Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER 13.: Chastity - The Principles of Ethics, vol. 1
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CHAPTER 13.: Chastity - Herbert Spencer, The Principles of Ethics, vol. 1 
The Principles of Ethics, introduction by Tibor R. Machan (Indianapolis: LibertyClassics, 1978). Vol. 1.
Part of: The Principles of Ethics, 2 vols.
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181. Before we can understand fully the ethical aspects of chastity, we must study its biological and sociological sanctions. Conduciveness to welfare, individual or social or both, being the ultimate criterion of evolutionary ethics, the demand for chastity has to be sought in its effects under given conditions.
Among men, as among inferior creatures, the needs of the species determine the rightness or wrongness of these or those sexual relations; for sexual relations unfavorable to the rearing of offspring, in respect either of number or quality must tend towards degradation and extinction. The fact that some animals are polygamous while others are monogamous is thus to be explained. In Part III of The Principles of Sociology, treating of “Domestic Institutions,” it was shown that the relation between the sexes is liable to be determined into this or that form by environing conditions; and that certain inferior forms of the relation appear, under some conditions, to become necessary: nonadoption of them being fatal to the society. A natural connection was found to exist between polygamy and a life of perpetual hostilities, entailing great destruction of men: since of tribes which mutually slaughter their men, the one which, being monogamous, leaves many women unmarried and childless, must fail to maintain its population in face of the one which, being polygamous, utilizes all its women as mothers (sec. 307). We saw, too, that in some cases, especially in Tibet, polyandry appears more conducive to social welfare than any other relation of the sexes. It receives approval from travelers, and even a Moravian missionary defends it: the missionary holding that “superabundant population, in an unfertile country must be a great calamity and produce ‘eternal warfare or eternal want’” (sec. 301).
These inferior forms of marriage are not consistent with that conception of chastity which accompanies the settled monogamy of advanced societies. As we understand it, the word connotes either the absence of any sexual relation, or the permanent sexual relation of one man with one woman. But we must not extend this higher conception of chastity to these lower societies. We must not assume that there exists in them any such ethical reprobation of these less-restricted relations as they excite in us. To see this clearly we must glance at the facts.
182. Already in section 120 I have given sundry illustrations of the truth, startling to those whose education has left them ignorant of multiform humanity, that the institution of polygamy is in various places morally approved, while the opposite institution is condemned. This truth, however, should not cause surprise, considering that from childhood all have been familiar with the tacit approval of the usage in the book they regard as divine. The polygamy of the patriarchs is spoken of as a matter of course, and there is implied approval of it by a wife who prompts her husband to take a concubine. But beyond this we see, in the case of David, both the religious and the social sanction for a harem: the one being implied by the statement that David, to whom God had given his “master’s wives,” was a man “after his own heart,” and the other by the fact that when Nathan reproached him, the reproach was that he had taken the solitary wife of Uriah, not that he had already many wives (1 Samuel xiii. 14; 2 Samuel xii). His many wives we may reasonably suppose constituted a mark of dignity, as do those of kings among savage and semicivilized peoples now. Clearly, then, under certain social conditions there is a proethical sentiment supporting polygamy and that species of unchastity implied by it.
So, too, is it with polyandry. Various passages in the Mahabharata imply that it was a recognized institution among the early Indians, regarded by them as perfectly proper: practiced, indeed, by those who are upheld as models of virtue. The heroine of the poem, Draupadi, is the wife of five husbands. Each of them had a house and garden of his own, and Draupadi dwelt with them “in turn for two days at a time.” Meanwhile, as we have already seen (sec. 117), one of the husbands, Yudhishthira, unfortunate notwithstanding his goodness, enunciates the doctrine that right is to be done regardless of consequences; while elsewhere Draupadi describes the virtues which she holds proper for a wife, and represents herself as acting up to them. Kindred evidence is yielded at the present time by some of the tribes in the valleys of the Himalayas–the Lad~ khis, and the Ch~ mp~ s. Telling us that they practice polyandry. Drew says of the Lad~ khis that they are “cheerful, willing, and good-tempered”; “they are not quarrelsome”; are “much given to truth-telling”; and he adds that the “social liberty of the women . . . I think it may be said, is as great as that of workmen’s wives in England.”
