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...

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