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.

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