Rightly to interpret these facts, however, it should be added that the social state in which polyandry originally existed among the Indian peoples, had emerged from a social state still lower in respect of the sexual relations. Bad as were the gods of the Greeks, the gods of the ancient Indians were worse. In the Puranas as well as in the Mahabharata there are stories about the “adulterous amours” of Indra, Varuna, and other gods; at the same time that the “celestial nymphs are expressly declared to be courtesans,” and are “sent by the gods from time to time to seduce austere sages.” A society having a theology of such a kind, cannot well have been other than licentious. With the ascription even of incest to some of their gods, there naturally went an utter disregard of restraints among themselves. In the Mahabharata we read: “Women were formerly unconfined, and roved about at their pleasure, independent. Though in their youthful innocence, they abandoned their husbands, they were guilty of no offense; for such was the rule in early times.” And according to a tradition embodied in that poem,
This condition of things was abolished by Sv‘ tak‘ hi, son of the rishi Uddalaka, who was incensed at seeing his mother led away by a strange Brahman. His father told him there was no reason to be angry as: “The women of all castes of earth are unconfined: just as cattle are situated, so are human beings, too, within their respective castes.”
Hence it may possibly be that polyandry arose as a limitation of promiscuity; and that therefore the ethical sentiment existing in support of it, was really in support of a relative chastity.
183. Returning now from this half-parenthetical discussion of those types of undeveloped chastity which are implied by low types of marriage, and resuming the discussion of chastity and unchastity considered in their simple forms, let us first look at the evidence presented by various uncivilized peoples. And here, in pursuance of the course followed in preceding chapters dealing with other divisions of conduct, I am obliged to name facts which in the absence of a strong reason should be passed over. They are not, however, more objectionable than many which are reported in our daily papers with no better motive than ministering to a prurient curiosity.
The absolute or relative deficiency of chastity may be conveniently exemplified by a string of extracts from books of travel. We may begin with North America. The testimony of Lewis and Clarke respecting the Chinooks, agreeing with that of Ross, is as follows: “Among these people, as indeed among all Indians, the prostitution of unmarried women is so far from being considered criminal or improper, that the females themselves solicit the favors of the other sex, with the entire approbation of their friends and connections.” Concerning the Sioux, these same travelers give us a fact equally significant: “The Sioux had offered us squaws, but while we remained there having declined, they followed us with offers of females for two days.”
Coming further south the Creeks may be named as, according to Schoolcraft, no better than the Chinooks. Like evidence is furnished by South American races, as the Tupis and Caribs: “Bands [of chastity] were broken without fear, and incontinence was not regarded as an offense”; Caribs “put no value on the chastity of unmarried women.” These instances yielded by America, are associated with some in which the unchastity is of a qualified kind. To the fact that “among the Esquimaux it is considered a great mark of friendship for two men to exchange wives for a day or two,” may be added a like fact presented by the Chippewayans: “It is a very common custom among the men of this country to exchange a night’s lodging with each other’s wives. But this is so far from being considered as an act which is criminal, that it is esteemed by them as one of the strongest ties of friendship between two families.” The Dakotas supply an example, like many found elsewhere, of the coexistence of laxity before marriage with strictness after it: “There are few nations in the world amongst whom this practice, originating in a natural desire not to ‘make a leap in the dark,’ cannot be traced. Yet after marriage they will live like the Spartan matrons a life of austerity in relation to the other sex.” In ancient Nicaragua, as in various countries, there was another kind of compromise between chastity and unchastity: “On the occasion of a certain annual festival, it was permitted that all the women, of whatever condition, might abandon themselves to the arms of whomever they pleased. Rigid fidelity however, was exacted at all other times.” But there seems to have been no restraint at other times on the unmarried, as witness Herrera’s statement: “Many of the women were beautiful, and their parents used, when the maidens were marriageable, to send them to earn their portions, and accordingly they ranged about the country in a shameful manner, till they had got enough to marry them off.”
