Bertrand Russell and A Liberal Decalogue

As our President wanders around Europe disgracing our nation and the world, I saw tweets floating around quoting Bertrand Russell from Yascha Mounk. He quoted A Liberal Decalogue, which Russell published in the New York Times in 1951. The Decalogue states that the best answer to fanaticism was liberalism, which he noted should include a set of Ten Commandments that add to the current religious set.

  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.

Bertrand Russell and The Answer to Fanaticism

Best known for the History of Western Philosophy, Russell had broad interest in philosophy.  As a mathematician, Novel Prize winner, civil rights activist, and public figure, he dedicated his life for the quest for knowledge. According to Mark Sainsbury in The Philosophers, Russell focused on three philosophical areas:

  • philosophical logic,
  • foundations of mathematics, and
  • epistemology and metaphysics.

A Liberal Decalogue utilized philosophical logic to give meaning to words and concepts with natural language.

He used logic to showcase why Europe moved to a liberalism based on Locke. But also noted that in 1951, the world seemed to shift away from the questioning and doubt Locke professed. “Those happy days are past. Nowadays, the man who has any doubt whatever is despised: in many countries he is put in prison, and in America he is thought unfit to perform any public function.”

Russell argued that mental activity and free thinking needs to be the requirement for liberalism. But he noted that liberals had a problem with this. “The liberal objection to this view is that throughout past history received opinions have been such as everyone now admits to have been both false and harmful, and that it is scarcely likely that the world has complete changed in this respect.”

Conclusion

In a recent TrumpCast from Slate, Jacob Weisberg talked with Nadine Strossen, former president of the American Civil Liberties Union. He questioned her on the organization’s mission in the Trump era and any tensions our current moment might be causing. I listened closely to this argument. Weisberg worried that the ACLU may move past its history of protecting speech, even if it comes from a hateful mouth. He used examples where the ACLU represented neo-Nazis, the KKK, and other hate groups. But Strossen argued that the ACLU has always weighed their defense versus other rights. Weisberg remained unconvinced. So did I.

When I look at Russell’s Ten Commandments, I think they do stand for the liberal struggle. And it may be best to break it up by each point.

  1. I try to keep an open mind and I know I am not certain about lots of things. But I do have a certainty to many of my beliefs.
  2. When I do have an argument, I try to lay out all of the evidence. I believe that we need to keep this central to all political discussion. Too often, we all fall into our sides and disregard counterpoints.
  3. Culture today fails to estimate the value of “thinking.” We rush to judgments. Opinions and thoughts need to appear instantaneously. But when we stop and think about what something means, even if you know that your side is right, leads to a failure of creativity.
  4. Power…the problem of today’s world is that the powerful hold our voices. And the Supreme Court has dictated that the rich do have more of a voice. When we do speak though, we should remember that our voice has power. Utilize it wisely.
  5. Authority remains a complicated idea for me. I like to trust but more and more, authority has let me down.
  6. Why I hope the ACLU maintains its defense of all speech…
  7. One reason why I like the “Abolish ICE” movement is not that I agree with it but because it take the hard line. It focuses on an actual issue, takes it to the farthest reaches and then I hope we pull back.
  8. One should always question what they think and if they should shift their opinions. Unless you are open to other ideas, this becomes impossible.
  9. I wish truth mattered today. But opinion has taken the place of truth. No one seems to read the New York Times. They read the op-eds.
  10. We live in a world of non-experts and fools. Everyone believes they know better. I stick with Socrates. “I know one thing; that I know nothing.” Always listen and respect what others say.

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