Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER 8.: Marriage - The Principles of Ethics, vol. 1
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CHAPTER 8.: Marriage - 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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229. Up to the present point there has been maintained, if not absolutely yet with tolerable clearness, the division between the ethics of individual life and the ethics of social life; but we come, in this chapter and the chapter which follows it, to a part of ethics which is in a sense intermediate. For in the relations of marriage and parenthood, others are concerned, not contingently and indirectly, but in ways that are necessary and direct. The implied divisions of conduct, while their primary ethical sanctions refer to the proper fulfillment of individual life, are yet inseparable from those divisions which treat of conduct that is to be ethically approved or disapproved because of its effects on those around.
Let us glance first at the general obligation under which the individual lies to aid in maintaining the species, while fulfilling the needs of his own nature.
230. In The Principles of Biology (secs. 334—51) was explained the necessary antagonism between individuation and reproduction–between the appropriation of nutriment and energy for the purposes of individual life, and the appropriation of them for the initiation, development, and nurture of other lives. Extreme cases in which, after an existence of a few hours or a day, the body of a parent divides, or else breaks up into numerous germs of new individuals, and less extreme cases in which a brief parental existence ends by the transformation of the skin into a protective case, while the interior is wholly transformed into young ones, illustrate in an unmistakable way the sacrifice of individual life for the maintenance of species life. It was shown that as we ascend to creatures of more complex structure and greater activity and especially as we ascend to creatures of which the young have to be fostered, the expenditure of parental life in producing and rearing other lives becomes gradually less. And then, in The Principles of Sociology (secs. 275—77), when considering the “diverse interests of the species, of the parents, and of the offspring,” we saw that in mankind there is reached such conciliation of these interests that along with preservation of the race there go moderated individual sacrifices; and further, that with the ascent from lower to higher types of men, we tend toward an ideal family in which “the mortality between birth and the reproductive age falls to a minimum, while the lives of adults have their subordination to the rearing of children reduced to the smallest possible.”
To the last, however, the antagonism between individuation and reproduction holds–holds in a direct way, because of the physical tax which reproduction necessitates, and holds in an indirect way because of the tax, physical and mental, necessitated by rearing children: a tax which, though it is pleasurably paid in fulfillment of the appropriate instincts and emotions, and is in so far a fulfillment of individual life, is nevertheless a tax which restricts individual development in various directions.
But here the truth which it chiefly concerns us to note is that, assuming the preservation of the race to be a desideratum, there results a certain kind of obligation to pay this tax and to submit to this sacrifice. Moreover, something like natural equity requires that as each individual is indebted to past individuals for the cost of producing and rearing him, he shall be at some equivalent cost for the benefit of future individuals.
In tribes and small societies, where maintenance of numbers is important, this obligation becomes appreciable; and, as we see in the reproach of barrenness, failure to fulfill it brings disapproval. But of course in large nations where multiplication is rather an evil than a benefit, this obligation lapses; and the individual may, in many cases, fitly discharge his or her indebtedness in some other way than by adding to the population.
231. Leaving here these considerations which pertain, perhaps, more to the ethics of social life than to the ethics of individual life, and returning to the consideration of marriage as a part of individual life, we have first to note its ethical sanctions as so considered. All activities fall into two great groups–those which constitute and sustain the life of the individual, and those which further the life of the race; and it seems inferable that if for full health the structures conducive to the one must severally perform their functions, so must the structures conducive to the other. Such part of the organization as is devoted to the production of offspring, can scarcely be left inert and leave the rest of the organization unaffected. The not infrequent occurrence of hysteria and chlorosis shows that women, in whom the reproductive function bears a larger ratio to the totality of the functions than it does in men, are apt to suffer grave constitutional evils from that incompleteness of life which celibacy implies: grave evils to which there probably correspond smaller and unperceived evils in numerous cases. As before remarked, there are wide limits of deviation in what we call good health; and there are everywhere, in men and women, many shortcomings of full health which are not perceived to be such shortcomings, however, which may be recognized on remembering the contrast between the ordinary state of body and mind, and that which is shown after an invigorating holiday. That the physiological effects of a completely celibate life on either sex are to some extent injurious, seems an almost necessary implication of the natural conditions.
