E. Belfort Bax

The Ethics of the “Burning Stain”

(August 1899)

E. Belfort Bax, The Ethics of the “Burning Stain”, Social Democrat, August 1899, pp.233-37.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The writers of the articles on Sexual Ethics in the last number of the Social-Democrat seemed to have a singular aptitude for misapprehension. In reply, I will first of all deal with the two shorter papers by “Egeria” and Mr. Platt respectively, reserving Mr. Rothstein till the last. As for “Egeria,” veritably, like Hamlet and his grave-digger, “one must speak by the card or equivocation will undo us” – and with a vengeance. This interesting young lady finds an inconsistency between the statement that animal functions belong rather to the domain of aesthetics than that of ethics and the further statement that an animal function may have an influence in the making or marring of character. If I must speak then with geometrical precision, here is my answer to this supposed inconsistency. As you say, “Egeria,” there is nothing absolutely without an influence, possible or actual, on other things! It needs no ghost come from the grave, not even a resuscitated wood-nymph like “Egeria,” to tell us this very stale platitude. There are, however, such well-marked differences in degree, in social as in other phenomena, in the relative strength and directness of influence as to justify us for practical purposes in dividing actions into different categories. Now, those actions which predominantly concern the taste of the individual and only indirectly affect others, I say belong to the domain of esthetics and not of ethics. They are purely self-regarding, per se, though they may possibly become moral or immoral par aliud. Of course it is not possible to fix “an exact boundary-line” between ethics and aesthetics, but it is quite possible to fix a boundary-line good enough to guide the man of ordinary intelligence alike in his ethical researches and his everyday conduct. My point is that in actions which are primarily self-regarding the completest possible freedom of individual taste should be guaranteed. The onus probandi in any special instance should lie with those who wish to bring the action in question within the sphere of ethics of proving that it necessarily, or in all human probability, will produce evil consequences. Thus, in the case of dress and furnishing, cited by Egeria, if you could crush Fashion with an iron heel you might, it is true, in some cases be offended by enormities, but in the infinite variety of individual taste that would ensue the best – that most adapted to contemporary life and in accordance with the best contemporary taste – might be trusted to survive. It is Fashion which in nine cases out of ten means the artificial social enforcement of senseless enormities, that prevents this. In the pre-capitalistic era there was greater freedom and hence greater taste. Fashion, as we know it to-day, is by no means the least of the curses the capitalistic great industry has foisted upon us. To say, as Egeria does, that people who are “most developed as human beings” will dress with taste, and decorate their houses with taste (i.e., if they have the means) is obvious and puerile, and will not help the thesis that there is any duty for a given man to adopt a particular style of dress or house-decoration, since he may just as likely as not adopt the wrong one. He should dress or furnish as his taste develops.

Here in fact we have a very good illustration of the mischief of mixing up things (primarily) aesthetic with things (primarily) ethical. In the first the greatest freedom, notwithstanding its apparent drawbacks, may be safely trusted to evolve the ideal in the end. Egeria’s most developed human being will in the end inevitably conquer. Only, who the “most developed” human being is may still be open to discussion. With the latter half of Egerias article I heartily agree.

As regards Mr. Platt’s short note, I have only to say that he seems to have utterly misapprehended the scope and purport of my article. Let me assure him it requires no rewriting on account of the omission he finds in it, and for the very simple reason that my object was not to elaborate a constructive treatise or even an exhaustive article on the theory of sexual aesthetics and ethics in all their bearings, but simply to criticise Mr. Rothstein’s contribution.

Now, Rothstein does not refer to the children-problem in his paper. Unlike the writer in the Neue Zeit of last year, the particular fad upon which he seeks to base his ascetic theory is not the “duty” of sexual intercourse being followed by offspring, but of its being preceded and accompanied by a particularly exalted quality of “love.” Hence, under the circumstances, I contend I was perfectly justified in eliminating the children-problem from my calculations. Furthermore, while I fully admit that the latter complicates the question in its own way, and may modify the practical application of the principles set forth by me in those cases where it enters, I contend it does not touch the basis of my arguments.

