Marriage, morals, and the green-eyed monster

Atheist perspectives on sexual morality

Recently, I finally got around to picking up a copy of Bertrand Russell’s Marriage and Morals, the notorious book that played a major part of the campaign to get him barred from teaching in New York. I also had brought to my attention a Richard Dawkins piece on sexual jealousy from a couple of years ago, “Banishing the Green-Eyed Monster.” What follows would be a double-header review if only the Dawkins piece were a full book, as it stands, count this as a general reflection on what prominent atheists have said about sexual morality.

Marriage and Morals starts out a bit disappointing, if only because it is so out of date. Russell’s writing is enjoyable and level-headed, without any hint that he’s adopting an implausible view of human psychology for ideological reasons, but much of what he says looks just wrong in the light of current evolutionary psychology. But the book picks up quickly, when he moves from trying to make generalizations about human psychology for all times and places to observing trends in his own day. There, he was excellent. He provides a nice reminder that the sexual revolution and even the drunken hookup culture didn’t appear out of nowhere in the 60′s. Those trends were already underway in the 20′s.

Moreover, he provides an analysis of those trends that many would find surprising–Russell comes out as a calmer, less spiteful Roissy: Political gender equality brings with it the death of the old double standard (men get to screw around, women don’t). The double standard could be corrected either by tightening restrictions on men, or loosening restrictions on women, and it looks like women on the whole will opt for looser restrictions on themselvs. This will lead to the breakdown of the traditional family, and lead to the state taking the role once held by the provider father. Aisde from attitude, the main difference between Russell and Roissy is that Roissy thinks this will lead to social collapse, while Russell was worried that an ever-more powerful state would lead to totalitarianism, where children’s upbringing is 100% controlled by the state and the birthrate is set based on how much cannon fodder is needed. (Third option: nothing dramatic happens.)

For Russell, these social observations are vital, because in Marriage and Morals, morality amounts to a code that society pushes on the individual though means that fall short of strict legal obligation. The question, then, is “what will happen if we try to enforce this or that code?” Russell’s proposal is complete sexual freedom where no children are involved, especially the government is not to be involved where there are no children. So college students, for example, should be able to enter into temporary marriages that can be ended without any legal trouble so long as no children are produced (this is in fact what many college students do nowadays, except they call them “relationships” and they aren’t always as stable as Russell hoped they would be). In fact, Russell thought that in general, people should be able to get divorced without fear of alimony, again so long as there are no children.

Up to this point, Russell is just a good writer who was quick to spot trends, but he also proposes something really radical: nobody should care about sexual fidelity as long as no children are produced. He doesn’t expect this to be easy: though his understanding of psychology isn’t perfect, he was smart enough to get that sexual jealousy is hard to overcome. He also got that the desire to screw around is hard to overcome. For Russell, the question is which instinct to surpress, and he argues we’d be best off preserving the traditional mom-and-pop family while surppressing the urge to regulate non-child-producing sex. I think Russell would have loved paternity testing; perhaps he would have supported making it mandatory.

One thing that makes Marriage and Morals a good read 80 years later is that Russell got things that most people today still have trouble with. Dan Savage, for example, is fond of saying that human beings aren’t naturally monogamous, which is true, but he routinely ignores the fact that human beings don’t naturally accept our parterns’ non-monogamy. Russell got the need for compromise here, and he got that it wasn’t always easy: I understand that at the time he wrote Marriage and Morals, his wife was openly having an affair. Eventually Russell left her after she had two children with her lover and began saying he didn’t know what to say about sexual ethics.

Indeed compared to Russell, Dawkins himself is a great wad of clueless, even though The Selfish Gene contains plenty of insights on evolutionary psychology Russell never understood. Dawkins’ basic position on sexual jealousy is that it’s weird and involves feeling that you own another person (which is of course icky), so get over it already. He even says that in a particular high-profile case of divorce over infidelity, it was the cheated-on wife who was in the wrong and not, apparently because two wrongs don’t make a right but because she shouldn’t have cared about her husband’s affair.

This is terribly insensitive both to human feeling and social reality. The social reality, in particular, is that marriage is an implicit promise to stop screwing other people. This doesn’t mean that all marriages should be monogamous, but it does mean that if you don’t want yours to be you have to work that out an advance, at least if you care abou being an honest person. Dawkins disregard for that fact makes his “I am not advocating deception and lying in personal relationships” ring hollow.

There’s a final point here that isn’t discussed enough any more: how much business does society have getting involved in personal decisions? After years of reading Dan Savage, I’m used to the assumption that these issues are something that you just have to come to some agreement on with whoever you’re romantically involved with. But Russell took for granted the opposite–that it might make sense for society to use informal arm-twisting to get most people to arrive at the same solution.

In principle, Russell has a point: seemingly individual decisions do have indirect impacts (something I talk about in the economic case towards the end of this post). But on the issue of sex and family, I recoil at the prospect of any really strong coercion in these matters at the level of, say, jailing or ostracizing people who screw around in ways unfavorable to society. In that area, light incentives to behave in pro-social ways is the most I can support.

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