But whether or not there be disagreement on this point, there can be none respecting the effects of a celibate life as mentally injurious. A large part of the nature–partly intellectual but chiefly emotional–finds its sphere of action in the marital relation, and afterwards in the parental relation; and if this sphere be closed, some of the higher feelings must remain inactive and others but feebly active. Directly, to special elements of the mind, the relation established by marriage is the normal and needful stimulus, and indirectly to all its elements.
There is in the first place to be recognized an exaltation of the energies. Continuous and strenuous efforts to succeed in life are often excited by an engagement to marry–efforts which had previously not been thought of. Then, subsequently, the consciousness of family responsibilities when these have arisen, serves as a sharper spur to exertion: often, indeed, a spur so sharp that in the absence of prudential restraints it leads to overwork. But the most noteworthy fact is that under these conditions, an amount of activity becomes relatively easy and even pleasurable, which before was difficult and repugnant.
The immediate cause of this greater energy is the increased quantity of emotion which the marital relation, and after it the parental relation, excite; and there is to be recognized both a greater body of emotion, and a higher form of emotion. To the lower egoistic feelings which previously formed the chief, if not only stimuli, are now added those higher egoistic feelings which find their satisfaction in the affections, together with those altruistic feelings which find their satisfaction in the happiness of others. What potent influences on character thus come into play is shown in the moral transformation which marriage frequently effects. Often the vain and thoughtless girl, caring only for amusements, becomes changed into the devoted wife and mother; and often the man who is ill-tempered and unsympathetic, becomes changed into the self-sacrificing husband and careful father. To which add that there is usually exercised, more than before, the discipline of self-restraint.
Some effect, too, is wrought on the thinking faculties; not, perhaps, in their power, but in their balance. In women the intellectual activity is frequently diminished; for the antagonism between individuation and reproduction, which is in them most pronounced, tells more especially on the brain. But to both husband and wife there daily come many occasions for exercises of judgment, alike in their relations to domestic affairs, to one another, and to children–exercises of judgment which in the celibate state were not called for; and hence an increase of intellectual stability and sense of proportion.
It must, however, be remarked that the beneficial effects to be expected from marriage, as giving a sphere to a large part of the nature otherwise relatively inert, presuppose a normal marriage–a marriage of affection. If, instead, it is one of the kind to be ethically reprobated–a mercantile marriage–there may follow debasement rather than elevation.
232. But now comes a difficult question. If, on the one hand, as being a condition to fulfillment of individual life, marriage is ethically sanctioned and, indeed, ethically enjoined; and if, on the other hand, there is ethical reprobation for all acts which will certainly or probably entail evil–reprobation if the evil is likely to come on self, and still more if it is likely to come on others; then what are we to say of improvident marriage?
There needs no insistence on the truth that if domestic responsibilities are entered upon without a fair prospect of efficiently discharging them, a wrong is done: especially to children and, by implication, to the race. To take a step from which will result a poverty-stricken household, containing a half-starved and half-clothed family, is, if estimated by entailed miseries, something like a crime. When, after long years of pain, anxiety, cold and hunger, to adults and young, some out of the many born have been reared to maturity, ill-grown, unhealthy, and incapable of the efforts needed for self-support; it becomes manifest that there have been produced beings who are at once curses to themselves and to the community. Severe condemnation must be passed on the conduct which has such consequences.
And yet, on the other hand, what would happen if no marriages took place without a satisfactory prospect of maintaining a family? Suppose that an average delay of ten years were submitted to, so that there might be no such risks of evil as are now commonly run. The usual supposition is that such persistent self-restraint would be purely beneficial. This is far from being true, however.
I do not refer to the fact that ten years of partially abnormal life is a serious evil; although this should be taken account of in estimating the total results. Nor am I thinking of the increased liability to domestic dissension which arises when added years have given to each of the married pair greater fixity of beliefs and diminished modifiability of feelings. But I am thinking chiefly of the effects on progeny. The tacit assumption made by those who advocate the Malthusian remedy for overpopulation, is, that it matters not to children whether they are born to young parents or to old parents. This is a mistake.
