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].”

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Marriage and Morals, Chapter 7

Chapter 7 (pages 78-92): “The Liberation of Women”

The ongoing transition in sexual mores primarily derives from the invention of contraceptives and the emancipation of women. Freedom for women is part of the movement towards democracy, and can be traced from the French Revolution through Mary Wollstonecraft to John Stuart Mill. [So Russell has gotten around to bringing up, here, Mill’s Subjection of Women.] Russell tells a personal anecdote: his parents were disciples of Mill and committed to the emancipation of women. Russell’s birth was overseen (through his mother’s choice) by “the first woman doctor [p. 79],” who was not allowed to be fully certified. The feminist movement of his parents’ generation did not get very far with the right to vote, but they succeeded in passing the Married Women’s Property Act of 1882, which allowed married women (and not their husbands) to control their own property. The rapid acquisition of political rights by women in advanced countries is unprecedented, though it is paralleled by the abolition of slavery: “but after all slavery did not exist in European countries in modern times, and did not concern anything so intimate as the relations of men and women [p. 80].”

The rapid advance of women can be traced to the near impossibility of reconciling democracy with their subjection, and to the increased numbers of women (particularly during the war [WWI -- RBR]) earning money outside the home. Prior to the war, an argument aimed at keeping women from voting was that they would tend to be pacifists, but their contributions to the war cause (“their share in the bloody work [p. 81]”) put the lie to this. Those who hoped that securing the right to vote for women would improve the moral tone of political life had their hopes dashed: “it seems to be the fate of idealists to obtain what they have struggled for in a form which destroys their ideals [p. 81].” But the real case for women’s right to vote had nothing to do with any “peculiar merits” of women in the first place.

But here, Russell says, he is concerned with the social emancipation of women, not their political emancipation. Previously (and still in the East), women’s virtue was secured via seclusion. In the West, alternatively, they have been propagandized from childhood to abhor non-marital sex. The mental barriers were thought to substitute for physical ones. “The women of the Victorian age were, and a great many women still are, in a mental prison [p. 83].” But recently there has been a “reappearance in consciousness of instinctive desires which had been buried beneath mountains of prudery [p. 83].” Most champions of women’s rights were themselves “rigid moralists,” who sought to impose upon men the controls heretofore placed only upon women.

Things have changed since about 1914. “The motives of female virtue in the past were chiefly the fear of hell-fire and the fear of pregnancy; the one was removed by the decay of theological orthodoxy, the other by contraceptives [p. 84].” Now feminists seek equality with men in moral freedom, not (by restraining male ‘vices’) in moral slavery.

The young have this new morality, and most of the old are unaware of it. This situation is unstable. In some places, the old will successfully suppress the changes, and in others, the young will get the upper hand as they succeed to the positions of power, thereby cementing the changed morality.

Men have always been allowed, as a practical matter, to engage in non-marital sex, and this cannot change, no matter what the moralists say. So the moralists must either permit young unmarried men to have sex with prostitutes, or with unmarried women of their own class. But the latter is anathema to moralists, who are (again, in practice) committed to the double standard whereby sex by males outside of marriage is no big deal but terribly bad for women. So moralists, in effect, support male sex with prostitutes. “Moralists, of course, do not think out the consequences of advocating a morality which they know will not be obeyed; they think that so long as they do not advocate prostitution they are not responsible for the fact that prostitution is the inevitable outcome of their teaching [p.87].” Russell goes on to say that this reasoning is more evidence that professional moralists are a bit dim.

Equality between the sexes therefore requires tolerance of non-marital sex, and indeed, in places with more adult women than men, it also is required to prevent some women from being “wholly debarred from sexual experience [p. 88].”

