This weekend in Vancouver, B.C. is the first national conference of the Canadian Polyamory Advocacy Association, a relatively new organization that aims to represent the interests of people involved in “poly” relationships, relationships of three or more individuals. According to the group, there are thousands of polyamorous people in Canada, most of them apparently unconnected to polygamist religious groups.
Since 2011, when a superior court ruling confirmed the legality of polyamorous relationships, the conversation surrounding polyamory has grown, and it is now large enough to attract the attention of major newspapers, as well as 13,000+ users who follow a polyamory board on social news site Reddit. It is on the verge of turning political. The CPAA’s director, Zoe Duff, who is in a relationship with two men, says that marriage hasn’t been much of a concern for polyamorous people, but says “as a long term thing, I can see a desire to have the right to marry.”
Somehow it isn’t very surprising that the marriage discussion is moving to this point. We’ve become accustomed to the language of modern egalitarian individualism and the challenge it presents to traditional norms surrounding sex and marriage. From the mid-1960s to early 1970s, public opinion on pre-marital sex reversed. The last few decades have seen homosexuality (and other sexual ideas) become recognized as a legitimate part of human identity.
The consistent message of those at the vanguard of these transitions is in itself nothing new. The message is, why not let people do something if it isn’t particularly harmful? Naturally we aren’t overly surprised when we find that these values, carried to their logical conclusions, suggest that polyamory is as legitimate as anything else, and perhaps should be recognized as a part of marriage. This is certainly the language used by the CPAA:
We are the poly majority: modern, secular, egalitarian polyamory. …
That means women or men can have more than one partner… if everybody involved agrees it’s best for them. That’s not empty theory; we live all gender combinations. …
Our relationships are custom-made by those in them, without preset roles. We don’t just choose freely; we define the choices. …
We are NICE: negotiated, individualized, consensual, and egalitarian.
The excerpt above doesn’t appeal to any values that are unfamiliar, or say anything that would be out of place in a Canadian university. Who would disagree that people should choose freely what’s best for them? Who doesn’t like those “NICE” values? But surely, you’re thinking, things aren’t so simple. Surely there is some good reason our society hasn’t embraced polyamory. There is (and it isn’t the supposed tax issues created by polygamy).
Some have made a science out of identifying and attacking old norms that violate the new social orthodoxy. But humanity, and in particular human morality and social activity, is not reducible to the freely chosen actions of utility-maximizing individuals. That is to say, marriage is not simply two (or more) people entering into a contract, and sex is not simply individuals freely seeking individual fulfillment. This sort of thinking is totally academic; it is a model of humanity that offers conveniently the simplifications that intellectuals seek, and thus lends itself well to reasoning (i.e. “Individuals have freedom, therefore they ought to be able to commit to multiple people as long as it is consensual”).
The model, however, is broken, despite the narrow truths it contains. Whether you view humanity as the work of a magnificent God, or else as the result of millennia of biological adjustments, or both, it is impossible to imagine that things are so simple. The nuances created by such awesome forces will inevitably refuse to be contained by anything simplistic. Morality is not summarized in a maxim.
To be specific again for a moment, there is good reason for the taboo surrounding polyamory. And to be emphatically old-fashioned, I tend to think that polyamory represents an indulgent attitude toward sex, is a poor environment in which to raise children, and is, regardless of any consensual considerations, almost totally incompatible with the kind of love that ought to exist between a married couple. As a result of the experience and wisdom you’ve collected over the years you’ve been alive, you probably agree with these statements. But these kinds of statements won’t be popular with theorists–they’re more difficult to prove than moral generalities are to assert. But when it comes to living life in the real world, we make our decisions more on the basis of our intuition and core values, however ineffable, than we do on the apparently self-evident principles of hyper-rationalist thought.
The reason I can say what I’ve said in this entry is that I’ve entered the debate early. There’s a good chance that a decade or two from now these words will be bigoted or ignorant or even “polyphobic”–who knows. I may end up on the wrong side of history (in the way that Bill Clinton regrets signing DOMA in 1996). But there’s also a chance that the modern open mind will expand to contain the things it cannot quite understand, but is still pretty sure about–that it will not surrender to the intellectual trap of pleasing certainties–that every wind of social doctrine will not carry it too far away.
Let me know in the comments whether you think polyamory will become acceptable over time. Also let me know what your view on polyamory is, and whether you think that your views will change.