Sunday, December 30, 2007

Unpopular Essays, Chapter 6

Chapter 6 (pages 76-81), “On Being Modern-minded”

While a modern person knows much about other countries, he is likely to see little value in the ideas and opinions of the past – a stance which has only become complete since the Great War. Fashion now dominates opinion, making thought unnecessary, and requiring only knowledge of how to appropriately use jargon. The jargon words themselves may originally have been the product of thought: “like paper money they were originally convertible into gold [p. 77].” Now they have depreciated, raising the nominal value of ideas while the real values decline.

A modern person does not aspire to transcend the thought or emotion of his contemporaries, only to arrive at the common ideas slightly ahead of the curve. A solitary mental life holds no appeal, nor can it conduce to social improvement as its ideas cannot compete with popular ones. Monetary rewards and (fleeting) fame are available to those whose opinions match those of their contemporaries. The return to discovering new truths also has fallen, as the pace of scientific advance ensures that any such truths will rapidly be superseded. “Newton lasted till Einstein; Einstein is already regarded by many as antiquated [p. 79].” Further, the old, motivating belief that one’s scientific work served God’s purposes has been eclipsed. The substitute ideals of the True, the Good, and the Beautiful, proved unsustainable, too. But it isn’t the “decay of theological beliefs [p. 81]” that is the main problem; rather, it is the “loss of solitude,” a “certain degree of isolation both in space and time [p. 81].”

Friday, November 23, 2007

Unpopular Essays, Chapter 5

Chapter 5 (pages 69-75), “The Superior Virtue of the Oppressed”

There’s no rational reason to believe that one segment of mankind is morally superior to another. But many moralists like to think better of groups to which they do not belong, and especially oppressed groups such as “subject nations, the poor, women and children [p. 69]” – or noble savages.

Since the French Revolution, the issue of “the superior virtue of the poor [p. 70]” has been politicized; one form has been socialism’s enthronement of the urban proletariat. Patriots of oppressed peoples and the peoples themselves are thought well of, but once they achieve their independence they are found to be like everyone else. We still hear about the ‘wisdom of the east,’ though.

Views towards women are particularly irrational. Religion had two models, woman as temptress and woman as spiritual being. The Victorians pushed the spiritual theme, with the addendum that woman would be sullied with too much contact with the harsh world of business or politics. The supposed spiritual superiority of women was the flip side of their economic and political oppression.

“Children, like women, were theologically wicked…[p. 72],” and they had to be saved. In the 19th century views toward children again paralleled those towards women -- that they were innocent but spiritual -- and the pleasures that adults took from physical chastisement of children had to be curtailed. Freud has provided a new set of reasons (or rationales) for thinking that children are wicked, however.

The preceding examples show that “the stage in which superior virtue is attributed to the oppressed is transient and unstable [p. 74].” The stage arises when the oppressors “have a bad conscience,” which itself comes about only when their power to oppress becomes insecure. There’s a curious logic that supports their mistreatment of others – suffering makes one virtuous, so it is kindness to oppress. “It was a fine self-sacrifice on the part of men to relieve women of the dirty work of politics [p. 74].” The logic can then be used by the oppressed: because we are more virtuous, we should rule. Eventually, once the oppression ends, everyone can see that the superior virtue was fictional, and that the claim to equality does not need it as basis.

Many of the previous supposedly virtuous groups, having achieved equality, are no longer considered especially deserving. In modern times, however, there remains a tendency to attribute high morality to the proletariat (along with a tendency to admire productive works like dams and power plants). But if we really think that the poor living and working conditions of the proletariat inspire virtue, we would not support economic development. Socialists want it both ways: to proclaim the virtues of the proletariat, while working to change the conditions that engender those supposed virtues.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Unpopular Essays, Chapter 4

Chapter 4 (pages 56-68), “Philosophy’s Ulterior Motives”

Philosophers want to believe general propositions about humans or the universe, but they are only satisfied if they can believe on intellectual grounds. So they develop intricate fallacies that provide the appearance of intellectual underpinnings to their beliefs. One false step enters their thinking, and they are led “into the quagmire of falsehood [p. 57].” Descartes found that he did not have an intellectual basis for almost any belief – except that his own doubts were evidence that the doubter himself existed.

From the starting point of Descartes’ existence, though, he proceeds to propound a slew of propositions that have only scholastic tradition to support them, including a demonstration that God exists. “In a man whose reasoning powers are good, fallacious arguments are evidence of bias [p. 58].” Desires become certainties. Leibniz’s chain of reasoning that ours is ‘the best of all possible worlds’ is of a piece with Descartes’ delusions. Leibniz, “like other philosophers,…believes it possible to find out important things, such as the nature of God, by merely sitting still and thinking…[p. 60].” To avoid a conclusion that would challenge his faith in free will, Leibniz “takes refuge in obscurity and ambiguity [p. 60].”

Bishop Berkeley attempted to show that matter doesn’t exist, and to deduce from this, that God does exist. His demonstration of the first proposition shows much valid reasoning, in that your perceptions of objects are in your mind, and don’t really need the objects themselves. But he shrinks from the next step, that objects exist only when we perceive them, and substitutes instead the notion that objects are ideas in the mind of God. Successors to Berkeley, with the exception of Hume, also have succumbed to a shrinking away from the consequences of their own reasoning. They won’t accept that we have no reason to believe that anything other than our own mental states exist (p. 61).

Despite the excellencies of Hume, his chief impact “was to stimulate two new sets of fallacies… [p. 62],” one by Kant and one by Hegel and Marx. Kant gets around Hume’s overthrow of causation by claiming that humans might experience causation, even if there is no causation in the underlying reality. But then space and time are our creations, too, while pure reason cannot tell us whether God exists, or whether our actions are free. So Kant invents a second type of reason, practical reason, that allows him to accept the moral truths he had been taught when he was young. Via the categorical imperative of practical reason, Kant could determine that free will, an afterlife, and God all exist.

Hegel developed a system that made the future, in its broad outlines, foreseeable. Improvements in logical thinking, from thesis to antithesis to synthesis, are somehow mimicked in history, from Pure Being (ancient China) to Absolute Idea (Hegel’s Prussia). Hegel’s reasoning is both obscure and optimistic – optimistic because the historical development is one of progress. [Hegel published a proof that there must be exactly seven planets a week before the eighth was discovered.] Marx took over Hegel’s dialectic as governing history, but instead of the Prussian state as the ultimate end, there needs to be “[o]ne more turn of the dialectical wheel – that is to say, one more revolution…[p. 66].” But Marx has the same deterministic future in his model, which gives believers hope for what is to come and belief that they are on the right side of history, like “the Christian belief in the Second Coming [p. 66].”

“Philosophy is a stage in intellectual development, and is not compatible with mental maturity [p. 67].” Philosophers must believe that they can uncover important truths through thought alone, but outside mathematics, truths through thoughts are unavailable. Philosophers come to this belief through a confusion of names with what those names represent, and a “conviction that the world must be ethically satisfying [pp. 67-68].” Science abandoned the comforting notion that the world will evolve more-or-less as we would wish – but science has its own brand of optimism, that through our intelligence we can satisfy most desires.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Unpopular Essays, Chapter 3

Chapter 3 (pages 45-55), “The Future of Mankind”

Barring major unforeseen events, there are three possible fates for the earth by the end of the 20th Century: (1) human life, and possibly all life, exterminated; (2) return to the stone age after a massive depopulation; (3) a single world government controlling weapons of mass destruction.

The next world war won’t finish off humanity, but the post-war arms race and further instability might, through radioactivity. “Although the last survivor may proclaim himself universal Emperor, his reign will be brief and his subjects will all be corpses. With his death the uneasy episode of life will end, and the peaceful rocks will revolve unchanged until the sun explodes [pages 45-46].” Maybe this is not such a bad turn of events, but people don’t really believe that – even if they say they would rather see the world end than communism (or capitalism) take over. Such spoken sentiments are harmful, as they lessen our commitment to working to avoid the apocalypse.

A single world government might arise if either the US or Russia wins the next war, or if nations voluntarily agree to such a government. A common argument against a world government is that the prospect is utopian, but those commentators are only considering the voluntary means of achieving one. Russell concurs that as things now stand, the hopes for agreement between the two main sides are negligible; therefore, it would have to be “imposed by force [p. 47].”

Why can’t the world continue as before, with the occasional war? Technological development in weaponry has brought a level of destruction such that soon, any major world war would result in either extermination or depopulation and barbarism. (Russell foresees that the USSR will soon have lots of nuclear weapons.) Nor can it be hoped that for some reason, within the existing nation-state structure, war itself will become history.

Russell claims that a poll indicates that a majority of Americans support world government – but they do not understand the need for it to be established via force or the threat of force. The side that prevails in an armed struggle will have an irresistible monopoly of force, leading to a “secure peace [p. 49].” The leaders of that society will be rich and secure, allowing them to be generous to others. So a world government, of American or Soviet origin, will be preferable to the current “international anarchy [p. 50].” But an American-constructed world government will be better, because of the freedoms that are valued in America. We can see what sort of civilisation the Soviets would install by looking at what happened to the education system and the middle class in Poland once it fell under Soviet domination. Within a generation, all independent thought in Poland could be replaced with jejune communist orthodoxy, and this will also be the global fate within a Soviet uni-polar world – so a Russian victory in the bi-polar struggle would be “an appalling disaster [p. 51].” If America emerges as the victor, European cultures will not be crushed, nor will be freedom of expression. Soviet control of the press allows the ruling oligarchy to oppress the masses much more severely than in the US, so Soviet social inequalities worsen and harden.

The third alternative future outlined above, that of world government, can almost be as bad as the first two if it involves Soviet domination. The next step is for Britain and the US to start a military unification, with invitations and inducements to other nations to join. Once the alliance is large enough, any country that refused to join should be given an ultimatum: either join or be named an outlaw. Presumably Russia would receive such an ultimatum, and the war to follow – provided it happens quickly enough – should still leave US power intact, and then the military unification can be completed. We could hope that the ultimatum alone would work, that war would not be necessary – but we cannot rely upon that.