But without female chastity and wifely faithfulness, how to safeguard the family or perhaps, instead, to “acquiesce in the breakup of the family?” One solution is that procreative sex could be limited to being within marriages, with husbands tolerating their wives’ non-procreative affairs. “The difficulty of such a scheme as yet is that it requires us to place more reliance on the efficacy of contraceptives and the truthfulness of wives than seems rational; this difficulty may, however, be diminished before long [p. 89; Russell anticipates DNA testing and the pill! -- RBR].” Alternatively, the institution of fatherhood could decay, and the state could step partly into the role. All kids would be like illegitimate kids are now, but the government would see to their upbringing more attentively.

But what if the goal is to re-establish the old morality? Then girls must be kept uneducated, superstitious, and stupid, as occurs in schools controlled by churches, and sex information must be censored. But these alone will not suffice without secluding girls. For instance, they can’t be allowed to work outside the home or to own a car. Perhaps the virginity of unmarried women can be checked monthly by “police doctors [p. 91]”, and further heavy-handed measures, conducted for a century, might “do something to stem the rising tide of immorality [p. 91].” But probably even this won’t suffice, and the moralists should require that all non-clergy males be castrated. (Russell suggests in a footnote that he might remove the exception for the clergy now that he has read Elmer Gantry.)

Either restoring the old morality, or allowing the new morality to grow without restraint, poses severe problems. So “we shall need a genuinely new morality [p. 92],” and the remainder of the book hopes to contribute to pointing the way.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Marriage and Morals, Chapter 6

Chapter 6 (pages 63-77): "Romantic Love"

Brutality marked the relations between the sexes during the Dark Ages. As the doctrine of clerical celibacy took hold, their now sinful relationships with women became more depraved.

The notion of romantic love was contributed by the laity, not by the Church. This notion is that the beloved is both precious and hard to win over; all sorts of feats are required to conquer her. Russell follows many moralists (surprisingly, at least to me), when he suggests that the high value placed on the lady is the result of the difficulty of obtaining her: “when a man has no difficulty in obtaining a woman, his feeling towards her does not take the form of romantic love [p. 66].” At first, romantic love was directed at unobtainable “women of the highest respectability…[p. 66].” The Church had made sex so disreputable that high sentiments could only be nurtured towards women who were not available sexually. It is hard for moderns to grasp the sort of transcendent emotion that applied only to the unattainable, as only such women were worthy of it, being removed from the defilement of sex. But this emotion produced Dante and other excellent literature. It didn’t quite take in France and Burgundy, however, where the “Romaunt of the Rose” allowed the satisfaction of knightly courtship. The knightly love of the “Rose” was reserved for aristocrats, however, who were somewhat exempt from ecclesiastical strictures. “In our democratic age we are apt to forget what the world has owed at various times to aristocracies [p. 70]”; so writes the grandson of Lord Russell.

Renaissance romantic love was non-platonic but still poetic, with the poetry employed in wooing. “From the point of view of the arts, it is certainly regrettable when women are too accessible; what is most to be desired is that they should be difficult but not impossible of access [p. 72].” The romantic era, as personified by Shelley, saw the peak of romantic love, but even Shelley’s efforts were stimulated by the “social barriers” (p. 73) placed in his path to women.

But the love is more important than the poetry. “I believe myself that romantic love is the source of the most intense delights that life has to offer [p. 74].” (There will be much more praise of love in Chapter 9.) People should have the opportunity to experience this joy, though romantic love should not be the “main purpose” of life.

The idea “that marriage should be the outcome of romantic love [pp. 74-75]” is of recent vintage. And it is not clear that having people marry for romance – instead of, say, having parents make matches for other reasons – has been an unbridled success. Romantic views of marriage are common in the United States, “where law and custom alike are based upon the dreams of spinsters [pp. 75-76],” but the end product has been substantial divorce and a paucity of happy marriages.

