things themselves, can goodness not also be so? Moore’s argument included, it may be recalled, the premise that ‘if beauty were only a means, ugliness would be equally good if it produced the same effect.’ Russell attacks this premise by arguing that the effect – the aesthetic emotion – cannot be the same when caused by ugly objects as when caused by beautiful ones. ‘Indeed, it would be very curious if the emotional effect of beauty on one person were exactly the same as that of ugliness on another’ – that is to say, on a person of bad taste who pronounced the ugly thing beautiful. Hence we can hold to the objectivity of beauty without admitting that anything can be good without its ever entering consciousness.

The general position defended in Russell’s paper was a non-hedonistic variety of utilitarianism – ‘non-hedonistic’ because it imputes a higher value to the enjoyment of beauty than to an equivalent amount of pleasure derived from what is objectively ugly. It is apparent, however, that, in relation to the whole range of possible moral outlooks, this position, taken at the age of 26, is no more than a variant on the greatest happiness principle that we saw Russell espousing just before his 16th birthday. Indeed, if we acknowledge that ‘happiness’ need not be cashed out in hedonistic terms (as pleasurable consciousness) we may go further and say that Russell’s later view is simply a specification of the greatest happiness principle.

Although I have by no means read all of Russell’s later work, I think that the ‘greatest happiness’ formula, loosely interpreted, would cover his subsequent views adequately. This, of course, leaves room for an infinite amount of mind-changing about means. For example, preventive war and nuclear disarmament might be quite consistently seen at different times as the best means of avoiding a nuclear holocaust that would threaten the existence of the human race. As has been said of examination papers in economics, the questions stay the same – only the answers change.

As well as letting us see how early Russell’s basic ideas were formed, the first volume of the Collected Papers allows us to trace the formation of the characteristic Russell style. Russell is not so distinctive a writer that one could with any confidence identify a single isolated sentence as being by him, but, given a paragraph or two, it would be hard to miss the signs: the light touch, the wit, the cool self-confidence, and, above all, the extraordinary talent for laying out a sequence of arguments in an order that avoids backtracking or anticipating a later stage. In any complicated matter, the actual connections between points are multifarious, so that imposing linearity entails the highest degree of artifice. Russell commanded this artifice to the ultimate extent of being able to make it appear perfectly natural. I know of no writer who is his equal in this regard.

Russell himself said in answer to a questionnaire in 1930: ‘I wrote very carefully, with many corrections, until I had passed the age of 30, i.e. down to and including the year 1902. After that, I felt that my style was formed, for good or evil. I now hardly ever make any corrections in a MS, beyond altering a word where there is an unintentional repetition.’ This is surely another factor that helps to explain his prodigious productivity.

The ‘General Headnote’ to the six surviving essays read to the Apostles (three others are lost) comments that ‘throughout these papers Russell’s striving for clarity of argument is evident in the many cancelled passages and inserted leaves.’ I am bound to say that, looking at the evidence provided in the textual notes, I am more impressed by the fact that, although he obviously worked over the texts with care, most of Russell’s changes even at this stage were quite local – a few words changed here and a few words there – and that he rarely went in for wholesale rearrangement.

What is also remarkable and suggestive is that, over the six years in which the essays were written, they got better stylistically and at the same time the amount of revision tended to become less and less. The last was the one which I have already discussed, ‘Was the world good before the Sixth Day?’ As the quotations I gave from it should suffice to illustrate, the main features of Russell’s mature style were certainly present there. But the bulk of the revisions consists of small verbal changes in the laboriously jokey opening paragraph, from which I did not quote.

That essay was composed in the cut-off year for the first volume, 1899, and is in fact the only thing in it written after 1897. (The explanation of the gap is not – need it be said? – that Russell did not write anything else in the period 1897-9. It is that a group of papers written after mid-1896 on the philosophy of mathematics is to appear in Volume II, which will be the first of ten volumes devoted to Russell’s philosophical, logical and mathematical papers.) How much further back can we push the search for Russell’s formed style? I would say that it is in things written in 1896-7 that Russell’s distinctive voice begins to be heard. What is unusual in his case is not extreme precociousness – he was no John Stuart Mill – but a relatively early settling-in to a way of looking at things and a way of expressing it.

Russell was, of course, always of well above average ability, but it was only in his mid-twenties that he began to appear exceptional. The practice essays that he wrote at the cramming establishment in Southgate to which he was sent at the age of 16 are thoughtful and well-organised, but I do not think that the standard would knock a contemporary Oxbridge entrance examiner off his or her perch. By the time we get to Russell’s undergraduate essays on philosophy and the essays he wrote for Sidgwick as a graduate, we are clearly looking at the work of someone with a mind of unusual vigour and clarity, but still nothing really outstanding. It seems that it was only when Russell was in a position to break away from topics set for him by others and start working systematically at developing his ideas that he started to come into his own.

