The immorality of monogamy

Why we need to stop restricting our lovers

Imagine that two partners are in a relationship much like a typical monogamous relationship, with one exception: instead of restricting one another from having additional partners, they restrict one another from having additional friends. If either partner becomes friends with someone else, the other partner will refuse to support it—indeed, will go so far as to end the relationship.
Most of us, I think, would find such an arrangement morally troubling. But just what’s troubling about it? Here’s what seems to me, at least, to be wrong with such an arrangement: it goes against the spirit of love. Friendship, after all, is an important human good, and when we’re in a romantic relationship with someone, we should want him or her to be free to pursue such goods as they see fit. And part of letting our partner have such freedom is to refrain from imposing costs on them when they do so—costs like withdrawing our affection and ending the relationship. Indeed, not only should we refrain from imposing costs on our partner when they find a new friend, we should be happy for them. That is what love calls for.
And yet, if all this is right, we come to a puzzle. For friendship is not the only important human good in town; sexual and romantic relationships are likewise an important human good. Whether through sexual pleasure, mutual learning, or a special kind of emotional support, such relationships enrich our lives in a number of ways. Why, then, should we seek to restrict our partner from having more of these relationships? Were our partner to find an additional partner, should we not instead simply be happy for them, much as we would if they found an additional friend? Might it be that love calls for us to abandon our all too common restrictions here—that is, to abandon monogamy?

Might it be that love calls for us to abandon our all too common restrictions here—that is, to abandon monogamy?

In the face of this suggestion, many will immediately say that the two cases are not analogous. Whereas there’s simply no good reason for partners to restrict one another from having additional friends, surely there are several good reasons for partners to restrict one another from having additional partners. And if that’s right, then monogamous restrictions would not be so inconsonant with love after all. But just what are these proposed reasons in favour of monogamy?
Here’s one candidate: perhaps monogamy is justified as a way of keeping a relationship special. It’s special to choose, and to be chosen by, one person. Notice, though, that we don’t think this way about other kinds of relationships. If a parent has a second child, no one says that the relationship with the first child thereby becomes less special; likewise for a friend who makes an additional friend. It’s not clear, then, why it would make a romantic relationship any less special if one found an additional partner.
Another defense of monogamy appeals to the demands that romantic relationships make on people’s time and energy. Even having one partner, the thought goes, takes a great deal of work, and having multiple partners at once would only multiply the burden. Given that our time, energy, and emotional resources are limited, surely it’s reasonable to keep ourselves to one partner at a time, and to expect our partner to do the same for us.

Insofar as relationships tend to demand a great deal of time and energy, this may well be largely because of the dominance of monogamy.

Although it might initially seem plausible, this reasoning runs into a few problems. One problem is that, insofar as relationships tend to demand a great deal of time and energy, this may well be largely because of the dominance of monogamy. For monogamy fosters an expectation that we must meet all of our partner’s intimate or personal needs. (In a monogamous relationship, after all—barring cheating—it’s not as if our partner has anyone else to go to for such needs.) And this is a demanding standard to have to live up to. Were we to abandon monogamy, however, we would no longer be under the burden of this expectation, since any needs unmet by one partner could, at least in principle, be met by another. There’s a certain circularity, then, in appealing to the practical demands of relationships as a reason for monogamy, given that monogamy itself appears to be the source of many of those practical demands.
It’s true, of course, that our time and energy are not infinite. But that doesn’t justify setting the limit at one partner at a time—no more than it justifies, say, setting the limit at one friend at a time. The point becomes all the more pressing once we reflect that many relationships—especially those of the more casual variety, such as relationships that are almost entirely sexual—do not usually take a great deal of time or energy. For that matter, even more emotionally intimate relationships need not be such a burden on our time or energy, either—not if it’s with someone who’s reasonably independent and with whom we get along well.
More broadly, unless your partner is there for everything you do, some of your time and energy is going to be spent away from your partner—for instance, while working on hobbies. And if that’s acceptable, why would it matter, purely from a standpoint of time and energy management, if some of the time and energy you spend away from your partner happens to involve other partners?
So far I haven’t touched on what seems to be the most popular alleged reason for monogamy: our inclination to jealousy. When we see our partner take interest in another, we’re all too apt to feel anxious, humiliated, betrayed, enraged. How are we to avoid these feelings that together fall under the label of “jealousy,” unless we embrace monogamy?

Monogamy is counterproductive as a response to jealousy.