Marriage transcends the pleasure of the parties, in part by producing children. Russell thinks that it is desirable that romantic love motivate marriages, but romantic visions are inaccurate. Most happy marriages require “an affectionate intimacy quite unmixed with illusion [p. 77].” And children really are key, because if it were not for them, “there would be no need of any institution concerned with sex…[p. 77].” With kids on the scene, the feelings of a husband and wife “towards each other are no longer what is of most importance [p. 77].” Again, these sentiments are re-iterated in Chapter 9.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Marriage and Morals, Chapter 5

Chapter 5 (pages 44-62): “Christian Ethics”

St. Paul and Christianity presented a new approach to marriage, that it was necessary not for “the procreation of children, but to prevent the sin of fornication [p. 44].” Marriage for St. Paul was what would be called today -- i.e., 2007 -- a form of harm reduction, like methadone maintenance for heroin addicts: “it is better to marry than to burn.” [The passage is from First Corinthians vii. 9, quoted by Russell on page 45.] St. Paul “does not suggest for a moment that there may be any positive good in marriage…[p. 46]”; rather, he is concerned only with minimizing fornication. “It is just as if one were to maintain that the sole reason for baking bread is to prevent people from stealing cake [pp. 46-47].” But St. Paul doesn’t explain what is so bad about fornication. The wholesale condemnation of fornication – as opposed to the condemnation of adultery, i.e., sex with a married woman – was a Christian innovation. The condemnation of sex outside of marriage seems to be a byproduct of condemnation of all sex, even of the marital strain. “A view of this sort, which goes against biological facts, can only be regarded by sane people as a morbid aberration. The fact that it is embedded in Christian ethics has made Christianity throughout its whole history a force tending towards mental disorders and unwholesome views of life [p. 48].”

The Church even was anti-bathing, because anything that made the body more appealing was a temptation to sin. Lice were signs of holiness. “It is evident that, where such views concerning sex prevailed, sexual relations when they occurred would tend to be brutal and harsh, like drinking under Prohibition [p. 50].” Russell includes long passages (on pages 49-52) on the Church’s disparaging view of sex and marriage from W.E.H. Lecky’s “History of European Morals.”

The Catholic Church has taken Paul’s condemnation of sex still further, by making a sin even marital sex that is not intended for procreation. Marital sex that is intended for procreation, then, is justified, even if in other respects – for instance, it threatens the health of the mother – it is ill-advised or cruel. The Catholic approach is based upon St. Paul’s asceticism and a belief that births are good, since every person has a soul capable of salvation: “…the fact that souls are equally capable of damnation is not taken into account, and yet it seems quite as relevant [p. 53].” Catholic political influence makes it hard for Protestants to use birth control, but most of the Protestant children, by Catholic reckoning, will go to Hell.

Though children are the purpose of marital sex in Catholicism, the Church does not allow marriages to be ended on the basis of sterility. This shows that the greater factor underlying the constraints on sex is Pauline asceticism, and not procreation. Declaring marriage to be a sacrament covers up the Catholic low opinion of marriage, while also leading to much unhappiness as bad unions are virtually indissoluble, and remarriage disallowed.

Nevertheless, the Catholic church is fairly tolerant towards sin. This tolerance increased its power, as only priests could grant the absolution that would prevent eternal damnation.

Protestantism is more tolerant in theory, but in practice often less tolerant. Protestants are not as committed to celibacy, while often not regarding marriage as a sacrament and permitting divorce. “But Protestants were more shocked than Catholics by fornication, and altogether more rigid in their moral condemnations [p. 56].” Protestant sinners are worse off than Catholic sinners, lacking the institutions of confession and absolution.

Those educated in the Christian tradition (i.e., most of us), have a hard time viewing these matters neutrally, without prejudices inculcated by an intensive childhood exposure to religious teachings. What is really wrong with sex? The Church’s negative attitude “must be regarded as purely superstitious… [p. 57],” the product of “a diseased condition of body or mind, or both [pp. 57-58].”