Asia furnishes illustrations of another usage common among the uncivilized. The Kamtschadales and Aleuts lend their wives to guests; and sundry others of the Northern Asiatic races do the like. Pallas tells us that the Kalmucks are little jealous of their wives, and freely give them up to acquaintances. And then of an adjacent people we read–"The relation between the sexes, among the Kirghizes, is altogether on a very primitive footing; mothers, fathers, and brothers regard any breach of morality with great leniency and husbands even encourage their friends to close intimacy with their wives. . . . Like the Kirghizes, the Buruts are strangers to jealousy.” So, too, of the Mongols Prjevalsky tells us that “adultery is not even concealed, and is not regarded as a vice.” From peoples further south, two instances may be cited: “Among the Red Karens, chastity both with married and unmarried, is reported as remarkably loose. The commerce of the sexes among young people is defended as nothing wrong, because ‘it is our custom’ “; “Prostitution is exceedingly common, while chastity is a rare virtue among Toda women; and the ties of marriage and consanguinity are merely nominal.”
To all these instances from other regions may be added some from Africa. In his Highlands of Ethiopia, Harris writes: “The jewel chastity is here [in Shoa] in no repute: and the utmost extent of reparation to be recovered in a court of justice for the most aggravated case of seduction is but five-pence sterling!” The nature of the sentiment prevailing near the Upper Congo is shown by this extract from Tuckey: “Before marriage, the father or brothers of a girl prostitute her to every man that will pay two fathoms of cloth; nor does this derogate in any way from her character, or prevent her being afterwards married.” And so is it with some unlike people further south. Among the Bushmen, “infidelity to the marriage compact is . . . not considered as a crime; it is scarcely regarded by the offended person. . . . They seem to have no idea of the distinction of girl, maiden, and wife; they are all expressed by one word alone.”
In Polynesia we have the well-known evidence yielded by the Arreoi society of Tahiti; and from the same region, or rather from Micronesia, comes yet other evidence. In his account of the inhabitants of the Ladrone Islands, Freycinct writes: “Souvent on avoit vu les péres vendre sans rougir les prémices de leurs filles . . . les méres elles–mêmes engager leurs enfants à suivre l’impulsion de leurs sens. . . . On possède encore une des chansons qu’elles chantoient à leurs filles en pareille circonstance.” The Pelew Islanders furnish a like case: the universal practice being for the mother to instruct her newly initiated daughter always to exact payment, and the explanation of the usage being “the avarice of parents as recognized by custom.”
Of the opposite trait a good many examples are furnished by primitive or uncultured peoples. Two of them come from amid these generally lax tribes of North America. Catlin says of the Mandans: “Their women are beautiful and modest–and amongst the respectable families, virtue is as highly cherished and as inapproachable, as in any society whatever.” And of the Chippewas Keating writes: “Chastity is a virtue in high repute among the Chippewas, and without which no woman could expect to be taken as a wife by a warrior.” But he goes on to admit that there is a good deal of concealed irregularity. Africa, too, yields some instances. “A Kaffer woman is both chaste and modest": “instances of infidelity are said to be very rare”; and the like is said of the Bachassins. The most numerous examples of chastity come from the island races. Mariner tells us that in Tonga adultery is very rare. “Chastity prevails more perhaps among these (the Sumatrans] than any other people,” says Marsden. Similar is the statement of Low about the inland people of Borneo: “adultery is a crime unknown, and no Dyak (Land) ever recollected an instance of its occurrence.” So in Dory, New Guinea, according to Kops, “chastity is held in high regard. . . . Adultery is unknown.” And Erskine testifies that the women of Uea, Loyalty Islands, are strictly chaste before marriage, and faithful wives afterwards.” Some peoples who are in other respects among the lowest are in this respect among the highest. Snow says that the Fuegian women at Picton Island are remarkably modest; and a fact worthy of special note is that among the rudest of the Musheras of India, who have no formal marriage, “unchastity, or a change of lovers on either side, when once mutual appropriation has been made, is a thing of rare occurrence”; and when it does occur causes excommunication. The remaining two most marked instances are found among other peaceful tribes of the Indian hills. Says Hodgson of the Bodo and Dhimal–"Chastity is prized in man and woman, married and unmarried.” And according to Dalton, “The Santál women are represented by all who have written about them as exceedingly chaste, yet the young people of the different sexes are greatly devoted to each other’s society and pass much time together.”