This all sounds gloomy, and it is, but the prospect of a world without wars also holds great promise; for the first time in 6000 years: “a weight will be lifted from the human spirit, deep collective fears will be exorcised, and as fear diminishes we may hope that cruelty also will grow less [p. 54].” Without war, poverty could be ended on a global scale “within a generation [p. 55].”

The global monopolization of force is a means, not an end; the end is to set up a system of laws to govern international relations. If we succeed in establishing such a system, we will enter a golden age; if we fail, “we face utter disaster [p. 55].”

Friday, October 12, 2007

Unpopular Essays, Chapter 2

Chapter 2 (pages 32-44): “Philosophy for Laymen”

Mankind faces the problem of mastering nature -- a problem left to science -- along with the problem of how to use our command over nature. The latter problem is best addressed by reference to current and historical experience. Certainly more mastery over nature has not always brought about increased happiness; rather, wisdom is required. And since philosophy’s literal meaning is 'love of wisdom,' philosophy is what is needed to prevent a fall into the atomic abyss.

Philosophy has always tried to understand how the world works (a process connected with theory and science), and to identify and inculcate sound living (a process connected with practice and religion). The science part is sometimes misunderstood, because as soon as philosophical speculations become subject to the usual scientific method, the topic is removed from philosophy into one of the sciences – this has happened, for instance, with planetary theory and evolution. But the science might never have come about without the earlier philosophical theorizing. Philosophy still points to the proper attitude to take towards science, by identifying the strengths and weaknesses of scientific understanding. It also stokes interest in important questions (such as, does the universe have a purpose?) that cannot yet be answered scientifically.

Unknowledgeable approaches to philosophy lead to people thinking that their own “brand of nonsense” is an eternal truth, and any alternative is a “damnable heresy [p. 37].” Hence the religious strife of the last 1,600 years, when a little command of philosophy would reveal to the participants that they have no good reason to think their own ideas correct. Dogmatism is an enemy to human happiness. It is natural to desire certainty, but it is “an intellectual vice [p. 38]” nonetheless. People need to be trained to “withhold judgment in the absence of evidence [p. 38]” – this would prevent pernicious but popular doctrines that proclaim that killing one subset of humanity will somehow make the world better. Philosophy is the discipline best poised to teach people how to suspend their judgment in the absence of evidence.

Skepticism itself, however, like dogmaticism, is absolutist, embracing the certainty of unknowing -- but philosophy should serve as a counter to certainty of any type, whether of knowledge or ignorance. It would be good if education could make it the case that political statements would be more effective when couched in the probabilistic terms that accurately reflect our imperfect knowledge, rather than the absolutist statements that currently sell better politically. Though of course, we must act on our best knowledge, even as we recognize its potential incorrectness – and presumably our actions will include insurance against the possibility of being wrong. “When you act upon a hypothesis which you know to be uncertain, your action should be such as will not have very harmful results if your hypothesis is false [p. 40, italics Russell’s].” So you shouldn’t burn dissenters at the stake, though it might become a delicate matter if it gets to the point where it is either you or they who will be burned: “an uncertain hypothesis cannot justify a certain evil unless an equal evil is equally certain on the opposite hypothesis [p. 40].”

Philosophy’s practical aim is, like religion’s, to recommend the good life, though unlike religion, philosophy recognizes no appeal to authority or tradition, and more attention is given to the “intellectual virtues [p. 41]”. Ancient philosophers addressed their advice to men of means and leisure who could set up their own experiments in living if need be. But now, most people “have to earn their living within the existing framework of society, and they cannot make important changes in their own way of life unless they can first secure important changes in political and economic organisation [p. 41].” So in modern times ethics have to be reflected more in political behavior, and less in private life, than was the custom anciently.

An initial axiom is that “knowledge is good, even if what is known is painful [p. 41].” Our beliefs are influenced by profound forces, including our youthful lessons and the importuning of powerful organizations. So we must be careful to scrutinise our beliefs – especially those that we (or others) find painful to doubt -- to see which of them are held as true for good reason.

Statements about politics tend to be believed or not on the basis of the nationality of the believer – “which is logically irrelevant [p. 42].” Try replacing terms that might bias you – country names, for instance – with symbols, so that you can think more objectively and generally about political propositions. Generality might also be achieved by being acutely sensitive to dangers faced by distant, anonymous foreigners, but this is a rare characteristic, and most people have to rely instead upon an abstract frame of mind. But a widespread distribution of either approach would lead to vast improvements, as populations at odds with each other would work for their common good, without being too concerned about the precise distribution of the benefits.

Some study of philosophy can “greatly increase the student’s value as a human being and as a citizen [p. 44],” by inculcating the habit of exact thought, for instance, and providing a measure of man’s place in the cosmos. Philosophy, by broadening our thoughts, helps to relieve present anxieties, and promotes, as much as can be hoped for in a troubled world, serenity.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Unpopular Essays, Chapter 1

Chapter 1 (pages 11-31): “Philosophy and Politics”

Generally, in civilized countries other than modern liberal democracies, the authorities endorse a particular philosophy, as with Soviet Marxism. Early liberal democracies were themselves connected with the philosophy of Locke.

Traditionally philosophy included a doctrine of virtuous behavior. It has been appended to the criminal law and religion to prevent chaos, to make individual desires and the social good cohere. This leads to an insincere philosophy, one that responds not solely to truth but to the fear that “clear thinking would lead to anarchy...[p. 14],” and is exhibited by Plato and Hegel. Protagoras and Hume, skeptics both, are exceptions. It wasn’t the skeptics, but rather the empiricists Democritus and Locke, who were the formidable intellectual opponents with whom Plato and Hegel had to contend. The philosophy of Plato and Hegel “made itself the champion of injustice, cruelty, and opposition to progress [p. 15].” (Russell cites Karl Popper as demonstrating this claim in the case of Plato.) Plato was so artful that people did not recognize “his reactionary tendencies [p. 17]” until Lenin and Hitler put them into practice.

Russell continues by elaborating on the totalitarianism in Plato’s Republic, including the censorship of literature, drama, and music, the sacrifice of individual happiness for the collectivity, and the purposeful deception by the ruling oligarchs to enforce (with the aid of infanticide) their eugenic aspirations. Plato’s ideas require the pretty patina of philosophy to disguise their horrors.

Plato’s purported static optimum is insufficient in a dynamic world, where hope and change are needed for happiness. Modern philosophers thus have adopted an evolutionary viewpoint, where there is progress toward a goal that is never achieved. But change is a scientific notion, and progress is an ethical one. The earth once produced “harmless trilobites and butterflies [p. 19],” but moved on to produce Neros and Hitlers. Peace will return, though, as the earth returns to a state where it cannot support life.

Philosophers are not content with the undirected change of the earth. They note features of the world they like, and others that they don’t like, and then claim that an immutable law of history is leading to an increase in the former and decrease in the latter. “At the same time the winning side, for reasons which remain somewhat obscure, is represented as the side of virtue [p. 20].” Hegel was successful in selling a version of this pap, in part because his writing was so obscure that it was believed to be profound.

Russell provides a capsule and unflattering view of Hegelian philosophy, with its timeless Absolute Idea and the illusory unreality in which we dwell. Hegel somehow is able to conclude from these philosophical foundations that “true liberty consists in obedience to an arbitrary authority, that free speech is an evil, that absolute monarchy is good…[p. 21],” and so on. The intermediate steps involve the logic of the ‘dialectio,’ the uncovering of “contradictions in abstract ideas and correcting them by making them less abstract [p. 22],” with ideas thereby progressing to the Absolute Idea.

Hegel compounds the folly by asserting that “the temporal process of history repeats the logical development of the dialectic [p. 22].” Despite the universality of the philosophy, the historical process applies only to earth, and develops fully only in those times and places on earth with which Hegel was familiar. It was Hegel’s contemporary Germany that has progressed closest to the Absolute Idea.

Hegel’s “farrago of nonsense” carried the day in philosophy for a long time, and Russell would have succumbed, like his peers, had he not seen that Hegel’s writing on the philosophy of mathematics was “plain nonsense [p. 23].” Marx, of course, followed in Hegel’s footsteps, and in much of the world “you will be liquidated if you question this dogma…[p. 23].”

Hegel’s philosophy did not require him to praise Prussia -- his favorable opinion could have been bestowed upon any place with strict governmental control. Hegel (in his own conceit) knew what others did not, and a strong government could force them to act in their own best interest. Russell quotes Heraclitus, “to whom Hegel was deeply indebted,” as noting that ‘Every beast is driven to the pasture with blows.’ Russell’s caustic retort: “Let us, in any case, make sure of the blows; whether they lead to a pasture is a matter of minor importance…[p. 24].”

Once you “know” where history leads, you can justify any sort of compulsion to help people along the path. Autocracy thinks itself justified by some such dogma. Democracy, alternatively, receives a theoretical justification only from Lockean-style empiricism.

A Liberal political theory develops in commercial societies, especially those that are not military powers. Trade brings contacts with foreigners and erodes dogmatism, and successful trading requires an ability to see your partner’s point of view. Liberalism is a "live and let live” approach, one that eschews fanaticism; it accepts no truths, but rather, holds opinions on a tentative basis. Liberalism concerns itself not with what opinions are held, but how they are held. This is the approach of science, though not of theology. “The decisions of the Council of Nicaea are still authoritative, but in science fourth-century opinions no longer carry any weight [p. 26].” Look at how Marxian dogma affects Soviet science. Locke “stood for order without authority…[p. 27].” With the nuclear threat, global survival requires “liberal tentativeness and tolerance [p. 28].”

The realization that your current views may well be wrong suggests that you should be very reluctant to commit a “present evil for the sake of a comparatively doubtful future good [p. 29].”

There is a popular notion that fanatics are likely to win conflicts between themselves and liberals, given the commitment that fanatics have to their cause. But in actual combat, democracies do better. Fanatics choose impossible tasks, or inappropriate means, and “rouse the hostility [p. 30]” of others. Dogmatic systems that seek to persecute others lose out on the contributions – indeed, invite the intense opposition of – the persecuted. Germany might have had the atomic bomb first were it not for Hitler’s hatred of Jews. While fanatic systems can bring social coherence, so can democracies: look at WWII Britain.

