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Sex and Politics: Bertrand Russell and ‘Human Sexuality’

by Stanley Hauerwas

Stanley Hauerwas is professor of theology and ethics at Duke University Divinity School. This article appeared in the Christian Century, April 19, 1978, pp. 417-422. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.

The publication of Human Sexuality: New Directions in American Catholic Thought by the Catholic Theological Society (Paulist, 1977) is destined to generate a new round of discussion about sexual ethics. I fear, however, that if the debate is carried on in the terms which the report itself uses, we will not make much progress in helping ourselves think more honestly about sexuality. The reason we should not take up the argument of Human Sexuality is not because of the obvious problems with the report’s vague criterion of "creative and integrative growth" as the necessary condition for the legitimacy of sexual expression. Nor am I concerned with its puzzling assumption that better empirical information might be able to show that certain kinds of sexual expressions can be "always and everywhere detrimental to the full development of the human personality" (p. 55). Such issues are best left for the Catholics themselves to discuss, since having to deal with such intellectually confused claims is proper punishment for their past sins involving issues of sexuality.

Rather, it is a mistake to follow the way the report invites us to think about human sexuality because it, like a great deal of Protestant and secular thought, assumes that the basis for any ethics of sex involves an interpretation of "wholesome interpersonal relations." The dominant assumption has been that the evaluation of different kinds of sexual expressions should center on whether they are or are not expressive of love. On the contrary, the ethics of sex must begin with political considerations, because ethically the issue of the proper form of sexual activity raises the most profound issues about the nature and form of political community. I am not denying that sex obviously has to do with interpersonal matters, but I am asserting that we do not even know what we need to say about the personal level until we have some sense of the political context necessary for the ordering of sexual activity.

Indeed, one of the main difficulties with the assumption’ that thc ethics of sex can be determined on the basis of interpersonal criteria is the failure to see how that assumption itself reflects a political option. To reduce issues of sexuality to the question of whether acts of sex are or are not fulfilling for those involved is to manifest the assumption of political liberalism that sex is a private matter. The hold this political theory has on us is illustrated by how readily we also accept the assumption that the private nature of sexuality does not involve issues of political theory.

Russell on Romantic Love

In order to show how reflection on time ethics of sex must begin with politics, I offer an analysis of Bertrand Russell’s arguments for free love and sex. For in the face of what appeared at the time (1929) to be the radical nature of Russell’s views about sex and marriage, some of his most important arguments were, I think, misinterpreted and overlooked. Also, Russell, unlike many religious folk who write on these issues, has the virtue of facing up to the implications of his position without fudging by the use of rhetorical appeals to love and the "ultimate significance" of acts of sexual intercourse.

Contrary to the popular impression, Russell was not a libertine, nor did he defend a libertine ethic. As a proper Englishman, Russell simply suggested that sex is generally a good thing, but it is important that it be handled decently. Indeed, he was against those who feel no moral barrier to sexual intercourse on every occasion because, he thought, such a view trivializes sex by dissociating ‘‘sex from serious emotion and from feelings of affection" (Marriage and Morals [Liveright, 1957], p. 127). Sex is a natural need like food and drink, but it certainly involves more than hunger, for no one, whether civilized or savage, is satisfied by the bare sexual act" (p. 195). Indeed, sex is enormously enhanced by abstinence and is always better when, it has a large psychial element than when it is purely physical" (p. 7).

It may, therefore, seem odd to appeal to Russell in support of my argument, since it is his central contention that sexual activity should be determined primarily by romantic love, as it "is the source of the most intense delights that life has to offer. In the relations of a man and woman who love each other with passion and imagination and tenderness, there is something of inestimable value, to be ignorant of which is a great misfortune to any human being" (p. 74). Such love cannot be limited to marriage, since it can flourish only so long as it is free and spontaneous, as "it tends to be killed by the thought it is a duty" (p. 140).

Even though legitimate sexual activity cannot be limited to marriage, Russell thinks that under certain conditions marriage can be the "best and most important relation that can exist between two human beings" (p.143). By marriage, Russell understands that relation between a man and a woman where children are present (p.156). Children, rather than sexual intercourse, "are the true purpose of marriage, which should therefore be not regarded as consummated until such time as there is a prospect of children" (p.166). As soon as children appear, love is no longer autonomous but serves the biological purposes of the race." and thus the demands of passionate love may have to be at least partly overridden for a time. It is important to try to secure as little interference with love as is compatible with the interests of children, as it is good for children that their parents love one another (pp. 128-129).

