The Economic Basis of Morality

As all the advantages of the rearing of animals come to be realised, the savage “pack” gradually changes into a society of shepherds or herdsmen, in which the men are engaged in tending cattle, sheep, or goats, while to the women fall the subordinate offices of spinning the wool, milking the cows and goats, and making the butter and cheese. The men drive the flocks to pasture and water, regulate the breeding, guard the folds against enemies, decide which of the animals shall be killed for food, and break in the beasts of burden.

But in these pastoral pursuits it gradually becomes apparent to the men that labour is a valuable thing. A man who has been very successful in cattle-rearing requires a number of “hands” to keep his herds in order. Besides the domestic labour performed by women, he requires the outdoor labour of men, to prevent the cattle from straying or being stolen, to drive them to pasture in the morning and bring them back at night. To this demand for labour we probably owe two of the great institutions of the pastoral age : permanent marriage and slavery. There is really, as we shall see, nothing out of place in taking these two together, odd as the connection may sound to modern ears.

Permanent marriage is one of the essential features of patriarchal society. By superficial writers, its appearance is often attributed to some vague improvement in morality or taste. Unhappily, the facts point to a much less exalted origin, viz., the desire of the man to secure for himself exclusively the labour of the woman and her offspring. If the change had come about from exalted ideas of morality, we should probably have found two features in the new system (1) equality of numbers between the man and the woman ; (2) free consent to the marriage on both sides. It is notorious that just the opposite are the facts of the patriarchal system, at any rate at its earlier stages. Polygamy, or plurality of wives, is the rule; and while the husband is not at all particular about the conduct of his wife with other men, he is intensely strict about appropriating the whole of her labours ; and all her offspring, no matter who is the real father, belong to him. Again, the ancient forms of marriage, viz, marriage by capture and marriage by purchase, point irresistibly to the conclusion that the woman had little or no voice in the matter. In the case of marriage by capture, the husband carried off his wife by force from a neighbouring tribe ; and long after the reality of this practice has disappeared, it survives, as is well known, in a ficticious form all over the world. It is considered barely decent for the girl to come to the marriage without a show of force. Even in polite modern society the “best man” is said to be a survival of the friends who went with the bridegroom in ancient days to help him to carry off his bride, while the bridesmaids are the lady’s companions, who attempted to defend her from the audacious robber, and the wedding tour is a survival of the flight from the angry relatives of the bride. In the more peaceful form of marriage by purchase, the lady has become an article of marketable value, whose price is paid, usually in cattle or sheep, to her relatives or owners. It is a refinement of modern days that the “bride price” should be settled on the lady herself, or contributed in the form of marriage gifts, to stock the future home. In ancient times it was paid, if not in hard cash, at any rate in solid cattle, to the damsel’s relatives, who, by the marriage, lost the value of her services. Jacob, we know, paid for his wives by labour; but this was probably an exception. In patriarchal society, the father of a round dozen of strong and well-favoured daughters is a rich man.

Slavery arises from the practice of keeping alive captives taken in war, instead of putting them to death. In savage days wars are usually the result of scarcity of food, and result in the killing and eating of members of a stranger “pack.” But, with the increasing certainty of food supply, resulting among other benefits from pastoral pursuits, cannibalism becomes unnecessary, and captives are carefully kept alive in order that they may labour for their captors. It may sound odd to speak of slavery as a beneficent institution, but one of the first lessons which the student of history has to learn is that things which to us now seem very wicked may really have been at one, time improvements on something much worse. Slavery is an ugly thing, but it is better than cannibalism. Again, however, we notice that the upward step was due, not to exalted morality, but to practical convenience. Morality is the result, not the cause, of social amelioration.

EDWARD JENKS, M.A., “A History of Politics.”

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