Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER 1.: Marital Beneficence - The Principles of Ethics, vol. 2
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CHAPTER 1.: Marital Beneficence - Herbert Spencer, The Principles of Ethics, vol. 2 
The Principles of Ethics, introduction by Tibor R. Machan (Indianapolis: LibertyClassics, 1978). Vol. 2.
Part of: The Principles of Ethics, 2 vols.
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428. In the history of humanity as written, the saddest part concerns the treatment of women; and had we before us its unwritten history we should find this part still sadder. I say the saddest part because, though there have been many things more conspicuously dreadful–cannibalism, the torturings of prisoners, the sacrificings of victims to ghosts and gods–these have been but occasional; whereas the brutal treatment of women has been universal and constant. If, looking first at their state of subjection among the semi- civilized, we pass to the uncivilized, and observe the lives of hardship borne by nearly all of them–if we then think what must have gone on among those still ruder peoples who, for so many thousands of years, roamed over the uncultivated earth; we shall infer that the amount of suffering which has been, and is, borne by women, is utterly beyond imagination.
As I have before pointed out, this ill-treatment of women has been an unavoidable concomitant of the chronic struggle for life among tribes, which is still going on in some places and once went on universally (sec. 335). The brutality fostered in men by their dealings with enemies, necessarily operated throughout their daily lives. The weakest went to the wall inside the tribe as well as outside the tribe. Utter absence of sympathy made it inevitable that women should suffer from the egoism of men, without any limit save their ability to bear the entailed hardships. Passing this limit, the ill-treatment, by rendering the women incapable of rearing a due number of children, brought about disappearance of the tribe; and we may safely assume that multitudes of tribes disappeared from this cause: leaving behind those in which the ill-treatment was less extreme.
It must not be supposed, however, that the women who, throughout the past, had to bear all this misery, and in many places still have to bear it, were or are essentially better than the men. All along the brutality of nature has been common to the two; and, as we see in the love of torturing prisoners, is, among some of the North American tribes, even more pronounced in the women than in the men. The truth is simply that the unqualified and cruel egoism characterizing both, has worked out its evil results on those least able to resist. Hence the women have been compelled to carry all the burdens, do all the wearisome and monotonous work, remain unfed till their masters have satisfied themselves, and left to live on the remnants.
Only during these later periods of human history, in which the destructive passions have not been so constantly excited by the struggle for existence between societies, small and large, has the treatment of women slowly become less brutal; and only during this same period has there been growing up in men, a perception that women have certain special claims upon them, and a sentiment responding to the perception.
429. Perhaps, however, it is going too far to ascribe this softening of conduct to any consciousness of its propriety. Little by little character has changed; and the accompanying amelioration in the behavior of men to women, leading to gradual modifications of customs, has had no recognized sanction beyond the authority of these customs. Such and such privileges are now conceded to women, partly because immediate sympathy prompts, and partly because social conventions direct; but there is recognized in no definite way the true ethical basis for this better treatment.
In preceding chapters we have several times seen that beyond the equalization which justice imposes upon us, by putting to the liberties of each limits arising from the liberties of all, beneficence exhorts us to take steps towards a further equalization. Like spheres of action having been established, it requires us to do something towards diminishing the inequalities of benefits which superior and inferior severally obtain within their spheres. This requirement has first to be fulfilled in the relations between men and women. Leaving aside all questions concerning mental powers, it is undeniable that in respect of physical powers, women are not the equals of men; and in this respect are disadvantaged in the battle of life. It is also unquestionable that, as the bearers of children, they are placed at a further serious disadvantage–are from time to time in considerable measure incapacitated for using whatever powers they have. Nor can it be doubted that though on the man devolves the business of providing sustenance for the family, yet the onerous duties of the woman, in unceasing attention to children from morning to night day after day, tie her more closely to home, and generally limit individual development to a greater degree. The inequalities thus necessarily arising between the lives of the two sexes, men have to rectify as much as they can–are called upon to make compensations.
Thus the observances which characterize the conduct of men to women in civilized societies, are not, as they at first seem, arbitrary conventions. If not consciously, still unconsciously, men have in modern times conformed their behavior to certain well-authorized dictates of positive beneficence.
430. The ideas and sentiments which should regulate the relations between men and women at large, find their special sphere in the marital relation. Here, more than elsewhere, it is the duty of the man to diminish, so far as may be, the disadvantages under which the woman has to live.
During the early stages of married life this duty is usually well fulfilled. Save in the utterly brutal, the sentiment which unites the sexes ensures on the part of the man, at any rate for a time, a recognition of the woman's claim. Her relative weakness forms one element of attraction; and, by implication, there results the desire to shield off such evils as the relative weakness entails. But though the nature inherited from a ruder type of humanity has been rendered less exclusively egoistic, it eventually reasserts itself to some extent in a large proportion of cases. Frequently the solicitude at first shown, diminishes; and, occasionally, even the acts of consideration which custom dictates, come to be disregarded–sometimes with assignable excuse, and sometimes without excuse.
It is consequently needful that there should be kept in mind the true ethical basis for the sympathetic self-sacrifices required of men to women in general, and especially required of husbands in their behavior to wives. So long as the code of conduct which regulates the general relations of the sexes, and more especially the marital relation, is thought of as conventional in its origin, it is more apt to be disregarded than when it is seen to originate in that form of beneficence which seeks to make less unequal the lives of those to whom Nature has given unequal advantages.
