Bertrand Russell

The Recrudescence of Puritanism




If somebody wondered where the “religion” of political correctness comes from or the persistent tendency of the Anglo-Saxons in favour of "good" causes, he/she has only to read this short essay. We find also an answer for the existence of victimless crime. It has all to do with the moral indignation of the bigoted that upholds his set of customs as the ethical standard that everybody must conform to, otherwise punishment is advocated, previously by way of Church excommunication and currently through State condemnation. But, as Bertrand Russell remarks, “moral indignation is one of the most harmful forces in the modern world, the more so as it can always be diverted to sinister uses by those who control propaganda.”



During the war, the holders of power in all countries found it necessary to bribe the populations into co-operation by unusual concessions. Wage-earners were allowed a living wage, Hindoos were told that they were men and brothers, women were given the vote, and young people were allowed to enjoy those innocent pleasures of which the old, in the name of morality, always wish to rob them. The war being won, the victors set to work to deprive their tools of the advantages temporarily conceded. Wage-earners were worsted by the coal strikes in 1921 and 1926; Hindoos have been put in their place by various decisions; women, though they could not be deprived of the vote, have been ousted from posts when they married, in spite of an Act of Parliament saying that this should not be done. All these issues are ‘political’ - that is to say, there are organized bodies of voters representing the interests of the classes concerned in England, and organized bodies of resisters in India. But no organized body represents the point of view of those who believe that a man or woman ought to be free in regard to enjoyments which do not damage other people, so that the Puritans have met with no serious opposition, and their tyranny has not been regarded as raising a political issue.

We may define a Puritan as a man who holds that certain kinds of acts, even if they have no visible bad effects upon others than the agent, are inherently sinful, and, being sinful, ought to be prevented by whatever means is most effectual - the criminal law if possible, and, if not that, then public opinion backed by economic pressure. This view is of respectable antiquity; indeed, it was probably responsible for the origin of criminal law. But originally it was reconciled with a utilitarian basis of legislation by the belief that certain crimes roused the anger of the gods against communities which tolerated them, and were therefore socially harmful. This point of view is embodied in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. Those who believe this story can justify, on utilitarian grounds, the existing laws against the crimes which led to the destruction of those cities. But nowadays even Puritans seldom adopt this point of view. Not even the Bishop of London has suggested that the earthquake in Tokyo was due to any peculiar wickedness of its inhabitants. The laws in question can, therefore, only be justified by the theory of vindictive punishment, which holds that certain sins, though they may not injure anyone except the sinner, are so heinous as to make it our duty to inflict pain upon the delinquent. This point of view, under the influence of Benthamism, lost its hold during the nineteenth century. But in recent years, with the general decay of Liberalism, it has regained lost ground, and has begun to threaten a new tyranny as oppressive as any in the Middle Ages.

It is from America that the new movement derives most of its force; it is one consequence of the fact that America was the sole victor in the war. The career of Puritanism has been curious. It held brief power in England in the seventeenth century, but so disgusted the mass of ordinary citizens that they have never again allowed it to control the Government. The Puritans, persecuted in England, colonized New England, and subsequently the Middle West. The American Civil War was a continuation of the English Civil War, the Southern States having been mainly colonized by opponents of the Puritans. But unlike the English Civil War, it led to a permanent victory of the Puritan Party. The result is that the greatest Power in the world is controlled by men who inherit the outlook of Cromwell's Ironsides.

It would be unfair to point out the drawbacks of Puritanism without acknowledging its services to mankind. In England, in the seventeenth century and until modern times, it has stood for democracy against royal and aristocratic tyranny. In America, it stood for emancipation of the slaves, and did much to make America the champion of democracy throughout the world. These are great services to mankind, but they belong to the past. The problem of the present is not so much political democracy as the combination of order with liberty for minorities. This problem requires a different outlook from that of Puritanism; it requires tolerance and breadth of sympathy rather than moral fervour. Breadth of sympathy has never been a strong point with the Puritans. I will not say anything about the most noteworthy victory of Puritanism, namely, Prohibition in America. In any case, opponents of Prohibition cannot well make their opposition a matter of principle, since most of them would favour the prohibition of cocaine, which raises exactly the same questions of principle.

The practical objection to Puritanism, as to every form of fanaticism, is that it singles out certain evils as so much worse than others that they must be suppressed at all costs. The fanatic fails to recognize that the suppression of a real evil, if carried out too drastically, produces other evils which are even greater. We may illustrate by the law against obscene publications. No one denies that pleasure in obscenity is base, or that those who minister to it do harm. But when the law steps in to suppress it, much that is highly desirable is suppressed at the same rime. A few years ago, certain pictures by an eminent Dutch artist were sent through the post to an English purchaser. The Post Office officials, after enjoying a thorough inspection of them, concluded that they were obscene. (Appreciation of artistic merit is not expected of Civil Servants.) They therefore destroyed them, and the purchaser had no redress. The law gives power to the Post Office to destroy anything sent through the post that the officials consider obscene, and from their decision there is no appeal.