Because many factors cooperate, the evidence is so obscured that attention is not commonly drawn to the effects indicated; but they certainly arise. The antagonism between individuation and reproduction implies, among other things, that the surplus vitality available for the maintenance of species life is that which remains after the maintenance of individual life. Hence the effects on offspring of early, medium, and late marriages, are not constant; because the surplus, though it has a general relation to age, is not constant at any age. But from this general relation it results, in the first place, that children born of very early marriages are injuriously affected; since where the development of parents, or more especially the mother, is not complete, the available surplus is less than that which exists after it is complete. It results also that where maternal vigor is great and the surplus vitality consequently large, a long series of children may be borne before any deterioration in their quality becomes marked; while, on the other hand, a mother with but a small surplus may soon cease altogether to reproduce. Further, it results that variations in the states of health of parents, involving variations in the surplus vitality, have their effects on the constitutions of offspring, to the extent that offspring borne during greatly deranged maternal health are decidedly feebler. And then, lastly and chiefly, it results that after the constitutional vigor has culminated, and there has commenced that gradual decline which in some twenty years or so brings absolute infertility, there goes on a gradual decrease in that surplus vitality on which the production of offspring depends, and a consequent deterioration in the quality of such offspring. This, which is an a priori conclusion, is verified a posteriori. Mr. J. Matthews Duncan, in his work on Fecundity, Fertility, Sterility, and Allied Topics, has given results of statistics which show that mothers of five-and-twenty bear the finest infants, and that from mothers whose age at marriage ranges from twenty to five-and-twenty there come infants which have a lower rate of mortality than those resulting from marriages commenced when the mother’s age is either smaller or greater: the apparent slight incongruity between these two statements, being due to the fact that whereas marriages commenced between twenty and five-and-twenty cover the whole of the period of highest vigor, marriages commenced at five-and-twenty cover a period which lacks the years during which vigor is rising to its climax, and includes only the years of decline from the climax.
Now this fact that infants born of mothers married between twenty and five-and-twenty have a lower rate of mortality than infants born of mothers married earlier or later, shows that the age of marriage is not a matter of indifference to the race, and that the question of early or late marriages is less simple than appears. While the children of a relatively early marriage improvidently entered upon, may suffer from inadequate sustentation; the children of a later marriage are likely to suffer from initial imperfection–imperfection which may be consistent with good health and fair efficiency but yet may negative that high efficiency requisite for the best and most successful life. For especially nowadays, under our regime of keen competition, a small falling-short of constitutional vigor may entail failure.
Thus, except in the positive reprobation of marriages at an earlier age than twenty (among the higher races of mankind) ethical considerations furnish but indefinite guidance. Usually there has to be a compromise of probabilities. While recklessly improvident marriages must be strongly condemned, yet it seems that in many cases some risk may rightly be run, lest there should be entailed the evils flowing from too long a delay.
233. But what has ethics to say concerning choice in marriage–the selection of wife by husband and husband by wife? It has very decisive things to say.
Current conversation proves how low is current thought and sentiment about these questions. “It will be a very good match for her,” is the remark you hear respecting some young lady engaged to a wealthy man. Or concerning the choice of some young gentleman it is said, “She is an accomplished girl and well connected; and her friends will help to advance him in his profession.” Another engaged pair are described as well suited: he is a domestic man, and she does not care much for society. Or, perhaps, the impending marriage is applauded on the ground that the lady will be a good housekeeper, and make the best of a small income; or that the proposed husband is good-tempered and not too fastidious. But about the fitness of the connection as considered not extrinsically but intrinsically little or nothing is said.
The first ground of ethical judgment is the reciprocal state of feeling prompting the union. Where there exists none of that mutual attraction which should be the incentive, evolutionary ethics and hedonistic ethics alike protest; whatever ethics otherwise derived may do. Marriages of this class are reversions to marriage of earlier types, such as those found among the rudest savages. The marriage de convénance has been called, with some show of reason, legalized prostitution.
But passing over the interdict which ethics utters on marriages which are mercantile, or which arise from other motives than affection, we have to notice its further interdicts physiologically originating. Here we see, as was pointed out in the preliminary chapter, how prevalent is the blindness to all effects save proximate ones; unquestionable as may be the genesis of remoter effects. Only in extrerne cases do either those directly concerned or their friends, think of the probable quality of the offspring when discussing the propriety of a marriage. Disapproval, perhaps rising to reprobation, may be expressed when the proposed union is between cousins, or is a union with one who probably inherits insanity; but consideration of the effects to be borne by descendants goes scarcely beyond this. A feeble mind or a bad physique is but rarely thought a sufficient reason for rejecting a suitor. Thin, flat-chested girls, debilitated men perpetually ailing, some who are constitutionally wanting in bodily energy, others who have no activity either of intellect or feeling, and many who are from this or that defect so inferior as to be unfit to carry on the battle of life, are ordinarily considered good enough for marriage and parenthood. In a manner that seems almost deliberate there are thus entailed households in which illness and dullness and bad-temper prevail, and out of which there come unhealthy and incapable children and grandchildren.