The incidents of female life during the childbearing period, are such as from time to time demand special consideration. Perturbations of health, more or less marked, are ordinary concomitants; and with these there sometimes go mental perturbations. When recognized as accompaniments of the functions which bear so heavily on women, these are of course to be tenderly dealt with. There is a further more general effect liable to be produced, which, in some cases being misunderstood, undermines affection. As before indicated, the antagonism between reproduction and individuation not unfrequently causes in women a sensible diminution in mental activity. Intellectual interests which before marriage were marked, diminish or cease; and a highly cultured man, who had hoped for a wife's sympathy in his aims, finds himself disappointed. Hence, sometimes, an alienation leading to decrease of domesticity. But a beneficence of the enlightened kind, rightly construing this decline of brainpower, will not regard it with impatience but with regret: accompanied even with some extra sympathy, in consideration of the mental pleasures which are being lost.
431. Of course these self-sacrifices, small and large, which a husband is called on to make for a wife, are not without limit. While on the one hand the inherited moral nature, at present so imperfect, frequently causes on the part of husbands a neglect of those attentions which a due beneficence requires of them; on the other hand, this same inherited moral nature frequently causes insistence by women on undue claims. Something much beyond the normal compensation for feminine disadvantages is demanded and gained.
Not unfrequently a relation of this kind is established during a first pregnancy. At such a time exigeante behavior on the part of a wife cannot well be resisted. Any considerable mental agitation might have disastrous consequences; and the husband, fearful of such consequences, feels obliged to yield, however unreasonable the demand may be. Once initiated and continued for some months, the relative attitudes of the two tend to become permanent. This result is evidently most liable to occur where the wife is one for whom unusually large sacrifices ought not to be made–one whose inferiority of nature is shown by thus using her advantage.
What should be done in such cases it is difficult to say. The answer must vary with the circumstances. While pronounced supremacy of husband over wife is undesirable, still more undesirable is pronounced supremacy of wife over husband–more undesirable because woman is less judicially minded and more impulsive than man. Though the undue assertions of claims on the part of a wife cannot well be resisted under the circumstances in which they are probably first made, yet they may be resisted afterward, when possible mischiefs no longer threaten. And for the happiness of both they should be resisted. For since the masculine trait which above all others attracts women, and gives permanence to their attachments, is the manifestation of power, the lack of power shown by constant yielding to aggression, eventually becomes a cause of declining affection and diminished conjugal happiness. The truth that a woman often loves more a strong man who ill treats her than a weak man who treats her well, shows how great a mistake it is for a husband to accept a position of subordination.
But all questions of this kind which take their rise in a human nature not yet sufficiently civilized for harmonious domestic life, any more than for harmonious social life, must remain with very indefinite answers. Active sympathy, and the beneficence resulting from it, are requisite in both husband and wife; and lack of them in either must have evil results, not in any way to be remedied. All one may say is that the needful beneficence on the part of a husband should err by excess rather than by defect.
432. Of course marital beneficence should be reciprocal. Though it is owed in chief measure by husband to wife, it is owed in large measure by wife to husband. While there have to be made by her no compensations for relative weakness and vital disadvantages, yet a return for benefits and sacrifices received, has to be made in such smaller benefits and sacrifices as domestic life affords place for.
Indebtedness to the bread-winner has to be recognized, and in some measure discharged: the tacit contract implies this as a matter of justice. But beyond fulfillment of the tacit contract by due performance of necessary household duties, there is scope for beneficence in the multitudinous small acts which help to make a home happy. If, on the one hand, we often see among the least civilized of our people, husbands utterly regardless of their wives' claims, burdening them with labors such as are fit only for men, we often see on the other hand slatternly wives who, lounging at doors and spending their time in gossip, so neglect household work as to bring on continual altercations and domestic misery. Even among the well-to-do classes there are not a few married women who, now occupied in novel reading, now in visiting, now in fancy work, scarcely ever go into their kitchens, and delegate all their duties to servants. Beyond the efficient household administration demanded alike by justice and by beneficence, there needs on the part of a wife sympathy in a husband's interests and aims and anxieties. That this is spontaneously given to a large extent is true; but it is also true that there is frequently little or no attempt made to participate in his leisure occupations and tastes. The way in which girls who daily practice music before marriage, give up their music after marriage, exemplifies the failure in those small beneficences which due reciprocity demands.
433. Respecting all that part of good conduct in the marital relation which goes beyond the demands of justice–the tacit contract for fostering and protection on the one side and discharge of domestic and maternal duties on the other–it may be remarked that it should be spontaneous. As before said, beneficence when constrained ceases to be beneficence.
Unfortunately many of the observances prompted by kindness, become mechanical as fast as they become established; and in so doing lose much of that beauty they originally had. When what were concessions come to be claimed as rights, the pleasurable feelings on both sides which at first accompanied them, disappear, and are sometimes replaced by opposite feelings–the claiming of the assumed rights implies egoism, and the yielding of them is without sympathy.
Hence alike in the social relations of men and women and in the marital relation, it is desirable to maintain, as much as may be, the distinction between justice and beneficence; so that the last may continue to bear about it the aspect of a freshly prompted kindness which has not been counted upon.
Full beneficence in the marital relation is reached only when each is solicitous about the claims of the other. So long as there continues that common attitude in which each maintains rights and resists encroachments, there can never be entire harmony. Only when each is anxious rather to make a sacrifice than to receive a sacrifice, can the highest form of the relation be reached.