A more important example of the evils resulting from Puritan legislation arises in connection with birth control. It is obvious that ‘obscenity’ is not a term capable of exact legal definition; in the practice of the Courts, it means ‘anything that shocks the magistrate’. Now an average magistrate is not shocked by information about birth control if it is given in an expensive book which uses long words and roundabout phrases, but is shocked if it is given in a cheap pamphlet using plain language that uneducated people can understand. Consequently it is at present illegal in England to give information on birth control to wage-earners, though it is legal to give it to educated people. Yet it is wage-earners above all to whom the information is important. It should be noted that the law takes no account whatever of the purpose of a publication, except in a few recognized cases such as medical textbooks. The sole question to be considered is: If this publication fell into the hands of a nasty minded boy, could it give him pleasure? If so, it must be destroyed, whatever the social importance of the information it contains. The harm done by the enforced ignorance which results is incalculable. Destitution, chronic illness among women, the birth of diseased children, over-population and war are regarded by our Puritan lawgivers as smaller evils than the hypothetical pleasure of a few foolish boys.

The law as it exists is thought to be not sufficiently drastic. Under the auspices of the League of Nations, an International Conference on Obscene Publications, as reported in The Times of September l7, l923, recommended a tightening-up of the law in the United States and in all the countries belonging to the League of Nations. The British delegate was apparently the most zealous in this good work.

Another matter which bas been made the basis for far-reaching legislation is the white-slave traffic. The real evil here is very grave, and is quite a proper matter for the criminal law. The real evil is that ignorant young women are enticed by false promises into a condition of semi-slavery in which their health is exposed to the gravest dangers. It is essentially a Labour question, to be dealt with on the lines of the Factory Acts and the Truck Acts. But it bas been made the excuse for gross interference with personal liberty in cases where the peculiar evils of the white-slave traffic are entirely absent. Some years ago a case was reported in the English papers in which a man had fallen in love with a prostitute and married her. After they had lived together happily for some time, she decided to go back to her old profession. There was no evidence that he suggested her doing so, or in any way approved of her action, but be did not at once quarrel with her and turn her out of doors. For this crime he was flogged and thrown into prison. He suffered this punishment under a law which was then recent, and which is still on the statute-book.

In America, under a similar law, though it is not illegal to keep a mistress, it is illegal to travel with her from one State to another; a New Yorker may take his mistress to Brooklyn but not to Jersey City. The difference of moral turpitude between these two actions is not obvious to the plain man.

On this matter, also, the League of Nations is endeavouring to secure more severe legislation. Some time ago, the Canadian delegate on the League of Nations Commission suggested that no woman, however old, should be allowed to travel on a steamer unless accompanied by her husband or by one of her parents. This proposal was not adopted, but it illustrates the direction in which we are moving. It is, of course, obvious that such measures turn all women into ‘white slaves’; women cannot have any freedom without a risk that some will use it for purposes of ‘immorality’. The only logical goal of these reformers is the purdah (*). There is another more general argument against the Puritan outlook. Human nature being what it is, people will insist upon getting some pleasure out of life. For rough practical purposes, pleasures may be divided into those that have their primary basis in the senses, and those that are mainly of the mind. The traditional moralist praises the latter at the expense of the former; or rather, he tolerates the latter because he does not recognize them as pleasures. His classification is, of course, not scientifically defensible, and in many cases he is himself in doubt. Do the pleasures of art belong to the senses or to the mind? If he is really stern, he will condemn art in toto, like Plato and the Fathers: if he is more or less latitudinarian, he will tolerate art if it has a ‘spiritual purpose’, which generally means that it is bad art. This is Tolstoy's view. Marriage is another difficult case. The stricter moralists regard it as regrettable; the less strict praise it on the ground that it is generally unpleasant, especially when they succeed in making it indissoluble.

This, however, is not my point. My point is that pleasures which remain possible after the Puritan has done his utmost are more harmful than those that he condemns. Next to enjoying ourselves, the next greatest pleasure consists in preventing others from enjoying themselves, or, more generally, in the acquisition of power. Consequently those who live under the dominion of Puritanism become exceedingly desirous of power. Now love of power does far more harm than love of drink or any of the other vices against which Puritans protest. Of course, in virtuous people love of power camouflages itself as love of doing good, but this makes very little difference to its social effects. It merely means that we punish our victims for being wicked, instead of for being our enemies. In either case, tyranny and war result. Moral indignation is one of the most harmful forces in the modem world, the more so as it can always be diverted to sinister uses by those who control propaganda.

Economic and political organization has inevitably increased with the growth of industrialism, and is bound to increase still further unless industrialism collapses. The earth becomes more crowded, and our dependence upon our neighbours becomes more intimate. In these circumstances life cannot remain tolerable unless we learn to let each other alone in all matters that are not of immediate and obvious concern to the community. We must learn to respect each other's privacy, and not to impose our moral standards upon each other. The Puritan imagines that his moral standard is the moral standard; he does not realize that other ages and other countries, and even other groups in his own country, have moral standards different from his, to which they have as good a right as he has to his. Unfortunately, the love of power which is the natural outcome of Puritan self-denial makes the Puritan more executive than other people, and makes it difficult for others to resist him. Let us hope that a broader education and a wider knowledge of mankind may gradually weaken the ardour of our too virtuous masters.



(*) Purdah or Pardaa is the practice of preventing women from being seen by men. This takes two forms: physical segregation of the sexes, and the requirement for women to cover their bodies and conceal their form. Purdah exists in various forms in the Islamic world and among Hindu women in parts of India. (from Wikipedia)


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