There’s no doubt that jealousy is awful, and that it can all too easily arise for many or most of us. And monogamy can certainly seem like one way, if not the only way, of preventing it—after all, no additional partners, nothing to be jealous about, right? On closer inspection, however, things aren’t so simple.
There’s reason to believe that monogamy is counterproductive as a response to jealousy. Consider that jealousy of any kind thrives most in an environment of competition, of refusing to share. Yet that is precisely the environment sustained by monogamy when it comes to romantic partners. Under monogamy, relationships are a zero-sum game; barring cheating, if I have someone for a partner, that means blocking others from having them, and if another has someone else for a partner, that means blocking me from having them. Naturally enough, then, it is monogamy itself that breathes so much life into the fear so central to jealousy: the fear of losing our partner to someone else. Would we feel so much of this fear if we hadn’t forced our partner to choose between us and another in the first place?
What’s more, as pointed out above, monogamy fosters an expectation that you must meet all of your partner’s personal needs—a relatively high standard to have to live up to. Such a standard makes it all too easy to worry whether you’re “enough” for your partner. To the extent that your partner perceives (rightly or wrongly) that you’re failing to meet this standard, and that a certain other person would do a better job of meeting it, your partner will have a reason to leave you for that other person. The result, of course, is a pressure to be ever on guard that your partner doesn’t become too well acquainted with others who might start to seem like a better fit. In this way, rather than serving as a guarantee against jealousy, monogamy in fact undergirds it.
What these thoughts suggest is that monogamy is not the solution to jealousy, but a mere capitulation to it. It is an attempt to avoid behaviours that trigger jealousy, but at the cost of perpetuating the factors that underlie it.

If we applied the attitudes we have towards friendships to our other relationships, we would be free of a belief that’s been used to legitimize so much of the jealousy we feel.

How, then, should we deal with jealousy, if not through monogamy? The answer is to confront the underlying factors. If a friend makes a new friend, we don’t take that to be an indication of our own deficiency as a friend. Why should we do so when it comes to romantic relationships? We make additional friendships simply because we value friendships. Why should we not think about equally valuable romantic and sexual relationships in the same way? If we applied the attitudes we have towards friendships to our other relationships, we would be free of a belief that’s been used to legitimize so much of the jealousy we feel.
There are of course further ways of addressing the factors that underlie jealousy—ways like improving our self-esteem, openly communicating our feelings to our partner, and replacing the fear of being abandoned with a sense of trust in our partner—though I lack the space for an extended discussion of them here. To be sure, none of these ways guarantee that jealousy will never arise at all. But to the extent that it does arise, partners will be able to work through it constructively—much like other challenges that come up in relationships. Romantic jealousy need not be seen as some unstoppable force that must be prevented from arising at any cost; instead, our attitude toward it should be the same as our attitude toward other irrational or unproductive feelings, such as insecurity, excessive anger, or jealousy in the workplace. Such feelings are not to be capitulated to, but to be confronted head-on, in a way that addresses their underlying factors.
If all this is right, then none of these standard justifications of monogamy—those which appeal to specialness, practicality, and jealousy—succeeds. In turn, it becomes increasingly difficult to escape the sense that monogamous restrictions are in fact morally analogous to the friendship restrictions described earlier—that is, that just as it’s immoral to restrict our partner from having additional friends, so, too, is it immoral to restrict them from having additional partners.
To some, this suggestion might seem like a non-starter. How could non-monogamy be morally required? Are we really going to say that people are morally obligated to be in a relationship with multiple partners at a time? Surely if two partners are in a relationship only with one another, they’re not thereby doing something immoral. It’s important, however, to avoid a misunderstanding here. Abandoning monogamy doesn’t necessarily mean being with multiple partners at a time. Instead, it simply means abandoning the restriction to one partner at a time, both for yourself and any partner(s) you might have. Two partners could be in a relationship only with one another, and their relationship could be perfectly non-monogamous. What would make it non-monogamous would simply be the understanding that if either partner did come to want to be with an additional partner, the existing partner would not in principle be opposed to it.
I do not, of course, take what I’ve said here to be a comprehensive case against monogamy. There remain many points one could raise—some of which are further points against monogamy, others of which are points in monogamy’s defense. But I think that the points raised here are enough to open the question for discussion, at least—and, perhaps, to show that we shouldn’t take monogamy for granted as a “moral default.” Rather than assuming that monogamy is automatically morally permissible and that it is deviations from monogamy that need to be justified, we should, if anything, assume the reverse. Given monogamy’s restrictions, and their apparent tension with love for one’s partner, it is monogamy that faces the burden of justification here.

