Brian's Reviews > Marriage and Morals

Marriage and Morals by Bertrand Russell
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Jul 24, 2012

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Read from July 24 to August 05, 2012

I have been looking for /Marriage and Morals/ for years. Bertrand Russell is one of my favorite writers and philosophers. The book is legendary as an Ur-text for the polyamory movement. Several witty quotes have come from it. When I found a used American first edition in a second-hand bookstore in Ithaca, I was overjoyed.

After reading it, I was disappointed, but I should not have been surprised. It was not Russell's best and he knew it. He himself considered it a non-academic work intended for a popular audience with a limited attention span. As such, it was one of the few works he let lapse out of print in his lifetime, further contributing to its rareness.

That said, I'm glad I bought it and I read it. Written in 1929, he explored the institution of marriage as a social issue. He establishes that some form of sexual ethic is necessary for social stability, but industrialization and urbanization has rendered the traditional basis of marriage obsolete and the state plays a growing role in family relations, despite the opposition of those who seek to defend traditional marriage on religious grounds.

Marriage is about property, not about love, and after the obligatory chapter on the idyllic life of the Trobriand Islanders, Russell establishes the connection firmly in Western society. Marriage was established to control and subjugate women and ensure the perpetuation of patriarchal order. With birth control and the right to vote, women were being liberated--yes, Russell uses the phrase "women's liberation" and in many ways was a first wave feminist along with his second wife, a prominent soffragette and birth control advocate. Russell views monogamy as abnormal and unnatural. There is really nothing here about homosexuality, but his arguments against traditional marriage can be easily adapted to support same-sex marriage.

Russell tears apart Christian ethics about marital morality, exposing its hypocrisies and contradictions through its rigid dogma of controlling women and inducing guilt about sex. Christianity--as well as the other Abrahamic religions of Judaism and Islam--create unhealthy, morbid and brutal view of natural sexual behavior.

I won't go into detail about his meandering exploration of the alternatives. He takes Freudian psychology as scientific fact. Even if what he wrote was relatively enlightened about women for the 1920s, it seems sexist now. What's worse is his chapter on eugenics. He was a supporter of forced sterilization for the good of humanity. Stupid, inferior people should not be allowed to breed. Somehow that strikes me as wrong. Much as I agree with the principle that people who are unfit to parent should not give birth, I do not feel like the state should judge and that women's rights over their bodies should be a positive one. That is, women should not only have the right to terminate any pregnancy they wish for whatever reason they see fit, they should also be permitted to give birth if they so choose.

Russell goes on to make several racist remarks. Again, for the 1920s, what he said was quite mild and equivocating. However, he cites empirical evidence that supports that some races have higher intelligence and other capabilities than others. Ouch. Before his death, I think he recanted those views, but now I'm not sure.

That's bad enough, to find that one's intellectual hero has some views that are completely discredited or repugnant. The writing is hasty, poorly formulated, and filled with repetitive anecdotes that are not even that funny the first time. It is a work into which he put little thought and moved on. His conclusion is anti-climactic and in many ways does not logically follow his premises. I expected better from one of the premier logicians of the 20th century.
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