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.

21 thoughts on “Polyamory: Where Will Modern Morality Lead Us?

  1. Wow, I hope polyamory won’t become “acceptable over time.” But sadly, it isn’t too much of a stretch to see the societal conversation moving that direction. Honestly, I hadn’t really thought about this until happening onto your post, and the thought terrifies me. What it would do to children is mostly my concern at this point. Where three or more spouses are gathered, there will be trouble in the midst of them–how could there not be? I think of biblical examples like Abraham and Sarah and Hagar…and Jacob and Leah and Rachel. And Elkanah and Hannah (mother of Samuel) and Penninah…and they all predict for me the kind of competition and hatred and millennia-old family feuding we could expect again if our world ever legally sanctioned this. And that’s to say nothing of my religious convictions against it! But I digress. What a dizzying topic!

    • You’re right, it is dizzying! It makes me wonder how confusing parts of our current world would appear to someone even a few decades ago. Despite all of that, though, I think there’s good reason to be hopeful, whether or not polyamorous marriages do become legal. I think that voices like yours will make an impact. Thanks for your perspective.

  2. I tend to the theorists’ view, simply because of those 13,000. If I read of people who leave polyamory with a deep hatred of it, that would colour my view, though people have bad experiences of marriage too. I do not think it would fit everyone, and if people can make it work, why not?

    On equal marriage for gay people, I say, “If you don’t like it, don’t do it yourself” and I tend to feel that applies here too.

    • Thanks for your comments. I think what you’ve said is compelling in a lot of ways. While it is easy, as you point out, simply to not to be involved in polyamory yourself, I wonder what the consequences of common polyamory would be in our society. I don’t think that the actions of two (or more) people are ever totally confined to those individuals, either in their causes or consequences.

  3. You wrote in your reply to Clare “I wonder what the consequences of common polyamory would be in our society.” and I suggest you missed a word: “I wonder what the consequences of common ACCEPTANCE of polyamory would be in our society”. This is not an issue of whether this identity/lifestyle exists, but how above ground and mainstream it is. If the argument is that legal recognition encourages adherents and you are positing that this would be negative I think the burden of proof falls to you. I know personally if I had been aware earlier in life of an acceptable ethical relationship framework that more closely matched my intuitive and emotional needs I would’ve saved myself and my partners a great deal of hardship through flailing self-discovery. I think the presumption that polyamorous dynamics are more apt to fail is in no small part due to the lack of social support and resulting isolation. I fail to see how broadening acceptance and access to education about both the risks and rewards of polyamory could be bad for either practitioners or the general public.

    • You’re right, it would have made more sense for me to refer to the acceptance of polyamory. You’re also right that I was suggesting that public acceptance of polyamory would lead to an increase in polyamorous behavior–and you seem to agree by your own experience.

      As far as whether or not polyamory would lead to mostly good or bad consequences, I don’t expect anyone to be able to prove one way or the other the exact effects that (accepted) polyamory would have on society. As I mentioned in my post, I think the mistake would be to leave behind our best guesses in favor of more easily graspable universal maxims, which are themselves unprovable, and are really just made up after all.

      I’m in favor of education about the risks and rewards of polyamory, though, sure. I would just hate to see it devolve into a moralistic battle; polyphobic bigots versus the enlightened ones. You can imagine how that would look.

  4. I would respectfully disagree with you on a number of points.
    First, – and possibly the biggest one – morality is not an absolute. If it is in your opinion, then I would agree with you, polyamory will probably go against this absolute morality. But morality changes according to the social structures that are used as it’s scaffolding. It wasn’t all that long ago that it was immoral to marry someone inter-racially.
    Secondly, I (obviously) don’t think that it’s a “corrupt” environment to raise children, and I would venture to argue in fact that *some* (not all) poly families have healthier foundations than the corresponding monogamous pairings. Having extra support for parents, and kids – the extended family has been replaced by the nuclear model, and is it any wonder the incidence of PND and child-onset diseases are rising? We cannot only rely on one person for all of our needs, and I think that’s where you’re making assumptions about polyamory.
    It’s not about variety, or about how many people you can have sex with extra-maritally. (although, I will admit that for some groupings it is, and that’s what works for them). It’s really more about loving more than one person for different reasons. And just as loving one friend for their sense of humour doesn’t detract from the jokes another of your friends tells, this form of family grouping doesn’t have to be “almost totally incompatible with the kind of love that ought to exist between a married couple.”
    I get the impression from this that you may be assuming that open relationships (which do also fall under the banner of polyamory) are the only form of polyamory available. I would ask you to look into triads, polyfidelious groupings and closed poly groups as well.