With these cases of indigenous chastity may be named cases of peoples who are being degraded by foreign influences. In a paper on the Veddahs, whose neighbors the Singhalese are extremely lax, virchow quotes Gillings to the effect that adultery and polygamy are only heard of among them where attempts have been made to civilize them. And then, little as we should expect to meet with such a testimony from a clergyman concerning a race so low as the Australians, yet of one tribe we are told by the Rev R.W. Holden, as quoted by Taplin, that
The advent of the whites has made the aborigines much more degraded, more helpless, more–yea, much more–susceptible to all diseases. Before our coming amongst them their laws were strict, especially those regarding young men and young women. It was almost death to a young lad or man who had sexual intercourse till married.
But the like cannot be said of other Australian tribes.
As thus presented by the uncivilized races, the facts do not fall into clear generalizations: they do not show distinct relations between chastity or unchastity and social forms or types of race. The evidence does, indeed, preponderate in favor of the relatively peaceful or wholly peaceful tribes, but this relation is not without exception; and conversely though the standard of chastity is low in most of the fighting societies it is not low in all. Nor, when we contemplate special antitheses, do we get clear proof. Of the atrocious Fijians, exceeding in their cannibalism all other peoples, and who glory in lying, theft, and murder, we read in Erskine that the women are modest and that “female virtue may be rated at a high standard,” while according to Seemann, “adultery is one of the crimes generally punished with death.” On the other hand, Cook describes the Tahitians as utterly devoid of the sentiment of chastity. He says they are “people who have not even the idea of indecency and who gratify every appetite and passion before witnesses, with no more sense of impropriety than we feel when we satisfy our hunger at a social board with our family or friends.” At the same time he speaks very favorably of their dispositions: “They seemed to be brave, open, and candid, without either suspicion or treachery cruelty or revenge; so that we placed the same confidence in them as in our best friends.”
Here are incongruities which appear quite irreconcilable with the ideas current among civilized peoples.
184. Throughout the foregoing sections the aim has been to ascertain by examination of the facts, what relations, if any, exist between chastity and social type, as well as between this virtue and other virtues; but we must now consider specifically the prevailing ethical sentiments which go along with observance and nonobservance of it. Already in many of the quotations above given, these sentiments have been expressed or implied; but to complete the general argument it seems needful to observe definitely, the extreme deviations from what we may consider normal, which they sometimes undergo. I will give three instances–one from the uncivilized, another from a semicivilized people now extinct, and a third from an existing civilized people.
Of the Wotyaks, a Finnish race, the German traveler Buch says:
Indeed it is even disgraceful for a girl if she is little sought after by the young men. . . . It is therefore only a logical result that it is honorable for a girl to have children. She then gets a wealthier husband, and her father is paid a higher kalym for her.
Concerning the ancient Chibchas, of Central America, we read:
Some Indians . . . did not much care that their wives should be virgins. . . . On the contrary some, if they discovered that they had had no intercourse with men, thought them unfortunate and without luck, as they had not inspired affection in men: accordingly they disliked them as miserable women.
The civilized nation referred to as showing, in some cases, a feeling almost the reverse of that so strongly pronounced among Western nations, we find in the Far East. Says Dixon of the Japanese:
It used to be no uncommon thing (and we have no clear evidence that the custom is obsolete) for a dutiful daughter to sell herself for a term of years to the proprietor of a house of ill-fame, in order that she might thus retrieve her father’s fallen fortunes. When she returned to her home, no stigma attached to her; rather was she honored for her filial devotion.
Though, in a work just published, The Real Japan, Mr. Henry Norman denies this alleged return home with credit (in modern times at least) he verifies that earlier part of the statement, that daughters are sold for specific periods by their parents: the fact that such parents are tolerated being sufficiently indicative of the prevailing sentiment.
Here then we get proof that in respect of this division of conduct, as in respect of the divisions of conduct dealt with in preceding chapters, habits generate sentiments harmonizing with them. It is a trite remark that the individual who persists in wrongdoing eventually loses all sense that it is wrongdoing, and at length believes that it is rightdoing: and the like holds socially–must, indeed, hold socially since public opinion is but an aggregate of individual opinions.
