DRMacIver's Notebook

Book Review: Marriage and Morals, by Bertrand Russel

Book Review: Marriage and Morals, by Bertrand Russel

This book is an interesting artifact. It contains many progressive ideas and conclusions that even today would be considered "a bit too modern" by many people. Along the way, it also contains a great deal of casual racism, more than a bit of casual sexism (though you get the feeling that most of the sexism he feels is the result of a culture of depriving women of adequate education, so I'll give him a partial pass on this), and outright advocacy of eugenics.

This makes more sense as a combination when you realise that the book is from 1929, and it's aged as badly as progressive politics usually do once the world has overtaken them. In general I got the sense that he was an intelligent and decent person, and that most of his more objectionable beliefs were some mix of factually wrong and failing to think through the consequences, but it still wasn't a wholly comfortable read.

There was also rather a lot of gender essentialism and some frankly weird assumptions about how people behave, but given the above complaining about those feels like quibbling.

Broadly, his main conclusions were:

  1. People are way too uptight about sex and now that we have contraception it's actively unhealthy for this to be the case.
  2. Marriage should be more explicitly an institution for the raising of children, and as a result there should be no expectation of faithfullness.
  3. A bunch of eugenics stuff that I don't feel inclined to summarise.

The first seems basically accurate, the second... has problems but isn't an unreasonable stance (there are many happily childfree marriages and I think they seem to work very well for the people involved. I don't think in principle what he is describing is bad, but I think the transition to it is fraught, particularly when LGBT rights issues come into play). I'm not touching the third.

The most interesting part of the book for me is the central thrust of his argument, which is basically that having moral codes that you know aren't going to be obeyed is actively damaging, especially for children. By teaching people that sex is shameful, given that they're going to have sex anyway, you create a culture of guilt and shame, and you teach people from very early on that deceit is necessary and that they can't trust their parents. This seems like a sound argument, and I think is a useful general principle for evaluating moral precepts on.

I am glad to have read it but don't feel like I could actively recommend it to others. Either way, this copy is not mine and will be returned to the friends I have borrowed it from.