However, as we look around today and ask what conditions seem on the whole to make for happiness in marriage, we are driven to the curious conclusion that the more "civilized people become the less capable they seem of lifelong happiness with one partner" (p. 135) For a marriage to work requires that there "be a feeling of complete equality on both sides; there must be no interference with mutual freedom; there must be the most complete physical and mental intimacy; and there must be a certain similarity in regard to standards of value" (p. 143). Russell thinks that it is possible to sustain this mutuality for a time, but finally such relations are doomed to he broken by the "anarchial" nature of love. This being the case, the only appropriate social response is divorce or the legitimation of extra-marital sexual intercourse.

Changing the Social Order

It is to Russell’s credit that he saw clearly that his views required far-reaching social and moral changes. He understood that marriage involves issues at the basis of any society and that changing them means changing a whole social order. At the very least, Russell thought that his view required the liberation of women from the double-standard ethic (p. 88). However, even more important was Russell’s realization that this new sexual ethic would also require a transformation of our language and passions. For the old sexual ethic continues to be reinforced so long as we insist on using unscientific language like "adultery" and "fornication." If we are not to he carried away by emotion in discussing such issues, we must employ dull neutral phrases such as "extramarital sexual relations." Not to do so is to remain captured by the superstitious morality associated with the terminology foisted on us by Christianity.

It is important to note that Russell is in no way recommending an ethic that ignores the importance of discipline and self-restraint. His problems with such categories is that they have been applied to the wrong concerns. It is not sexual expression that is to be restrained, but the "instinctive emotion’’ of jealousy that corrupts our relations with one another (p. 143). "The good life cannot be lived without self-control, but it is better to control a restrictive and hostile emotion such as jealousy, rather than a generous and expansive emotion such as love" (p. 239) Russell, unlike the authors of Human Sexuality, does not assume that empirical data could ever show that a particular form of sexual activity is good or bad or the development of personhood. For it is not a descriptive but a normative issue -- namely, what should we be so that we can be morally enhanced by certain kinds of sexual activity? Russell and the popes agree that the issue is not whether their sexual ethics may or may not be enhancing for some people, for the point is that they should be the kinds of people -- i.e., capable of controlling jealousy -- who are up to living such an ethic.

Russell candidly admitted that if we allow his new morality to take its course, it is bound to go further than it [has] done, and to raise difficulties hardly as yet appreciated" (p. 91). In particular he was disturbed by the fact that implicit in the new morality was the decay of the paternalistic family and fatherhood, which he thought meant the assumption of the father’s duties by the state (p. 89). He believed that modern civilization was requiring that the state take over the father’s role, and thus reducing the need for indubitable paternity (p. 9). Since the economic, protective and educative functions of the family were being taken over by the state, families had to rely more and more upon the emotive function to sustain them. But in a manner very similar to Robert Nisbet’s argument in Community and Power (Oxford, pp. 60-61), Russell suggests that the emotive function of the family is not sufficient to sustain it as a viable institution.

The State as Parent

Russell believes that the loss of the family as a central social institution presents a problem, however, as the family’s most important function is to preserve the habit of having children (p. 187). But since the father is redundant, women will have to share their children with the state. He thinks that this may cause a problem in the "psychology and activities of men," for it will eliminate the only emotive function equal in importance to sexual love. As a result, sexual love itself might be trivialized, but more important, men’s sense of history and tradition would be diminished. However, at the same time men might become less prone to war and less acquisitive.

However, the change in women’s attitudes and practices will be equally profound, for there is no reason to think that with the increasing equality of women we can assume that women will "naturally" want to be mothers. As a result, in order to maintain a high civilization it may increasingly become necessary to pay women "such sums for the production of children as to make them feel it worth while as a money-making career" (p. 216). Not all women will need to enter the "profession of having children," but at least some form of compensation will be needed to ensure that some women are willing to have children and some are willing to rear them.

Russell thinks that there are some distinct advantages in having the state as a father, since this arrangement improves both the general level of education and the level of health care. However, since he was not a "great admirer of the state," he also suggests that there are some distinct dangers in the substitution of the state for the father. For parents as a rule are fond of their children and do not regard them as material for political schemes. But the state cannot be expected to share this attitude.

As a result -- and here it is worth quoting Russell at length:

So long as the world remains divided into competing militaristic states, the substitution of public bodies for parents in education means an intensification of what is called patriotism, i.e., a willingness to indulge in mutual extermination without a moment’s hesitation, whenever the governments feel so inclined. Undoubtedly patriotism, so called, is the gravest danger to which civilization is at present exposed, and anything that increases its virulence is more to be dreaded than plague, pestilence and famine. At present young people have a divided loyalty, on the one hand to their parents, on the other to the State. If it should happen that their sole loyalty was to the State, there is grave reason to fear that the world would become even more bloodthirsty than it is at present. I think, therefore, that so long as the problem of internationalism remains unsolved, the increasing share of the State in the education and care of children has dangers so grave as to outweigh its undoubted advantages [pp. 218-219].

