Methods of Ethics

Henry Sidgwick

Book III

Chapter IV


§6. We have next to consider the duties of Affection that arise out of relationships voluntarily assumed. Of these the most important is the Conjugal Relation. And here we may begin by asking whether it be the duty of human beings generally to enter into this relation. It is no doubt normal to do so, and most persons are prompted to it by strong desires: but in so far as it can be said to be prescribed by Common Sense, it does not seem an independent duty, but derivative from and subordinate to the general maxims of Prudence and Benevolence.[1] And in all modern civilised societies, law and custom leave the conjugal union perfectly optional: but the conditions under which it may be formed, and to a certain extent the mutual rights and duties arising out of it, are carefully laid down by law; and it is widely thought that this department of law more than others ought to be governed by independent moral principles, and to protect, as it were, by an outer barrier, the kind of relation which morality prescribes, If we ask what these principles are, Common Sense---in modern European communities---seems to answer that the marriage union ought to be (1) exclusively monogamic, (2) at least designed to be permanent, and (3) not within certain degrees of consanguinity. I do not, however, think that any of these propositions can on reflection be maintained to be self-evident. Even against incest we seem to have rather an intense sentiment than a clear intuition; and it is generally recognised that the prohibition of all but monogamic unions can only be rationally maintained on utilitarian grounds. 2 As regards the permanence of the marriage-contract all would no doubt agree that fidelity is admirable in all affections, and especially in so close and intimate a relation as the conjugal: but we cannot tell a priori how far it is possible to prevent decay of love in all cases: and it is certainly not self-evident that the conjugal relation ought to be maintained when love has ceased; nor that if the parties have separated by mutual consent they ought to be prohibited from forming fresh unions. In so far as we are convinced of the rightness of this regulation, it is always, I think, from a consideration of the generally mischievous consequences that would ensue if it were relaxed.

Further, in considering the evils on the opposite side we are led to see that there is no little difference of opinion among moral persons as to the kind of feeling which is morally indispensable to this relation. For some would say that marriage without intense and exclusive affection is degrading even though sanctioned by law: while others would consider this a mere matter of taste, or at least of prudence, provided there was no mutual deception: and between these two views we might insert several different shades of opinion.

Nor, again, is there agreement as to the external duties arising out of the relationship. For all would lay down conjugal fidelity, and mutual assistance (according to the customary division of labour between men and women---unless this should be modified by mutual agreement). But beyond this we find divergence: for some state that ``the marriage contract binds each party, whenever individual gratification is concerned, to prefer the happiness of the other party to its own'':[3] while others would say that this degree of unselfishness is certainly admirable, but as a mere matter of duty it is enough if each considers the other's happiness equally with his (or her) own. And as to the powers and liberties that ought to be allowed to the wife, and the obedience due from her to the husband---I need scarcely at the present time (1874) waste space in proving that there is no consensus of moral opinion.

[ME, Benevolence, §5]
[ME, Benevolence, §7]