Ethical considerations should here serve as rigid restraints. Though guidance by the feelings is to be so far respected that marriages not prompted by them must be condemned, yet guidance by the feelings must not therefore be regarded as so authoritative that all marriages prompted by them should be approved. A certain perversion of sentiment has to be guarded against. Relative weakness, appealing for protection, is one of the traits in women which excites in men the sentiment of affection–"the tender emotion,” as Bain styles it; and sometimes a degree of relative weakness which exceeds the natural, strongly excites this feeling: the pity which is akin to love ends in love. There are converse cases in which a woman of unusual power of nature becomes attached to a man who is feeble in body or mind. But these deviations from normal inclinations have to be resisted. Ethics demands that judgment shall here come in aid of instinct and control it.
234. There remains a question uniformly passed over because difficult to discuss, but the ignoring of which is fraught with untold disasters–a question concerning which ethics, in its comprehensive form, has a verdict to give, and cannot without falling short of its functions decline to give it.
The saying “the letter killeth but the spirit giveth life” not only is exemplified by the way in which observance of religious ceremonies replaces observance of the essential injunctions of religion, but is exemplified everywhere. As in the primitive legal system of the Romans, before it was qualified by infusion of the Jus Centium, the essential thing was fulfillment of formalities rather than maintenance of right–as, among ourselves, the sacrifice of justice to the technicalities of law led to the supplementary system of equity, intended to rectify the entailed injustices–as, again, in the system of equity the observance of rules and conforming to orders, ever complicating, became in course of time so burdensome that equity, lost sight of, was replaced by inequity, or iniquity; so is it throughout. Wherever requirements which have their roots in the order of nature, come to be enforced by an extrinsic authority, obedience to that extrinsic authority takes the place of obedience to the natural requirements.
It is thus in a considerable degree with marriage. I do not mean merely that unions of an essentially illegitimate kind are supposed to be legitimized by a church service or a registration; but I mean more. I mean that when the civil requirements have been fulfilled, and the ecclesiastical sanction has been obtained, it is supposed that no further control has to be recognized–that when the religious restraints and the social restraints on the relations of the sexes have been duly respected, there remain no other restraints. The physiological restraints, not having received official recognition, are not supposed to exist, or are disregarded. Hence a vast amount of evil.
The antagonism between individuation and reproduction comes into play throughout the entire process of race maintenance. It is true that the fulfillment of individual life largely consists in furthering species life; but it is nonetheless true that from beginning to end, the last puts a limit to the first. We have but to consider that, delighted as the mother is in yielding food to her infant, she yet suffers a serious physical tax in addition to the physical tax entailed by production of it, to see that great though the maternal gratification may be, it entails loss of gratifications which a more developed individual life might have brought; and that when many children are produced and reared, the sacrifices of individual life and of the pleasures which a higher development would bring, become very great. This law inevitably holds throughout the entire reproductive function from beginning to end–with the initial part as with the terminal part; and ignorance of, or indifference to, it entails profound injuries, physical and mental. If the physiological restraints are not respected the life is undermined in all ways.
When, out of the total resources which the sustaining organs furnish in materials and forces, the part required for the carrying on of individual life is trenched upon beyond the normal ratio, by the part constitutionally appropriated to species life, there comes a diminution of energy which affects the vital processes and all dependent processes. Chronic derangements of health supervene, diminished bodily activity. decline of mental power, and sometimes even insanity. Succeeding the mischiefs thus caused, even when they are not so extreme, there come the mischiefs entailed on family and others; for inability to discharge obligations, depression of spirits, and perturbed mental state, inevitably injure those around. Several specialists, who have good means of judging, agree in the opinion that the aggregate evils arising from excesses of this kind are greater than those arising from excesses of all other kinds put together.
If, then, ethics as rightly conceived has to pass judgment on all conduct which affects the well-being, immediate or remote, of self or others, or both; then the lack of self-restraint which it condemns in other cases, it must condemn in this case also.