“The fact that an opinion has been widely held is no evidence whatever that it is not utterly absurd; indeed in view of the silliness of the majority of mankind, a widespread belief is more likely to be foolish than sensible. The Pelew Islanders believe that the perforation of the nose is necessary for winning eternal bliss. Europeans think that this end is better attained by wetting the head while pronouncing certain words. The belief of the Pelew Islanders is a superstition; the belief of Europeans one of the truths of our holy religion [page 58, footnote omitted].”

Jeremy Bentham noted that concepts had different names, depending on whether the writer was hoping to praise, dispraise, or be neutral towards the concept. It would be best to avoid words like “fornication” and “adultery” that carry a negative connotation, as well as “gallantry,” which signals approval. But neutral terms – ‘extra-marital sexual relations [p. 59]’ – undermine graceful writing; nevertheless, they must be the dominant, though not exclusive, means of discourse on these matters. (On page 60, Russell notes the personal double standard, that what I do is “gallantry” and what you do is “fornication.” Recall also Byron's Don Juan: "What men call gallantry, and gods adultery,/ Is much more common where the climate 's sultry.")

“The Christian ethics inevitably, through the emphasis laid upon sexual virtue, did a great deal to degrade the position of women [p. 60].” Men did the writing, and women were temptresses. The temptresses had to have their opportunities to tempt restricted. “It is only in quite modern times that women have regained the degree of freedom which they enjoyed in the Roman Empire [pp. 60-61].” Their freedom was “curtailed under the pretence of protecting them from sin [p. 61].” Now that the notion of sin is crumbling, female freedom is increasing.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Marriage and Morals, Chapter 4

Chapter 4 (pages 33-43): “Phallic Worship, Asceticism and Sin”

Fertility of crops, herds, and women have long been of foremost importance, so in these realms “[r]eligion and magic were invoked to make sure of the desired result [p. 33].” In ancient Egypt and elsewhere, sex and religion focused on the female genitalia, but “in most ancient civilizations, the sexual element in religion took the form of phallic worship [p. 34].” Russell here and later in the chapter relies upon and quotes “Sex in Civilization,” by Robert Briffault. The quote on pages 34 and 35 notes the sexual license and phallic symbolism accompanying agricultural festivals, recognizing a link between the fertility of the fields and of women. Russell next provides an aside on sun versus moon worshiping, and he speculates that the ultimate victory of sun worship, where it took place, “was due to the patent fact that the sun has more influence than the moon over the crops [p. 36].”

Vestiges of phallic worship survived through the Middle Ages, even within Christianity – there were ithyphallic saints, as Russell notes (page 36) in a quote from Briffault. Protestantism eliminated these vestiges, however.

“Sacred prostitution is another institution which was very widespread in antiquity [p. 37],” and it probably arose from enlisting religion into promoting the fertility of women or crops.

But religions have anti-sexual elements, too, which won out wherever Christianity or Buddhism took hold. Asceticism and stoicism more than held their own with Epicureanism. It seems that “in certain circumstances men are led spontaneously to a horror of sex, and this when it arises is quite as much a natural impulse as the more usual attraction towards sex [pp. 38-39].”

Russell attributes anti-sexual attitudes to jealousy and sexual fatigue. When jealously is present, sex appears “disgusting, and the appetite which leads to it seems loathsome [p. 39].” [Somehow these passages made me think of modern Islamic fundamentalists – RBR] Instinctually, a man would prefer that all women love him and only him, so that love given to other men is morally condemned. Russell claims that the ideal wife in Shakespeare is a woman who doesn’t enjoy sex, but partakes in it with her husband from a sense of duty. The betrayed or impotent husband will be disgusted by sex.

