I've written about this issue in two recent pieces (here and here) in The Conversation, and also in the piece reproduced below, from the Cambridge Faculty of Philosophy's 2013 Newsletter.
‘Erroneously supposed to do no harm’
Bertrand Russell’s celebrated lecture ‘On the Notion of Cause’ was first delivered on 4 November 1912, as Russell’s Presidential Address to the Aristotelian Society. It gave Russell a place beside Hume as one of the great causal sceptics, and twentieth century philosophy one of its most famous lines: “The law of causality”, Russell declares, “Like much that passes muster among philosophers, is a relic of a bygone age, surviving, like the monarchy, only because it is erroneously supposed to do no harm.”
On 1 November 2012, taking advantage of a happy accident of timing, I used my Inaugural Lecture as Bertrand Russell Professor to mark the centenary of ‘On the Notion of Cause’, and to ask what its conclusions look like with the benefits of a century’s hindsight. As I explained, the story has many Cambridge connections. Indeed, much of what Russell set out to achieve was given proper if sadly sketchy foundations in one of Frank Ramsey’s late papers from 1929, just four months before his untimely death. (It has taken the rest of us most of a century to catch up.)
Preparing my lecture, I wondered what Russell had had in mind in the other part of his famous line. Just what, in his view, was the harm that the monarchy is erroneously thought not to do? I assumed this would be an easy curiosity to satisfy – somewhere, the prolific Russell would have written about the monarchy at greater length. But I searched in vain.
Eventually I wrote to Nicholas Griffin, of the Russell Archives at McMaster. He told me that there was nothing to find, not even in Russell’s correspondence, so far as he knew it. But he suggested a context for Russell’s remark. In Britain had concluded a constitutional crisis, bought on by the Liberal government’s de- termination to remove the veto power of the House of Lords. A crucial step was the King’s indication that he would support the government, if necessary, by creating sufficient new Liberal peers to ensure passage of the Bill through the Lords. (Russell would have been one of those new peers, in that counterfactual world.) Professor Griffin suggested that in the light of the King’s support, some on the Liberal side were saying that the monarchy wasn’t so bad after all; and that Russell may have been taking the opportunity to indicate that he was made of sterner stuff – that the old battle lines of the Russells remained unchanged.
But this doesn’t tell us what Russell thought the harm in question actually was, at that point in the nation’s history – when, thanks in part to Russell’s own ancestors, it had long been a “crowned republic”, as Tennyson put it (a fact reaffirmed in the recent crisis). So, as my centenary footnote to Russell’s great paper, I offered my own proposal. In my view, there is a significant harm associated with modern constitutional monarchies (of which there are nine or ten in all, most of them in Western Europe) – a consequence remarkable for the fact that although in plain sight, it goes unmentioned, and apparently almost unnoticed. It is indeed ‘a relic of a bygone age’, as Russell puts it, whose cost is hidden from us by the sheer familiarity of the system of which it is a consequence – by the fact that a traditional picture holds us in its grip, as Wittgenstein might have put it. Moreover, while I don’t suggest that this is what Russell actually had in mind, it is something that he in particular would have had reason to have in mind – it resonates in several ways with aspects of his own life. In all senses, then, it is an excellent fit.
The point in question is so simple that it is apt to seem banal. In selecting children on an hereditary basis for public office, we deny them a freedom we take for granted for our own children, to decide for themselves what they want to make of their lives. To see the issue in perspective, imagine such a system being proposed in some contemporary democracy, starting from scratch. In future, various public offices would be filled by selecting infants who would be brought up to fill the roles in question. (A knock at the door might signal that your child had been chosen to be a future Archbishop of Canterbury, say.) The main objection would not be that it was undemocratic, but that it was absurdly unfair to the individuals concerned. The fact that we do find this system acceptable in practice, for one particular public office, turns mainly on its sheer familiarity – that’s just how things are done. Perhaps also, as Russell thinks in the case of causation, we are in the grip of bad metaphysics: we think of royalty as a natural kind, and hence imagine that it is a natural matter that royal children should be brought up to play these roles – that’s the kind of beings they are, as it were. The picture holds us captive, and central to it is the fantasy that what these families enjoy is a matter of entitlement and privilege, not constraint and obligation.
It is easy to see how we got to this point, from the distant past this picture actually depicts: on the one hand, a great erosion of opportunity on the side of royalty, as – thanks in part to Russell’s ancestors, in the British case – its powers were curtailed; on the other, an even greater expansion of opportunity on the side of ordinary people, especially children, as we came to accept that young people should make their life choices for themselves. The combination means that the heirs to modern democratic monarchies are now marooned on little islands of under-privilege, impoverished not only compared to their own ancestors, but also, more importantly, compared to the standards that now exist in the community at large.
This may seem an exaggeration. Couldn’t an heir simply abdicate, if she didn’t want to rule? Well, yes, but certainly not simply! It would be a difficult, public and personally costly process. She would be disappointing a nation’s expectations, impressed on her throughout a childhood in which she had been taught that this is her duty, her place in life. (There’s the small matter of putting a sibling in the hot seat, too.) Why should her freedom require her to scale such a formidable fence, when our children come and go as they please?
This was my proposal concerning the monarchy’s hidden harm, and it is easy to see why I took it to be Russellian in spirit. Russell felt the constraints of his own childhood very deeply, and was greatly relieved to escape them when he came of age. Later, when he himself became a father, he was an advocate of allowing children as much freedom as possible. Famously, too, he was an opponent of conscription. He also had a talent for calling our attention to those uncomfortable truths that hide themselves in plain sight. I think he would have felt it entirely appropriate to call attention to this one.