Saturday, September 22, 2007

Marriage and Morals, Halftime

I am now halfway through Marriage and Morals so I thought a short pause for what passes for reflection might be in order. My main reaction is how much of what Russell has to say is still pertinent, almost 80 years on. Let me start by mentioning what is less pertinent, however. The notion that a married couple, especially the woman, should be celibate until their wedding night has become much more marginalized. Yes, that particular morality has some traction within US policy, but within the public at large, it simply does not have much of a following that I can see. Meanwhile, of course, the social emancipation of women has come much further than what had been achieved by 1929.

But other viewpoints of the moralists still do have a large following, even if the law has tended to move away from them. (Some ways in which the law has moved: easier divorce; better access to birth control and information about birth control; liberalization of controls over obscenity; legalization of homosexual behavior.) The anti-sex, ascetic code remains a force, and children brought up in religious households imbibe a form of it almost as strong as in Russell’s day – with the same deleterious effects, I believe. A similar point applies to efforts to keep children ignorant about sexuality, and the sacrifice of public health on the altar of the old moral code.

Russell’s identification of workaholism (in Chapter 9) as the chief threat to love still seems relevant.

I think that Russell (so far) neglects the importance of marriage-like institutions that provide some forms of commitment, even in the absence of kids. (I am not sure I concur with Russell’s claim that kids are “the true purpose of marriage,” either.) Happy long-term partnerships require a lot of “investment” on both sides, and people will not be as willing to make those investments if it easy for their partner to just walk away. (This problem applies to marriages with kids, too, and in some sense, has become more acute as opportunities for women outside the home have increased. A woman who forgoes a career to raise kids – or just to keep house – for her husband has made a larger sacrifice than she did 100 years ago, when most careers were closed to her. If such sacrifices are to be encouraged, the woman’s investment has to be protected.) The trial marriages described in chapter 12 have largely come to pass, in the form of young unmarried couples living together.

In reading Marriage and Morals, I frequently am reminded of controls on “vices” other than sex, and in particular, the war on drugs. Russell notes how the position of traditional sexual moralists amounts to an endorsement of prostitution, though the moralists will not accept this characterization, and want to be judged upon their intentions, not upon the consequences of the adoption of their code. Likewise, to my mind, with US drug prohibitionists, who somehow fail to associate the 1.8 million arrests per year, the police corruption, the lethal violence, the eroding of the Fourth Amendment, and so on, with their well-intentioned policies. Finally, on prostitution, though Russell notes the important social function of the prostitute, he remains a strong opponent of prostitution, even in circumstances (such as the ones he identifies in Japan) where the immediate problems are not so severe. I think that his overall assessment underestimates the benefits of prostitution; in particular, I accept the claim that is not infrequently made by prostitutes, that they are engaged in a type of social work. [Nevertheless, I also suspect that Russell is right in his suggestion that male access to sex without going through even perfunctory courtship tends to coarsen social relations, and that he is also right that most of this "unwooed" sex probably takes place outside of a directly commercial context, within either marriages or long-term relationships.]

Russell’s Marriage and Morals shows him to be an acute observer and analyst of the social scene, and an entertaining expositor. Some of his pronouncements are a bit glib (though that characterization does not necessarily imply that there was not deep thought and evidence underlying them). To take two examples (in which I happen to agree with Russell): (1) his claim in Chapter 8 that “no rational argument” can be adduced for laws against homosexuality, and (2) his pronouncement in Chapter 10 that “every humane person” has to support a liberalization of England’s divorce laws. But these examples are drawn from what are basically asides, points that are not central to his theme, so the glibness is forgivable. I am just greedy, sometimes I want more from Russell. Oh, except at other times I find a little bit of needless repetition, especially in his multiple references to how traditional moralists are, in effect, making a case for prostitution.

On to the second half….

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