There exists a vast mass of sexual intercourse of all kinds into which the question of offspring does not enter at all. The two problems (1) love and sexual intercourse, per se, and (2) the procreation of children, should to my thinking, be clearly distinguished and thrashed out apart from one another. After having done this thoroughly we shall be in a position to clearly consider their mutual bearings, which we certainly are not when we inconsiderately mix up these two perfectly distinct aspects of the great problem of sex with one another, thereby hopelessly confusing the issues involved. The first is per se an aesthetic and personal self-regarding question, the second is pre-eminently an ethical and social question.

We come now to Mr. Rothstein himself. I fully recognise the difficulty of discussing this question irrespective of the more general one of the “Introspective Ethics” and the “Social-utility Ethics.” But as Rothstein justly says, this is a controversy by itself. Now as to the article I dispute in toto the second premiss of Rothstein’s second syllogism. My contention, on the contrary, was, and is, that the physical side of sex has a relative completeness in itself, at the present stage of human evolution at least, and is not a bare nucleus of a set of psychical reactions and states, This being the case, his conclusion, for those who think with me, manifestly falls to the ground of itself. It then becomes at most an ideal of sex relationship that the psychical as well as the physical should be satisfied, but by no means a necessary condition of the sexual act. Even apart from this the onus probandi rests on Mr. Rothstein for showing why half a loaf should not be better than no bread – for, showing why Man, if he cannot have the psychical, is in duty bound not to accept the physical which he can have. Herein lies the non sequitur complained of. Because in Mr. Rothstein’s opinion the best form of the sexual connection is his idyllic “love,” therefore, if a man cannot get this he should have nothing at all. Beyond Mr. Rothstein’s ipse dixit we have no attempt to substantiate this, to me, preposterous proposition. Again, I ask, who told him that “love” (in his sense) alone can supply the necessary ethical sanction for a “sexual life?” if, as he seems to say, it wasn’t the angel Gabriel, was it the arch-angel Michael? On “mundane” principles I again assert it is at once natural and justifiable for anyone to take as much of the sexual life as he can get, and in making this assertion I claim to have the commonsense of mankind on my side.

But Rothstein’s whole position is bound up with unproven assumptions, as for instance, that “our position in the scale of organic existence ... is decidedly and naturally monogamic, &c.” Here is a proposition which amounts to a mere bald dogma, a dogma which I in common with many others would most distinctly traverse. Time was when the notion of toleration in religious belief was unknown, when not merely Catholics but every Protestant sectionary thought of nothing else than to impose his own set of dogmas and his own theory of church organisation vi et armis on the rest of the world. Then came a time when the doctrine of toleration appeared, and finally gave rise to a mutual resolve, that while each sectary might maintain the belief in the superiority of his own position, it should be regarded as “bad form” to “damn” his neighbour for thinking otherwise, in a word, when the attempt to obtain religious uniformity was abandoned. The world has yet to learn toleration in sexual matters, that various temperaments must have a latitude of outlet in these things, that however estimable the current sexual theory of Christendom may be, the attempt to stretch every man and woman on the procrustean bed of a mechanical monogamy must be definitely abandoned, and freedom of choice within at least certain limits, granted as just and righteous. The endeavour to enforce sexual uniformity has hitherto been productive of nothing but human misery, and has proved the seed-ground of the worst form of hypocrisy, a hypocrisy which has helped to sap the moral fibre of one generation of men after another. Whatever else may be natural that is certainly unnatural, and not merely unnatural but also in the highest degree immoral. These are thy fruits, oh, misnamed “purity”! For the man to whom marriage is “Boir, manger, dormir ensemble,” let it be so. Don’t force him on pain of your canting social frown, to lie and to maunder what he does not feel. For this will be the only result. It means only the enforced baptism of the Jew over again. You may make him sham your idyllic love and he will secretly and with justice despise you for doing so, and in addition hold your theory in an undue and unfair contempt behind your back.

