Our sixth guest blogger, Maren Behrensen, discusses the philosophy of polyamory.
A few years ago, I attended a panel discussion on “The Future of Marriage” at a university in the Boston Area. The panel included some gay rights advocates, some traditionalists, and some advocates of poly relationships. At one point during the debate, polyamory and polygamy came into focus, and when that happened, the gay rights representatives suddenly sided with the traditionalists. In particular, they felt the need to emphasize that advocacy of same-sex marriage did absolutely not imply advocacy for the legal sanctioning of poly relationships. I was nonplussed. How could one view the denial of marriage to same-sex couples as a human rights violation, and yet be adamant that this idea did not, under any circumstances, extend to consensual partnerships that include more than two people?
Even more strangely (as one of the poly advocates on the panel pointed out): How come that there is still so much hostility toward the prospect of legally sanctioned poly relationships, while serial monogamy is becoming the norm in many places?
I don’t think that this hostility is merely hostility toward the idea of poly marriages (just as hostility toward same-sex marriage was never just about marriage). I think that the hostility is rooted in moral objections to the concept of polyamory. It bears noting that the slippery slope from same-sex relationships to polyamory and further to incest and bestiality has long been a staple of anti-LGB rhetoric (it also bears noting that this slippery slope has been dismissed by gay rights philosophers, such as John Corvino, without critiquing the notion that polyamory is just as objectionable as bestiality or incest). Polyamory has been made out as one of the morally abhorrent “others” to monogamous partnership, and many advocates of same-sex marriage today seem more invested in promoting monogamous homosexuality as the “new normal” rather than to question the notions that led to the othering of homosexuality and polyamory in the first place.
It’s these notions I want to focus on here. I want to advance a conditional defense of polyamory by showing how moral objections to polyamory commit their proponents to positions they would regard as indefensible in other contexts. I will discuss two of these objections:
- Polyamory is morally objectionable since it’s necessarily unequal, and it’s necessarily unequal because it involves intransitive romantic commitments.
- Polyamory is morally objectionable since it presupposes shared romantic commitments, but shared romantic commitments are not romantic commitments at all.
Both objections are related, and both are rooted in a particular understanding of romantic love, namely that genuine and morally valuable romantic love, is necessarily exclusive and transitive. And this raises one particular question about love in this context: Why is it that romantic love is one of the very few kinds of love that is thought to be of this kind? After all, perhaps the only other kind of love that is similar in that respect is patriotism, the love for one’s country.
The idea that polyamory is morally deficient is often connected to the idea that polyamorous relationships necessarily embody unjust power structures. And this connection often comes down to an equivocation of polyamory with polygamy. In a recent article, Thom Brooks argues that polygamy is morally wrong because it is inherently unequal, and at the end of the article, he simply extends his argument to polyamory without much discussion. Brooks’s main complaint about polygamy is that it allows one partner to end the entire relationship arrangement unilaterally, while the other partners in the relationship do not have the same power. In a more general formulation, Brooks seems to object to the intransitive nature of polygamy: While one person is partnered with all others in an existing poly relationship, this does not mean that all their partners are partnered with one another.
What Brooks focuses on is the classic, patriarchal case of polygamy, in which one man is married to multiple women (in a society or community which allows women fewer social and political rights to begin with: it is curious that all the studies Brooks’ cites in support of his claim that polygamy hurts women and children are studies of deeply conservative Arab and Muslim communities). In these cases, it does not seem particularly difficult to make the case that there is something inherently unequal about these relationships, and that the intransitive aspect of their poly status exacerbates this inequality. In fact, Brooks’s argument seems to mirror an argument that is easy to level against all patriarchal societies: that the relationship arrangements one finds in these societies are set up to support the subordination and exploitation of women (and this critique does of course not just apply to Muslim societies).
But we need to raise two questions then: First, we should wonder whether warranted complaints about polygamy also apply to polyamory. Second, we should wonder whether warranted complaints about polygamy would not also apply to traditional forms of dyadic relationships, that is, to traditional opposite-sex marriage.