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Søren Wollenberg 29 February 2020

Reply to Joe McConnell - As you say, you are pointing out the obvious; however, by doing so are also pointing out something kinda irrelevant to the question at hand. The question of the article is about morality, but your comment is simply about practicality.

However, even if practicality was a factor in discussion, your argument is still kinda flawed:
As your comment itself seems to acknowledge, monogamy as a structure of relationships doesn't actually do anything to prevent people from engaging in sexual relations outside such structures; as in either due to cheating, or simply through having non-romantic sexual relations once-or-multiple times.
There is no reason to think that changing the structure of relationships from involving just two to instead involving two+ people automatically would result in people having sex with more people than they otherwise would. It doesn't follow that simply because the option of doing so is introduced that people would be inclined to act on it any more than they would have otherwise.
There is no reason to think that simply because you have access to multiple partners, that you'd be inclined to get such, or that you'd be inclined to change partners more than you otherwise would.

Charles Justice 28 February 2020

This is a reply to Soren Wollenberg, Thanks for discussing my comment. I quote from Virginia Held, Feminist Morality: "The flourishing of children ought to be at the very center of moral, and social, and political, and economic, and legal thought" I'm in agreement with the Feminists on this. Without the flourishing of children we don't have an ongoing society. But I go one further. I believe it is morality that got us out of the state of nature, and that partially and imperfectly replaced natural selection with normativity.
As for my making Chalmers argument into a straw man: Perhaps I'm oversimplifying what he says. I guess my point would be the free love that he advocates may work fine for some people, but it isn't moral, and monogamy is not immoral. Chalmers appears to me to being sardonic, in calling monogamy immoral. I've argued elsewhere that the original and simplest form of morality is monogamy. It's in my piece: "What was the original rule?" Briefly, I'm arguing that the nature of human uniqueness comes from our making monogamy possible by collective agreement. Free love was not a viable option in our beginnings. Our closest ancestors were australopithecus, who probably had a polygynous alpha male hierarchy. There was no natural way to choose another option, so it required collective support of a monogamous system. Most birds are biparental because their offspring are more likely to be grow to adulthood and reproduce if they have two parents. When you talk about the possibility of two fathers, you are really talking about alloparenting, which I would argue is made possible by monogamy. Briefly, monogamy unites separate kin groups which enlarges multi-family groups and makes them stronger, and also creates alliances with outside groups.
As to bringing up LBGTQ, I see it as a very modern development that is not relevant to the origin or heart of morality. Morality isn't about universal tolerance and everybody being nice to each other. This is made possible by morality. In nature the strong rule. Morality gets us out of nature. Then we have more choices and chances of flourishing.

Joe McConnell 21 February 2020

Just to point out the obvious... increased risk of sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancy. Or we can just pretend that's all preventable with wisdom and good judgment, because, you know, herpes and abortion are hardly a thing in the civilized world. Loving sarcasm ;-)

Søren Wollenberg 20 February 2020

Charles Justice's comment on this article comes off as strangely malignant; actively refusing to take any of the positions of Chalmers as being genuine, and instead trying to argue against a completely different position than the one being advocated for. In other words, Charles Justice has raised a strawman to argue against (perhaps even so subtly that they didn't intend to do so themself); raising the position that "No one could seriously argue for free love, so the topic must truly be about free sex." A position more likely to repel readers.

One could be inclined to leave the matter here, but the way Charles Justice engages their strawman-version-of-Chalmers additionally seems quite off. The engagement, first of all, orbits its entire point around what would seem to be a Fallacy of Appeal to Nature, claiming that child-rearing is the entire purpose of morality. I don't have much to say to that beyond it seeming like a truly strange claim.

What especially makes child-rearing as the focus of one's core of morality strange is that it results in Justice's argumentation rather inconsistent. They argue that;
"[...] Unique to humans is alloparenting also, sharing child care responsibilities with kinfolk like grandmothers and aunts and uncles. No other animal has this. In almost all mammals female uniparenting is the rule, but humans are one of the exceptions. The obvious reason is that the human female cannot provide sufficient protection and nourishment by themselves [...]"
But then goes on to say;
"[...] Once you bring children into the picture monogamy is just an infinitely better deal for them."
If child-rearing truly was the very purpose of morality, why would it then follow that such children would need to only have two parents when Charles Justice themself claims that more figures, such as aunts and uncles, are necessary to truly give children the care they need. But if this is so, why wouldn't you find it more ideal for these additional figures to also be the parents of the child? Why should a child's ideal raising be; mom, dad, and aunty rather than; mom, dad, and second dad? Indeed, if there truly is an inherent need for additional caregivers beyond two parents, what exactly is it about two parents that is supposed to be so ideal in the first place?

