The Harm that Good Men Do Summary & Analysis: Bertrand Russel

The Harm that Good Men Do Summary:

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Russel says that a hundred years ago, a philosopher named Jeremy Bentham lived who was known as wicked man. Russell says when he was a boy he read in a newspaper stating that Bentham has said that people need to make soup of their dead grandmother. Russell concludes that this practice is very wrong and he, too, perceives Bentham as a wicked man. He says after longer period of time he discovered that the statement was wrongly interpreted. He says that the man charge against him was that he defined good man as a man who does well. He then jumps to the philosopher Kant who says an action is virtuous only if it occurred due to the moral laws. Russell then states that Kant is a more sublime moralist than Bentham.

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He admits that Bentham has advocated his own definition of a good man. He says that the first forty years of Eighteenth century were very good for England because it had a rapid progress. This period started with the proclamation of the reform act due to which representatives from the middle class were given presentation in the parliament. He calls this a difficult step towards democracy. This was followed by other such steps like, slavery in Jamaica got banned. He says in the very start of this period the punishment of theft was death hanging but this death punishment was then confined to the crimes of murders and high treason. Compulsory education got introduced in 1870. Russell says that a large portion of this development is due to the efforts of Jeremy Bentham.

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He says that we all are aware of what actually a good moan is; in ideal good man does not drink, he does not use bad language, he communicated in a sophisticated manner, goes to church regularly and has a positive knowledge of things. He knows that his job is to eradicate sin. He spends most of his time good works. He encourages patriotism and military trainings. He must also be a man of morals. Russell then comes to the attributes of a bad man; he smokes, he drinks and he says bad language when someone steps on his toe. His language use is very rough. He does not go to church and spends his time in fun. His ideas are generally bad. His argument is that sermon and prisons are the solutions of vices. His states is that he thinks the wrong thinking is simply thinking while the right thinking means repeating the bookish ideas like a parrot. His activities are mostly bad. Such a man is not considered a responsible man and is not given any authority and respect in the society because such responsibilities and position are only for good men.

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Russell says that this whole affair is of modern nature because this existed in England in the reign of Puritans. He says that it slowly evaporated. After the French Revolution this concept was not enforced in England. The change can be seen in the life Wordsworth who in the sympathy of French revolution went to France, wrote poetry and had a good daughter. At that period of youth he was a bad man. Afterwards, he became a bad man, left his daughter and write bad poetry. Similar was the case with Coleridge, when he was a bad man he wrote Kubla Khan and when he became a good man he wrote theology.

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He says that it is good to find out any example of a poet when he was in good times writing good poetry. Dante was exiled because of wrong propaganda. He then says that Shakespeare would have not been allowed by the American immigration because of his sonnets. He says that the essence of a good man means he supports government that’s why Milton was good in the reign of Cromwell and bad in before after that period. He goes on giving more example and then says that the standards of prevalent virtues are incompatible with the production of good poetry.

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He says in other directions the same is true as well. He furthers say that Galileo and Darwin were bad men and same was the case with Spinoza. But he was proved a fruitful person after hundred years of his death. Russell then states that all men of Renaissance were bad men. In his opinion those who object to morality are considered wicked people. Similarly people are considered good when they hold dinners for the important people of locality. And the poor people are let to starve. So this brings us to the conclusion that good man is the man whose opinions and activities are pleasing to the office holders.

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He says it has been painful that we have been praising bad men who have achieved respect in the past. Like George 3rd was a typical virtuous man. He was asked to emancipate the Catholics, he didn’t agree because it was against his coronation oath. He was asked to release them and it would be good to Catholics but he refused to do so. He thought it right. Although this was a very bad move.

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Good people are useful in politicians because they hold a screen where others do things and go unsuspected. A good man never doubts his friend`s wrong activities. And this good man, too, is never doubted by the people to safeguard his wrong friend. Same was done by Whittaker Wright in England who surrounded himself by the blameless people.

