Join 3,430 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


Ethical objections to open relationships/polyamory?
February 5, 2008 2:35 PM   Subscribe

Are there ethical objections to open relationships/polyamory? (If so, list below)

I am explicitly not interested in the practical complications of open/poly relationships.
posted by beerbajay to Human Relations (33 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
 
It is really hard to divorce ethical objections from the practical. Some practical effects of such a relationship are such that they might impact the ethics of the situation.

Having said that, I don't see any off the top of my head. (Don't think it is for me).

My only objections of any kind would be (1)"what happens if she gets pregnant?" and (2) "what if the other person falls so far in love with a new love object that when the new love object gives them an ultimatum to become exclusive with them, they comply?"

I don't think this is ethical however, unless there is a difference in the framework of who gets to decide what to do with a baby.

The problems lie when a partner decides to break the ethical rules set by the couple in the first place. Then you've gained nothing other than more sex with the same amount of rule-breaking and unpredictability as monogamy.
posted by Ironmouth at 2:46 PM on February 5, 2008


Ethical from what perspective? Are you talking societal, familial, or something else?
posted by quadog at 2:47 PM on February 5, 2008


Criticisms of Polyamory
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 2:47 PM on February 5, 2008 [1 favorite]


Can you clarify what you mean by ethical? Ethical according to what set of rules?

Or do you mean moral? Moral under what system?
posted by 1 at 2:48 PM on February 5, 2008


I'm talking about like this objection to exclusive relationships:
"Insisting upon an exclusive relationship is an infringement upon the free will and sexual expression of your partner."
posted by beerbajay at 2:49 PM on February 5, 2008


Ah, very nice Gadget.
posted by beerbajay at 2:50 PM on February 5, 2008


"Insisting upon a non-exclusive relationship is an infringement upon the free will and sexual expression of your partner."

Same thing. One wants one thing, the other wants another. I would not categorize this as an objection to exclusive relationships at all. More like blackmail. Both parties have the right to have deal-breakers in a sexual relationship and to decide to take their toys and play elsewhere. Poly could only work where both parties agree to make such a decision together. One moral objection could be that such a decision is not actually possible and that one partner usually has the power and is forcing such a relationship on the other. Not sure if this is true, never having been in such a relationship.
posted by Ironmouth at 2:53 PM on February 5, 2008


Then, yes. There are ethical objections to every act imaginable and then some. You might disagree with them or with their premises, but they're there.

This is a distinctly pointless question as phrased and without any context.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 2:53 PM on February 5, 2008


Ethical according to whatever ethical rules you've got. I would like to evaluate various criticisms from various viewpoints.
posted by beerbajay at 2:54 PM on February 5, 2008


I am not aware of any part of the Canons of Judicial Ethics that addresses the situation. So that's one set of ethical rules out of the way.
posted by The World Famous at 2:57 PM on February 5, 2008


What kind of context do you require?

You don't murder someone because it's an infringement upon their right to live; most people don't avoid murder purely because it's hard to do. So surely there must also be some ethical/moral objections to open/poly relationships, besides pure issues of consent.
posted by beerbajay at 3:09 PM on February 5, 2008


Many, possibly even most, people believe that it is unethical to have more than one sexual partner at a time. Their objections can be based on any number of factors, including but not limited to:

- history/tradition
- religion
- the belief that people who sleep with more than one person are hurting themselves emotionally
- the belief that people who sleep with more than one person are hurting their partners emotionally
- the belief that sleeping with multiple partners spreads sexually transmitted diseases, which harms one's partners and society as a whole
- the belief that children born to non-monogamous parents will be emotionally scarred
- the belief that other children in a society that openly condones non-monogamy will be emotionally scarred
- the belief that non-monogamy tends to make people sneak around and act dishonestly towards their partners, causing them to violate other ethical rules
- revulsion (i.e., "that's gross, so it's probably wrong." Human beings make a lot of our instinctual moral judgments based on instincts about whether we like or dislike the way we feel about something.)
- fear that non-monogamy leads to less stable primary relationships, which could lead to social problems (e.g., fewer multi-income households could increase poverty, which would strain society's welfare resources)
- the belief that many people, especially women, are coerced or forced into non-monogamous relationships by tradition or religion, and that those relationships are more likely than monogamous relationships to be physically and emotionally abusive