    • Thanks for your thoughts. I appreciate the first-hand perspective you’ve got. As far as morality, my point isn’t to draw a line or claim that I’ve got all the answers. I don’t think there’s a final answer when it comes to these issues. What I wanted to accomplish in this post was reframe the debate a little bit.

      The current marriage debate is mostly over, and it’s more and more over every day–if you don’t support gay marriage you’re ignorant or prejudiced or worse, morally deficient in some way. While facts are involved, the certainty on the issue doesn’t come from them, but from the pretentiously universal and unassailable principles at stake (individualism, equality). Comments about gay marriage that may or may not contain truth can quickly be dismissed if they violate the new orthodoxy.

      So the comments I made about polyamory, about its causes and consequences, may not be entirely true. As I’ve admitted, I can’t prove them, by the nature of the human sciences. Those are certainly up for debate, and I appreciate your intelligent comments. I hope a vigorous study of these issues can lead us near to what’s best for society. What I really resent is that my comments will eventually be dismissed by labels (polyphobic, etc.) that depend not on the complicated reality behind the statements, but on whether they violate some moral line that I didn’t create, and which might be incorrectly placed, and about which there really might not be so much certainty.

      • Tom, that really is not good enough. Here you are moaning about orthodoxy. Alan Turing was driven to suicide- would you really prefer that orthodoxy? Like the interviewers of Sinn Fein, I have to press you on this: do you condemn the persecution of Alan Turing?

        Make a moral argument. There is none. A few people will be made extremely happy by their own marriages, just as straight people are. A majority will take some slight pleasure that such joy is celebrated in more and more countries. The alternative is treating gay people as second class citizens. Even the Bible only condemns gay sex in contexts of violence or oppression, and not (eg the Centurion’s pais) in LTRs.

      • To be fair, saying “think of the children!” without any sort of proof that children will be harmed is just plain fearmongering, whether you can accept that or not. Do you think we don’t think of our children? Do you think we don’t consider what’s best for our ability to raise them? Maybe them being raised with a healthy understanding of possible relationship dynamics would be vastly superior to the constant shame-based approach from “morally superior monogamous parents” that made me into a suicidal teenager. I appreciate you opening up this dialogue, but I really think that your next step in intellectual honesty would be re-visiting this idea that those scary others are going to be bad for our children.

        I know I’m coming off a little rough, but I am kinda just always stumbling into all these opinions from well-meaning monogamous people who seem not to be able to trust us to do what’s right. I hope an offended person’s perspective can still be helpful to you, or give you some insight into why your words could be labeled some sort of phobic some day.

      • However, much as we can still have debates about issues that affect specific communities without being labeled as racist/homophobic etc, I think, if you want to have a specific debate about issues raised from poly relationships (for example, the effects of paramour jealousy on children’s schooling), you would not be labelled as polyphobic by any but the most zealous. I guess the difference is, you can say without fear that poly relationships can cause jealousy, and you can say that it’s not for you because of that, but it would be polyphobic if you say that poly is wrong and bad for everyone.

  5. Also – if you don’t want to go there, here my question (I brought this up on reddit too, although not addressed to you directly)

    The crux of your argument appears to be that it is better to go with the “wisdom” of traditional values rather than try to work things out for ourselves. Given the global variation in traditional values, and given the frequency that traditional values have been wrong in the past, can you defend this viewpoint?

    • That’s part of my argument, yeah. But I wouldn’t always argue that conventional wisdom is better than reasoning. Moral reasoning is always important, and open-mindedness is a virtue.

      I’m not arguing that we should accept traditional norms at face value. I’m arguing that we also shouldn’t accept the new libertarian/egalitarian social doctrines at face value either. For example, I don’t think we should take for granted that every sexual lifestyle is as valid as every other one. We should ask ourselves why, over millennia, the norms that developed in society restricted non-monogamous, non-heterosexual activity.

