In a recent blog post I stated that: when it comes to relationship models, I personally do not see any moral distinction between one social construct and another, whether it polygamy, polyandry, polyamory, monogamy and so forth. They are each merely variant relationship models... This is not a controversial statement, mind you. Regardless of what model you practice, it has been my experience that most successful adult relationships are predicated on fidelity and loyalty, communication and negotiation, trust, honesty, dignity, gender equality, non-possessiveness, mutual support, sharing domestic burdens and so on (you may be surprised to learn that these are the values within polyamory, not monogamy, although some of the values are overlapping).
Upon learning this, my Christian friend asked me the following hypothetical question:
With that in mind, if your wife said, “I love you Tristan, but I am attracted to someone else as well—would it be alright to have a physical relationship with them?”, how would you respond given the above description of sexual morality?
Understand this is purely theoretical—I am merely proposing a scenario to [assess] your view of morality vis a vis sexual fidelity in marriage.
Bracketed material originally said *test. However, I think our author means to say assess, since, technically speaking, nobody can test my own personal morality except me. That is to say, others could create a situation in which I would be required to make a moral decision, but they are only supplying the cause, the effect is predicated on my own choices and actions—as such I am the one who puts my morality to the test—therefore it is more accurate to say *access in this situation. It’s a subtle, but I feel, important distinction to make here, considering the nature of the question.
Seeing as this question involves rather complex issues, I took a couple days to mull over my response.
Let us pretend that of the seven billion people on the planet, roughly half of them women, so who is to say there isn’t a better match for me than my wife? I haven’t met all the women in the world, I know a relative precious few, but suppose I met a second match which not only rivals my wife in every aspect, but who I am even more attracted to. Now, I do not mean mere physical attraction, but also full emotional, intellectual, physical, compatibility. The entire works—she’s the deluxe version of my wife. What’s more, she makes me happy, just as happy as my wife does. And suddenly I find I am in love with two women equally.
Let us assume, for the sake of the argument, that my wife’s best friend comes to me and informs me of a decade long infatuation she’s secretly harbored for me, tells me that she has left her husband (who no longer makes her happy) and that she desires to start a relationship with me. Surprised by this news, I inform her that I too have harbored a secret passion for her as well. She decides the best course of action is to be truthful and inform my wife. We come out with it, and inform my wife how much we both still love her, but that we are attracted to each other too and want to begin a serious relationship, and we ask her if that’s all right. Being split between her love for me, and her love for her best friend, what would my wife say?
In reality my wife, being the passionate woman she is, would probably punch her fist through my face, reach into my skull, and pull out my spine only to crush it under the boot of her empurpled foot—and she’d probably decapitate her best friend with one swift karate chop of righteous rage. Then she’d engulf all of Tokyo with her fire-breath and next the entire world, for hell hath fury like a woman scorned. But hypothetically speaking, what if the reverse was the case? What if it wasn’t me who met my second soul mate, but my wife? Suppose then, the shoe was on the other foot, and my wife comes to me and informs that she still loves me, but that she is attracted to someone so much that she wants to begin a real relationship with them, but her love for me compels her to desire to continue our relationship as well, and she wants to know would it be alright?
The Categorical Imperative
Kantian ethics relies on something called the categorical imperative. In brief, the idea behind the categorical imperative is that there are absolute values, and so absolute forms of morality, and if this is true then it would be immoral to break the categorical imperative for selfish desires (as the categorical imperative is predicated on our desires).
Yet there are two things which we must note. First, absolute morality has not been confirmed beyond a reason of a doubt—that is the verdict is still out on whether or not absolute morality exists at all, and even assuming it did (as Kant seemed to), would we be capable of actualizing it? Secondly, not all of Kant’s examples were clear. His moral concerns regarding sex, for example, are extremely confused. Kant declared, “Taken by itself [sexual love] is degradation of human nature; for as soon as a person becomes an object of appetite for another, all motives of moral relationship cease to function” (Lectures on Ethics). Kant viewed sexual desire as bad, whereas in Plato, sexual desire is a good thing. Kant believed that sex was the personification of a spiritual relationship made into a material one, and objected on the basis that, like Pauline and Augustinian conviction, that original sin is somehow associated with sexual desire (see: concupiscence).
