Front Page Titles (by Subject) Chapter 7: Of Divorce - The Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy
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Chapter 7: Of Divorce - William Paley, The Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy 
The Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy, Foreword by D.L. Le Mahieu (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2002).
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By divorce, I mean the dissolution of the marriage-contract, by the act, and at the will, of the husband.
This power was allowed to the husband, among the Jews, the Greeks, and latter Romans; and is at this day exercised by the Turks and Persians.
The congruity of such a right with the law of nature, is the question before us.
And, in the first place, it is manifestly inconsistent with the duty which the parents owe to their children; which duty can never be so well fulfilled as by their cohabitation and united care. It is also incompatible with the right which the mother possesses, as well as the father, to the gratitude of her children and the comfort of their society; of both which she is almost necessarily deprived, by her dismission from her husband’s family.
Where this objection does not interfere, I know of no principle of the law of nature applicable to the question, beside that of general expediency.
For, if we say, that arbitrary divorces are excluded by the terms of the marriage-contract, it may be answered, that the contract might be so framed as to admit of this condition.
If we argue, with some moralists, that the obligation of a contract naturally continues, so long as the purpose, which the contracting parties had in view, requires its continuance; it will be difficult to show what purpose of the contract (the care of children excepted) should confine a man to a woman, from whom he seeks to be loose.
If we contend, with others, that a contract cannot, by the law of nature, be dissolved, unless the parties be replaced in the situation which each possessed before the contract was entered into; we shall be called upon to prove this to be a universal or indispensable property of contracts.
I confess myself unable to assign any circumstance in the marriage-contract, which essentially distinguishes it from other contracts, or which proves that it contains, what many have ascribed to it, a natural incapacity of being dissolved by the consent of the parties, at the option of one of them, or either of them. But if we trace the effects of such a rule upon the general happiness of married life, we shall perceive reasons of expediency, that abundantly justify the policy of those laws which refuse to the husband the power of divorce, or restrain it to a few extreme and specific provocations: and our principles teach us to pronounce that to be contrary to the law of nature, which can be proved to be detrimental to the common happiness of the human species.
A lawgiver, whose counsels are directed by views of general utility, and obstructed by no local impediment, would make the marriage-contract indissoluble during the joint lives of the parties, for the sake of the following advantages:
I. Because this tends to preserve peace and concord between married persons, by perpetuating their common interest, and by inducing a necessity of mutual compliance.
There is great weight and substance in both these considerations. An earlier termination of the union would produce a separate interest. The wife would naturally look forward to the dissolution of the partnership, and endeavour to draw to herself a fund against the time when she was no longer to have access to the same resources. This would beget peculation on one side, and mistrust on the other; evils which at present very little disturb the confidence of married life. The second effect of making the union determinable only by death, is not less beneficial. It necessarily happens that adverse tempers, habits, and tastes, oftentimes meet in marriage. In which case, each party must take pains to give up what offends, and practise what may gratify the other. A man and woman in love with each other do this insensibly; but love is neither general nor durable: and where that is wanting, no lessons of duty, no delicacy of sentiment, will go half so far with the generality of mankind and womankind as this one intelligible reflection, that they must each make the best of their bargain; and that, seeing they must either both be miserable, or both share in the same happiness, neither can find their own comfort, but in promoting the pleasure of the other. These compliances, though at first extorted by necessity, become in time easy and mutual; and, though less endearing than assiduities which take their rise from affection, generally procure to the married pair a repose and satisfaction sufficient for their happiness.
II. Because new objects of desire would be continually sought after, if men could, at will, be released from their subsisting engagements. Suppose the husband to have once preferred his wife to all other women, the duration of this preference cannot be trusted to. Possession makes a great difference: and there is no other security against the invitations of novelty, than the known impossibility of obtaining the object. Did the cause which brings the sexes together, hold them together by the same force with which it first attracted them to each other; or could the woman be restored to her personal integrity, and to all the advantages of her virgin estate; the power of divorce might be deposited in the hands of the husband, with less danger of abuse or inconveniency. But constituted as mankind are, and injured as the repudiated wife generally must be, it is necessary to add a stability to the condition of married women, more secure than the continuance of their husbands’ affection; and to supply to both sides, by a sense of duty and of obligation, what satiety has impaired of passion and of personal attachment. Upon the whole, the power of divorce is evidently and greatly to the disadvantage of the woman: and the only question appears to be, whether the real and permanent happiness of one half of the species should be surrendered to the caprice and voluptuousness of the other?
We have considered divorces as depending upon the will of the husband, because that is the way in which they have actually obtained in many parts of the world: but the same objections apply, in a great degree, to divorces by mutual consent; especially when we consider the indelicate situation and small prospect of happiness, which remains to the party who opposed his or her dissent to the liberty and desire of the other.
The law of nature admits of an exception in favour of the injured party, in cases of adultery, of obstinate desertion, of attempts upon life, of outrageous cruelty, of incurable madness, and perhaps of personal imbecility; but by no means indulges the same privilege to mere dislike, to opposition of humours and inclinations, to contrariety of taste and temper, to complaints of coldness, neglect, severity, peevishness, jealousy: not that these reasons are trivial, but because such objections may always be alleged, and are impossible by testimony to be ascertained; so that to allow implicit credit to them, and to dissolve marriages whenever either party thought fit to pretend them, would lead in its effect to all the licentiousness of arbitrary divorces.
