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.

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