      I’m not claiming to have the answer to those very large and complicated issues. I’m saying that nobody has the answers, and since that’s the case, we have to be careful not to act as though we do have the final answer. My contention is that many people on the left have begun to act that way when it comes to sexual values.

  6. The core of your argument seems to be that its a bad environment for children, and its incompatible with the sort of love that “ought” to be between two people. I’m curious, as you seem to feel homophobia is the wrong side of history, what you see the difference is between poly relationships and homosexual ones in this context? This seems to be pretty much the exact argument people make in support of “family values” – think of the children, and that’s not real love. It all boils down to being uncomfortable with people doing things differently than you do without having any real problem to point to.

    I’ve been in poly relationships for years and am raising two kids. I’m certainly biased, but I’d suggest I’m a better authority as to what type of love exists between me, my wife and our other partners than you are. It sounds like a promotional brochure, but its the honest truth that I feel much more love in my life now than I did when I was in a monogamous relationship – and I’m not sure how to say this while remaining polite, but its pretty insulting for a stranger to tell me my love isn’t real. Our kids are fabulously adjusted, honor roll kids with excellent social skills – and a lot of adults who they trust to go to with problems. I’d suggest (admittedly with no more evidence than you have) that a “classic” nuclear family where kids have only two adults on whom to depend is not how we evolved, not optimal, and harder on both the kids and the adults.

    • I wouldn’t say you’ve hit on the core of my argument. I didn’t really *argue* that polyamory was bad for children, I just asserted it. I did that for the benefit of most of the readers of this blog, who probably believe the same things, more or less. The point was to compare the traditional values with the new ones. My argument was more about the way the issue is debated as opposed to the issue itself.

      That said, I did say that I tend to think polyamory is a poor environment in which to raise children. This mostly has to do with my life experience, where I see the most successful kids coming from families with a mom and a dad. Anecdotes and experience are obviously only a starting point, and I’ll probably spend some time doing research. Your suggestion that polyamory is more suited to humans because of how they evolved is interesting.

      • “I wouldn’t say you’ve hit on the core of my argument. I didn’t really *argue* that polyamory was bad for children, I just asserted it.”

        Your argument was “…there is good reason for the taboo surrounding polyamory,” and you used “polyamory is bad for children” to support that assertion. You’re right that you didn’t bother to support it.

        “This mostly has to do with my life experience, where I see the most successful kids coming from families with a mom and a dad.”

        I would need to know what kind of sample you are taking before I could take this seriously. You might be seeing the most successful kids coming from families with a mom and a dad because monogomous relationships are more common. Your remark doesn’t say exactly what comparision you’re making, and it seems unlikely that you get to see a lot of polyamorous families raise children.

  7. Tom you state “I’m saying that nobody has the answers, and since that’s the case, we have to be careful not to act as though we do have the final answer. My contention is that many people on the left have begun to act that way when it comes to sexual values.”

    If, by your own admission, you don’t have the final answer, how then do you justify the default position that these lifestyles are necessarily bad? When it comes to social policy, should not the negative consequences be incontreverably proven before we suggest these alternative are harmful?

    I don’t think that anyone is arguing that polyamory is the superior relationship model to monogamy but simply that it is an existing relationship model that works for some people. Poly relationships of one form or another have occurred throughout human history and around the globe, so I am a bit baffled that the conversation has steered to a left/right paradigm.

    I have no doubt that their are despicable polyamorists and horrible monogamists who use aggressive and dismissive tactics to argue their position. This is not about an agenda of trying to convert people away from monogamy but acknowledgement that monogamy is not the ONLY working relationship model.

  8. I appreciate the tone of this post, even if I disagree with many of the assertions it makes. You seem to be approaching the topic very reasonably and responding thoughtfully to many of the comments. I commend you for that.

    I wonder, though, how much you really understand polyamory. Just as the debate over gay marriage was for years marred by people arguing out of ignorance, I get a sense that some of the common fears of those to whom polyamory is a new idea are being given undue consideration.

    Just as it is probably safe to say that most gays were reared in a heteronormative environment and thus understand both sides of the argument much better than a straight person, I believe that you could probably safely assume that most polyamorous people were reared in an environment where monogamy was presented as the default. The fact that they have chosen polyamory after being fully immersed in and aware of the common view of monogamy indicates to me that there may be something in polyamory that those to whom it is foreign do not fully consider, even if that something ends up being an individual predilection unique to that person.

    That’s not to say that I think that polyamory is for everyone, just as I do not think that gay marriage is for everyone. But for those to whom it appeals, I think it’s slightly arrogant for others to enter into judgment against them. It’s wrong to make categorical statements about the validity of polyamorous relationships or the efficacy that they will have in child-rearing. We simply don’t know yet, and rather than mandate against an unknown, why not allow those who are drawn to polyamory to test out in their lives and the lives of their children how well it works first? True, it doesn’t affect only them. But requiring them to remain in the closet is also by no means a victimless proposal.

    Yes, there are fears about relationships being unstable. (Guess what? Even monogamous relationships are often unstable.) There are fears of how these fluid relationships would affect children. (Guess what? Even monogamous relationships end up with children who are hurt.) There are fears of how the fabric of society would change if polyamory were more widely accepted and practiced. But consider what we would have if the situation were reversed and polyamory were the norm and people started advocating monogamy. We would have many of the same fears. Monogamy has proven to be no panacea. It has no monopoly on happiness or on healthy children or families. And when monogamy fails spectacularly, as it sometimes does, do we immediately blame the institution? No. We attribute it properly to the participants. Yet if we see examples of polyamory failing, we would be quick to assign blame to the ideology.

    You state that we shouldn’t take patently obvious truths about individual freedom and simply follow them to see where they lead. Yet I would ask, why not? Just because “do unto others” is a simple rule doesn’t make it invalid. Life presents complexities that require careful consideration, but the simple rules can still apply, even if you have to take into account many different and complicated factors.

    • It’s true that I don’t fully understand polyamory. But when it comes to the legal and political issues (and in a different sense moral issues), I don’t feel like the burden is on me to convince others. I think that the status quo should be maintained unless those who disagree with it manage to change others’ views.

      On the other hand, you or others might feel that we should justify each of the political and moral restrictions that exist regardless of how long they’ve been there–i.e., put the burden of proof on the proponent of any sort of “restricting” law or norm. I think it’s more efficient for our a priori assumption to be in favor of the status quo, because of the work that would be involved in explicitly justifying every norm and law that exists. Of course that’s not to say that norms and laws shouldn’t be challenged for good reasons.

      You’re right, simple rules have a place, and I spoke too broadly in my post. Humans need to use models and generalities to survive efficiently in a world too complicated to fully understand. But perhaps one of our best tools for approaching the world, or at least its moral and social aspects, is our own intuition, which developed over millennia of evolution and civilization. If the intuition of most people tells them polyamory is wrong, then it doesn’t mean it’s necessarily so, but we should require a great deal of evidence to overturn that feeling.

      This discussion has made me more interested in researching the real-world consequences of polyamory. I hope to become more educated on it.

      • I think you take a very fair stance. Those who seek to change the laws should definitely assume the burden of providing valid reasons for doing so.

        It’s compelling to point to intuition as a good starting point, and I certainly understand your statement about humans relying on generalizations in order to quickly process what would otherwise be an overwhelming amount of information. However, I think that we can clearly show that while intuition may be a good starting point, it alone can’t be our guide, since intuition is largely dependent upon social convention. Just as an example, eating deep-fried spiders may be disgusting and reprehensible to me, but completely normal and even a delicacy in other parts of the world. Biologically, there is essentially no difference between me and someone who loves eating deep-fried spiders. But my intuition tells me to avoid it.

        In the particular case of polyamory, though, discussion of changing the law is almost moot. Yes, I realize the point of your post was about legalizing polyamorous marriages, specifically polygamous marriages. But as for people actually living polyamorously? Most of the laws are actually lenient enough now to allow people to live that way, excepting of course the legal recognition of poly marriage. So as with most social changes, the experiment is starting, regardless of–or sometimes in spite of–the laws.

  9. Pingback: Unskeptical Monogamy: Think of the Children! | atheist, polyamorous skeptics

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