These last two questions also illuminate another issue with Charles Justice's critique of the article; it completely dismisses all relevance of LGBTQA+ people in the matter. I mentioned earlier that Justice actively dismisses the premise that the article's focus could mainly be about romance rather than sex, but doing so completely rejects the experiences of certain kinds of asexual people, and how this article might apply to them.
Additionally, much of the argumentation seems to heavily rely upon, although not inherently exclusionary of homosexuality, a heterocentric understanding of relationships.

Charles Justice 17 February 2020

Charles Justice, PA. I am a philosopher with a specialization in Philosophical Anthropology. I' m sure Professor Chalmers is being provocative here when he claims that monogamy is immoral. What he seems to me to be implicitly claiming is that we don't need morality at all. Chalmers argues that friendship is analogous to a sexual relationship, so if having lots of friends is a good thing, so should having extra lovers. Apparently, the problems that we imagine occurring with this scenario, problems of jealousy, are really just hang-overs from our over-valuing monogamy. I'm sure Professor Chalmers has an analogous attitude to the one that an ethics professor in my graduate school had towards monogamy. He dumped his wife for a younger woman. His ex-wife remained a colleague within the department. It was painful to witness. Really, I am thinking that underlying Chalmer's attitude is a rejection of morality itself. Because, if you think about it, isn't it considered immoral to cheat on your spouse? Yes, but that's only because we don't approve of sleeping around. Why then shouldn't we, as Chalmers suggests, just approve of healthy sex and free choice, along with a healthy dose of honesty and willingness to work things out? Why not indeed?

I'm interested in the origins of morality, and so I notice that adultery is on a lot of moral “do not do” lists. I know it is fashionable to think that morality is bourgeoise hypocrisy, and has been for the last hundred years. There have been previous famous philosophers like Sartre and Bertrand Russell who have pushed the moral boundaries and argued for the same. But unlike them, I consider it important to investigate why adultery has always been such a big deal. My guess is that this question goes far deeper into human nature than Professor Chalmers has ever imagined.
It's certainly true that our mores have changed drastically in the last hundred years. Wife-beating is no longer tolerated in the country where I live. Homosexual marriage is now legal. Sexual relations outside of marriage no longer seems so immoral either. So why not change the mores around marriage? But notice that Professor Chalmers never mentions the word “marriage”, not even once. He talks about “monogamous relationships”. I’m sure he has a good reason for this, perhaps it simplifies his argument; my thought is that marriage is also fundamental to morality. Marriage is a kinship relation between two sets of kin that exists in all human societies. Monogamy is the prevalent form of marriage in the majority of societies, although a good proportion of societies permit other forms such as polygyny or mistresses. I think Professor Chalmers is not really referring to polygyny as the alternative to monogamy, he is referring to unaffiliated free sex. But it’s important to realize that the real alternative to monogamy is polygyny, and most probably polygyny was the dominant form of relationship before human kind. Now, consider what morality is about - it’s really about human flourishing and human flourishing is directly connected to the well being and development of children.

In ape societies there is no sharing of food after nursing, and there is certainly no sharing of food between adults. But human children have much longer development, and a longer period of dependence than the offspring of any other living thing. Humans are biparental, that is both mother and father can share in parenting responsibilities. Unique to humans is alloparenting also, sharing child care responsibilities with kinfolk like grandmothers and aunts and uncles. No other animal has this. In almost all mammals female uniparenting is the rule, but humans are one of the exceptions. The obvious reason is that the human female cannot provide sufficient protection and nourishment by themselves to nurse their infants and feed themselves and their dependents, due to the longer period of childhood helplessness and dependence. A male partner and other relatives are required. It appears that monogamy was just the thing for humans. Males could hunt cooperatively and bring back a portion of meat, with its valuable protein and fat for their “wives” while females with the burden of childcare, could gather food closer to home. This arrangement does not work in polygyny, so polygyny is rare amongst true hunter-gatherers, a form of living that probably dominated for the first one and a half million years of human history.

But that was then and this is now. Why not free sex today, since the physical problems of feeding and supporting children have largely been solved by technology and agriculture? Remember Chalmers does not mention the word “marriage” because the world of free sex that he is talking about is essentially a world without children. Once you bring children into the picture monogamy is just an infinitely better deal for them. And without children why would you need morality? Without children, how can a society flourish for more than a generation? Professor Chalmers has made the same mistake that a lot of famous philosophers have made these days - he has forgotten what morality is for.

Charles Justice 17 February 2020