Some people object to non-monogamy on some or all of these grounds. You may agree or disagree, but there are plenty of people who make the arguments.
posted by decathecting at 3:19 PM on February 5, 2008 [1 favorite]


You don't murder someone because it's an infringement upon their right to live; most people don't avoid murder purely because it's hard to do. So surely there must also be some ethical/moral objections to open/poly relationships, besides pure issues of consent.

Really? Go to Mosul or Darfur and ask around and I think you will find some people who disagree with you. There are people who believe that murder is completely ethical due to the larger purpose they believe it serves.

It sounds like you are assuming there is such a thing as an unqualified ethic, and I believe that you are finding, and will continue to find, people on AskMe who disagree.

If you want to say something is unethical about open relationships/polyamory, your ethic needs a qualifier. I'm a Christian, so for me, it's out of the question. However, there may be others whose ethical framework has a different basis than mine.

If I were to tell them that the open relationships are unethical, they would (rightfully) respond, "According to whom?" If I reply "Christian ethics." They would, again rightfully, reply, yes buy we are not not a Christians. Therefore your ethics don't apply to us, because our ethics are formed on a different basis."

[As an aside, this is why theologians like Stanley Hauerwas argue that Christians cannot write ethics for non-Christians.]

So the problem with your question is that your ethics needs a qualifier, unless you are asking, "According to the ethics of a random sample of AskMe readers...." or you are taking about something approaching Nautral Law, which is a different can of worms entirely.
posted by 4ster at 3:19 PM on February 5, 2008 [1 favorite]


I have to give a shoutout to Demsetz and his essay Towards a Theory of Property Rights. Although this is more a public policy argument than an ethical one, note the problems Demsetz identifies with community property. One could argue that polyamorous relationships lead to community property, which is economically wasteful.

Another argument could be that polyamorous relationships make recognizing legal rights between the partners confusing since they can't all be married to each other. Read the Supreme Court of Massachusetts' opinion in Goodridge v. Dept. of Public Health for a list of those rights, as well as arguments for why it's important to recognize those rights between people purporting to be married.
posted by lockestockbarrel at 3:20 PM on February 5, 2008 [2 favorites]


There can be plenty of reasons not to engage in something that have nothing to do with ethical considerations. For instance, I'm not polyamorous because it seems like it would be a complicated pain in the ass, and I like feeling like the center of someone's amorous attentions.

Judeochristian ethics would suggest that polyamory is adulterous, thereby violating a commandment.

Libertarian ethics might suggest that polyamory is a violation of the free will and sexual expression of someone who wants to be in an exclusive relationship with you.

The NASW code of ethics has nothing to say about it.

My dad probably thinks it's ok as long as no one gets hurt, but my stepmother had trouble understanding why anyone would want to do something like that. I think the strength of her confusion makes it an ethical stance.
posted by OmieWise at 3:20 PM on February 5, 2008


"According to the ethics of a random sample of AskMe readers...."
Isn't that what we always get here? Yes, this is what I'm asking. If you want, you can point to your own ethical system, if it has a name.
posted by beerbajay at 3:31 PM on February 5, 2008


So you are looking for something broader than the fact that it can be hard to manage just for the persons involved, correct?

If you are just talking theory, there are a number of possible ethical responses (not endorsing, simply sharing).

The Kantian might argue that if you universalized this activity for everyone to determine its moral status, you would have problems, making it immoral. Maybe that not enough women would be available for men to get married, and having a culture of predominantly unmarried men may not be good for a culture (or something like that). The point being, it simply needs to be shown that universalizing the activity hurts the system.

