What is the central idea of the essay "Machines and the Emotions" by Bertrand Russell?

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amarang9 | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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In “Machines and the Emotions,” Bertrand Russell describes some of humanity’s natural instincts, desires and cultural practices. Then Russell explains how machines are beneficial or harmful to our general nature and our nurtured, or learned, cultural practices.

He makes the argument that people want wealth in order to be able to obtain material goods but more so to gain respect from other people. In other cultures, he gives examples of how respect is achieved by some other standard: by birth (aristocracy), artistry or wisdom, all depending on their cultures and historical periods. Therefore, it is not wealth that we naturally believe is necessary in order to obtain happiness; it is respect born out of competition. (This is Russell’s logical argument for what we would probably call an obvious ethical argument.) Since wealth is not inherently necessary for happiness, then the ability for machines to increase one’s wealth is also inherently irrelevant in terms of human happiness.

In addition, Russell claims that while machinery could certainly improve the fight against poverty, such a fight could still be won without machines.

About two-thirds of the way into the essay, the argument comes out that machines are not inherently good or bad. They have their benefits. This essay lays out a logical argument about humanity itself; that is, humans have something to lose (their human emotions, which some might say is one of humanity’s defining, necessary and sufficient conditions of being human.) That is, we have something to lose by using, loving, adoring and identifying with machines.

The three main detrimental uses of machines are that they increase damage in war, they allow for the publication (or television) of mind-numbing trivialities, and they starve the spontaneous side of human nature. He writes:

As the machine dominates the thoughts of people who consider themselves 'serious', the highest praise they can give to a man is to suggest that he has the quality of a machine that he is reliable, punctual, exact, etc. And an 'irregular' life has come to be synonymous with a bad life.

This is the classic argument that, in the age of machines, we have become machine-like, mindless consumers, robotic.

And so, he comes back to the central point, which is human happiness. Since finding alternatives to war, solutions to poverty, and beneficial, alternative outlets for our instinctual need for adventure, admiration, competition and spontaneity can come without machines, then the solutions to these and other problems must be solved by more deeply understanding human nature; not by relying on the convenience and monotony, dispassionately driven by our machines and technology.

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