Polyamory: Why is it not immoral?
This stems from the falling out I've had with my brother over my decision to try poly. He's very much of the belief that my choice to do so is immoral and he seems to find it be a very unhealthy relationship structure devoid of proper commitment.
I will be responding to his comments with a letter, since that's how we've been communicating in a civil manner lately. In order to succinctly address his big morality question mark, I wanted to know your guys' beliefs for WHY polyamory is not immoral. What in your eyes makes it ethical and deserving of acceptance? How can it be a healthy expression of love for all parties involved? I have some of my own ideas already about this, but you guys are a bit more experienced than I am and may have some ideas I don't.
I would start by asking him why he thinks poly is immoral. Just to get him thinking beyond "just feel it is". And then tackle the points, i.e. say where you disagree and why.
To me, there is nothing immoral about it since everybody involved know what is going on and have agreed. I define immoral as something that is harmful to others. But other people may have other definitions to immoral. Often it is just "it feels wrong" and it is justified by something like religion or just cause it's so weird. As in, because people in general have monogamous agreements in their relationships (whether upheld or not) there must be something wrong with doing things in a weird way.
I woul first of all try to make clear to him, that he overuses the Golden Rule by judging your behaviour as wrong, just because he himself would feel treated unfairly, would feel uncomfortable and wouldn't want to be in such a situation as a poly relationship. ("One should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself.")
And stress that everyone involved agreed to this and that he can't dictate what others believe to be appropriate and acceptable based on his moral code. That his moral code may be backed up by the common one from society, but that that one is basically an agreement as well and that the agreement in your situation has been made, but on different terms.
Before he realizes that there are other points of view, different from his own, as valid as he believes his own to be, he won't be able to follow any of your arguments at all.
I don't want to get too technical with this, but it might help to borrow from moral psychology. One school has it that there are three broad "schemas" of moral judgment:
1. Pre-conventional, which is all about avoiding punishment. (An act is wrong if I will get in trouble for it.)
2. Conventional, which is all about upholding social norms for their own sake. (An act is wrong if it violates the explicit, agreed-upon rules or standards of society.)
3. Post-conventional, which is all about independent judgment based on higher ethical principles, which makes it possible to critique social norms . . . and to give reasons for it.
Now, there are several different frameworks for post-conventional moral thinking, which means multiple distinct lines of argument that can be made. The problem is that it can be very difficult to argue with someone whose moral thinking is dominated by the conventional schema.
So, from a conventional point of view, here in Western culture, lifelong, exclusive monogamous marriage is a social norm, surrounded by expectations and social sanctions. For someone whose thinking is dominated by the convention schema, monogamy is simply right, and any departure from it is wrong almost by definition.
There are several lines of argument that can be made in favor of non-monogamy or, at least, in favor of allowing people to choose. How well the arguments are received depends on how open the other person is to reconsidering social norms, seeing new possibilities. It depends how much moral imagination the other person has.
I sometimes think that's why so many people who consider themselves poly are also science fiction fans: at its best, sf can reveal an astonishing array of alternative ways of living in the world, so readers and viewers of sf may may be more likely than others to imagine other ways of living their own lives.
Anyway, one framework would focus on happiness and the avoidance of harm. If polyamory makes it possible for someone to live a full and happy life, and if it's practiced so as to avoid harming others as much as possible, then it may be morally justifiable.
Another framework would focus on character and the development of virtues. I think being poly has made me a better kind of person, in some respects. I am more honest with myself and others, living more deliberately in the world. I'm more mature than I was. This is not to say people practicing monogamy can't be honest and mature, but it's worth considering whether the demands of compulsory monogamy would tend to stunt that particular line of development.
For me, the most compelling framework would focus on consent and respect for the free choice others. As long as I am not using other people merely as means to my own ends, as long as I allow others to make their own decisions, without any attempt to coerse or deceive or otherwise control them, as long as my relationships are based on honesty, trust, respect, and mutual consent, then my way of relating to others is moral.