The utilitarian might argue that a greater good for society would be realized by disallowing it. I don't know what that argument might be, but I suppose the states had some very specific downside in mind when they outlawed it in the first place, and that would provide the date for whatever supports the utilitarian calculus. I'm sure current laws aren't simply residue from a more puritan past.

From a teleological perspective (say, from Aquinas or other virtue ethicists) it might be outside of the way marriage is designed to operate from a blueprint standpoint, so it prevents humanity from actualizing its potential. This may result in complications socially that wouldn't be there otherwise, or it may not be as immediately apparent, depending on how much it deviates from the design. This response would require a view of morality that grounds it outside of cultural opinions and norms, in a more objective sense, and almost certainly would require positing a divine lawgiver/designer or such.

A divine command theorist would say that disobeying God (if one were to posit that God disapproves) is wrong. Usually this ties into God having pragmatic ends for his commands rather than it being arbitrary, but it wouldn't necessarily require us seeing what those pragmatic ends are to determine whether it is wrong; sometimes there needs to be trust that it facilitates a greater good.

These are just examples of how people would begin to approach the issue, if they were inclined to object to it. Obviously more details would need to be fleshed out in order to provide a robust presentation in any of the approaches.
posted by SpacemanStix at 3:33 PM on February 5, 2008 [3 favorites]


and that would provide the date for whatever supports the utilitarian calculus.

*data, not date
posted by SpacemanStix at 3:36 PM on February 5, 2008


You don't murder someone because it's an infringement upon their right to live; most people don't avoid murder purely because it's hard to do. So surely there must also be some ethical/moral objections to open/poly relationships, besides pure issues of consent.

I don't see why the idea that "Most people have an ethical problem with murder" implies "Most people have an ethical problem with poly relationships." Not everything that the majority of people don't do can be blamed on ethics.
posted by 23skidoo at 3:55 PM on February 5, 2008


Open relationships do not seem to use the same ethical arguments as polyamory. I'm thinking of two couples I know, one that has a "don't ask, don't tell" view of it, and the other uses a cuckold power structure. In both of these cases, honesty is not the policy, with either the SOs or the people incidental. (Sometimes the incidental people are told the truth, sometimes not.)
posted by herbaliser at 4:14 PM on February 5, 2008 [1 favorite]


One ethical concern might come from the gender point of view: are we talking about polyamory as in a man may have more than one female partner AND a female may have more than one male partner, or are we skewing more to one gender? There is an implied sexism in favoring one gender over another in terms of individual rights.
posted by misha at 4:18 PM on February 5, 2008


I'm with misha on this one, and those who have suggested that there's not enough context considering we were asked to discuss this in the abstract and not related to practical issue.

In theory polyamory gives both partners the same freedom to express themselves emotionally and sexually, but in practice - in MY experience, of course - it's rarely as equal or ideal as that. Many of the polyamorous relationships I have seen in action have been heavily tilted toward the freedom of the man, in fact (I can't judge intent), so much so that I sometimes wonder if the whole "polyamory" thing is just a complicated ethical-ish system providing those men the justification they seem to need.

Is that an ethical objection to polyamory in the abstract? No, absolutely not. But polyamory is rarely abstract - every case I have seen has been as far from abstract as you can imagine.
posted by mikel at 4:52 PM on February 5, 2008 [3 favorites]


Besides that polyamorists post chatfilter?

Polyamory, like monamory, can be done ethically or not.
posted by klangklangston at 5:08 PM on February 5, 2008 [1 favorite]


I've read this question several times and I still don't understand what you're asking. Ethical objections according to whom? (also, whoo - chatfiltery!)

The polyamorous folks I've known best were a lesbian...triad, I guess. Person A had been with Person B for 15 or so years; Person A had also been with Person C for 9 or so of those years. B and C knew about each other. I can't imagine what an ethical argument against their arrangement - which they all made together, and committed to anew every day - could be made.