Because dogmatism does not accept argument as a way of getting to the truth, all that is left to rival dogmas is force. A robust empirical liberalism is needed to prevent disaster.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Unpopular Essays, Introductory Matter

Willis’s Introduction (pages vi-xiv):

There’s a coherence to Russell’s thought, disparate as it is, that is well demonstrated by Unpopular Essays. Willis follows up this observation with a biography of Russell, one that comes to life when relating Russell’s triumphant return to Trinity College at Cambridge in 1944: “Russell’s lectures were memorable performances – lucid, witty, irreverent, full of sweeping themes and picturesque asides, and delivered with a verve that at once enthralled his audience and incarnated the moral seriousness and intellectual grandeur of philosophical study [page xi].”

Eight of the chapters in Unpopular Essays were already written, some of them years earlier, when the book was proposed by Russell’s publisher; all of the chapters were imbued with the liberalism that had characterized Russell’s thought throughout his career. Upon publication, the book achieved critical and popular success.

In his one page Preface, Russell suggests that the essays are unified by their stand against dogmatism. He also explains the title. An earlier of book of his, which he claimed was written in part for the broad public, had been criticized for not being accessible. Russell takes a jab at those critics by suggesting that the current book, given that some sentences might not be understood by “unusually stupid children of ten…,” must not be a popular book – hence, unpopular. [I do not note the page number for Russell’s preface – there is no number on the page itself but the Table of Contents lists the Preface as being on page 9 -- because the pagination seems to be erroneous. From page 9 on things look OK, but it is hard to fathom how the preface page could be page 9, when it immediately follows page xiv.]

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Next Up: Unpopular Essays

The original plan called for Unpopular Essays to follow close upon the heels of Marriage and Morals, and there doesn’t seem to be a good reason to further perfect the plan, to use the old Soviet terminology.

Unpopular Essays was published in 1950 by George Allen & Unwin; I will be using the Routledge paperback, which includes an Introduction by Kirk Willis and a one-page preface by Russell. The Routledge edition first appeared in 1995; my copy is a 2000 reprint. Here is a list of the titles of the twelve chapters:

1. Philosophy and Politics
2. Philosophy for Laymen
3. The Future of Mankind
4. Philosophy’s Ulterior Motives
5. The Superior Virtue of the Oppressed
6. On Being Modern-minded
7. An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish
8. The Functions of a Teacher
9. Ideas that have Helped Mankind
10. Ideas that have Harmed Mankind
11. Eminent Men I Have Known
12. Obituary

My suspicion is that my running summentary of these disparate essays will be a bit more selective than what spewed forth from Marriage and Morals. Onwards.

[Update: Apparently the entirety of Unpopular Essays is available online here.]

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Marriage and Morals, Full Time

The second half of Marriage and Morals did not lead me to alter my general impressions from the halfway point. There’s the same relevance, and the same glibness. (My favorite Russellian pronouncement is from Chapter 14: “Children whose mothers do not feel a warm affection for them are apt to be thin and nervous, and not infrequently they become kleptomaniacs [p. 194].”) Indeed, much of what takes place in the second half recapitulates and expands upon material from the first half.

Among the points that are (mostly) new is the idea (Chapter 15) that among poor people, the state is substituting for fathers, and that a furtherance of this trend will undo the role of fathers. I think that on this point Russell proved prescient, given the massive increase in one-parent (typically female-headed) families in the US and elsewhere in the second half of the 20th Century. But the replacement did not extend into the middle class, and has diminished in recent years within the poorer sections of society, I believe. The same chapter also contains the correct prediction that married women would become eligible for the professions that were closed to them in the 1920s.

One area in which I remain far from convinced by Russell is his pronouncement of the need for (or desirability of) international government. (See, for instance, chapters 15 and 16.) Like Russell, I fear the practices and policies of standard national governments, but I doubt that they would be improved via a monopoly. Policy competition among various national governments (and the possibility for people to emigrate) provides a check – admittedly not a strong one – on the worst abuses. While international problems (such as global environmental degradation) require or benefit from international responses, a one-world government making population or education policy on a global scale sounds to me like a dystopia.

On eugenics, Russell was no enthusiast, but he accepted some notions that look foolish today; for instance, he put some credence in phrenology, and his willingness to sterilize imbeciles would have (presumably) had him vote with the majority in the 1927 US Supreme Court case, Buck v. Bell. (Though his concern that perceived immorality would be used for negative eugenics might have shifted him into dissent – Carrie Buck was accused of prostitution and immorality as well as imbecility.) The whole idea of looking at the social value of (potential) individuals in formulating discriminatory population policy no longer seems worth the cost.

The most basic message of Marriage and Morals, however, to my mind still stands up. The traditional sexual morality damages people and essentially is irrational (especially the fetish of female 'virtue'), and people who were brought up in that tradition – I count myself among them – are more-or-less permanently harmed by the dissonance between instinct and imbued moral training. Russell’s suggestion for a replacement ethic, too, is one that I was stumbling towards before I read Marriage and Morals – the idea that close relationships are to be cherished, that they need not be put at risk by sex outside the relationship, and that jealousy has to be reined in. I am sorry that I didn’t read Marriage and Morals years ago, but if Russell is right, I couldn’t have overcome my childhood training in any case.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Marriage and Morals, Chapter 21

Chapter 21 (pp. 303-320): “Conclusion”

Russell uses this chapter more as a summary than as a means to draw some final conclusions; the summary essentially follows the order of the preceding chapters.

Modern sexual ethics derive from the interest in verifiable fatherhood, and from an aesthetic view that non-procreative sex is wicked. Christianity is an important source of the wickedness view, and extended from women to men, in theory, the idea that extra-marital relations were sinful. With diminishing religious belief, the notion that fornication is sin has lost ground. Contraceptives have separated sex from pregnancy, though not entirely reliably. Husbands should adjust their jealousy only to apply when their wives have children fathered by others, in the manner that husbands in the East have tolerated the liberties taken by eunuchs.

So two-parent families might survive, with fewer restraints upon women. Simultaneously, the state is taking a larger role in raising and educating kids. Once protection and maintenance are wholly taken over by the state, fathers will have little purpose; if mothers work while the kids go to institutionalized day care, the role of mothers will likewise dissipate, and there will be no basis remaining for the traditional morality.

The replacement of families by the state is to be regretted, because states are harsh and will push nationalism on the kids – unless there is an international government, which also is needed to provide an adequate population policy.

The notion that sex is sinful commits untold harm, starting in early childhood. Friendly feeling is undermined. A new sexual ethic is needed, but reformers are accused of corrupting the youth, not always unfairly, as their pronouncements for reform might lend themselves to misinterpretation. The new ethic needs to work with human nature rather than against it, train instinct rather than thwart it. Rectitude is necessary, but self-control is not an end in itself; institutions and moral conventions should minimize the need for self-control. The exercise of self-control drains energies needed for useful activities. Traditional morality calls for constant self-control (which might not be exercised), creating a chasm between reason and instinct. Even those who intellectually reject the traditional values and act in ways contrary to them might be unable to do so wholeheartedly, and thus the value of their actions will be undermined.

The first general principle for a new sexual ethic is that it should maximize deep, serious love. A second principle is that kids should be well cared for physically and psychologically. But the old ethic makes prisons of marriages: “A good life cannot be founded upon fear, prohibition, and mutual interference with freedom [p. 316].”

Once kids are in the household, it is a duty of parents to try to maintain harmonious relations. If one of the parents lacks the self-control to keep serious arguments from coming to the attention of the kids, then it is probably better for the marriage to end.

“I believe that nine out of ten of those who have had a conventional upbringing in their early years have become in some degree incapable of a decent and sane attitude toward marriage and sex generally [p. 319].” They have (probably) been permanently damaged by their upbringing, and the best that can be done is to persuade them not to perpetuate the damage into the next generation.

Russell’s proposed ethic is not one of licentiousness. It requires as much self-control as the traditional ethic, but the self-control is now aimed at limiting the desire to restrain others – a type of self-control that is hard for those who are accustomed to condemning others for a perceived lack of virtue. The resulting freedom, the loosening of marital policing, can promote respect and deep intimacy within a marriage.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Marriage and Morals, Chapter 20

Chapter 20 (pages 288-302): “The Place of Sex Among Human Values.”

If you call for reform of the prevailing sexual ethic, you are attacked as someone obsessed with sex. But if you support the traditional ethic vocally – stirring up enforcement against prostitutes or the White Slave Traffic (which is a cover for attacks on voluntary extra-marital sex), and denouncing the sparseness of women’s fashions – you are not so attacked, even though it is the fierce moralists who are more likely to actually be sex obsessed. Russell agrees with the Church that sex obsession is an evil, though he holds a different prescription for curing it.

Puritans and those of their ilk often compensate for their repressed lust with gluttony, “a somewhat vague sin, since it is hard to say where a legitimate interest in food ceases, and guilt begins to be incurred [p. 290].” Nevertheless, people can spot a true glutton, but don’t punish him too severely for his weakness. Food obsession is rare among those who haven’t been deprived of food through their own asceticism or physical circumstances. Sex obsession likewise would be rare in those who do not embrace asceticism. Sex is a natural need like food, and the desire for sex, as with food, is “enhanced by abstinence… [p. 291]” as well as by prohibition. Russell thinks that Prohibition has enhanced the demand for alcohol among well-to-do Americans; likewise, Christian teaching stokes interest in sex. “The glutton, the voluptuary, and the ascetic are all self-absorbed persons whose horizon is limited by their own desires, either by way of satisfaction or by way of renunciation [p. 293].”

“Healthy, outward-looking men and women are not to be produced by the thwarting of natural impulse, but by the equal and balanced development of all the impulses essential to a happy life [p. 293].” The balance requires some restraint, as with food, and attention to health.

Sex is more than just a natural desire and possible health risk, though – it “is connected with some of the greatest goods in human life [p. 294-295],” chiefly “lyric love, happiness in marriage, and art [p. 295].” Courtship is the spur to creativity. Good art requires artistic capacity and a type of freedom, under which an artist can be shielded from the “aesthetic canons [p. 296]” of the rich and powerful. Artists similarly cannot flourish if they are stuck by convention in unhappy marriages. Art, which is dying in America, requires “joy of life,” which itself “depends upon a certain spontaneity in regard to sex [pp. 296-297].” Or more precisely, what is needed is a freedom to love; “and freedom to love is what, above all, the conventional moralists will not concede [pp. 297-298].”

The repression of sex in the US has led to workaholism, but no good work gets done when it is done for its own sake. The freedom of the younger generation exceeds proper bounds, because it is a first breath of freedom. America needs it moralists to become less moral and its immoralists to become less immoral – both types should acknowledge the higher values connected to sex, and the possibility that joy trumps money. “Nothing in America is so painful to the traveler as the lack of joy [p. 298].”

Sex isn’t the only motivator, of course – power and parenthood are major spurs to action, and vanity – though connected with sex – is important, too. “Curiosity and the pursuit of knowledge [p. 299]” derive from love of power, as does most political activity. So the “desire to understand the world and the desire to reform it [p. 301]” do not derive from sexual motives, and sex should not overshadow the drives that produce these desires. Could too much happiness undermine the interest in knowledge and reform? Certainly personal sorrow has motivated many reformers and energized others. But typically pain is enervating, so it is unwise to apply pain as a spur to socially beneficial activity -- besides, there is plenty of natural sorrow.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Marriage and Morals, Chapter 19

Chapter 19 (pages 274-287): “Sex and Individual Well-Being”

“Conventional morality begins its operations by the imposition of taboos in childhood [p. 274].” These taboos involve genital touching, talk of excrement, and non-private excretion. Genital touching sometimes is met by threats of castration or insanity. “The result of this teaching is that most children in their earliest years have a profound sense of guilt and terror which is associated with sexual matters [p. 275].” Russell thinks that even sophisticated adult males have been so scarred by these childhood experiences that they would be nervous about committing adultery during a thunderstorm. Sadism and masochism (beyond the normal, mild levels) are another result of the guilt associated with sex during childhood.

The tone used to address a child caught masturbating is much more terrifying than that used for other childhood transgressions. So the child believes in the wickedness of masturbation, but continues to masturbate anyway: “the foundations are laid for a morbidness which probably continues through life [p. 277].” He persecutes those who are less successful at hiding their sin than he is. Children should not be taught in the manner of dancing bears, who first dance out of necessity because a floor is hot, and later dance when they hear the tune that they have associated with the hot floor. {Kids, similarly, are scolded for showing any consciousness of their sexual organ, and eventually the unavoidable consciousness makes them dance to the adults’ tune, “to the complete destruction of all possibility of a healthy or happy sexual life [p. 279].”)

Adolescence leads to more misery, as poorly informed boys find themselves filled with what they have been taught are wicked impulses. Boys who impose a stern self-control in keeping with the moral teachings, will end up being poor lovers for their wives. Boys who visit prostitutes will disassociate the carnal from the uplifting aspects of love, again leading to difficult relations with women. And the secrecy attendant upon affairs with women of their own class hinders “the development of stable relations [p. 282].”

Temporary, childless marriages among university students would be sensible; among other things, temporarily married students would be less likely to have sex obsession interfere with their work. They would gain experience, and not be burdened by a need for secrecy.

The conventional morality leads to many unmarried women who do not engage in sex, which leads to timidity and a “disapproval of normal people… [p. 283].” The timidity extends to the intellectual realm, and the restraint upon curiosity diminishes their intellects. A significant numerical excess of women over men “affords a very serious argument in favour of modifications of the conventional moral code [p. 284].”

Marriage under the traditional code is almost designed for unhappiness -- of a woman and her husband, “to make her unduly timid and him unduly sudden in the sexual approach [p. 284],” while mental companionship is also pressured against. Sexually, she is likely to be unsatisfied and he put off by the coldness he perceives in her. The “free and fearless” love that is best, love that is “compounded of body and mind in equal proportions [p. 286],” is hardly available in marriage under the traditional morality.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Marriage and Morals, Chapter 18

Chapter 18 (pages 254-273): "Eugenics"

There are some passages in this (and the previous) chapter when I feel almost sorry for Russell, when his views seem both wrong-headed and dangerous -- though that verdict is reached in light of post-1929 horrors, and Russell himself senses the dangers, too.

Russell opens Chapter 18 by noting that the idea behind eugenics, drawn from Darwinism, is that humans can be improved by deliberate policies aimed at their genetic characteristics. Proponents neglect the roles of the environment and education in forming human character, but then the opponents of eugenics often neglect the genetic factor. Russell thinks that the truth lies in the middle. Surely people can be ruined by poor education; indeed, most people are so ruined. But “there is a native aptitude which causes education to produce better results than it does with average material [pp. 255-256].” Russell claims that “one can generally tell whether a man is a clever man or a fool by the shape of his head, which can hardly be regarded as a characteristic conferred by education [p. 256].” And even devoted opponents of eugenics recognize that idiocy involves a congenital factor.

Russell stipulates that people differ in congenital mental capacity, and that it is better to have clever people than slow ones. These stipulations provide the foundations for eugenics – so the program of eugenicists is not self-evidently wrong, even if some of the detailed positions are unconvincing. But many eugenicists superadd to this biological substrate some doubtful sociological claims (page 257): (1) “that virtue is proportional to income”; (2) that poverty inheritance “is a biological, not a legal phenomenon”; and, (3) that if the rich breed while the poor do not, everyone will be rich. The eugenicists seem very concerned that the poor breed more than the rich, but Russell is indifferent: he isn't convinced that the rich are any better examples of humanity than the poor. But if barriers are placed to the acquisition of birth control information, then those who are least likely to overcome those barriers will be of below average intelligence. Soon, however, everyone will be able to access the information, or procure abortions.

Positive eugenics seeks to encourage “good stocks”, and negative eugenics to discourage bad stocks. Negative eugenics is currently more practicable, and Russell supports efforts such as forced “sterilization of the unfit [p. 258].” The feeble-minded have many children, “wholly worthless to the community [p. 259]” – but these kids are not really desired by the feeble-minded. There is the danger that forced sterilization of the feeble-minded could lead down a slippery slope to a point where any government opponents are sterilized, but the risk is worth running to try to reduce the number of imbeciles. Russell’s support for sterilization applies only to mental defectives, and does not extend to those with physical disabilities, and certainly not to such vague categories as those in Idaho’s law (page 259), of “moral degenerates” and “sex perverts.” Such a law “would have justified the sterilization of Socrates, Plato, Julius Caesar, and St. Paul [p. 260].” Only mental deficiency is “sufficiently definite to be safely made the subject of legal enactment in this region [p. 260],” though perhaps scientific advances eventually will support other objective categories. “[I]t is very dangerous for a community to allow its moral reprobations to masquerade in the guise of science…[p. 261].”

“Positive eugenics consists in the attempt to encourage desirable parents to have a large number of children. At present the exact contrary is general [p. 261].” A clever boy will become a professional and not marry until he is in his thirties, whereas those less gifted will marry earlier. One solution would be to subsidize the education, through university, of the kids of gifted individuals: scholarships provided on merit, but on the merit of the parents, not on the merit of the student! Russell believes that this measure would also stem “cramming and overwork, which at present causes most of the cleverest young people in Europe to be intellectually and physically damaged by too much strain before they reach the age of twenty-one [p. 262]” But positive eugenics is based on the notion that people are unequal, and so it will not make much headway in democracies, which are based on the opposite understanding. The majority will not object to the notion, however, “that there is a minority of inferior people such as imbeciles [pp. 262-263]” – though they will object to the claim “that there is a minority of superior people [p. 263].”

Though now “it may be difficult to determine who constitutes the best stocks [p. 263],” science will progress. The selective breeding of domesticated animals shows the sorts of improvements that humans could undergo through similar methods. “It is, of course, much more difficult to determine what we desire in human beings [p. 264].” And there are likely to be trade-offs, of which we are uncertain; so, the time is not yet ripe for substantial movements in the direction of positive eugenics. But maybe within 100 years, we might be able to breed a superior human race – one that everyone would agree is superior.

Any such program of positive eugenics would require a revolution in the institution of the family. All but two or three percent of males would be sterilized at puberty, and most of the women (perhaps 75%), too. Fatherhood would be like that with bulls or stallions (that is, minimal), and motherhood would be a specialized profession. Russell finds the whole idea repugnant, even though it “might produce remarkable results [p. 265].”

What if the Japanese tried this, and within a few generations all Japanese were super strong and super smart? The Japanese, who would procure men of other countries as soldiers, would be militarily dominant, and it would be easy to instill in Japanese kids “blind devotion to the State [p. 265].” Isn’t such a development possible?

Russell turns to race eugenics, noting how it is always the race of whomever is doing the writing that is conceived to be superior. He laments the political propaganda that goes hand in hand with race eugenics, but wants to look at the intellectual merits of race eugenics itself. He accepts that in some cases it is clear that one race is superior to another. His brief comments on blacks [which I believe he later retracted or clarified, and even eliminated in subsequent editions of Marriage and Morals – RBR] don’t bear repeating, but he thinks that “bad science” and “political prejudice” would need to be paired to discriminate within the “races of Europe” and between Europeans and the “yellow races”.

Russell notes some demographic projections that have the east (Russia, Japan, China) overwhelming the west, but he doesn’t accept them. He argues that those eastern countries will industrialize (if they are to be militarily formidable), and the industrialization process will lead to smaller families. So, either the east will not dominate the west, or it will not be a bad thing if it does.

Russell again calls for a world government to replace “international anarchy [p. 268].” Science is progressing, but science turned to bad ends is horrific. To reduce hate, we need an improved sexual ethic – it is a vital need.

A scientific approach to sexual ethics would place eugenic considerations at the forefront. Procreative sex would only be undertaken by adult couples after consideration of “the probable value of their progeny [p. 269],” where that valuation [presumably – RBR] is undertaken in social, not private, terms.

With the dwindling of fatherhood, there would be little reason for a woman to choose the man she loves to be the father of her children; she could choose the father for eugenic reasons. Men could even more easily choose the mothers of their children out of such considerations. Now, virtuous childbearing is considered to be that which takes place within marriage. Russell foresees (and seems to support) a time when virtuous childbearing is that which is likely to result in “desirable children [p. 271].” If science could identify the likelihood of desirable kids with more certainty, “the moral sense of the community may come to be more exacting from a eugenic point of view [p. 271].” Besides shortcomings in science, the institution of marriage has made it seem impractical that parents should be chosen for eugenic reasons – but moral strictures will shift from marriage to procreation as fatherhood declines and contraception diffuses. Russell foresees tax and subsidy schemes that will try to encourage the production of desirable children, and discourage the production of undesirable ones.

Allowing science to interfere in such personal matters as childbearing “is undoubtedly repugnant. But the interference involved would be much less than that which has been tolerated for ages on the part of religion [p. 272].”

“I foresee the time when all who care for the freedom of the human spirit will have to rebel against a scientific tyranny. Nevertheless, if there is to be a tyranny, it is better that it should be scientific [p. 273].”

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Marriage and Morals, Chapter 17

Chapter 17 (pages 240-253): “Population”

The chapter opens: “The main purpose of marriage is to replenish the human population of the globe [p. 240].”

For the most part the human population remains near stationary, but there are periods (such as post-Industrial Revolution) of tremendous growth. Carr Saunders is right that the stationarity is largely the result of voluntary forbearance (and infanticide), and not of high death rates. But starvation, probably more common in poor agricultural societies than in more primitive settings, has played a role in limiting the human population.

Christianity forbade abortion, infanticide, and contraception. But the increased prosperity that followed the Industrial Revolution led to a huge population growth, which is almost over in Britain, already over in France, and following the same diminishing pattern in the other advanced parts of Europe.

To maximize living standards, there is some optimal population density, which varies with the means of production. [The use of the Marxian term is mine, not Russell’s – RBR.] The optimal density is low in a hunting society, but much higher in an industrial economy. England, after WWI, might be overpopulated relative to this standard; neither France nor the US are overpopulated, however. Nevertheless, there is no reason to think that any western European country would see higher average wealth from increased population. [Russell seems to imply that France is at the optimal population density – RBR.] Those who aspire for higher populations generally have military motives in mind, so their aspiration is short term, as the extra population will be killed off in the war they are planning. “In fact, therefore, the position of these people is that it is better to restrict population by deaths on the battlefield than by contraceptives [p. 249].” But except for the war argument, we should be happy that contraception is leading to a stationary population in civilized countries.

Population diminution, which eventually would mean extinction, is not desirable, as “we cannot desire to see the most civilized races of the world disappear [p. 249].” But the spread of contraception to the point where population stabilizes is fine. One could always promote population growth via economic means, but any such policy would be taken over by militarists, and add a population race to the arms race, “under the slogan: ‘the cannon must have their fodder [p. 250].’” We need an international government that would limit the population growth of militaristic nations; “[u]nless this is done the peace of the world cannot be secured [p. 251].”

So both population increases (in much of the world) and population decreases (in Western Europe) are to be feared. A fight against population decrease is new to historical experience. Laws against contraceptives “are quite unavailing. The use of contraceptives has become part of the common practice of all civilized nations, and cannot now be eradicated [p. 252].” Better to employ “an experimental diminution of the financial burden of children…[p. 252]” to support a diminishing population.

England has many more women than men, and yet custom (wrongly) frowns on single mothers. Strict monogamy in circumstances of unequal numbers of the two genders is cruel, and with too low a population, “this cruelty may be publicly as well as privately undesirable [p. 253].” While state control of population is necessary, if it is to be desirable, the control will have to be exercised by an international state, and not by the current batch of militaristic nations.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Marriage and Morals, Chapter 16

Chapter 16 (pages 221-239): “Divorce”

Divorce has nowhere meant to serve as an alternative to monogamic marriage, but rather, to mitigate some of the worst hardships of the institution. Rules for divorce vary considerably across jurisdictions and across time, but the extent of divorce has as much to do with custom as it has to do with law. Russell favors lenient laws for divorce, but customs against it, when kids are in the equation. (And recall that for Russell, marriage primarily is an institution about having and raising kids.)

Where divorce is hard, adultery by men tends to be winked at; where divorce is easier, adultery is viewed more unfavorably. Later, on pages 236-237, Russell argues that the US has a high divorce rate because of the social unacceptability of adultery -- that is, he seems to place the causality in the other direction.

The options society makes available to someone stuck in an unfit marriage (say, the spouse becomes insane or alcoholic) are all bad. What is the public interest in keeping such a person from having a sexual life when the marital one is impossible? In these circumstances, “divorce can only be opposed on the ground that marriage is a trap by which the unwary are tricked into purification through sorrow [p. 229].”

Openly living in sin will bring on social penalties. “Men like to belong to clubs, and women like to be respected and called on by other women. To be deprived of these pleasures is apparently considered a great hardship [p. 228].”

Desertion is a de facto divorce, so it must be recognized de jure. This accommodation might then induce desertion precisely to procure a divorce. But this is true for other legal grounds for divorce, too – even adultery and cruelty can be induced to meet legal divorce standards.

Russell does not think that adultery in itself should be legal grounds for divorce. Spouses can desire others without their marital affection disintegrating. So if the affection remains, and there are no offspring from the adulterous relationships, the adultery should not lead to divorce. (Adultery was a much bigger deal before there were effective contraceptives.) Mutual consent should be grounds for divorce, because sometimes marriages become intolerable. “Grounds other than mutual consent ought only to be required where the marriage has failed through some definite defect in one partner [p. 233].”

Marriages should be eligible for annulment if there are no children and the wife is not currently pregnant. “Children are the purpose of marriage, and to hold people to a childless marriage is a cruel cheat [p. 235].” With kids in the picture, even parents who are no longer in love with each other will be able to cooperate in raising their kids (and presumably in maintaining their marriage during the nonage of the kids). “So long as the bi-parental family continues to be the recognized rule, parents who divorce each other, except for grave cause, appear to me to be failing in their parental duty [p. 238].” But don’t prohibit divorce in such cases; rather, more liberty will make the marriage more endurable. “In the system that I commend, [married] men are freed, it is true, from the duty of sexual conjugal fidelity, but they have in exchange the duty of controlling jealousy [p. 239].” Better to control a negative emotion like jealousy than a positive one like (extra-marital) love.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Marriage and Morals, Chapter 15

Chapter 15 (pages 204-220): “The Family and the State”

The state, which gives legal imprimatur to marriage, has begun to interfere in family life to serve the perceived interest of kids, through such measures as limitations on child labor, compulsory schooling, and protection against abuse by parents. “One of the few rights remaining to parents in the wage-earning class is that of having their children taught any brand of superstition that may be shared by a large number of parents in the same neighborhood [p. 206].”

As fathers used to have pay for their kids’ education, the increased role of the state has replaced fathers more than mothers, among the working class. We can expect that the state will continue to take on more functions of fathers within the poorer classes, undermining the rationale for fathers. So richer people will preserve the traditional family, while fathers become irrelevant among the poor. [Russell notes that Russia is trying to undo the family, but this reform is unlikely to have much traction among the rural dwellers (poor peasants). As a result, the class divide will be opposite there: the rich urbanites will see a diminution in the traditional family, but it will be preserved among the rural poor.]

Married women currently are not (socially) eligible for most employments in England, out of “a masculine desire to preserve economic power over them [p. 211].” But this will not last, and married women will either work – and their kids will go to nursery schools, lessening maternal influence on a child’s psychology – or the state will pay women to stay at home to provide child care for young kids. Russell anticipates such child-rearing subsidies, with payments made to mothers alone, not to both parents. But the effects of the law will lie in the details: will payments be available to unmarried moms, or to mothers who engage in adultery? The requisite policing of any moral component would be so draconian as eventually to result in an unconditional payment to mothers. This would undermine the economic role of the father, who would assume a role like that of fathers within the worlds of cats and dogs.

Russell thinks most moms would prefer to be able to continue working outside the home, however. In any event, feminist advances will eliminate the role of one or “both parents from the care of the young in the wage-earning class [p. 214].” While women have the right to vote, we still do not know the long-run implications of their ongoing social emancipation; they might have desires quite at variance from what they have said in the past when it was necessary for them to be pleasing to their masters. Their maternal interests, in particular, might not be as significant as previously thought. (“Until very recently, all decent women were supposed to desire children, but to hate sex [p. 215].”) In any case, feminism is likely to play a significant role in undermining the patriarchal family.

The state’s taking over the role of the father is basically a desirable development, improving health and education, while decreasing cruelty towards kids. But the state bureaucracy is likely to try to mold kids into one acceptable pattern, which will repress the most gifted and make the others intolerant of new ideas. Furthermore, “the substitution of public bodies for parents in education means an intensification of what is called patriotism, i.e., a willingness to indulge in mutual extermination without a moment’s hesitation, whenever the governments feel so inclined [p. 218].” And as this “patriotism” is the gravest threat to humanity, this effect is dire, and outweighs any advantages of a larger state role in education.

But if an international government would arise that could preclude the teaching of nationalism, “the danger of promoting war would be eliminated [p. 219]” – although the tendency towards uniformity would still exist.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Marriage and Morals, Chapter 14

Chapter 14 (pages 189-203): “The Family in Individual Psychology”

How is the character of children shaped by being in a family? Freud’s answers are harrowing, but are they right? Only in part, says Russell, and that part can be minimized. While kids are sexual beings, a mother who has a satisfying sex life “will abstain spontaneously from all improper demands for emotional response from her child [p. 191].” But servant girls, teachers, and others, might also be sources of the arousal of undesirable affections in the young, especially as people in those occupations tend to be “sexually starved [p. 192].” The idea that education of the young should be left to “unhappy spinsters [p. 193]” is mistaken.

Young children above 3 or 4 years of age need the company of other kids, of both genders, besides their siblings. Sibling jealousies can be controlled with strict adherence to equality and eschewing favoritism.