I've told the story in other contexts, but it's relevant here in that it simplifies all of this, boils it down to its essence.
Vix and I moved in together before we were married, which shocked and horrified my parents. It went against what my Dad still calls "the Program.". They are very much conventional thinkers, defining right and wrong entirely in terms of conformity to social norms and expectations. So, from their point of view, having sex outside of a committed, lifelong, heterosexual marriage is and always must be immoral.
When I told my parents the reason for my change of address, my mother cried. She demanded to know: "Where's the moral young man we've raised?"
I replied along these lines: "I'm right here! It's just have a different understanding of what it means to be moral. I have made my choice, consciously and thoughtfully, and I take responsibility for my choice and its consequences."
They were unconvinced, and probably unconvinceable.
But that's what I think it comes down to: making choices, thoughtfully and responsibly.
Well, it is hard to answer without knowing how he defines morality. Is it something religious for him, or otherwise following rules established by somebody else?
To me, morality means acting in such a way as to avoid harming others, and prevent harm that would be done to them. With that definition, staying in a monogamous relationship, if the partners are hurt by it, is what's immoral.
As for commitment, you can have commitment without exclusivity. You already commit to more than one person. You are committed to your friends, your job, your family. Commitment means that if someone needs you, you will be there. Yes, sometimes you have a big assignment on your job and a school play to attend, or a sick friend and an anniversary. You make decisions to honour your commitments based on urgency, importance, who else can replace you, who needs you the most, etc. It's the same for everyone, even with a single partner. Adding one partner doesn't make as huge a difference as many people would have you think. We already have obligations to more than one person in our lives.
Okay, philosophical argument is all about words and their meaning. Polyamory could be considered against "accepted principals of right and wrong behavior" (the definition of morals). Morality falls back on tradition and, often, the religious principals of the majority. Therefore, polyamory technically could be considered immoral in western society.
Morality is crap. I think what you really want to discuss is whether or not polyamory is ethical. Ethics is the philosophy of how people should act. It relies on logical arguments to determine the best course of action. I'd argue that polyamory is an ethical choice for me. My ethical argument would look like this:
1) Something is ethical if it creates the greatest good for the greatest amount of people (i.e. utilitarianism).
2) Polyamory creates the greatest happiness for some people without severally impinging on the happiness of others (first-hand experience).
3) Therefore, polyamory is an ethical choice for some people (i.e. me).
Incidentally, monogamy would make me unhappy in the long run. My unhappiness would most likely make the people around me more unhappy. Therefore, for me, monogamy is an unethical choice.
Just my 2 cents and a minor in philosophy.
If he's up for a little more?
It's like having a religion argument. And where hyperskeptic went with "the stages of moral psychology" I was like -- fine. Stage of faith development and what a person is ready to "take on board" when. Like James Fowler or Scotty McClennan.
If his development stage is just not ready to hear or not WILLING to hear? You are wasting breath. He's like a person in stage 3 on Fowler getting cranky on religion.
It's swell if both people are open enough to go "Alright. That's your path. I get this/do not get that. I do not share in some of these beliefs. But I can see you are happy in it. I prefer my path over here, this one is not my scene. But I still wish you well and can be glad for you. GL!"
But if you have a judeo-christian based trinitarian faith person? Who is closed minded forever? Or not closed forever... but just not ready yet to grow further and in stage 3? Just in earlier a stage of faith development where anything "other" than their own path rocks their boat?
They aren't even going to get along with the judeo-christian based unitarian faith "neighbor" much less the atheist or the buddhist that is totally radically different by greater degrees and several houses of worship over!
As for poly historicity -- there is NOTHING new under the sun in human sexuality. Sex in History, Sexualia -- many other books touch on this -- humans having sex across the ages in many ways.
He may feel weirded out because your are his SISTER. It makes it that much more weird and harder to take when eyes first open to the larger world of possibiliites on the sex buffet table -- bigger than you knew it.
