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.

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