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Summarize "The Harm that Good Men Do" by Bertrand Russell.

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Gretchen Mussey eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Russell begins by mentioning a philosopher named Jeremy Bentham who lived a century before him and famously stated that "people ought to make soup of their dead grandmothers." Many people disapproved of Bentham's philosophical ideas and considered him a "bad man." Russell then describes the social reforms of the Victorian Era and mentions that much of the progress was influenced by the progressive ideas of Bentham who promoted utilitarianism.

He then describes the ideal "good man" who behaves amiably, attends church, and has "irreproachable" morals. He then contrasts society's idea of a "bad man" by describing a person who is a nonconformist, has subversive opinions, seeks enjoyment without consquences, and is honest with himself and others. Russell then mentions how Wordsworth and Coleridge were considered "bad men" when they did not abide by Christain standards despite producing some of their most extraordinary works. He proceeds to list famous poets, philosophers, and scientists who were considered "bad men" simply because their views did not align with the ideals of their government. In the modern era, Russell believes that a "good man" is simply a person whose opinions and activities please those in authority.

Russell then discusses what society considers "good men" like George III who oppressed Catholics and Kaiser Wilhelm who caused immense harm to humanity. According to Russell, the purpose of a "good man" is to provide a smoke-screen to the public so that villainous individuals can secretly carry out their actions. "Good men" also ruin the political careers of those who disagree with the majority in power. Russell also argues that "good men" suppress knowledge, particularly concerning the prevention of venereal diseases, in order to maintain Biblical precepts. Russell comments on the wars which have been started over the deaths of "good men," and argues that standards of "goodness" do not make the world a happier place. Russell feels that the dominant class promotes traditional ideas and customs essentially based on superstitious, irrational beliefs that do not better society. Russell resents the fact that a man is labeled "good" if he avoids sin but does nothing to better society, as well as the fact that governments routinely punish those who act selflessly.

Russell says that men with Bentham's moral belief in "the greatest happiness of the greatest number" will live an arduous life compared to those who obey conventional precepts. Russell advocates for a morality based on "love of life, upon pleasure in growth and positive achievement, not upon repression and prohibition." He urges society to examine their definition of what a "good man" is and argues that those who exploit others for personal gain, despite their authority or popular opinion, be viewed and labeled as immoral individuals.

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Olen Bruce eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Russell's main argument is that the people we consider good are not actually good--they are just conventional. He begins with the example of Jeremy Bentham, a philosopher who defined goodness as doing good works. Bentham spearheaded many reforms, but was considered an evil man. 

Russell discusses the attributes of a person who society considers "good." Such a person does not drink or smoke, speaks without foul language, and endorses the idea that we should punish sin. Such a person, Russell points out, can actually do harm, as he or she can defend the unfair treatment of others as condoned by God (as did the former Kaiser, a religious man). In addition, "good" people can often be pawns that start serious problems. He mentions, for example, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, who was murdered in Sarajevo--the spark that started World War I. As Russell writes, "the standards of 'goodness' which are generally recognized by public opinion are not those which are calculated to make the world a happier place." In addition, Russell cites several great thinkers, such as Darwin and Spinoza, who were known as bad men during their time, likely because they were unconventional. Russell says that our morality becomes superstition and that we need a new morality based on love of life and encouragement of growth. 

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