Although, pausing to think about it, I’m not so sure Kant’s categorical understanding quite fits the scenario we are to consider here, since sex is involved. Perhaps, if the relationship we were asked to ponder was merely based on physical lust, and nothing else, then the immorality of lustful coveting would make the desire to take on another partner (when one is already in a committed relationship) an immoral, certainly unethical, act. If one is not in a committed relationship, then there is no harm and no foul. Likewise, however, the obsessive desire to keep someone to themselves, thereby objectifying them as something to be had rather than an autonomous individual, making them into a sex slave, would also be unethical. As such, it seems to me that Kant’s categorical understanding is complicated by a scenario where genuine sexual love, founded on real love, is shared by multiple partners. Kant’s categorical imperative, as he applies it to sex, becomes horribly obscured and breaks down.
One such cause of confusion in relating Kant’s ethics to theories, such as expressivism, is that it is easy, but mistaken, to suppose that the categorical nature of the imperative means that it cannot be the expression of a sentiment, but must derive from something ‘unconditioned’ or ‘necessary’ such as the voice of reason (Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, 2nd Edition, 2008).
The reason it is important to bring this up is because, as with the case for sexual love, we must be careful to pay close attention to the difference between biological love and the ideal of romantic psychological love, and how each form of love are expressed. Indeed, what is love if not the expression of a sentiment? A sentiment stemming from our biological urges and conditioning—as much of modern courtship has to do with sexual selection of a mate as much as the modern notion that we, as mates, should desire mutual love and respect. So here is the problem Kant runs into, and so we must keep it in the back of our minds, knowing that Kant was mostly wrong with regard to sex—sexual love is not a degradation of human nature, but an expression of a more fundamental sort of love (biology giving way to chemistry—body and mind), and furthermore, maybe the moral foundation for a moral relationship is not voided.
[We know Kant is wrong here because, to take his line of reasoning, we’d assume wrongly about the nature of monogamous marriage being the only moral, socially acceptable, form of relationship. Also, we’d be wrong about the very nature of sexual love, to think that biological sex is somehow evil, because it would be denying our innate nature, a grave ethical mistake for the following reasons.
Consider the animal kingdom, where statistical survival is predicated largely on the size of the litter. It seems that in early times this was true for humans as well, and so this alone, disproves Kant’s theory. Biological sex in itself is not only necessary, but vital to our animal survival, and so is highly desirable. If humans forfeited the right to reproduce because the connotation of sexual love (biological sex) was wrong, then we would have forfeited the moral obligation to survive as a species. Thus, if the categorical imperative did have anything to say about sexual love it would actually contradict Kant’s reasoning—as we find that survival takes a higher moral priority (the good of the many outweighing the good of the one), and so sex, and so too sexual love, is morally desirable.
Assuredly, we know that Kant’s thinking with regard to sex is flawed, as it was most likely prejudiced by his own personal biases (e.g., early 18th century Eurocentric/Christian influenced attitudes toward sex). Another objection is that Kant’s understanding of marriage was skewed. Marriage is a social construct, plain and simple, and it is not a metaphysical privilege granted us by a higher moral authority (a better understanding of the history of marriage proves such a presumption erroneous). We know this because marriages were traditionally a means to economic stability, not human happiness. So again it would seem the moral imperative suggest survival above tradition (i.e., that the desire to have sex is morally superior to the desire to practice any social form of marriage). Also, because of Kant’s Eurocentrism (as mentioned above), he mainly views monogamy as the only version of marriage which contains any ethical values—wrongly assuming that in any other relationship model these ethical values would just fall out. As we have seen, however, this is a major misconception. The ethical values are frequently overlapping, even shared, between competing relationship models—just as we saw when juxtaposing monogamy and polyamory.]
If I say yes to my wife’s insistence on taking on another lover, do I allow her to relinquish her pledge of fidelity to me? Or do I insist that she make a choice, either him or me? What seems more fair? I for one find neither scenario compelling. On the one hand, I do not want to lose my wife, because I love her, and on the other hand, I want to do everything in my power to make her happy, as my love of her demands.