To be natural is to place no arbitrary restrictions on the satisfaction of the physical requirements of our nature. If Rothstein chooses to twist the word natural into meaning something else I must decline to follow his, to me, perversion of terms. “Our ‘pure reason’,” says Rothstein, “may convince us that love is the only ethical sanction, &c.,” meaning thereby, apparently that our “pure reason” actually does so. Here is another crude petitio principii. For my own part, I am still waiting for the proof that either our pure or our practical reason upholds friend Rothstein’s contentions. Further, my solution, individual freedom in sexual matters, is by the Rothsteinian fiat declared to be “deeply immoral and unnatural.” With all these ex cathedra utterances one begins to think that the suggestion of mere communings with angels and archangels is feeble, and the awful doubt arises within one whether Rothstein may not himself be an incarnation of one of the persons of the Trinity.

I will put a concrete case to Rothstein. Suppose a man married the object of his lofty Rothsteinian “love” at twenty-one, and at forty-two left her for another, who in a higher degree responded to his “complex-psychical states.” Now, in the kingdom of heaven à la Rothstein, which of these twain would he the true Rothsteinian “complex-psychical” monogamic wife of the man in question? For men’s sexual needs change with years, and even sometimes develop.

My analogy between the man who in default of good food stops eating altogether, and the man who, in default of “psychical” love stops sexualising altogether, is declared invalid because, while we cannot do without food we can do without sexual satisfaction. But we can do without all but a very exiguous minimum of food, as the Anchorites and the Indian Jogis have taught us. Yet I do not find that Mr. Rothstein recommends even this partial starvation on his disciples who can only afford “cagmag” and “fried fish.” On the other hand Rothstein is flying in the teeth of facts when he states that “we” (if by “we,” that is, he means the average man) can “very well do without sexual satisfaction.” There are exceptions, I am aware, but for the average man sexual satisfaction is just as essential to a healthy life, i.e., to the mens sana in corpore sana, as food is to bare existence. Rothstein’s “continence” is for the average man, I do not hesitate to say unconditionally to be deprecated as directly producing an uncleanly habit of body usually accompanied by an uncleanly habit of mind, if nothing worse. That the latter is the case has been proved ad nauseam by the history of religious movements. “Continence” may be conducive to a “virtuously” ascetic life, but it certainly does not conduce to a socially ethical life (at least for the vast majority of men). Hence, I can only again repeat that if you choose to seek for an immediate ethical bearing in the sexual act you must find in it the duty of a man to be natural (for the sake of his health and usefulness in society) and natural in the obvious and not in the Rothsteinian sense of the word.

Once more, I must join issue with Rothsteinian morality in another point. The capitalist turned Socialist we are told, if he be a hero, should “ throw up his position and enter the ranks of the workers.” Cui bono? That he may help to glut the labour market still further? This, though the obvious result, can hardly be the motive. For what then? For no intelligible human purpose at all (since neither the actual measure of human exploitation is diminished thereby, nor is the end of the capitalist system brought a day nearer) but as a sacrifice on the altar of the dubious abstract formula that it is “more moral to be exploited than to be an exploiter.” Such a man is to me not a hero but a fool. And I will add not one of those “fools and dreamers” of whom Morris sang, as eventually becoming the “brave and wise,” but a mere common fool with the adjective. As for the tu quoque (the Retour Kutsche, as the Germans call it) with which friend Rothstein concludes his article, I venture to think its author himself must have been a little ashamed of its feebleness when he saw it in print. For my own part I can only say that I hope to see the day when comrade Rothstein who, I understand, is still a young man, will have outgrown these salad-ethics of his and will give us a better output of his undoubted intellectual powers than he has yet done. Russia is, as we know, a backward country, which has suddenly awakened to the great issues of social life and progress. It is, therefore, not the fault of the Russians if the old utopist “ethics of introspection,” the basis of the Christian ethics, should in an exaggerated form, rule the roost there. Rothstein is, of course, an all-round cultivated man and a cosmopolitan up to a certain point, but there’s still the Russian in him. One can see he is the countryman of Tolstoi. In conclusion I can only say that if I have been too warm in this controversy, my excuse must be the importance I attach to clear views on this question and the duty I feel of combatting what I hold to be spurious ethics.


E. Belfort Bax


Last updated on 5.5.2005