This view puts Russell in a peculiar position. For he has argued on interpersonal grounds for an ethics of sex that he assumes must render problematic the continued existence of the patriarchal family. Yet the eradication of such a family results in increasing the power of the state -- the entity that Russell considers to be even more morally questionable than the old sex morality. As a result he concludes that the full implementation of his sex ethic must await the institutionalization of a complete internationalism. Thus everywhere his sex ethic is taught there must be a corresponding inculcation of loyalty to the "international super-State." The problem, however, is that "the family is decaying fast, and internationalism is growing slowly. The situation, therefore, is one which justifies grave apprehensions. Nevertheless, it is not hopeless, since internationalism may grow more quickly in the future than it has done in the past" (pp. 219-220).

Thus, even though Russell begins with an inter-personal analysis of sexual ethics, it leads him to questions regarding the structure of nations and empires. Indeed, one has the impression that Russell was a bit surprised by his own conclusion, as it in effect suggests the need for a rewriting of his book. For to say that his sex ethic must still be compromised by commitment to the family as long as we do not have an institutionalized international state is a little like recommending partial pregnancy. His own argument adequately demonstrates that he cannot have it both ways, and yet he tries to do so.

Of course, one can argue that Russell’s argument fails to demonstrate that the political questions are primary because his own analysis can be questioned. For example, it is not clear that his "new sex ethic" necessarily leads to the destruction of the family and the heightening of the state’s power. It is certainly a mistake for Russell to assume that only the "patriarchial family" is at issue, as there are certainly other ways of conceiving familial organization. But even assuming some other familial structure, the primary issue remains: What kind of sex ethic is appropriate to enhancing the political function of marriage and the family?

The Nature of Marriage

Put differently, the implication of Russell’s argument, despite his own views to the contrary, is this: in order to talk sense about sexuality, you must have a determinative view of the family and marriage. Ironically, that is the point decisively rejected by the authors of Human Sexuality as being conservative and life-denying. It is not my intention to defend everything the encyclical tradition has had to say about sex and marriage but rather to point out that that tradition, especially in Arcanum Divinae, at least had the argument in the right ball park -- namely, that what one says about sex is correlative to one’s understanding of the nature of the family and what its function is for the preservation of good societies.

However, it may be felt that by introducing the concept of family and marriage I have in fact reinserted the interpersonal criterion into the discussion under a different guise. The interpersonal criterion certainly reflects the dominant understanding of marriage in our culture, but I am not accepting that meaning of marriage as my own. There is ample evidence to suggest that such an understanding is disastrous both personally and politically. When Christians assume that their task is to try to make such a view of marriage work, they take upon themselves a Sisyphean task.

We must understand that if Christians and non-Christians differ over marriage, that difference does not lie in their understanding of the quality of interpersonal relationship needed to enter or sustain a marriage, but rather in a disagreement about the nature of marriage and its place in the Christian and national community. Christians above all should note that there are no conceptual or institutional reasons that require love between the parties to exist in order for the marriage to be successful. Marriage is, as Russell argues, a biological institution to beget and rear children for the ends of particular communities. What makes marriage Christian is the rationale behind having and raising children. Marriage and the family for Christians are not less political because they are not understood in terms of a national order. Indeed, their political nature is clear from the fact that they refuse to be so defined.

The requirement of love in marriage is not correlative to the intrinsic nature of marriage but is based on the admonition for Christians to love one another. We do not love because we are married, but because we are Christian. We may, however, learn what such love is like within the context of marriage. For the Christian tradition claims that marriage helps to support an inclusive community of love by grounding it in a pattern of faithfulness toward another. The love that is required in marriage functions politically by defining the nature of Christian social order, and as children arrive they are trained in that order.

Moreover, Christians should see that the family cannot, contrary to Russell’s claim, exist as an end in itself nor by itself provide a sufficient check against pretentious rationalism. Such an assumption is but a continuation of the liberal perversion of the family and only makes the family and marriage more personally destructive. When families exist for no reason other than their own existence, they become quasi-churches, which ask sacrifices far too great and for insufficient reasons. The risk of families which demand that we love one another can be taken only when there are sustaining communities with sufficient convictions that can provide means to form and limit the status of the family. If the family does stand as a necessary check on the state, as Russell and I both think it should, it does so because it first has a place in an institution that also stands against the state -- the church.