This is extremely complicated. Scenario A) I keep my pledge of fidelity while allowing her to have multiple relationships (i.e., this is called polyandry). Scenario B) I withhold her right to make her own decisions, to pursue happiness, and hold her to the fulfillment of her initial pledge of fidelity to me (as Kant’s reasoning would dictate—albeit incorrectly). Scenario C) I make a self sacrifice, and take myself out of the equation, allowing her to pursue her happiness without interfering with her life choices. Scenario D) I allow it and expect equal rights and privileges with regard to my own happiness and we agree upon a more open relationship involving a group marriage (i.e., this is known as polyamory).
Right away we can see that scenario B is immoral. I do not have the right to limit another person’s pursuit of happiness, nor do I own the right to dictate the terms in what level of happiness a person ought to have. Expecting my wife to disregard her feelings entirely based on my own selfish concerns is not moral. What’s more, holding her in bondage to me, knowing it would decrease her level of happiness, and maybe even cause her grief, would be sponsoring her misery—and this is an immoral act. So we must eliminate choice B entirely.
Equally as problematic is choice C. Although it is a noble sentiment to sacrifice oneself out of love for another, it is not always the most practical means to achieve the best moral outcome. I must consider my wife’s feelings, because if I didn’t I would have resolved any moral obligation to her whatsoever. Accordingly, I must acknowledge the fact that she hasn’t ceased loving me. Rather, she is merely in love with two men simultaneously. Thus, taking myself out of the equation might mean I inadvertently cause her more grief than deserved, and although she would probably learn to cope (a hope not a guarantee), and her new relationship may eventually replace the emotional void I would leave in my wake (again, without any guarantee), it seems the act of doing so requires an immoral action on my behalf. The question becomes, is it morally permissible to allow a wrong to make a right? Maybe if the good of the many outweighed the good of the few, but when there is no real statistical difference, as it seems with this case, then it appears that it would not be morally permissible to risk breaking her heart and causing her unwarranted grief. Therefore, it seems scenario C must also be eliminated.
This leaves of with scenario A (polyandry) or scenario D (polyamory) as being the best remaining moral choices.
The catch-22 then is that both choices make it obligatory that I allow my wife to retract her promise of fidelity toward me. And as we know, breaking a promise is not entirely moral, but it’s not entirely immoral either, just as telling a white lie for good reasons is not entirely immoral. If you have foreknowledge that breaking a promise would, in turn, actually bring the other person greater happiness, then it would be permissible to do so. Indeed, this is the very hypothetical situation we find ourselves in.
One last possible objection might be that a person believes, as Kant did, that breaking an oath of fidelity is immoral, period, thus by allowing another to retract the promise we commit the same moral offense. Understandably then, it would seem, the most reasonable solution is to simply avoid such a situation, which means never to fall in love in the first place. Yet such a demand is wholly impractical, not to mention unrealistic, and so we can be sure that such an expedient means is not the best solution to this moral challenge.
Some may interject, but what about your own happiness? If you say that causing unnecessary grief is not morally desirable, aren’t you being hypocritical by causing yourself grief and unhappiness? Indeed, this is the other part of the catch-22, which is why such a hypothetical situation is not so easily resolved. In fact, most moral considerations are not easily settled. What I would argue here is that I have to weigh my wife’s happiness against my own. Meanwhile, I cannot forget the third party’s happiness. By denying my wife her choice to be with another man, am I, in effect, making them both unhappy? For me, what this means is that their combined happiness outweighs my own, and therefore, given the situation, polyandry and polyamory, remain justifiable.
Another potential objection would be if, someday, in this hypothetical narrative, I too met another special someone but my wife (for some reason) objected to my being with her. If my happiness is denied while my wife’s happiness is permitted, as a result, this would set up a double standard. Her level of happiness plus her partners happiness being equal to my level of unhappiness plus my partners unhappiness (2H + -2H = 0), and the two competing relationships cancel each other out (in terms of happiness). This is assuming we desired to live a happy life while maintaining meaningful and emotionally satisfying relationships. Of course it is conceivable that apathy toward individual happiness could make the double standard livable, we are concerned with whether or not it is morally permissible.