Regarding the first point, it is crucial to note that traditional, patriarchal polygamy is but of many forms that poly relationships can take. Contemporary advocates of polyamory (such as Deborah Anapol) typically emphasize the need for open and honest communication among all partners, and for relationship arrangements that meet the needs of all who participate in them. It seems clear enough that the polyamorous ideal has little to do with forms of polygamy that can justifiably be called unjust, unequal, and sexist. (One should add that this is true even in cases where the members of a polyamorous relationship themselves distinguish between primary and secondary relationships, a distinction which might be less common than is often assumed.)
Now it might be objected that the polyamorous ideal (of open and honest communication, and equitable treatment of all participants in a relationship) is just that: an ideal. If the majority of poly relationships fall short of this ideal, and if many of them, such as traditional polygamous marriages, seem to directly violate it, it would seem as if invoking the ideal is missing the point. But if this were the case, then we could raise the same objection against traditional dyadic relationships (that is, traditional marriage). It is certainly possible to idealize marriage as the embodiment of love, but at the same time, we can find many reasons to criticize the way marriage as a social, clerical, and social institution has been set up to consolidate and perpetuate power inequalities.
The objections to polyamory we have discussed so far are connected to a second set of objections: objections that center around the idea that romantic love must be exclusive. The thought is that whatever is valuable about romantic love, is devalued or destroyed by non-exclusivity.
This objection is easiest to illustrate with cases where non-exclusivity implies a betrayal of trust, that is, in cases of adultery and infidelity. But here, it would seem, the real moral objection applies to deception and the betrayal of trust, and not to the mere fact that the relationship is non-exclusive. In other words: in polyamorous relationships in which all partners are aware of and consent to the non-exclusivity, this objection would not apply.
A different route for the argument could be to point out that shared romantic commitments are not romantic commitments, but perhaps just an interest in additional sexual activity. This assumption is not borne out by empirical studies on polyamory (many of those who embrace the label “polyamory” also disassociate themselves from the label “swinger”, and emphasize the longevity and the seriousness of their romantic commitment to multiple partners; this has been covered in work by Christian Klesse).
Still another, but related, objection is that there are only so many persons (or activities, or institutions) one can be committed to, since real commitments require time, attention, energy, and care. This is certainly as true for romantic commitments as it is for other forms of commitment. But what is nevertheless strange about this argument when it’s used against polyamory is that it implies that the maximum number of acceptable commitments is “one” in the case of romantic love, but more than one in the case of, for instance, friendships or parenthood.
To sharpen the formulation of this point: It is strange that those who believe monogamy is the only viable form for morally worthwhile romantic commitment do not seem to object to parents who decide to raise more than one child, or to persons who maintain more than one intensive friendship. In all three cases, it is understood that the number of commitments cannot be limitless (it is impossible to have an infinite number of good friends, or to raise an infinite number of children well). But in neither of the latter two (parenthood and friendship) is the non-exclusivity of the commitment thought to damage the moral value of the commitment: Parents are not commonly thought to become worse parents for dividing their parental commitment between several children, and friends are not worse friends for having other friendships. Why then should this be the case for romantic commitments?
Is Romantic Love Special?
The only other alleged moral value that is similar to romantic love in the insistence on non-exclusivity is perhaps patriotism. And this should give us pause: Not only does international migration contribute to social and political constellations in which persons find themselves committed to and feel at home in more than one country. The idea that patriotism must be exclusive is also used in xenophobic propaganda. Would we want a similarly backward philosophy about the moral value of love?
Surely parental love, patriotism, and romantic love are not the same thing, and it would be a mistake to try to reduce all forms of love to the same type of commitment. But in the case of love between individual human beings, it seems that these different forms of love all require a basic level of commitment in the form of time, attention, energy, and care. That romantic love should demand so much more of these things that a romantic commitment is essentially indivisible should strike us as strange. And if the argument is that romantic love is just simply special in this way, then we should ask whether this notion of “specialness” isn’t merely a remnant of a historically contingent conception of love, namely one that arose in the first half of the 19th century under very specific political and social conditions.