It will no doubt have emerged from what I have said so far that the general reader who is curious about Russell’s life and mental development up to his mid-twenties will find a great deal of variation in the interest to be derived from the disparate items collected here. The two things of the greatest biographical relevance are the two journals that Russell kept during the period. The first, the so-called ‘Greek Exercises’, was written (as a disguise) in Greek characters, though it is in English, over a period of a year in 1888-9. It primarily contains Russell’s thoughts about God and immortality, with some excursions into ethics such as the one from which I quoted. It also contains his comments on the sermons at the various churches he attended with his grandmother, and his reactions to Southgate (which made him think that Pembroke Lodge wasn’t so bad after all).

The second journal is the ‘Locked Diary’ that Russell kept (very sporadically) between 1890 and 1894. Unlike the ‘Greek Exercises’, which Russell excerpted at length in My Philosophical Development and in the Autobiography, only one entry from this has hitherto been published (in the Autobiography). It is notable for the light it throws on his courtship of Alys Pearsall Smith. It is also valuable in giving us some detail about the quality of intellectual life at Pembroke Lodge, where he was raised by his grandmother. It seems fairly clear that the conversation must have run at a pretty high level: small wonder that Russell found Southgate a come-down!

A couple of weeks after his 18th birthday, for example, he records a discussion about capital punishment with the aunt (Lady Mary Agatha Russell) who had in his childhood taught him English history – from a Russellian viewpoint, of course.

Of course Auntie thinks, as women almost always do, principally, of the effect of punishment on the man after committing the crime, rather than of its deterrent effect on those who avoid the crime. Another point of view from which she seemed inclined to regard it was the point of view of abstract justice; saying, that Society causes crime, and therefore Society has no right to punish crime. This no doubt is true as regards the first clause, at least up to a certain point, but the second does not seem to me to follow. I think expediency should be the sole ground of a settlement. If there are more murders without capital punishment, I would keep it on; but without an appreciable excess, I would abolish it, especially considering the chance of false convictions.

These few lines encapsulate, I suppose, just about all the main lines of argument about the death penalty that have been made in the following hundred years.

The rest of the volume contains, in addition to the six Apostolic essays, two papers written, it is surmised by the editors, for a more worldly group that met in London, the Cambridge and Westminster Club. These are short sprightly exercises, both dating from 1896. One, on ‘The Uses of Luxury’, is a defence of inequality of wealth as an essential means to the support of the arts: ‘where excellence is so hard to estimate that most people will judge wrong, and where success and opinion depend wholly on the opinions of others, there it is advisable to leave rewards to be adjudged by many private individuals separately, in order to avoid a system or standard almost inevitably pernicious.’ The other, ‘Mechanical Morals and the Morals of Machinery’, announces that the ‘law of diminishing returns’ has been repealed by technology so that the struggle for existence à la Malthus or Social Darwinism is obsolete. This is the only piece here that lends any support to the stereotype of Russell as a perennial optimist.

That Russell had no belief at this time in the inevitability of ‘progress’ is illustrated in fact by another piece from 1896: a Fabian Society lecture on ‘German Social Democracy, as a Lesson in Political Tactics’, which argued (shrewdly, and all too prophetically) that the German Social Democrats had engaged in a self-defeating course by repelling any suggestions of an alliance with the more advanced liberals and had only succeeded in polarising German society in a way that would work to their long-term disadvantage.

After these items, I think that most people will start running out of things of real interest. Apart from the academic essays written at Southgate and Cambridge, the remaining items of significance are short book reviews (remarkably dry) and two papers on the foundations of geometry from 1896. These overlap a good deal with each other and (according to the editors) with Russell’s second book, An Essay on the Foundations of Geometry, published in 1897. They might perhaps have been better incorporated in the next volume with the mathematical papers from the period. They do, however, serve to remind us that a further trait conducive to prolific publication was early established in Russell: namely, a lack of undue inhibition about repeating himself in print.

The book contains, in addition, a list that Russell kept of the books that he read between February 1891 and March 1902; headnotes to each item giving its circumstances of composition and delivery; annotations that explain references to people, places, historical incidents and so on; and textual notes that give deletions and additions, variant readings in different texts, and the like. The annotations seem to me about right: they are fairly full but rarely descend to explaining the completely obvious. (To give a sense of scale, the text covers 329 pages, the annotations 69 in smaller print.) It is easy enough to make pleasantries at the expense of the small army of researchers whose contributions are listed in the Acknowledgments. But not much imagination is required to realise the amount of work that must have gone into each entry. The Russell Editorial Project is to be congratulated.

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