All things being equal, however, the moral precedent being set (i.e., not to cause unnecessary grief or unhappiness), a double standard creates a moral impasse. Therefore the only recourse would be to terminate the relationship. Which is why jealously, possessiveness, and obsession are not permitted in polyamorous relationship models, mainly because they are emotions which breed unethical behavior. If my wife did not contain a jealous streak, she would not likely object, and then there would be no destructive double standard, and a polyamorous group marriage would become morally permissible. The circle of fidelity, then, would expand to encompass the group.
One last objection we could raise is, if we can just change the parameters of fidelity so easily, then doesn’t it lose all of its meaning? In other words, if we are permitted to just keep admitting new lovers into the group, expanding the boundaries of the group marriage, where does it end? This is the biggest difficulty I have with polyamorous group marriage models—I don’t know how to regulate growth. Personally, I do not have a clear-cut answer to overcome this obstacle, but at the same time, I do not see anything overtly immoral about changing the size of the circle.
Whether the agreement is made between one couple, or a trio, or four amigos, to practice fidelity I do not see how fidelity itself loses any meaning. It seems to me that fidelity represents either loyalty or faithfulness to a person, cause, or belief. Where relationships are concerned, expanding fidelity from the micro scale of monogamous couple to the group brings us to tribal loyalty. Increasing it more still takes us to the macro scale and connotes a sense of nationalism. Religion employs such scales of fidelity as well, talking about a personal relationship with God, then loyalty and dedication the church, and then to the faith as a whole.
In any case, it seems the only thing that changes is the size of the fidelity circle. Even so, the circle does seem to stop—eventually. If I had to take a guess as to why the circle of loyalty eventually stops, I would say that once the group expands beyond a certain size, the similarities and interests shared within the group begin to coalesce, and this in turn generates certain biases against divergent interests and unfamiliarity in general. And this is where the line is likely to be drawn. That said, even with the hypothetical example, there are not likely to be that many perfect mates, even though I am pretty certain the number has to be greater than one. As such, we might assume that the fidelity circle can encompass small groups just fine—without losing its meaning.
After weighing all possible scenarios, and considering the question from various angles, I have come to the conclusion that, in the spirit of non-possessiveness (possessiveness being a form of coveting—thus immoral), allowing my wife to retract her promise of fidelity is morally superior to increasing the grief or inflicting unhappiness on another (whether intentionally or not). Yet considered with the moral implications with regard to my own happiness, and wanting to avoid potential double standards, I would expect the same gesture to be returned in full. Therefore, I would allow my wife, continuing to trust in her better judgment, the unrestricted choice to love whom she will. I cannot hope to dictate who she loves, or she me, and any action on our behalf to try to do so would be immoral.
Above is merely the logical, rational, conclusion one is to make if they are merely concerned with the best possible moral outcome—according to the hypothetical situation. Yet as a flesh and blood human being, swayed by powerful emotions, I cannot say that the best moral outcome for the groups is always the most desirable for the individual. Although, I am willing to admit, because of my social conditioning, I could very well be mistaken. I assume that if all relationships were polyamorous, and group marriage was the norm, then I would probably be highly skeptical of monogamy. It would seem weird to me, just as I now think the concept of polyamory seems weird.
Honestly, I think it would be an interesting experiment to try a group marriage, to see if it works just as well as a monogamous marriage. But in reality, however, that is not an experiment I can try. For one, as I mentioned at the beginning, my wife does (to no fault of her own) have a jealous streak, and would never allow such a thing. However, by the off chance that I did meet someone who was even better suited to me as a mate and life partner than my current wife, then the question becomes how do I test that without causing my wife, who is jealous, undeserved heartache? In reality, I do not think it is possible, given our personality types, to even attempt such an experiment. In which case, I would be content to maintain the current overall happiness of my family over my individual happiness—as that would be the highest moral good.