Sexual fatigue is unknown in the animal kingdom and probably rare among the uncivilized. The lack of novelty makes it unlikely to occur in a monogamous marriage, too. The need for courtship slows things down enough to render sexual fatigue rare, too. But courtship is not necessary if women are not free to say no, and this is the case with married women and prostitutes, who “alike make their living by means of their sexual charms…[p. 41]” [Russell seems to contradict himself within a few lines here, when he says that monogamous marriages do not promote sexual fatigue, but shortly thereafter says that wives, like prostitutes, are not free to say no to sex. He seems to want to say (I am speculating based on the context) that sexual fatigue would be unlikely in a pure form of monogamy, but that economic pressures lead to a sort of corrupt monogamy where wives cannot say no. Nevertheless, I am not convinced by my own interpretation, as it is rare for Russell’s writing to lack clarity.] Unrestricted access to sex can lead men to engage to excess, at which point fatigue, disgust, and asceticism breed.

When jealousy and fatigue are both present, as in licentious societies, the anti-sex viewpoint will grow strong (p. 41). Further, priests and priestesses may be regarded as “married” to some divine, making them unfit for sex with mortals, and cementing a view that celibacy and holiness are paired.

Other factors probably encourage the anti-sex viewpoint. Some ages seem happy, and some depressed – it is hard to know why. When people are weary, the ascetic ideal takes hold, and it was in a weary age when the Christian ethic was formulated.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Marriage and Morals, Chapter 3

Chapter 3 (pages 25-32): “The Dominion of the Father”

Once paternity is understood, “the love of power and the desire to survive death [p. 25]” supplement paternal feeling. Ambition encompasses the achievements of descendants. “In a matrilineal society family ambition would have to be confined to women, and as women do not do the fighting, such family ambition as they may have has less effect than that of men [p. 25].” So it is likely that the discovery of paternity increases competition and commotion; it also increases interest in the sexual virtue of wives.

Indeed, the instinctual component of male jealousy is commonly overrated. Male jealousy is strong in patriarchal societies because of “the fear of the falsification of descent [p. 26].” Even a man who cares more for his mistress than for his wife will be more jealous if a rival emerges for the affections of his wife than of his mistress. A father’s affection for his child “is a form of egotism [p. 26].”

The “discovery of fatherhood led to the subjection of women as the only means of securing their virtue… [p. 26]” – a subjection that initially was physical but became mental. “Owing to the subjection of women there has in most civilized communities been no genuine companionship between husbands and wives; their relation has been one of condescension on the one side and duty on the other [pp. 26-27]. [I am surprised here that Russell does not cite his godfather, John Stuart Mill, who noted the same fact in his essay “The Subjection of Women.” – RBR] No wonder Plato’s dialogues suggest that the male thinkers of Athens did not consider women to be “proper objects of serious love [p. 27]” – all the issues that the men cared about were not available to the contemplation of respectable women. “Love as a relation between men and women was ruined by the desire to make sure of the legitimacy of children. And not only love, but the whole contribution that women can make to civilization, has been stunted for the same reason [p. 27].”

The movement to a patrilineal society alters the economic system, as men inherit from their fathers and not their maternal uncles. This provides a closer-knit family, as property, authority and affection all are vested in the father. Patriarchy also brings about the interest men have in the virginity of their brides, because “it became of great importance to persuade women that all intercourse outside marriage is wicked [p. 28].”

Fathers tried to exploit fatherhood, and history is mainly about “the gradual decay of paternal power [p. 29],” as is suggested by ancestor worship. Fathers throughout history were vested with enormous powers over their families, and women were denied any period of independence, being subjected first to their father and then to their husband. Old women (somehow) acquired “almost despotic power within the household [p. 29],” especially over their daughter-in-laws.

Fathers originally acquire power in the household through superior strength but this is “reinforced by religion, which may in most of its forms be defined as the belief that the gods are on the side of the Government [p. 30].” Paternal power is reflected throughout society – even “the religious ideas of Christianity… are impregnated with the majesty of fatherhood [p. 30].” But as economic conditions changed, the admonition to multiply no longer matched self-interest. In Rome, upper-class women achieved near-equality with men – and ancient civilization was confined to a small percentage of the population, allowing it “to succumb to a great uprush of superstition from below. Christianity and the barbarian invasion destroyed the Greco-Roman system of ideas [p. 31].” Patriarchy remained, but had to align itself with Christian views on sex and individualism. The Christian doctrine of the immortality of the soul lessened the interest men had in the success of their descendants, which previously had been their only route to a form of immortality.