Milton’s story is well known. Upon a quarrel with his wife, he paid his addresses to another woman, and set forth a public vindication of his conduct, by attempting to prove, that confirmed dislike was as just a foundation for dissolving the marriage-contract, as adultery: to which position, and to all the arguments by which it can be supported, the above consideration affords a sufficient answer. And if a married pair, in actual and irreconcileable discord, complain that their happiness would be better consulted, by permitting them to determine a connexion which is become odious to both, it may be told them, that the same permission, as a general rule, would produce libertinism, dissension, and misery, amongst thousands, who are now virtuous, and quiet, and happy, in their condition: and it ought to satisfy them to reflect, that when their happiness is sacrificed to the operation of an unrelenting rule, it is sacrificed to the happiness of the community.
The Scriptures seem to have drawn the obligation tighter than the law of nature left it. “Whosoever,” saith Christ, “shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery; and whoso marrieth her which is put away, doth commit adultery.”—Matt. xix. 9. The law of Moses, for reasons of local expediency, permitted the Jewish husband to put away his wife: but whether for every cause, or for what causes, appears to have been controverted amongst the interpreters of those times. Christ, the precepts of whose religion were calculated for more general use and observation, revokes this permission (as given to the Jews “for the hardness of their hearts”), and promulges a law which was thenceforward to confine divorces to the single case of adultery in the wife. And I see no sufficient reason to depart from the plain and strict meaning of Christ’s words. The rule was new. It both surprised and offended his disciples; yet Christ added nothing to relax or explain it.
Inferior causes may justify the separation of husband and wife, although they will not authorise such a dissolution of the marriage-contract as would leave either party at liberty to marry again: for it is that liberty, in which the danger and mischief of divorces principally consist. If the care of children does not require that they should live together, and it is become, in the serious judgement of both, necessary for their mutual happiness that they should separate, let them separate by consent. Nevertheless, this necessity can hardly exist, without guilt and misconduct on one side or on both. Moreover, cruelty, ill usage, extreme violence or moroseness of temper, or other great and continued provocations, make it lawful for the party aggrieved to withdraw from the society of the offender without his or her consent. The law which imposes the marriage-vow, whereby the parties promise to “keep to each other,” or in other words, to live together, must be understood to impose it with a silent reservation of these cases; because the same law has constituted a judicial relief from the tyranny of the husband, by the divorce à mensa et toro, and by the provision which it makes for the separate maintenance of the injured wife. St. Paul likewise distinguishes between a wife’s merely separating herself from the family of her husband, and her marrying again: “Let not the wife depart from her husband: but and if she do depart, let her remain unmarried.”
The law of this country, in conformity to our Saviour’s injunction, confines the dissolution of the marriage-contract to the single case of adultery in the wife; and a divorce even in that case can only be brought about by the operation of an act of parliament, founded upon a previous sentence in the ecclesiastical court, and a verdict against the adulterer at common law: which proceedings taken together, compose as complete an investigation of the complaint as a cause can receive. It has lately been proposed to the legislature to annex a clause to these acts, restraining the offending party from marrying with the companion of her crime, who, by the course of proceeding, is always known and convicted: for there is reason to fear, that adulterous connexions are often formed with the prospect of bringing them to this conclusion; at least, when the seducer has once captivated the affection of a married woman, he may avail himself of this tempting argument to subdue her scruples, and complete his victory; and the legislature, as the business is managed at present, assists by its interposition the criminal design of the offenders, and confers a privilege where it ought to inflict a punishment. The proposal deserved an experiment: but something more penal will, I apprehend, be found necessary to check the progress of this alarming depravity. Whether a law might not be framed directing the fortune of the adulteress to descend as in case of her natural death; reserving, however, a certain proportion of the produce of it, by way of annuity, for her subsistence (such annuity, in no case, to exceed a fixed sum), and also so far suspending the estate in the hands of the heir as to preserve the inheritance to any children she might bear to a second marriage, in case there was none to succeed in the place of their mother by the first; whether, I say, such a law would not render female virtue in higher life less vincible, as well as the seducers of that virtue less urgent in their suit, we recommend to the deliberation of those who are willing to attempt the reformation of this important, but most incorrigible, class of the community. A passion for splendor, for expensive amusements and distinction, is commonly found, in that description of women who would become the objects of such a law, not less inordinate than their other appetites. A severity of the kind we propose, applies immediately to that passion. And there is no room for any complaint of injustice, since the provisions above stated, with others which might be contrived, confine the punishment, so far as it is possible, to the person of the offender; suffering the estate to remain to the heir, or within the family, of the ancestor from whom it came, or to attend the appointments of his will.
Sentences of the ecclesiastical courts, which release the parties à vinculo matrimonii by reason of impuberty, frigidity, consanguinity within the prohibited degrees, prior marriage, or want of the requisite consent of parents and guardians, are not dissolutions of the marriage-contract, but judicial declarations that there never was any marriage; such impediment subsisting at the time, as rendered the celebration of the marriage-rite a mere nullity. And the rite itself contains an exception of these impediments. The man and woman to be married are charged, “if they know any impediment why they may not be lawfully joined together, to confess it”; and assured “that so many as are coupled together, otherwise than God’s word doth allow, are not joined together by God, neither is their matrimony lawful”; all which is intended by way of solemn notice to the parties, that the vow they are about to make will bind their consciences and authorise their cohabitation, only upon the supposition that no legal impediment exists.