185. If, instead of comparing one society with another, we compare early stages of those societies which have developed civilizations with later stages, we find very variable relations between chastity and social development. Only in modern societies can we say that this relation becomes tolerably clear.
Already we have seen how low in their sexual relations were the people of India in early days, and how, promiscuity and polyandry having died out, poets and sages in later times endeavored to explain away the traditional transgressions of their gods, while existing Hindus show shame when reproached with the illicit amours of their ancient heroes and heroines. Here there seems to have been a progress of the kind to be looked for.
That, among adjacent societies, there took place some kindred changes, seems implied in the fact that prostitution in temples, which prevailed among Babylonians, Egyptians, &c., and which, like other usages connected with religion, more persistent than general usages, probably indicated certain customs of earlier times, disappeared partially if not wholly. It is to be observed, too, that along with woman-stealing, common during primitive stages of the civilized, as still among the uncivilized, there naturally went a degraded position of captured women (concubinage being a usual concomitant), and that therefore, with the cessation of it, one cause of low sexual relations came to an end. That in the case of the Hebrews further advances took place seems to be shown by the facts that though Herod the Great had nine wives, and though in the Mishnah polygamy is referred to as existing, yet the references in Ecclesiasticus imply the general establishment of monogamy.
The relevant changes in the course of Greek civilization clearly do not warrant the assertion that better relations of the sexes accompanied higher social arrangements. The amount of concubinage implied by the Iliad, was less than that implied by the use of female slaves and servants in Athenian households; and the established institution of hetairai, with the many distinguished of whom coexisted a multitude of undistinguished, the adding to the public revenue by a tax on houses of ill-fame, and the continuance of authorized prostitution in the temples of Aphrodite Pandemos, further prove that the relations of the sexes had degenerated. On passing to Rome we meet with an undeniable case of retrogression in sexual arrangements and usages, going along with the kind of social progress which is implied by extension of empire and increase of political organization. The contrast between the regular relations of men to women in early Roman times, and the extremely irregular relations which prevailed in the times of the emperors, when the being modest was taken to imply being ugly, and when patrician ladies had to be stopped by law from becoming prostitutes, shows that moral degradation of this kind may accompany one type of advancing civilization.
The reaction which commenced after these most corrupt Roman times, was greatly furthered by Christianity. The furtherance, however, cannot be ascribed to a true conception of the relations of the sexes, and a sentiment appropriate to it, but rather to an asceticism which reprobated the acceptance of pleasures and applauded the submission to pains. The prompting motive was an other-worldly one more than an intrinsically moral one; though the other-worldly motive probably fostered the moral motive. But in this case, as in countless other cases, the general law of rhythm was illustrated. Following this violent reaction came in time a violent re-reaction; so that after a period of sexual restraints came a period of sexual excesses–a period in which the relation between action and reaction was further illustrated by the fact that the nominally celibate clergy and nuns became worse than the laity who were not bound to celibacy.
It should be added that the peoples of Northern Europe, among whom the relations of the sexes seem to have been originally good, also exhibited in course of time, though in a less marked degree, the sexual retrogression that may go along with some kinds of social progression. In modern days, however, the advance to higher political types and more settled social states, has been accompanied by an average improvement in this respect as in other respects.
186. Satisfactory interpretation of these many strange contrasts and variations is impracticable: the causation is too complex. We may however, note certain causes which seem to have been occasionally influential, though we cannot say to what extent.
The extreme laxity of the Tahitians may possibly have been encouraged by the immense fertility of their habitat. Commenting on the abundance of food almost spontaneously produced by their soil, Cook says of the Tahitians: “They seem to be exempted from the first general curse, that ‘man should eat his bread in the sweat of his brow.’” Where self-maintenance and, by implication, the maintenance of children, is thus extremely easy it seems that comparatively little mischief results if a mother is left to rear a child or children without the aid of a father; and in the absence of those evil effects on both parent and offspring which result where the necessaries of life are difficult to get, there may not tend to arise that social reprobation of incontinence which arises where its mischievous consequences are conspicuous.