Modern societies remain patrilineal, but the importance of patrimony and family is significantly diminished. Ambition resides in hope for a high position, not in a large number of offspring, so “traditional morals and theology have less force than they used to have [p. 32].”

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Marriage and Morals, Chapter 2

Chapter 2 (pages 14-24): “Where Fatherhood is Unknown”

Three intertwined, overlapping factors, the instinctive, economic, and religious, compose marriage customs. Religion can give a preference among various instinctual possibilities: “for example, love and jealousy are both instinctive emotions, but religion has decreed that jealousy is a virtuous emotion to which the community ought to lend support, while love is at best excusable [pp. 14-15].” [I would have thought that Russell’s example would have gone the other way, though I think I can discern his reasoning. Has this situation changed since 1929? – RBR]

The instinctive component in sex is typically overrated; practices seemingly contrary to instinct, such as the deflowering of virgins by priests, have been widespread and hardy. (This custom would seem contrary to the instincts of Christian bridegrooms.) The loan of wives to guests, polyandry, and infanticide are other examples. “The only act in this whole [sexual -- RBR] realm which can be called instinctive in the strict psychological sense is the act of sucking in infancy [p. 16].” Russell (page 16) cites Havelock Ellis for the contention that civilized people have to learn the sexual act, and claims that doctors are often asked by married couples, ignorant of sex, for advice on how to have children. For humans, there is a sort of dissatisfaction that almost accidentally finds alleviation, and hence the act of alleviation is repeated. “What is instinctive is thus not so much the finished activity as the impulse to learn it…[p. 17]” Russell claims that among the activities that bring satisfaction, the “biologically most advantageous” one will “give the most complete satisfaction, provided it is learnt before contrary habits have been acquired [p. 17].”

How have natural impulses led to the patriarchal family and the corresponding emphasis on female virtue? After all, fathers aren’t even sure that a child is their own. But paternal sentiments need not be directed to one’s own children. Here, Russell relies upon Malinowski’s work on the Trobriand Islanders, which he claims puts beyond dispute the notion that the islanders do not know that people (or other animals) have fathers. For instance, an islander husband who has been away for more than a year is delighted when he returns to find that his wife has recently given birth. Unsurprisingly, “descent is traced solely through the female line [p. 20],” and the more typical fatherly authority is exercised by maternal uncles. (I understand, incidentally, that this is still the case in that region of the world – RBR.) The incest taboo is so strong among the islanders, however, that those maternal uncles are not often in the company of their adult sisters, producing an “admirable system” (page 21) where children get affection but not discipline from their fathers, while those who have the right to discipline, the uncles, are not on the scene.

As a patriarchal religion, Christianity is a hard sell among peoples who do not recognize paternity.

A father who is with his wife during pregnancy and birth will instinctively be fond of the child – but if the father is not around, his initial devotion to his child is less instinctual. But “[i]n all the important human relations socially desirable acts, towards which there is an instinct not strong enough to be always compelling, are enforced by social ethics…[p. 23].” Russell believes that there is a tendency in both men and women to feel affection for any child whom the adult must look after; this tendency will be reinforced in husband/fathers by the affection that they feel for the child’s mother.

According to Malinowski, all of mankind must have “passed through the stage” that the Trobriand Islanders (and non-human animals) are in, that of not recognizing paternity. Our familiar “sentiment of paternity” can only arise once the fact of paternity is understood.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Marriage and Morals, Chapter 1

I am using the sixth printing of the first edition, published by Horace Liveright in New York, 1929 (sixth printing April, 1930).

