In the words of Socrates, “An unexamined life is not worth living”. Bertrand Russell’s ‘Marriage & Morals’, assists the reader to examine the inter-related societal themes of sexual ethics and marriage, and traces their evolution.
What defines the sexual ethics of a society? Why is sex taboo?
Russell uses lucid and precise logical arguments (being a mathematician and philosopher) to deal with these and other relevant questions, which are already answered for us. The philosopher in Russell doesn’t ask what is ‘right’ and what is ‘wrong’, but instead asks a much more fundamental question, i.e. why is right ‘right’ and wrong ‘wrong’?
Among some of the main themes explored in the book, the link between sex as taboo and the advent of religious ethics (particularly Christian ethics) is examined in detail. Religion, according to Russell, argues that fornication is a sin, but unfortunately an unavoidable one. Thus its minimisation is possible only by placing the restriction of marriage on people. Furthermore, according to Christianity, even a married couple must have sex only to produce offspring.
The book also explores some other interesting topics like the existence of prostitution in order to uphold the ‘clean’ values of a society. The paradox being that the oldest profession in the world would cease to exist in a society free from adulterous behaviour or fornication. But we all know that prostitution exists in most micro societies, whether it is rural or urban, irrespective of developing or developed countries.
The author also lays stress on sex education as a counter measure to sex being considered a taboo. He feels that the restrictions and ‘dirty’ connotations placed on physical intimacy only serve to negatively affect the psyche of children in their formative years.
In terms of marriage, the reader is first jarred out of the assumption that societies have always been patriarchal by describing certain matrilinear societies. The advent of patriarchal societies is then discussed as a key aspect in the era of subjugation of women.
The broader theme that seems to emerge from this book is that sexual taboo and the preservation of sexual morals have had a much greater impact on women than men. Thus in trying to remove biases that have formed over the course of history, or attempting to ‘remove the dirt’ that humanity has piled upon sex and sexual relations in society, the book almost appears pro-feminist.
These non-traditional views, which laid bare humanity’s penchant for hypocrisy, created much controversy at the time of publication (1929). But this was nothing new for Russell, whose unabashed atheistic views and clinical analysis of religion had already produced much debate among contemporaries. As a thinker, Russell was well ahead of his time, and this is reiterated in ‘Marriage & Morals’, particularly in the context of the current sexual liberalisation and the effect and utility of contraception in a large part of the western world.
In India, the taboos on knowledge of sex, pre-marital or extra-marital sex are very dominant today, even though our culture is steeped in sexual liberalisation (Khajurao, Kamasutra, phallic worship etc.). Thus ‘Marriage & Morals’ assumes even greater relevance for the Indian reader. This book will be highly appreciated by anyone willing to leave their comfort zone and question the very foundations of ethics.
Saiyid Lamaan Hamid