This post was inspired by the recent widely read Chronicle of Higher Education’s “I have Multiple Loves”, featuring University of British Columbia philosopher Carrie Ichikawa Jenkins. The subtitle is, “Carrie Jenkins makes the philosophical case for polyamory,” but there isn’t much of a case made. Instead, it’s more of an extended interview in which Jenkins rebuffs some rather weakly stated objections to polyamory. The article touches on many other topics too, such as analytic philosophy as gendered, the alleged hostility of contemporary philosophy toward women, and her disagreement with Brian Leiter, which led to Leiter threatening to sue in 2014. Over time, we plan to write more about all of these topics, but for now, I want to focus on the Off Topic piece that the CHE piece links to, in which Jenkins and Ichikawa respond to objections against polyamory. I intend this to be a two part series. I won’t give any positive arguments here; my goal is to show how weak their replies are to four objections that they consider.
1. It’s unhealthy to have a large number of sexual partners:
The reply here does not establish that having multiple sexual partners is healthy, and seems to take the health objection in a naive form. It appears to assume that the health considerations here are strictly with respect to not getting STDs or HIV. Of course one could easily avoid those and have a large number of sexual partners, but is this emotionally healthy? Is it psychologically healthy? Is it more likely to lead to the person’s overall health, in the long-run, than a monogamous life? These are the important questions that need answered, and it’s far from obvious to me that having a large number of sexual partners is, all other things being equal, as healthy as monogamy.
Their point regarding health-based concerns with respect to promiscuous lifestyles and multiply serially monogamous lifestyles seems to be as follows: “The health concerns you raise apply equally to multiply serially monogamous lifestyles, and promiscuous lifestyles, but most don’t raise health objections to these lifestyles, so they ought not raise them against against polyamory either.” Fair enough, at least for those who don’t find promiscuity and multiply serially monogamous lifestyles unhealthy. But, why think those are healthy? They all seem unhealthy to me! So this point doesn’t settle the health question either.
Now, with respect to the third point, suppose that it is true that polyamory could be more healthy than ill-considered monogamous hookups. This sounds possible to me. But that hardly establishes that it is healthy! Also, I’m not sure what they mean when they talk about being “well suited” for monogamy; they probably just mean “inclined toward it”. We ought to be careful not to think that the things we are inclined toward are, in fact, good. Maybe they are not assuming that, but I’m not quite sure what the point is then.
(2) Non-monogamy is inevitably psychologically damaging. Sexual jealousy is unmanageable, always and for everyone, so all non-monogamous relationships eventually suffer and break down:
Surely anyone who thoughtfully levels this objection against polyamory is not doing so simply because they are deeply uncomfortable with the idea. What we really need, in order to establish either that non-monogamy is inevitably psychologically damaging, or that monogamy is psychologically more healthy, is good psychological studies that control for a lot of very difficult to control variables. I’m very skeptical that we have much psychology to lean on here. Now, the bit in this objection about sexual jealously being unmanageable always, and all non-monogamous relationships eventually breaking down, makes the objection naive. That sexual jealousy is manageable, and that some non-monogamous sexual relationships are lasting, does not establish that they are psychologically healthy for those involved.
3. Non-monogamy is unnatural:
Presumably, a sophisticated thinker who would level such an objection would be a natural law theorist; but, given Jenkins and Ichikawa’s materialism and seeming unfamiliarity with natural law theory, it isn’t surprising that they would find this claim “weird”. Natural law does not hold that what is natural is what a given creature, or a species of creatures, is disposed to do, so that in the case of humans, it is natural for them to be monogamous because they are disposed toward monogamy. What is natural has to do with a thing’s telos, so in order to take this objection seriously, we’d need to start there. But talking about sexual relations in this way is completely foreign to Jenkins and Ichikawa, as they probably reject that the natural world has telos. Now, if they weren’t thinking of an objection from natural law, but were thinking of someone who would appeal to what is natural in some vague sense based simply on what things tend to do, then yeah, the objection is stupid. But who cares about that objection?
4. Non-monogamy is never ethical:
(4) isn’t an objection. One who holds (4) would hopefully do so for some underlying reason, perhaps one of the reasons considered above, or some other reason. What’s interesting to me here is Jenkins and Ichikawa’s claim that, “If everyone involved is honest, happy, and healthy, it’s hard to see what the problem is supposed to be.” Lurking beyond this, it seems to me, is the dubious assumption that an action is acceptable so long as no one is hurt and everyone is happy (and honest, apparently, but I wonder why that’s important, so long as everyone is happy and healthy?). If natural law, deontology, or virtue theory is right, then we definitely wouldn’t want to grant this point.
I’ll end this first post here. So far, we haven’t seen compelling arguments that should make those of us who think polyamory is wrong reconsider. If you like your mononormative views, you can keep them. Stay tuned for part 2, in which I’ll consider their arguments from a different perspective.
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