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He says that the other use of good man is that they make scandals and keep the people out of politics because they are trusted by people. Similarly out of one hundred, ninety nine commit immoral deeds but it is let not suspected. But when that one person who is sincerely good commits some sort of wrong, he is suspected and presented to repercussions. When they come across a weakness of that one person, they have the following options; they can expose the weakness and ends his career, they compel him to retire into private life or they can blackmail him for the money. These three methods come into existence only through good man because they are that disguised culprits.

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The other use of good men is to murder them. Like Germany acquired province of Shantung in China by the statement that two missionaries were killed there.

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Russell says that the standards set for goodness by the public opinion cannot make the world a happier place. It is because the unjust by the dominant people to the poor classes. Primitive morality like eating in chief`s dish developed from taboo and based originally in superstitious. These prohibitions continued to have authority over people`s feelings because the reasons for them are completely forgotten. He says the morality which is prevalent today is somewhat wrong because there are certain things in this morality standard which are harmful. But if we look into these things we need to revise our moral standards. He then exemplifies it by taking the example of murder which is considered awful act in civilized society. He says the origin of prohibition of murder is in prohibition. It was thought the blood of murdered man demanded vengeance, therefore, it might punish the murderer. It shows that the act of murder, sin and guilt of have emotional background. The perspective of rationality will be different in case of murder. It will concerned with the prevention of such act and then to cure the act.

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Russell says that our current ethic system is the mixture if superstition and rationalism. He says that murder is an ancient crime and it is seen as age long horror while forgery- a relatively modern crime is seen as rationally. We punish both murders and forgers but murders are very much hated. So this shows that in social practice our virtue consists in not doing any act rather than doing any act. It means that the person who stays away from a sin or bad thing is called a good man. Although such does nothing for the welfare of humanity.

14th paragraph

Russell argues that people know that traditional morality and its standards are not perfect but they do not say anything in the regard because it will weaken this system. Russell then returns to Bentham and his views. Bentham says that the basis of morals is; the greatest happiness of the greatest number’ and a man who acts upon this principle is happier in his life. Such a man will talk facts and deny false. It is because he thinks for the betterment of others. The traditional morality is always oppressive because it teaches us to be patient and this is negative. It does not go for the details.

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Russell assures that the progress of reason and science is very positive and will bring change. He says that people will realize that all the belief institutions cannot produce happiness because they are based in hatred and injustice. He says that we need morality which is based in love, pleasure and achievement of positivity. He says a man is good when he is happy with the others and for the others. But a man who has amassed a good fortune by exploitation shall be called an immoral man. He should not be called a good man on the basis of going to church or giving charity.

The Harm that Good Men Do Analysis:

  • In the essay, Bertrand Russell has talked about the very basic premises of ethics and morality.
  • In his opinion, the traditional standards set for judging morality and immorality are false.
  • He adds that the concept of good man and bad man which we implement in our society is based in falsehood.
  • He advocates the concept of rationality in judging a good man or bad man.
  • He says that a good man, according to set standard, of this society is doing no good to society. And such a man should not be considered good.
  • Our traditional view is that the one who stays away from the sin and bad deeds is a good man.
  • We do not see whether he contributes to the well-being of society or not. But we label him good because people have good opinion about him.
  • Similarly, a man who is not good in his conduct but is good for the society and the well-being of the society is considered a bad man on the basis of his conduct. While his better approach to the society is neglected.
  • Russell`s opinion is to revise these standards of judgment.
  • According to Russell, a good man does not mean going to church regularly and not conversing unsophisticated language.
  • Similarly, a bad man does not mean a person who smokes and drink and uses foul language.
  • He says that people have gained respect in people because of charity and other acts while they would be exploiting the poor masses. Such people should be pointed out.
  • He quotes Bentham whose opinion is that a good man himself lives a happy life as well as the surroundings are happy with him too.
  • This is exactly what Islam teaches as well.
  • In Islam it is clearly inculcated that God need not these bows and prayers of subjects, what he needs it to fulfill all the rights of humanity.
  • Russell wants to convey that while judging a bad man and a good man we need to be a bit rational; we need to see his overall conduct as well as his efforts for the well-being of the society. This must be the criterion for the judgment.