The right sort of parental affection is a wonderful thing for a child. “Children whose mothers do not feel a warm affection for them are apt to be thin and nervous, and not infrequently they become kleptomaniacs [p. 194].” Kids sense that they need protection, and that only a warm affection will guarantee that such protection will be forthcoming. With this assurance, they can be bold in exploring the world.

Parents can see to it that their kids receive “the facts of sex and parenthood in the best possible way. If children learn of sex as a relation between their parents to which they owe their own existence, they learn of it in its best form and in connection with its biological purpose [p. 195].” But the traditional practice leads kids to learn of sex through ribald humor and to think of its pleasures as disgraceful, and these first impressions are hard or impossible to dislodge.

The main alternatives to standard family life are offered by matriarchal societies and “public institutions such as orphan asylums [p. 195].” In a matriarchal society, children would know only their mother, and her children might well have different biological fathers. Given satisfactory economic arrangements, the main shortcoming of such a system is the loss of the connection “of sex with married love and procreation [p. 196].” Further, it is beneficial, especially for boys, to be exposed at a young age to “a masculine as well as feminine outlook on life [p. 196].” But this gain is limited – kids whose fathers have died when the children were young do not seem to turn out any worse. “No doubt the ideal father is better than none, but many fathers are so far from ideal that their non-existence might be a positive advantage to children [p. 197].” (Later, on page 198: “The case for fathers, from the point of view of children’s psychology, is not therefore a very strong one.”)

The effect of different family arrangements depends in part upon what is conventional: kids are mortified by being the odd ones. The children of divorced parents suffer greatly under the present conventions, if the divorce occurs after the children have grown attached to both parents. “I think, therefore, that a society in which fathers have no place would be better for children than one in which divorce is frequent though still regarded as exceptional [p. 197].”

The Platonic suggestion of separating kids from their mothers as well as their fathers has little to recommend it, given the desirability of parental affection.

What is the effect of the family upon a mother’s psychology? Women probably have an instinctual desire for male protection during lactation and pregnancy, though the instinct is sufficiently weak that should the state provide care to mothers and children, much of the desire would dissipate. But women still can benefit from family life with a man, because the sexes can learn a lot from each other, and this learning is spurred by close cooperation in bringing up kids and the intensity of contact in family life. And such contact probably makes them better mothers, too. Nonetheless, female unhappiness in marriage is common, and this can easily overwhelm the possible advantages of family life. The “trivial conclusion”: “happy marriages are good, while unhappy ones are bad [p. 200].”

Many men, particularly in less-civilized communities, have little paternal feeling. But other men have such feelings in a powerful way, and this is what makes men marry – they can have sex easily enough without marriage. Russell claims (p. 201) that it is his impression that men are more likely than women to desire children; their main reason not to want kids is economic, a motive shared by women, but women bear many other burdens in having kids.

Russell says that if men were freed from the responsibilities usually attendant upon fatherhood, that they would rarely become fathers – they want the responsibilities, and will not have kids recklessly without those responsibilities. If women alone controlled (in a legal sense) the lives of kids, the intimacy of male/female relations would be undermined. Russell thinks that the elimination of paternity “would tend to make men’s emotional life trivial and thin, causing in the end a slowly growing boredom and despair, in which procreation would gradually die out…[p. 203].”

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Marriage and Morals, Chapter 13

Chapter 13 (pages 168-188), “The Family at the Present Day”

The family “affords the only rational basis for limitations of sexual freedom [p. 168].” To what extent do the interests of kids create a rationale for stability in sexual relations, that is, for stable marriages?

Theological types argue against divorce on the grounds that it is detrimental to the interests of children, but their simultaneous argument against contraception, even when the parents clearly should not be having kids, shows that the interests of the children are not their real concern.

Russell returns to the arguments of Chapters 2 and 3, noting that eventually men become aware of paternity, and at that point become concerned with the virtue of their wives. Religion is invoked to inspire women and children to recognize a duty to husbands and fathers. They especially need their kids to reverence them when they are old, as then the kids will be physically stronger than them.

The economics of pastoral communities dictated that the cheapest way to hire labor was to breed it. To make sure the kids worked for their father, “it was necessary that the institution of the family should be sanctified by the whole weight of religion and morals [p. 172].”

The family and extended family paradigm was never that suitable to urban populations or seafarers. Commerce has traditionally been the carrier of culture; by exposing people to other traditions, trade has emancipated people from the prejudices of their own tribe – including from the slavery within the family. A member of a family who goes on a long voyage is free of family control during the duration; moving to an urban area has a similar effect.

The role of the family is rather circumscribed within Christianity, which emphasizes the relations of individuals with God, not with each other. Christianity also first took hold among slaves and the working-class, among whom the large patriarchal family was never as prominent as with the landed aristocrats. (The family also plays only a small role within Buddhism.) The emphasis on the individual (as opposed to the family or social relations in general) is more pronounced in Protestantism than in Catholicism. If God is the Father, “the authority of the merely human parent is weakened [p. 177].”

The rise of individualism and industrialization contributed to weakening the family, and with the Factory Acts, kids became a financial liability and not an asset. The transition from extended to nuclear families living together, and the state control of education and protection against violence, also decrease the importance of family. The role of fathers is reduced – inevitably so, as civilization advances (page 179). It is highest among the middle classes, where a working father who earns a good income can provide the expensive education that will give his kids a head start -- but even here, life insurance renders the father’s living presence less important.

Most fathers work so much that they see little of their kids. Upper-class parents, who employ nurses and send their kids to boarding schools, have even less contact. At adolescence, conflict arises between kids and parents, who both are interested in control of the kids’ lives. Parents somehow believe that they have a particularly profound role to play in shaping answers to their teens’ moral questions – but their opinions “are so dogmatic that the young seldom confide in them, and usually go their own way in secret [p. 182].”

“The family is important at the present day more through the emotions with which it provides parents than for any other reason [p. 183].” It leads people towards altruistic acts, like purchasing life insurance. Men become more acquisitive when they have kids, and thus the family spurs economic development. Men will tell their kids that they work hard only for them, but the kids would rather have more kindness and a smaller, immediate financial payout. Though the father’s workaholism has become an unthinking habit, it really does start in an effort to be a better provider.

Kids get affection from their parents at levels only equaled by what their siblings receive – to good and bad effect, a theme to be picked up in the next chapter. Traits are passed down through the generations within families, whether through genes or environment.

Family life preserves the interest (at least of fathers) in having kids, and (therefore) of what happens after one’s own death. But if fatherhood were to disappear, there would be some good effects, too, including a pacification of males.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Marriage and Morals, Halftime

I am now halfway through Marriage and Morals so I thought a short pause for what passes for reflection might be in order. My main reaction is how much of what Russell has to say is still pertinent, almost 80 years on. Let me start by mentioning what is less pertinent, however. The notion that a married couple, especially the woman, should be celibate until their wedding night has become much more marginalized. Yes, that particular morality has some traction within US policy, but within the public at large, it simply does not have much of a following that I can see. Meanwhile, of course, the social emancipation of women has come much further than what had been achieved by 1929.

But other viewpoints of the moralists still do have a large following, even if the law has tended to move away from them. (Some ways in which the law has moved: easier divorce; better access to birth control and information about birth control; liberalization of controls over obscenity; legalization of homosexual behavior.) The anti-sex, ascetic code remains a force, and children brought up in religious households imbibe a form of it almost as strong as in Russell’s day – with the same deleterious effects, I believe. A similar point applies to efforts to keep children ignorant about sexuality, and the sacrifice of public health on the altar of the old moral code.

Russell’s identification of workaholism (in Chapter 9) as the chief threat to love still seems relevant.

I think that Russell (so far) neglects the importance of marriage-like institutions that provide some forms of commitment, even in the absence of kids. (I am not sure I concur with Russell’s claim that kids are “the true purpose of marriage,” either.) Happy long-term partnerships require a lot of “investment” on both sides, and people will not be as willing to make those investments if it easy for their partner to just walk away. (This problem applies to marriages with kids, too, and in some sense, has become more acute as opportunities for women outside the home have increased. A woman who forgoes a career to raise kids – or just to keep house – for her husband has made a larger sacrifice than she did 100 years ago, when most careers were closed to her. If such sacrifices are to be encouraged, the woman’s investment has to be protected.) The trial marriages described in chapter 12 have largely come to pass, in the form of young unmarried couples living together.

In reading Marriage and Morals, I frequently am reminded of controls on “vices” other than sex, and in particular, the war on drugs. Russell notes how the position of traditional sexual moralists amounts to an endorsement of prostitution, though the moralists will not accept this characterization, and want to be judged upon their intentions, not upon the consequences of the adoption of their code. Likewise, to my mind, with US drug prohibitionists, who somehow fail to associate the 1.8 million arrests per year, the police corruption, the lethal violence, the eroding of the Fourth Amendment, and so on, with their well-intentioned policies. Finally, on prostitution, though Russell notes the important social function of the prostitute, he remains a strong opponent of prostitution, even in circumstances (such as the ones he identifies in Japan) where the immediate problems are not so severe. I think that his overall assessment underestimates the benefits of prostitution; in particular, I accept the claim that is not infrequently made by prostitutes, that they are engaged in a type of social work. [Nevertheless, I also suspect that Russell is right in his suggestion that male access to sex without going through even perfunctory courtship tends to coarsen social relations, and that he is also right that most of this "unwooed" sex probably takes place outside of a directly commercial context, within either marriages or long-term relationships.]

Russell’s Marriage and Morals shows him to be an acute observer and analyst of the social scene, and an entertaining expositor. Some of his pronouncements are a bit glib (though that characterization does not necessarily imply that there was not deep thought and evidence underlying them). To take two examples (in which I happen to agree with Russell): (1) his claim in Chapter 8 that “no rational argument” can be adduced for laws against homosexuality, and (2) his pronouncement in Chapter 10 that “every humane person” has to support a liberalization of England’s divorce laws. But these examples are drawn from what are basically asides, points that are not central to his theme, so the glibness is forgivable. I am just greedy, sometimes I want more from Russell. Oh, except at other times I find a little bit of needless repetition, especially in his multiple references to how traditional moralists are, in effect, making a case for prostitution.

On to the second half….

