Polyamory: Where Will Modern Morality Lead Us?

Three rings representing a polyamorous relationship.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.

Envy is a Disease

“A sound heart is the life of the flesh: but envy the rottenness of the bones.” – Proverbs 14:30

Renaissance painter Giotto's depiction of envy.

Renaissance painter Giotto’s depiction of envy.

While not the most violent passion, envy decays the soul more than perhaps any other vice. Envy is not only a longing for what someone else owns (because emulation can be constructive), but a resentment of those who are perceived as superior. Envy is almost always a private enmity, and a particularly shameful and ugly one. Most of us will admit to annoyance, anger, hatred or arrogance before admitting that we are jealous of another person. Admitting to envy is not simply confessing a sin; it is demeaning oneself and accepting inferiority to the resented person. This is nearly unthinkable to us when we have caught the disease. And so it stirs itself within us, choking our hearts and making life unpleasant, often breaking out all at once into hot, unsatisfying anger.

Envy seems most often to come between people who are close. When I was a Mormon missionary for two years, I spent all my time with assigned companions. In some ways missionary companions are more attached than are married couples; whereas spouses usually have separate lives during the day, missionaries do everything together. Feelings of envy arising from relatively mundane situations are intensified by this closeness. A missionary notices if his companion seems better liked by the people being taught. Compliments given to one and not the other can be wounding.  It is easy in these situations to be inclined to sulk, to quietly tear down your companion, or to intentionally act like a poor missionary, hiding one’s imagined inferiority behind obviously feigned incompetence. It is difficult completely to be free of these feelings, and I admit to struggling with them a great deal. The best treatment I found was to pay genuine compliments often to my companion.

Like many social diseases, envy spreads to affect nations and groups. In 1948, at the beginning of the Cold War, Winston Churchill called socialism the “gospel of envy“. While his statement was ideological, he perceived a psychological truth beneath the worldview that was spreading from the Soviet Union to much of the rest of the world. In Marxist theory, politics and history were nothing more than a struggle between rich owners and poor laborers. And it was characterized by its resentments more than its goals: one could be a Marxist without promoting constructive social policies, but one could hardly be a Marxist without hating capitalists (and by extension Western society). The violence that always accompanied socialism and communism burst at least partly out of this materialist envy.

The envy has not gone away, however. Modern economies are not immune; invidious desire drives much of the hyper-consumerism that has hollowed out our civilizational identity. In American politics, both social democrats on the left and populists on the right are afflicted. Hostility in the Middle East cannot be diagnosed simply, but perhaps Israel would attract less hatred if it were as poor as its neighbors, instead of the most prosperous country in the region. And perhaps more fundamentalist hatred would be directed at China, which oppresses Uighur Muslims, if it were the superpower instead of the United States.

In politics as well as everything else, more attention is given to arrogance than envy. Arrogance might even be more common than its jealous twin. But arrogance is more quickly spotted and corrected. It is simpler to humble someone than to compel them to admire without resentment. Only the person afflicted with envy can do anything to heal themselves. I have often found that my accusations of others’ arrogance were more a reflection of the disease of envy that was in my own heart.

Alcohol Laws in 75 Words

The National Post asked for 75-word responses to the question, “Should our alcohol laws be relaxed?” They printed my letter today, along with a number of others. Judging from most of the responses, I missed what the debate was really about: whether alcohol sales should be privatized in Ontario, an issue on which I don’t have much of an opinion. Here’s my letter, and a link to todays’ letters page:

A British medical journal found that no drug causes more societal harm than alcohol, and that most of this harm falls on people other than the user. In Canada, nearly one million people struggle with dependence and alcohol kills thousands, disproportionately young people, yearly. It’s time to require graphic warnings on alcohol labels and restrict alcohol advertising, as in other countries. The reason alcohol laws are looser than for other psychoactive drugs? Politicians use alcohol.


Let’s Save Lives and Modernize Drug Policy (No, not that drug)

Three of the most popular drugs in our society.

There has been a lot of discussion lately about the possibility of decriminalizing or even legalizing marijuana in Canada. Laws in certain European countries and US jurisdictions have recently been relaxed, allowing individuals to grow and use small amounts of the drug. The question of legal marijuana use isn’t an easy one; unlike harder street drugs, marijuana is linked to few deaths, is less addictive than most drugs and legalizing it could possibly reduce drug-related violence. Marijuana is probably the least harmful illegal drug.

Let’s imagine, however, that marijuana was not so innocuous. Let’s think about a hypothetical scenario that will allow us to evaluate current drug policy.

It’s the present day in Canada, but marijuana has been legal as far back as we can remember. And of course it is; nearly everyone uses it. We smoke it at dinner, we take it to parties, we tell our friends stories about it–even politicians and public figures use it. TV and movies reflect the fact that marijuana is the thread that weaves through every social gathering. Restaurants and bars advertise the varieties and preparations they serve, and companies compete with each other to produce the richest taste and most pleasant high. Teenagers look forward to being part of the culture, and wait (or don’t) for their birthdays, when they can smoke it with their friends or family. While a few thousand people, most of them young, die every year in marijuana-related car crashes, we do our best to teach people not to smoke before driving. It’s true that marijuana use is connected to almost half of violent crime, most of youth-related crime, and that over a million people in Canada are dependent on it, and what a shame that is. Marijuana’s just fine if you don’t abuse it … even if a majority of it is smoked while binging. It’s part of a healthy, responsible lifestyle and there’s no use demonizing it. Tobacco, on the other hand, is no good. Good thing we’ve cracked down on it.

As is probably transparent, I am not really talking about marijuana. I’m talking about society’s favorite drug. In comparison to marijuana, alcohol is more poisonous, more impairing, more addictive, more deadly–and more available, more glorified, and more widely used. If marijuana was half as destructive as alcohol, we wouldn’t think of legalizing it. But we sympathize with alcohol despite its harms, because everyone uses it. It should be pointed out, more specifically, that the reason that alcohol use is unrestricted, in contrast to other drugs, is that the people in positions of power in our society drink alcohol.

My intention in this entry isn’t to promote the legalization of marijuana. I can’t spare much sympathy for the cause of any harmful drug. But the critical issue today is alcohol. Forget guns, gangs, street drugs and even war for a moment–when it comes to body counts over the years, few preventable causes can touch alcohol. The cowardice of the adults in our society to stop indulging in a useless drug is killing people.

I want to insist again that I do not promote the prohibition of alcohol. The public policies I promote are similar to those surrounding tobacco: the requirement of graphic warnings on alcohol labels, a ban on most forms of alcohol advertising, and public funding for alcohol education programs. If you feel the same way as I do, please contact The Honourable Leona Aglukkaq, the federal Minister of Health in Canada, through this form: