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Monday, December 06, 2004


I was talking to Julie recently about a person I don't know, who is apparently in a relationship with two different people. While this is not in and of itself extraordinary, what is at least of note is that he doesn't see anything wrong with this. Most people who participate in this polyamorous pastime at least recognize, on some level, that what they're doing is not okay - but he seems to believe that this isn't the case. His argument, as best I've been able to piece together, is the one you'd expect - the value of monogamy is socially defined and consequently of no value at all. This struck me as very, very wrong but I couldn't immediately put my finger on it.

I've come up with three explanations, but none of them are terribly satisfying:

The first sort of justification is the biological. However, there seems to be something intrinsically disappointing about any sociological phenomenon which can be explained immediately through evolutionary history. Maybe it's a collective desire not to be bound to the flesh, but the simple fact is, in a significant portion of western civilization, society just tends towards pairings. Obvious counterexamples in polygamous societies (esp. the Middle East and Mormonville) seem to pose somewhat serious problems to the validity of this theory. But an important feature of these sorts of societies is that they are universally very patriarchal. There are not very many of them where women are considered more than property - and most populations which include a significant number of more empowered women don't usually have six of them eating out of some fat tribal chief's hands. I think this provides an important clue about the nature of polyamorous relationships which I'll get more to later. This seems like a sufficient explanation as to why we have a natural inclination towards monogamy, and why individuals might prefer monogamy, but doesn't go far enough in the direction of vindicating it. What are our natural propensities for if not to be overcome, right? So we move on to the economic explanation.

Simply put, uniqueness breeds value. There's a reason there's a premium on pieces of art even though they can be enjoyed absent their actual possession. Within any sort of economy, scarcity is the prime cause of value. In a more social analog, there's a reason nobody wants to marry the slut. While (s)he serves a valuable role within the community, it's not really worth that much effort to get them. By dividing affections, one immediately depreciates the value of the same. This has two important consequences - it's unfair to either of the individuals that one is ostensibly committed to and in a caring relationship with, since it means that they are getting less than the full emotional or relationship satisfaction they could be getting from another person. Essentially the one individual shorts the other two. The only way this value can really be equalized is if everyone in every relationship is equally polyamorous - but there's an obvious numbers problem there. I think it's facially acceptable to say that equality within a relationship is vital for the healthy survival thereof.

The really clear objection to this view is - so what? If the people in the relationship all consent and are cognizant of the situation (I hope it's not contentious to say that lying about this setup is wrong for a whole host of reasons) then it doesn't necessarily mean that it's bad. The response is equally clear - just because a person doesn't know they're being taken advantage of, that doesn't make it okay. If a woman is married to an abusive husband and doesn't know anything better, it doesn't make the abuse okay - and it's largely for the same reasons. The relationship involves inherent differentials in terms of the value to each respective individual. This explanation, to me, seems to be a vindication of monogamy in lieu of having multiple relationships, however doesn't rebut arguments about extrarelationship sexual activity. A similar argument can be used - sex is something of value when it's being performed with a specific individual exclusively insofar as it is something of intrinsic value, and can be used as a vector for emotion and it loses value with the more people it's done with. herefore, if you care about a person you should want to give it to them only to maximize the happiness you can offer them. But this seems sort of weak. As long as the primary individual is preferenced over others (that is - the person who is the relationship partner never gets sexiled or turned down for a random), it would almost seem that the converse is true - one should want their significant other having as much sex as they enjoy since otherwise they are not as happy as they could be, and consequently the relationship is deprivational.

The rejoinder is, I think, that the acquisition of sex is still a positive effort and the value of sex in the furtherance of something beyond the base is almost of a different order of magnitude as compared with sex qua sex. It's a Millesque assertion to make, but essentially sex as denoted above as an emotive vector or a form of communicating something that transcends the auditory is of such a nature as to approach the sublime. This is why the "socially defined" nonsense seems to be misguided. The implication that something which is created as a niche by a collective of individuals lacks value because there's no Platonic form or Socratic "good" associated with it is ludicrous. It's not that monogamy derives its value from social definition, it's that it's socially defined as symbolizing something which has that value.

The desecration of a church or the fouling of a gravesite, despite not actually attacking that thing for which they respectfully stand, is still rightfully seen as an act of immense psychic violence. And that is, I think, the most important argument to be made for monogamy. When the faith against faith and works dichotomy is brought up in religious debates, advocates of the former, like clockwork, bring up, as justification, that works are a proxy for faith. That one can have faith without doing charitable works, and that if one has faith one may or may not do these works with the belief that it is the right action. But either way, an omniscient God will understand the person to be of the faithful and consequently deserving of absolution - that, essentially, it is only the Church or man who needs to see the devotion. That seems to be the same model of tacit claim made by polyamory proponents - that faithfulness is only necessary because of the ambiguity about the nature of a sexual relationship with a person outside the boundaries of the relationship. If, the argument seems to go, there is really a situation involving emotion free sex - why not do it? There is a disconnect there, though - since it's claimed in essence that one could be faithful, so why not be unfaithful? That is to say - there's an equivocation on whether or not value comes from potential or act.

Honestly, in an age where there are fewer and fewer things held sacred, both by individuals and by society, it seems like we should get our hands on all of the ones we can. salvage from the decadent wreckage. The point, I suppose, isn't so much that monogamy is inherently good - in the same way that marriage, declarations of love, and the Canadian dollar are all symbolic of something of value without necessarily being valuable themselves - it's that it's a mechanism for showing that one is devoted to another person. And while it may be possible to be in a relationship with two different people and the feeling can be claimed to be the same, it a devaluation of not just the individuals involved, but also the greater edifice of human relations for which there seems to exist a categorical obligation to protect.

cranked out at 2:16 AM | |

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