Africa furnishes us with the hint of another cause of laxity which may sometimes operate. The fact that “the Dahoman, like almost all semibarbarians, considers a numerous family the highest blessing"–a fact which recalls kindred ones implied in the Bible–becomes comprehensible when we remember that in early stages, characterized by constant antagonisms, internal and external, it is important to maintain not only the numbers of the tribe in face of other tribes, but also the numbers of the families and clans; since the weaker of these go to the wall when struggles take place. Hence it results that not only is barrenness a reproach but fertility a ground of esteem; and hence possibly the reason why in East Africa “it is no disgrace for an unmarried woman to become the mother of a family": the remark of one traveler, which I cannot now find, concerning another tribe, being that a woman’s irregularities are easily forgiven, if she bears many children.
This fact seems to point to the conclusion, pointed to by many preceding facts, that there is a connection between unchastity and a militant regime; seeing that production of many children is a desideratum only where the mortality from violence is great. For suspecting this connection we find a further reason in the degraded position of women which uniformly accompanies pronounced militancy (see Principles of Sociology, Part III, chap. X, “The Status of Women”). Where, as among peoples constantly fighting, the hard work is done by slaves and women–where women are spoils of war to be dealt with as the victors please–where, when not stolen or gained by conquest, they are bought; it is manifest that the wills of women being in abeyance, the unchecked egoism of men must conflict with the growth of chastity. And in the settled polygamy of societies which lose great numbers of men in battle, the large harems of kings and chiefs, the buying of female slaves–all of them characteristic of the militant type–we similarly see relations of the sexes adverse to any moral restrictions. If we remember that the extreme profligacy of Rome was reached after long centuries of conquests; if we remember that there survived during the feudal organization resulting from war, the jus primoe noetis; if of Russia, exclusively organized for war, we read that any girl on his estate was until recently at the lord’s disposal; we see further reason for suspecting that the militant type of society is unfavorable to elevated relations of the sexes.
We must not conclude, however, that chastity always characterizes societies of the nonmilitant type. Though sundry of the above–named peaceful tribes are distinguished from uncivilized tribes at large by the purity of their sexual relations, it is not so with another peaceful tribe, the Todas: these are characterized rather by the opposite trait. The Esquimaux, too, among whom there is exchange of wives, do not even know what war is.
187. It remains only to emphasize the truth, discernible amid all complexities and varieties, that without a prevailing chastity we do not find a good social state. Though comparison of intermediate types of society does not make this clear, it is made clear by comparison of extreme types. Among the lowest we have such a group as the Ku-Ka-tha clan, inhabiting Western South Australia, whose chief characteristics are “treachery, ingratitude, lying and every species of deceit and cunning,” who have “no property” “no punishment of offenders,” “no idea of right and wrong,” and who show absolute lack of the sentiment in question: “chastity or fidelity being quite unknown to them.” At the other extreme come the most advanced societies of Europe and America, in which, along with a relatively high standard of chastity (for women at least), there exist high degrees of the various traits required for social life which are wanting in these Australians. Nor does comparison of different stages of civilized nations fail to furnish evidence; as witness the contrast between our own time and the time after the Restoration, in respect alike of chastity and of general welfare.
There are three ways in which chastity furthers a superior social state. The first is that indicated at the outset–conduciveness to the nurture of offspring. Nearly everywhere, but especially where the stress of competition makes the rearing of children difficult, lack of help from the father must leave the mother overtaxed, and entail inadequate nutrition of progeny. Unchastity, therefore, tends towards production of inferior individuals, and if it prevails widely must cause decay of the society.
The second cause is that, conflicting as it does with the establishment of normal monogamic relations, unchastity is adverse to those higher sentiments which prompt such relations. In societies characterized by inferior forms of marriage, or by irregular connections, there cannot develop to any great extent that powerful combination of feelings–affection, admiration, sympathy–which in so marvelous a manner has grown out of the sexual instinct. And in the absence of this complex passion, which manifestly presupposes a relation between one man and one woman, the supreme interest in life disappears, and leaves behind relatively subordinate interests. Evidently a prevalent unchastity severs the higher from the lower components of the sexual relation: the root may produce a few leaves, but no true flower.
Sundry of the keenest aesthetic pleasures must at the same time be undermined. It needs but to call to mind what a predominant part in fiction, the drama, poetry, and music, is played by the romantic element in love, to see that anything which militates against it tends to diminish, if not to destroy the chief gratifications which should fill the leisure part of life.