Friday, September 21, 2007

Marriage and Morals, Chapter 12

Chapter 12 (pages 156-167): “Trial Marriage”

Russell's chapter on trial marriage reaches us, appropriately enough, on a day in which a leading Bavarian politician is in the news -- and under attack -- for suggesting that marriages should last seven years, after which time the partners either agree to a renewal or a dissolution. According to Russell, if there are no kids in the equation, marriages should be easily dissolvable.

Continuing with Russell, in many parts of the world young people are discarding the emphasis upon (female) virtue. This change in morality is most pronounced in the US, thanks to Prohibition and widespread car ownership. “And even where complete relations do not occur, there is so much ‘petting’ and ‘necking’ that the absence of complete intercourse can only be viewed as a perversion [p. 158].” Later, on page 159, Russell says that the behavior of those timid folks who pet for hours but don’t go all the way is debilitating, and makes it impossible to eventually enjoy full sex. And it keeps young people up late (p. 160). On page 162, Russell claims that in England, the practice of heavy petting without full satisfaction is not as common as in the US.

The new morality has problems imposed upon it because it violates conventional morality. “Bootlegged sex is in fact as inferior to what it might be as bootlegged alcohol [p. 158].” They are complementary – violations of the alcohol rules make it easier to violate the sex rules, and the alcohol violations also serve as an aphrodisiac. Sex is “entered into not from affection but from bravado, and at times of intoxication [pp. 158-159].” Underground sex and liquor are consumed in concentrated, unpalatable forms. The moralists have won: while they have not eliminated fornication – indeed, they have unwittingly promoted it – they have made it take place in an unappealing way, “just as they have succeeded in making much of the alcohol consumed as poisonous as they assert all alcohol to be [p. 159].”

This common but underground youthful behavior occasionally comes to the attention of “some guardian of morality [p. 160],” and a public scandal ensues. [This reminds me of how the too-high US drinking age of 21 sometimes results in some kerfuffle, when, horrors, it is discovered that a nineteen year-old was drinking – RBR] The difficulty for the young in acquiring sex education results in many unwanted pregnancies, and dangerous, illegal abortions. Intimacy between parents and the young is undermined by the huge gulf in moral codes. Later, on page 162, Russell says that he thinks the scandalized moralizer is less prevalent in England than in America.

But at least the relative freedom of youth in America should make them less violent and more tolerant as they age, compared to their elders. [I am not sure that this hope of Russell’s was realized; certainly many older people preach to their own kids stricter codes than the ones that they chose to live by when young.]

Starting on page 162, Russell devotes a good deal of attention to a proposal for a new institution of “companionate marriage” made by a Denver judge who lost his job “when it became known that he used it [the proposal] rather to promote the happiness of the young than to give them a consciousness of sin…[p. 162]” Companionate marriage would be a supplement to, not a replacement for, traditional marriage. It would be available for young people who at the time they enter into it, are not intending to have kids. They would be provided with birth control information. Once a couple enters a companionate marriage, if they do not have kids and the wife is not pregnant, mutual consent would be enough to secure a divorce, and there would be no alimony. The idea is to make the relationships of young couples more stable. (Russell says, “Companionate marriage is the proposal of a wise conservative [p. 162],” and he believes (p. 163) it would be a morally beneficial reform.)

Of course, the judge’s proposal was shouted down, often for religious reasons, but no arguments were ever adduced showing that human happiness would be harmed by companionate marriage -- the opponents did not seem to think that happiness mattered.

Russell would go further than companionate marriage; he thinks that any partnership that does not involve kids “should be regarded as a purely private affair [p. 165].” He likes the idea of pre-marital living together, and is concerned about marriages (where children are intended) between people who have not already shared sexual relations. Since kids are the “true purpose of marriage,” perhaps no marriage should be binding until it produces a pregnancy.

People can unite for three purposes: for sex only (as with prostitution); for companionship and sex (as with companionate marriage); or for bringing up kids -- “and no morality can be adequate to modern circumstances which confounds them [these three purposes] in one indiscriminate whole [p. 167].”

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Marriage and Morals, Chapter 11

Chapter 11 (pages 145-155); “Prostitution”

Russell places the prostitution chapter fast upon the heels of the marriage chapter, which in itself might be revealing. Indeed, he sees marriage and prostitution, under the traditional moral code, as being inextricably linked. If importance is placed upon the “virtue of respectable women,” Russell writes, then prostitution will supplement (or be a piece with) marriage. Moralists might like to believe that if men followed their advice, all would be well – but they know that men will ignore their advice, so it is irrelevant to speak of what would occur if men were to follow the moral guideposts.

Despite the extremely useful social service she provides, the prostitute (since Christian times) has been despised. “The real offence of the prostitute is that she shows up the hollowness of moralistic professions [pp. 146-147].” Sacred prostitutes used to be valued and respected. But with the Church came suppression and a commercialization undertaken to profit the keepers of prostitutes, not the women themselves.

Russell suggests that prostitution is declining (except in South America, citing a recent study) because women have more economic opportunities available and because non-prostitutes are more willing to have extra-marital sex. Russell thinks that prostitution cannot be extirpated, but that there are three good reasons for wishing to minimize it: (1) public health (the most important reason); (2) psychological harm to women; and (3) psychological harm to men.

Venereal disease is spread via prostitution, and attempts to control it via registration have been unsuccessful while occasioning poor treatment of prostitutes and other women by authorities. VD could be combatted better with more information about precautions, but the belief that such knowledge might encourage sin restricts the spread of the necessary guidance.

Prostitution under current circumstances presents “an undesirable kind of life [p. 150].” Besides the risk of disease, it is demoralizing, and promotes excessive alcohol use. Others find prostitution despicable, and it is contrary to instinct (like being a nun, Russell says). But in Japanese circumstances, prostitution is not an undesirable career. Given that prostitution will survive, it is better if it occurs in circumstances like those in Japan, and not those in Europe. The amount of degradation of prostitutes is inversely related to the moral strictness in a society.

Men who are habituated to hiring prostitutes come to think that they do not have to be pleasing to have sex, and at the same time, they are likely to adopt the usual contempt for prostitutes. There will be bad effects, whether a man makes his marital relations more like his relations with prostitutes, or tries to differentiate them further. In the latter case, the man might become incapable of having sex with someone he loves; in the former case, he will forget that his wife needs courting.

Sexual relations involving economic motives tend to be disastrous; they evince a lack of “that respect for the human being as such, out of which all true morality must lie [p. 153].” If a sensitive man engages in such sex (either with prostitutes or within marriage) to satisfy physical urges, he will be led to remorse, which in turn will disorder his “judgments of value [p. 153]”. There is probably, in total, more undesired sex undertaken by wives than by prostitutes.

“Morality in sexual relations… consists essentially of respect for the other person, and unwillingness to use that person solely as a means of personal gratification, without regard to his or her desires [p. 153].” So even if we take away the degradation and unhealthiness from prostitution, it should still be minimized.

The old argument for prostitution as a form of harm reduction loses force with the new moral code, since non-prostitutes can satisfy male urges in freely formed relations. “The new freedom between young people is, to my mind, wholly a matter of rejoicing, and is producing a generation of men without brutality and women without finicky fastidiousness [p. 155].”

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Marriage and Morals, Chapter 10

Chapter 10 (pages 130-144): “Marriage”

This chapter abstracts from children, looking at marriage as a relation between men and women. Marriage has legal and religious aspects, though the legal aspects mainly formalize relations that exist even among primitive peoples and some animals. Russell claims that some apes and savages practice monogamy, not out of religious conviction but because this is what is required for successful reproduction. “Even in civilized mankind faint traces of a monogamic instinct can sometimes be perceived [p. 131].” Modern science agrees, to a point.

Economic motives intrude upon monogamy, and are disastrous for sexual relations, by replacing instinctive behavior with market or slave behavior. Wives and kids become economic assets, so sex becomes subordinated to value maximization. Rules around divorce and adultery become complementary to the economic motive; establishing, for instance, the sexual double standard whereby men can divorce their wives but women cannot divorce their husbands. [Russell, incidentally, cites (pages 132-133) Margaret Mead’s 1928 Coming of Age in Samoa for the notion that in some less civilized societies adultery is tolerated.]

With Christianity, the role of religion in marriage intensified, and adultery became an offense against God, while divorce became impossible. But Christianity also viewed women as theological equals with men, not solely their husband’s property. A woman could even leave her husband “for a life of religion [p. 135].” So generally Christianity helped to promote the advance of women.

More civilized people have a harder time finding happiness in a lifelong marriage. In such societies, people are more heterogeneous, so you rightly might think that you would be markedly better off with someone else than your current partner. The Church thinks of marriage from the viewpoint of sex and not congeniality, so it is happy to forbid divorce, despite the human toll lifelong bad matches make.

Men and women who lack the opportunity for extramarital sexual relations will generally find marriage to work well – a sort of ‘out of sight, out of mind’ argument. (Even if the lack of opportunity is because of strict moral customs and not physical unavailability, this argument will apply.) And the lower the expectations there are for marriages, the more satisfactory marriages will be!

But in modern societies, these situations that tend to generate happy marriages do not exist, and “very few marriages after the first few years are happy [p. 137].” Some of the problems can be overcome by extending the depth of civilization. First, bad sexual education can be ended. Peasant children are better informed about sex, as their opportunities for first-hand observations (including of animals) are enhanced, saving them “from both ignorance and fastidiousness [p. 137].” Alternatively, “[t]he triumph of Christian teaching is when a man and woman marry without either having had previous sexual experience. In nine cases out of ten where this occurs, the results are unfortunate [pp. 137-138].”

Well-brought up women used to think themselves morally superior to men on the grounds that they took less pleasure in sex. Not only is this lack of pleasure not virtuous, it is a shortcoming, “like a failure to enjoy food, which also a hundred years ago was expected of elegant females [p. 139].”

Marital happiness is also compromised by the opportunities for extra-marital sex, which allow the satisfying of an instinct towards polygamy. Even if it is agreed that fidelity is not required within a marriage, jealousy can remain and undermine intimacy.

