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.

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