Christian Ambivalence

In this respect it must be remembered that it is not just the state or those who propose greater sexual freedom that question the status of the family, but it is first of all Christianity. Russell, for example, points out that Christianity has always had an ambivalent attitude toward the family, which he wrongly attributes to the working out of the Christian emphasis on the individual (p. 176). In fact the ambivalence of the church toward marriage is grounded in the eschatological convictions which freed some from the necessity of marriage -- i.e., singleness becomes a genuine option for service to the community.

This is a dangerous doctrine indeed, for it is a strange community which would risk giving singleness an equal status with marriage. But that is what the church did, and as a result marriage was made a vocation rather than a natural necessity. But as a vocation, marriage can be sustained only so long as it is clear what purposes it serves in the community which created it in the first place. With the loss of such a community sanction, we are left with the bare assumption that marriage is a voluntary institution motivated by the need for interpersonal intimacy. It is strange to see the Christians presume that account of marriage to be their own, because, as the Human Sexuality report has it, moral theology must be "properly enculturated" (p. 79).

By such an "enculturation," especially as it takes the form of the interpersonal criterion for legitimating activity, Christians lose exactly what they can contribute to the struggle of every man and woman to find their way through the tangle of matters dealing with sex. For example, the report on Human Sexuality suggests that one of the values that wholesome sexual relations exhibit is honesty, but honesty is defined by whether we can truthfully say that our activity is "truly creative and integrative." I suspect that all of us feel the insufficiency of such a formula when it comes to dealing with sex.

Honesty demands that we say what we know -- namely, that there is no sexual ethic or behavior that will not at some times destroy some people. The "Victorian sex code" destroyed or perverted many people, but so has the more liberal sex ethic of interpersonal enhancement. One might as well make the case that a more healthy and honest sexual attitude than the one that requires us always to be involved in "meaningful relations" would be simply to think of sex as a casual matter involving no great personal involvement. At least that way we would not have undergraduates convincing themselves that they are in love when they are simply doing what they want to do.

The Political Function of Marriage

The assumption that sex is a special form of interpersonal communication involves more than I can treat here. Many want to treat sex as just another form of communication -- like shaking hands. I suppose in response to such a suggestion one can at least point out that sex is often more fun than shaking hands. However, the reason that we seem to assume that sex should be reserved for "special relations" is not that sex itself is special, but that the nature of sex serves the ends of intimacy. But intimacy is indeed a tricky matter to sustain, and that may be the reason why many have argued that marriage is necessary to provide the perduring framework to sustain intimacy.

Moreover, once the political function of marriage is understood to be central for the meaning and institution of marriage, we have a better idea of what kinds of people we ought to be to deal with marriage. Most of the literature that attempts to instruct us about getting along in marriage fails to face up to a fact so clearly true that I have dared to call it Hauerwas’s Law: You always marry the wrong person. It is as important to note, of course, as Herbert Richardson pointed out to me, that the reverse of the law is also true: namely, that you also always marry the right person. The point of the law is to suggest the inadequacy of the current assumption that the success or failure of a marriage can be determined by marrying the "right person." Even if you have married the "right person," there is no guarantee that he or she will remain such, for people have a disturbing tendency to change. Indeed, it seems that many so-called "happy marriages" are such because of the partners’ efforts to preserve "love" by preventing either from changing.

This law is meant not only to challenge current romantic assumptions but to point out that marriage is a more basic reality than the interpersonal relations which may or may not characterize a particular marriage. Indeed, the demand that those in a marriage love one another requires that marriage have a basis other than the love itself. For it is only on such a basis that we can have any idea of how we should love.

So we often find it alleged that love is possible only between equals. Hence, marriage cannot be morally healthy as an institution until women secure equal status in our society. In no way questioning the just demands of women, I would suggest that the assumption that their success will make marriage better is a mirage. The relations between people, especially in institutions like marriage, are far too subtle to allow the assumption that social equality will be translated into the kind of equality that Aristotle deemed necessary for friendship. Only if marriage embodies a purpose beyond the self-enhancement of the individuals constituting it is there a basis sufficient for them to be bonded in pursuit of a common good.

It is not my intention here to recommend any single perspective on premarital, extramarital, homosexual and other forms of sexual activity. We cannot even begin to know how to think about such matters until we break out of the assumption that they are determined primarily in terms of interpersonal criteria. Indeed, the perspective I have tried to develop tends to divert some of our attention from "sexual ethics," since the question of what we do or do not do with our genitals is not the first question. The issue is rather what kind of people should we be -- and what we do or do not do with our genitals clearly has a bearing on that -- who bring to and can sustain the kind of sexual life appropriate to the purpose of marriage in the Christian community. The authors of Human Sexuality are right to criticize much of past thinking on sexuality for its "act orientation," but we have no idea what or how sexual activity should be embodied in our character until we know how marriage should be shaped and sustained.

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