Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Marriage and Morals, Full Time

The second half of Marriage and Morals did not lead me to alter my general impressions from the halfway point. There’s the same relevance, and the same glibness. (My favorite Russellian pronouncement is from Chapter 14: “Children whose mothers do not feel a warm affection for them are apt to be thin and nervous, and not infrequently they become kleptomaniacs [p. 194].”) Indeed, much of what takes place in the second half recapitulates and expands upon material from the first half.

Among the points that are (mostly) new is the idea (Chapter 15) that among poor people, the state is substituting for fathers, and that a furtherance of this trend will undo the role of fathers. I think that on this point Russell proved prescient, given the massive increase in one-parent (typically female-headed) families in the US and elsewhere in the second half of the 20th Century. But the replacement did not extend into the middle class, and has diminished in recent years within the poorer sections of society, I believe. The same chapter also contains the correct prediction that married women would become eligible for the professions that were closed to them in the 1920s.

One area in which I remain far from convinced by Russell is his pronouncement of the need for (or desirability of) international government. (See, for instance, chapters 15 and 16.) Like Russell, I fear the practices and policies of standard national governments, but I doubt that they would be improved via a monopoly. Policy competition among various national governments (and the possibility for people to emigrate) provides a check – admittedly not a strong one – on the worst abuses. While international problems (such as global environmental degradation) require or benefit from international responses, a one-world government making population or education policy on a global scale sounds to me like a dystopia.

On eugenics, Russell was no enthusiast, but he accepted some notions that look foolish today; for instance, he put some credence in phrenology, and his willingness to sterilize imbeciles would have (presumably) had him vote with the majority in the 1927 US Supreme Court case, Buck v. Bell. (Though his concern that perceived immorality would be used for negative eugenics might have shifted him into dissent – Carrie Buck was accused of prostitution and immorality as well as imbecility.) The whole idea of looking at the social value of (potential) individuals in formulating discriminatory population policy no longer seems worth the cost.

The most basic message of Marriage and Morals, however, to my mind still stands up. The traditional sexual morality damages people and essentially is irrational (especially the fetish of female 'virtue'), and people who were brought up in that tradition – I count myself among them – are more-or-less permanently harmed by the dissonance between instinct and imbued moral training. Russell’s suggestion for a replacement ethic, too, is one that I was stumbling towards before I read Marriage and Morals – the idea that close relationships are to be cherished, that they need not be put at risk by sex outside the relationship, and that jealousy has to be reined in. I am sorry that I didn’t read Marriage and Morals years ago, but if Russell is right, I couldn’t have overcome my childhood training in any case.

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