Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Bertrand Russell on the impulses that drive our actions

Continuing the series of insights from Bertrand Russell's book The Conquest of Happiness (see this tag for all the posts)...

In these passages from 1930, he seems to hint at evolutionary psychology, which would have put him ahead of his time:

9. "Loss of zest in civilized society is very largely due to the restrictions upon liberty which are essential to our way of life. The savage hunts when he is hungry, and in so doing is obeying a direct impulse. The man who goes to his work every morning at a certain hour is actuated fundamentally by the same impulse, namely the need to secure a living, but in his case the impulse does not operate directly and at the moment when it is felt; it operates indirectly through abstractions, beliefs and volitions." (133)

That reminds me of something Robert Wright says in The Moral Animal: "We aren't designed to stand on crowded subway platforms, or to live in suburbs next door to people we never talk to, or to get hired or fired, or to watch the evening news. This disjunction between the contexts of our [evolutionary] design and of our lives is probably responsible for much psychopathology, as well as much suffering of a less dramatic sort." (38-9)

10. "Very few men or women will have children from a sense of public duty, even if it were far clearer than it is that any such public duty exists. When men and women have children, they do so either because they believe that children will add to their happiness, or because they do not know how to prevent them. ...

"To be happy in this world, especially when youth is past, it is necessary to feel oneself not merely an isolated individual whose day will soon be over, but part of the stream of life flowing on from the first germ to the remote and unknown future. As a conscious sentiment, expressed in set terms, this involves no doubt a hypercivilized and intellectual outlook upon the world, but as a vague instinctive emotion it is primitive and natural, and it is its absence that is hypercivilized. A man who is capable of some great and remarkable achievement which sets its stamp upon future ages may gratify this feeling through his work, but for men and women who have no exceptional gifts, the only way to do so is through children." (152-4)

COUNTERPOINT: "Would having children make me happier?"