Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Sunday, December 26, 2004

Against Fundamentalism and Cruelty: Russell’s “A Liberal Decalogue”

I just stumbled upon a lovely piece by Bertrand Russell, called “A Liberal Decalogue,” with which others may be well familiar but which I had never seen myself. It appears in his Autobiography, but apparently originated in an article for the New York Times in 1951, called “The Best Answer to Fanaticism – Liberalism.” It seems that liberalism has indeed long desired and deserved the self-image of a "reality-based community."

It is intriguing to set this alongside Judith Shklar’s definition of a liberal, made famous especially by Richard Rorty who took it up in his most important book so far, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. Shklar has said that a liberal is “one for whom cruelty is the worst thing we do.” I append Shklar’s definition here to emphasise that while Russell’s piece may seem preoccupied with epistemology it is easy to discern a warm moralism in his ironical "Commandments."

Of course, even if you don’t want to pursue that particular line it is easy to see the relevance and usefulness of Russell’s skepticism in the service of truthfulness in an era boiling with Fundamentalists who, whether in priestly robes or lab-coats, imagine themselves conduits through which Truths greater and more sure than themselves flow and at the “promptings” of which too often too much blood is sure to flow, too.

Here, then, is Russell’s Decalogue, “not intended,” he writes, “to replace the old one but to supplement it.” This, he proposes, is his best effort to pithily sum up “the essence of the Liberal outlook.”
The Ten Commandments that, as a teacher, I should wish to promulgate, might be set forth as follows:

1. Do not feel absolutely certain of anything.
2. Do not think it worth while to proceed by concealing evidence, for the evidence is sure to come to light.
3. Never try to discourage thinking for you are sure to succeed.
4. When you meet with opposition, even if it should be from your husband or your children, endeavor to overcome it by argument and not by authority, for a victory dependent upon authority is unreal and illusory.
5. Have no respect for the authority of others, for there are always contrary authorities to be found.
6. Do not use power to suppress opinions you think pernicious, for if you do the opinions will suppress you.
7. Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.
8. Find more pleasure in intelligent dissent than in passive agreement, for, if you value intelligence as you should, the former implies a deeper agreement than the latter.
9. Be scrupulously truthful, even if the truth is inconvenient, for it is more inconvenient when you try to conceal it.
10. Do not feel envious of the happiness of those who live in a fool's paradise, for only a fool will think that it is happiness.

1 comment:

ed said...

Hey, Greets from London.
I was just trawling the web for what was up between Shklar and Arendt; and have spent the day reading The Human Condition.
It seems they were a world apart: and the liberalism of Shklar -- doing the washing up rather than worrying about dasein -- seems far more humble and less cruel than the romantic yearnings of Arendt in HC.
I'm no expert, but thought I'd stick down where I'm at. (Cool blog, and links by the way!)