Chapter 1 (of 21), pages 3-13: “Why a Sexual Ethic is Necessary”

The economic system and the family system are two interconnected elements that characterize societies. Marx focuses on the economic system, and Freud on the family system. But Russell does not accept the primacy of one system over the other; for instance, the industrial revolution influenced sexual morality, but was in part caused by the prevailing sexual morality. The (economic) desire for food is motivated to a large extent by family concerns, as is the demand for life insurance. Private property and the family also are intertwined.

Sexual morals come in “several layers [p. 4],” including legal institutions (monogamy or polygamy), a non-legal layer where public opinion dominates, and “a layer which is left to individual discretion, in practice if not in theory [p. 5]”. Throughout human history, only in Soviet Russia (!) have sexual ethics and institutions “been determined by rational considerations [p. 5]” – this isn't to say that the Soviet institutions are desirable, only that they are not the result of “superstition and tradition [p. 5].” The optimal sexual morality in terms of human happiness will vary over place and time, with the economic system and the death rate, for instance.

Sexual ethics produce effects at many levels, too, from the personal to the international, and desirable effects at one level might be matched by undesirable effects at another level. Understanding the personal effects, those considered by psychoanalysis, requires an examination both of adult behavior and of the education of children aimed to produce adherence to the prevailing norm.

One level above the personal is the relationship between men and women. It is accepted that the greater the extent of a psychic or loving component, the more value there is to physical relations. Whether love has more value as it becomes more intense is debatable, however (p. 7). Equality of sexual relations has become valued in modern times, reducing the attractiveness of polygamy. When evaluating conjugal relations, both marital and the corresponding non-marital relationships must be considered.

At the family level, the “monogamic patriarchal family [p. 7]” is becoming predominant. “The primary motive of sexual ethics as they have existed in Western civilization since pre-Christian times has been to secure that degree of female virtue without which the patriarchal family becomes impossible, since paternity is uncertain [pp. 7-8].” [Of course, DNA testing can now remove the uncertainty of paternity -- RBR.] Christianity and modernity have supplemented this requisite female virtue with an asceticism-motivated male virtue and female jealousy in part produced by the emancipation of women. But female jealousy is probably a temporary stage, as eventually the equality of females will lead them to prefer equal freedoms for, and not equal restrictions on, the sexes.

Monogamous family relations vary along such dimensions as who chooses the marriage partners, whether a bride or groom price is paid, and the ease of divorce. For some animals (like birds), male cooperation in gestating or raising the young is necessary for survival. In humans, traditionally “the cooperation of the father is a great biological advantage to the offspring [p. 9],” but as the welfare state expands, fathers become less important to the success of offspring. If fathers really do become more-or-less useless, “we must expect a complete breakdown of traditional morality, since there will no longer be any reason why a mother should wish the paternity of her child to be indubitable [p. 9].” Russell won’t go to the Platonic extreme of also replacing the mother with the state, because he is not a big admirer of government and is unimpressed with the qualities of orphanages; but perhaps economic forces will push society in that direction.

Law enforces a society’s sexual ethic, and also tries “to protect the ordinary rights of individuals in the sphere of sex [p. 10],” which amounts (primarily) to protecting women and children from sexual assault or exploitation and combatting sexually-transmitted diseases. But the law doesn’t do a very good job. The moral panic of the White Slave Traffic, for instance, resulted in laws that pose little barrier to criminals but provide opportunities to blackmail “harmless people [p. 10].” The attitude that acquiring an STD is a just desert for sin “prevents the adoption of the measures which would be the most effective on purely medical grounds... [p. 10],” while the moral condemnation of STDs also causes them to be concealed.

Population issues arise along various dimensions, including the international and the eugenic. There is no reason to believe that a system that is privately optimal also is socially optimal. Typically, the systems that are adopted are unjustifiably cruel. “[A]dvances in medicine and hygiene have made changes in sexual ethics desirable both from a private and from a public point of view [p. 12],” while fathers are also becoming less relevant as the state’s role in education increases. So currently we have to overcome superstition, while also seeing how new conditions have altered desirable institutions. But first, a look at some past and present systems...