And what klang said.
posted by rtha at 6:57 PM on February 5, 2008


The closest I can think of to an ethical objection to a polyamorous relationship is that it introduces uncontrollable relations. That is, in a triad (for instance) between A, B, and C, there are in fact 3 relationships: AB, AC, and BC. In creating this triad, there is the situation in which A has little control over relationship BC, but it deeply impacts A nonetheless. AB and AC can both be perfect, but if BC collapses, A is in a bad place.

Otherwise, assuming nothing else, polyamorous relationships are just as ethical as any other type of relationship. People are ethically free to associate however they like so long as they are honest about their intentions and not hurting others.
posted by explosion at 7:05 PM on February 5, 2008 [1 favorite]


rtha, if B and C aren't involved with each other, it would be called a "V" with A as the "hinge" or "corner". Triads imply a relationship between all 3 parties involved, like a triangle.
posted by explosion at 7:06 PM on February 5, 2008


Oh - thank you, explosion. I knew I wasn't using quite the right word, but I couldn't bring anything else to mind (been a longish day, I guess!).
posted by rtha at 7:09 PM on February 5, 2008


It sounds like you are assuming there is such a thing as an unqualified ethic, and I believe that you are finding, and will continue to find, people on AskMe who disagree.

Yup.

There are two possible answers to your question as posed.
One is, "No."
The other is, "Yes."

Which would you like?

I think you may find you will get more useful answers if you tell us why you are asking this. Otherwise it is pretty much chatfilter.

...
I really, really hope this isn't homework for a discussion with a SO.

and, explosion: unless A and B are cosmonauts, I'm having a hard time imagining a situation in which B wouldn't have relationships - potentially very impactful ones, even if they aren't romantic - which A has no control over.
posted by regicide is good for you at 7:55 PM on February 5, 2008


I believe it would depend on your belief system, otherwise known as ethics. I'm really not trying to be a smartass, but isn't that what it boils down to?
posted by wv kay in ga at 10:01 PM on February 5, 2008


Libertarian ethics might suggest that polyamory is a violation of the free will and sexual expression of someone who wants to be in an exclusive relationship with you.

I'm glad you mentioned that, as it means I can enlist the help of the Civil Liberties Union in a lawsuit that I'm raising against people who don't want to go out or sleep with me.
posted by UbuRoivas at 10:20 PM on February 5, 2008 [2 favorites]


I'll get behind that lawsuit! Of course it's a ridiculous assertion, but no more so than the opposite assertion about the "violation of free will" in monogamous relationships. This is a ridiculous question as framed.
posted by OmieWise at 6:00 AM on February 6, 2008


There is something special about monogamy. Knowing that I am the only person who shares this relationship with my wife is a good feeling. Knowing that my wife has chosen to only share this relationship with me is also a good feeling.
posted by DWRoelands at 8:12 AM on February 6, 2008


Polygamy, if practiced on a large scale, is harmful to society.

The problem, in a nutshell, is that for every man with four wives, there are three men with no wives.This creates a large population of men-who-aren't-getting any. Men-who-arent-getting-any tend to become violent and do weird things.

Note that there aren't many major civilizations that haven't gotten around to outlawing or restricting it. Common misconception: Islam doesn't permit polygamy, it restricts it: a Muslim can have four wives, but no more. In pre-Islamic culture, Shaykhs could accumulate huge harems and leave the rest of the tribe to pour their energy into tribal warfare.

I suspect that the prevalance of polyamory among the geek/fandom subculture is because of the shortage of females in that scene.

Another problem is that women tend to marry the richest, most powerful, alpha males they can. Also, it is the richest men that can afford to support the most wives. (Unless the wives work...the Pimp/Ho relationship is essentially a group marriage with the women supplying the income while the male acts as a monarch/figurehead) This means that most of the wives are at the top of the society, limiting the birthrate of the bottom rungs of society. This is the oposite of what you want..."too many chiefs, too few indians).

Last but not least, with a few men impregnating lots of women the gene pool starts to get thin.
posted by TigerCrane at 12:25 AM on February 13, 2008 [2 favorites]


« Older Halp! I have here an Allen-Br...   |  I think the way my brother par... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.