Sunday, May 19, 2024

Russell's Marriage and Morals (Reading group, meeting #2 notes)


This is part 2 (part 1 notes here) of some notes/questions for the Philosophy Meetup reading group on Russell’s 1929 book Marriage and Morals. This is a quick summary of some points from chapters 7-11.

Chapter 7:  The Liberation of Women

Russell begins the chapter by contending that two developments have caused the alteration in sexual morals- the development of contraception and the emancipation of women.  This chapter focuses on the latter, which he sees as part of the democratic movement which began with the French revolution.   He also notes his mother was a staunch supporter of female enfranchisement in the 1860s and that Russell was born by the first female doctor, who was not at that time qualified to be a medical practitioner but was a certified midwife. 

Russell also notes that another influence driving the emancipation of women was the increase in income they made outside the home (which decreased their dependence on their fathers and husbands).  The war accelerated this. 

Russell notes that equality between the sexes has profound implication for sexual ethics, given that men have been permitted to engage in illicit sexual relations but not women.  For example, men were not expected to be virgins when they got married, but women were.  Russell contends that what made this system possible was prostitution.  Should women also be morally permitted to engage with male prostitutes, in the name of equality?  Or should men be bound by the same sexual restrained morality imposed upon women?  Russell contends that the fair solution is to relax the traditional standards of feminine virtue and allow women (like men are) to engage in prenuptial sex. 

Questions to consider:  how have things changed since Russell was writing?  Have societal attitudes become more equal in terms of the sexual morality expected of men and women?  And are such developments a sign of societal progress, moral decay or a bit of both?

Chapter 8:  The Taboo of Sexual Knowledge

The question guiding this chapter is articulated in the opening paragraph:  how should the relations of the sexes be regulated?  In particular Russell is concerned about the harms of ignorance of such matters.  He believes it is critical that people be well informed.  The ignorant cannot make the right decisions.  He addresses the ignorance of children, and the role of parents and educators. 

Questions to consider:  How has technology (e.g. the internet and social media) influenced social mores about sex?  Russell addresses things like laws deeming literature obscene, but technology has changed significantly over the past century.  Now adults and children can gain access to almost anything on the internet.  What impact (both positive and negative) do you think this has had on attitudes about sex and sexual relations?  What is your view on government censorship of sexual content (e.g. in magazines or the internet)?

Chapter 9:  The Place of Love in Human Life

This chapter starts with the following statement:  I regard love as one of the most important things in human life, and I regard any system as bad which interferes unnecessarily with its free development.”  Questions:  Do you agree/disagree with this claim?  What can the government do to help facilitate the realization of love for the population?


Russell sees work and economic success as the biggest threat to love in his day (before that he thought the biggest threat was the Christian religion). Questions:   How can we manage balancing career and love/family life?  Do you have any lessons or insights you have learned from your own lived experiences?

Russell also identifies the fear that a person may lose their individuality as an obstacle to achieving love. 

Chapter 10:  Marriage

In this chapter Russell considers the legal institution of marriage, in particular its impact on the relationship between a man and woman.  Russell remarks that, as a society becomes what he refers to as more “civilized”, lifelong happiness with a partner seems to be harder to achieve.  He claims that marriage is easiest when little differentiates men and women as potential partners (this minimizes regret about being with your partner!).  He also remarks that, when there is no opportunity for men to have sexual relations with other women they are more likely to make the best of their marriage vs stray.  He believes the same applies to wives.  Problems with marriage arise, argues Russell, when people expect their marriage to contribute great happiness to their lives.

Questions:  Do you agree with Russell on this point?  Should we expect our romantic relationships to contribute great happiness to our lives?  Is this both a desirable and feasible aspiration?

Russell also remarks that the emancipation of women has made marriage more difficult as a wife is no longer required to adapt to her husband (and most men are not likely to relent on the tradition of masculine domination to relent to their partner).  He also notes that love flourishes when it is spontaneous and voluntary vs imposed by duty, but because marriage is a legal convention it makes loving one’s spouse a duty which can be counterproductive.

Russell does contend there is reason for hope, and stipulates the conditions that he believes make for a happy marriage:

It is therefore possible for a civilized man

and woman to be happy in marriage, although

if this is to be the case a number of conditions

must be fulfilled. There must be a feeling of

complete equality on both sides; there must be

no interference with mutual freedom; there

must be the most complete physical and mental

intimacy; and there must be a certain

similarity in regard to standards of values. (It

is fatal, for example, if one values only money

while the other values only good work.) Given

all these conditions, I believe marriage to be

the best and most important relation that can

exist between two human beings.

Questions:  Do you agree with what Russell argues?  Is marriage more challenging now than during Russell’s time?  What role should love and duty play in romantic relationships?  How easy should getting a divorce be? Are high divorce rates a sign of progress or sympathetic of something morally problematic?

Chapter XI  Prostitution

Russell addresses what he takes to be the origins of prostitution (i.e. to meet men’s sexual needs), as well as the risks of STIs.  He argues that “sexual relations should be a mutual delight, entered into solely for the spontaneous impulse of both parties”.  He thinks this should also hold in marriage.  He contends that sex should not take place for economic motives. 

Questions:  What are your thoughts on prostitution.  Should it be legal?  Is sex for money morally problematic?  And if so, why?