Marriage has a tendency to make love into a duty, which destroys it, especially as it makes one cut off love from other relationships. (Russell, p. 141, quotes an apposite Shelley poem.) “And like every kind of restrictive morality it tends to promote…a policeman’s outlook upon the whole of human life – the outlook…which is always looking for an opportunity to forbid something [p. 141].”

Easy divorce does not solve the problem, especially if children are involved, even though (p. 142) “every humane person must” agree that divorce has to be made easier in England.

What is the appropriate ethic if kids are involved? Russell promises more on this later (Chapters 13-15), but he gives a bottom line at this stage: “I think that where a marriage is fruitful and both parties to it are reasonable and decent the expectation ought to be that it will be lifelong, but not that it will exclude other sex relations [p. 142].”

So civilized society is not incompatible with marital happiness. It requires (page 143) four conditions: (1) complete equality; (2) “no interference with mutual freedom”; (3) “complete physical and mental intimacy”; and (4) similarity in values. With these conditions, marriage would be “the best and most important relation that can exist between two human beings [p. 143].” It generally falls short, because spouses tend to be cops towards each other.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Marriage and Morals, Chapter 9

Chapter 9 (pages 118-129): “The Place of Love in Human Life”

Love receives a lot of attention in literature but is wrongly neglected by social science and politics. Love is very important, and social systems should not interfere with its development. Love is deeply emotional, involving physical and psychological elements that can be intense. Love is more common in some societies than in others (p. 119), because of differing institutions.

“The three main extra-rational activities in modern life are religion, war and love… but love is not anti-rational,… a reasonable man may reasonably rejoice in its existence [p. 119].” Ascetic religions like Christianity result in an unnecessary tension between love and religion. But the greater enemy to love now (especially in America) is “the gospel of work and economic success [p. 120].” Neither work nor love should be completely sacrificed for the other, but men frequently let work overrun love. Russell paints a harrowing picture (pp. 120-121) of the life of a married workaholic and the associated negative social effects: “the lack of sexual satisfaction in both husband and wife turns to hatred of mankind disguised as public spirit and a high moral standard [pp. 121-122].”

“Love is something far more than desire for sexual intercourse; it is the principal means of escape from the loneliness which afflicts most men and women throughout the greater part of their lives [p. 122].” Further, Russell says, “civilized people cannot fully satisfy their sexual instinct without love [p. 123].” Nothing like “[h]appy mutual love,” by golly; without it, you are likely to become envious and cruel.

It is hard to distinguish physical desire from love, especially for women who have been taught that they could only possibly want to kiss someone whom they loved. The push for virginity at marriage gets women into traps, because without experience they mistake physical desire for love. Likewise, the idea that love is sinful can undermine the full benefits of love. It makes men bad lovers, who don’t understand that a woman should enjoy sex. Even married couples are quite bottled up by subconscious notions that love is sinful.

Some people are afraid that love will destroy their individuality, but individuality is meant to interact and develop with the world. “Love, children, and work are the greatest sources of fertilizing contact between the individual and the rest of the world [p. 126].” Work undertaken solely for pecuniary gain, like love that is merely possessive, doesn’t produce this fruitful effect. Full mutual love requires a union of egos, so that the beloved’s feelings are felt as intensely as one’s own. This is hard in a competitive society, and in a society that has developed a “foolish cult of personality derived partly from Protestantism and partly from the romantic movement [p. 127].”

The separation of love from sex can lead to an ascetic hatred of sex. Sex without love “has little value, and is to be regarded primarily as experimentation with a view to love [p. 128].” [Russell is simultaneously attacking traditional sexual morality and indiscriminate sexual license.]

With children on the scene, love cannot have the field to itself; the necessary ethic might require that passionate love sometimes be sacrificed to the interests of kids. But generally it is best for kids if their parents are in a state of mutual love, so we should seek to minimize interference with such love.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Marriage and Morals, Chapter 8

Chapter 8 (pages 93-117): “The Taboo on Sex Knowledge”

Just as, in general, proper conduct is aided by knowledge and hindered by ignorance, “[s]exual morality…must be such as to commend itself to well-informed persons and not to depend upon ignorance for its appeal [p. 93].” Of course, one person might want to keep another ignorant so that the second person does not understand his or her own best interests.

Traditionally, sexual ignorance was imposed upon women in service of male domination, but eventually women themselves came to view ignorance as important in inculcating virtue, so kids of both genders were kept ignorant. Russell (quoting from the Guardian) cites the 1929 conviction of Mary Ware Dennett for sending obscene literature through the mails; her highly regarded pamphlet explaining the fundamentals of sex to schoolchildren motivated the prosecution. But is it desirable to keep children ignorant about sex?

The recent tradition is that kids don’t see their parents naked, nor their opposite sex siblings. They are told not to touch their sex organs and hushed when they talk about them. They get the facts, garbled, from other kids, and these facts are regarded as dirty. Kids then understand that their parents behaved in this dirty fashion, which must be shameful, too, given the efforts taken to conceal it. “They learnt also that they had been systematically deceived by those to whom they had looked for guidance and instruction. Their attitude towards their parents, towards marriage, and towards the opposite sex was thus irrevocably poisoned [p. 98].” Sex and marriage become cruel and unsatisfying.

Moralists hope to keep girls ignorant until marriage, and to convince boys “that masturbation invariably leads to insanity” and sex “with prostitutes invariably leads to venereal disease [p. 99].” The moralists continue: “Unfortunately, unless great pains are taken, the sexual act tends to be associated with pleasure, but by sufficient moral care this can be prevented, at any rate in the female [p. 100].”

Checking a child’s interest in sex stifles his entire scientific curiosity – what other matters that he is curious about will bring a reproof? Perhaps only those that are not very interesting. Women’s educational development is hurt more, since their sex curiosity is more forcefully repressed. Meanwhile, the sex lies about storks and such lead kids to question their parents’ reliability more generally. “The effects of the conventional treatment of sex in dealing with the young are therefore to make people stupid, deceitful and timorous, and to drive a not inconsiderable percentage over the border line into insanity or something like it [p. 103].”

The shielding of kids from sex knowledge makes them even more curious about it, and engenders the idea that some things are obscene. Tell them what they want to know and they will not obsess over sex.

Russell relates (pp. 105-106) his experience with his own young children and other children at his school [Russell and his wife founded a school in 1927 -- RBR], where sex and excrement are spoken of in the same manner as other topics. His children are interested in where babies come from, but they are more interested in trains. Children who come to the school at ages 6 or 7 already believe in indecency, and when first given license to speak about sex, use the privilege to excess. When they find that the topic does not draw rebuke, they tire of it.

Russell says that the biologically close connection between sex and excretion means that adults dealing with kids “shouldn’t be too fastidious as regards the excretory processes [p. 107]” – lest sex be tainted with some of the disgust engendered for excretion. When kids are old enough to understand, “it should be explained that the reason for these precautions [around excrement] is merely sanitary and not that there is anything inherently disgusting about the natural functions concerned [p. 107].”

Russell turns to obscenity law in the US and Britain, and notes that an obscene book is one that the magistrate finds objectionable. [To some extent this is still the case, except that Russell’s other point (pp. 108-109), that this determination is made without any regard to the potential useful purposes of the material, does not reflect the current US standard, where any publication with serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific merit could not be suppressed as obscene – RBR] Russell mentions the British action against Havelock Ellis’s Studies in the Psychology of Sex as an example of how serious scientific work is suppressed by obscenity law. Ellis’s case studies illustrated the poverty of existing approaches to sex education, but the law prevents us from having the data that would allow us to make better judgments.

Russell next (page 110) brings up the suppression of a novel with a homosexual theme. Homosexuality between men is illegal in England (that is, it was illegal in 1929) – how can it be possible to argue to change this law, if any attempt to do so will be suppressed as an obscene utterance? “And yet every person who has taken the trouble to study the subject knows that this law is the effect of a barbarous and ignorant superstition, in favour of which no rational argument of any sort or kind can be advanced [pp. 110-111].” Likewise, it is hard to discuss legally laws about incest.

The British law will allow the discussion of sex if it is couched in language that only the highly educated will understand: “Mrs. Sanger’s pamphlet on birth control, which is addressed to working women, was declared obscene on the ground that working women could understand it [p. 111].” But the books of Marie Stopes are legal, because they are within the purview only of the educated. Birth control can only legally be taught to the well-to-do. “I commend this fact to the notice of the Eugenic Society, which is perpetually bewailing the fact that wage-earners breed faster than middle-class people, while carefully abstaining from any attempt to change the state of the law which is the cause of this fact [p. 112].” [This reminds me that Russell’s godfather J. Stuart Mill had a run-in with the police as a teenager for disseminating birth control information to the working class -- RBR.]

Russell is against obscenity laws, on two grounds: (1) any such law will eliminate good material along with bad (and simultaneously let much of the bad get by); and (2) the harm from pornography would be minor “if sex education were rational [p. 112].” In providing evidence for the first point, Russell notes (p. 114) the “courageous campaign” waged by Russell’s Marriage and Morals publisher, Horace Liveright [great name] on behalf of a play dealing with female homosexuality. With respect to the second point, Russell notes again that the suppression of pornography will stoke interest in it. When young, most well-to-do men have come across pornography, and the conventional types suggest that these images did not harm themselves but would harm others. Russell goes on to argue that what is commonly seen by men stops being a prod to lust, so that if nakedness were the norm “women would be forced, as they are in certain savage tribes, to adopt clothing as a means of making themselves sexually attractive [p. 115].”

“The more prudes restrict the permissible degree of sexual appeal, the less is required to make such an appeal effective [p. 115].” Most interest in pornography is stoked by the notions of indecency foisted upon the young. The remaining part is physiological and will arise from one cause or another in any case.

Russell recognizes (page 116) that few will agree with him on the undesirability of any legal controls on obscene publications.

“It is good for children to see each other and their parents naked whenever it so happens naturally [p. 116].” To avoid nakedness is to cloak it with mystery, making it seem indecent. Russell also praises the healthful properties of nakedness in sunlight and water, both for kids and adults. If it were common, it would make our perceptions of beauty coincide more closely with health. “In this respect the practice of the Greeks was to be commended [p. 117].”