If it's like "Oh, those ancients did that" it can feel weird but it is "safer" because it's arms distance, you know? It's a book. These people are not only far away they are dead!
Being the sibling, makes it that much closer. You are here. RIGHT HERE!
And even if logically your brother should have anything to do with your sex life in terms of who you have sex with?
As a bro who might want to share in your life? If you expect him to socialize and share in family time with your partner(s) should it get serious... like not jsut transitioning but around for DECADES?
Well, he's not in bed with them or with you but it be nice to sit around the thanksgiving table in peace and enjoy family! How does he do that? Maybe some of his weird fear is coming out from that anxiety pot. The awkward.
I'd point it out like that. "Poly is just one flavor in the sex spectrum" and "There is NOTHING new under the sun for human development. New to US maybe, as current people, but for HUMANKIND? Nothing new."
Even skype sex is not really new -- it's phone sex, sex by mail, sex at a distance. Think people who could send each other love notes or sex nasty notes weren't doing it in yesteryear? Same thing. The "Stationary" just changed.
And if he wants to learn more about human sexuality and all the flavors it could come in BESIDES his path, WTG brother!
If he's struggling to wrap his mind around it, yay for the struggle. He cares enough about you to BOTHER to try to struggle instead of just shutting you down or cutting you out. WTG, brother!
Go slow, tell him you'd like his "peaceful agree to disagree" if nothing else. He doesn't have to understand, support, be your gung ho poly cheerleader. You just want to be able to live your own life with all your loved ones and be able to have peace at Thanksgiving and not be having arguments with bro all the time.
Thank you for your post - I was trying to think my way through what I would answer the OP, and then read your post - you did it far better than I could have, and far more thoroughly.
Poly folks tend to be ones that are willing to question the societal judgements or terminology (like "cheating"), morality, and ethics. They don't accept things simply because "society says so", or is it written in some religious tome. If you brother is always going to refer to the societal norms, then you aren't going to get anywhere.
On the commitment aspect - a counselor friend of mine who became interested in polyamory from a professional standpoint, told me that if poly is done well by those that want commitment, there is a lot MORE commitment present than in most monogamous relationships. If your brother were to meet some poly relationships and could talk to them, he would see that.
People can be just as committed and devoted to many as they can to one. And, as many here have already said, morality and immorality are not things written in stone. They are concepts, based subjectively on cultural/societal standards. But what one culture, group, or person considers moral or immoral is not necessarily what another thinks is moral or immoral. Yes,as someone also said, use ethics to guide you.
However, why is it so important for your brother to "get" it? He may never understand, approve, or accept polyamory. You may have to disown him for a while if you want to live your own life. I don't believe in fighting a losing battle with pigheaded people who won't listen or be open to new ways of thinking. It doesn't matter to me if they are family or not. No respect given, no longer in my life. Remember, family members are just people; they don't need to hold a special place in our lives if they don't deserve it. And they don't get a special pass to run roughshod all over us. If he's just going to judge you and make your life hell, tell him he doesn't have that right and say buh-bye.
I sometimes worry not that what we're doing is immoral but about how other people, usually strangers, would react if they knew. Human beings do terrible things when they feel their worldview is threatened.
In the case of us three, would it have been more moral to cast aside a really good friend in the name of coupledom because that's the moral norm? Doesn't seem like it especially when that decision would have cast one or more of us into crippling depression, anxiety and near poverty. Do I still worry that this wasn't the best decision for E and that he might be happier in a more traditional relationship with only one other person? All the time, but he assures T and I that he's more than happy with our arrangement. T says the same about his feeling about our situation.
Can polyamory be immoral? Hell yes. If you're hiding being the banner of polyamory as a way to duck the responsibility of your primary relationship or act in ways that will knowingly harm your more steady relationships, that not exactly moral either.
I like Dan Savage's rule about coming out to loved ones - give them a year to go through all the emotions and adjust. If they are on board after a year, fantastic. If not, cut 'em loose.
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