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Is polyamory better for humanity? Let’s find out! July 1, 2012

Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society, Polyamory.
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I am well aware that there are people within the polyamory world for whom the idea that polyamory is better than monogamy is quite annoying.  To say that polyamory is somehow objectively better, from their point of view, is to miss the varieties of human experience.  How can anyone be so arrogant, parochial, or unobservant to not notice that many people are quite happy being monogamous?  How can such people not see that not everyone wants to or can be polyamorous?

I have a feeling that some people who read this blog, or who know me, think my opinion is that polyamorous people are better than non-poly people.  But before I address that question directly, allow me to make an important distinction that may help avoid conflating two different sets of views which are related to the question, and which may be creating confusion as to what is being claimed by some “arrogant” polyamorous people.

(Not that anyone has ever called me arrogant…)

There are probably people out there who will make the claim that poly people are better than monogamous people.  One can trip them up by pointing to quite mature, happy, awesome monogamous people and compare them to people who are polyamorous but aren’t as respectable.  There are many out there who are doing polyamory—well, they are really just doing relationships and personal growth—in unhealthy ways.  Such people who will want to maintain some form of this claim of superiority will step back and make some bell-curve restatement; something like people who are polyamorous are generally better than monogamous people, but there are exceptions (of course).

This line of argument is pretty fruitless, as there is no research I know of that could support this (or the opposite) claim.  We don’t have agreed-upon criteria for better or worse, necessarily (although we could come up with some), and even if we did have such criteria, we don’t have the data to apply to such.  The conversation about whether poly people are better, equivalent, or worse than monos leads us [nowhere practically useful], in my opinion.  We are left with individual judgments about other people based upon our experience, which is subject to personal biases and criteria, which is not particularly helpful in general claims about superiority.  Thus, to make general claims about whether poly or mono people are better is quite difficult, even if one where to identify some rubric for talking about such a general claim.  So while there may be aspects of polyamory which are superior, whether the people themselves are is a separate question.

These (I hope uncontroversial) observations lead many people to the conclusion that we cannot create an objective criteria for judging the relative superiority of polyamory and monoamory (rather than monogamy because we are not necessarily talking about marriage, since -gamy means marriage).  But, further, it leads many people to the conclusion that the whole enterprise of judging the general merits of polyamory in relation to relationship exclusivity is not only fruitless or complicated, but simply wrong-headed; poly people are not better than mono people, they just have chosen what works for them, just like many monogamous/monoamorous people.  And, the argument goes, since we all have to make our own choices about how to live, and since we have different desires and experiences, we cannot judge whether one relationship philosophy is better than the other.

However, polyamory is not sufficiently culturally disseminated, as an idea, to say that the vast majority of people have actually chosen monoamory.  There is simply no way to rationally claim that there is a real choice between mono and poly styles of relationships for most people.  There are too many acculturated ideologies, fears, and assumptions about how sexuality and relationships work to say that there is a level field of competition in the mind of people exposed to polyamory to make the claim that mono people have really chosen their relationship styles with appropriate consideration.

The question is what would happen is the vast majority of people really understood what this choice entailed.  If most people understood what polyamory was about—including the importance of honesty, communication, the desire to deal with jealousies in mature ways, etc—would most people still choose and be happy with monogamy?  We simply have no good way of knowing the answer to this question.  I may have my (biased, even if educated) guess, but I have little to no evidence to support those views.  I think it is an interesting thing to think about.  I think the discussion will draw out our assumptions about human nature, human sexuality, and how we think about relationships.  But we can only get so far with that conversation, and it will be based upon a fair amount of supposition.

So, keeping that in mind, I want to sketch out a project.  I begin with the assumption that there is meaning to the idea that there are better ways to be as human beings; there are attributes, behavior-patterns, and worldviews which are better at creating happiness, well-being, and quality of life.  There is meaning to the idea that there is an objective, rationally-based, metric for how to think about how to be human better, and we may not be far from defining what those things may be.

I think such a metric must be evidenced-based (that is, skeptical).  I believe that while personal taste is a factor, we cannot retreat to pure relativism where we merely get to decide, on a whim, what is best for us.  I think that sometimes we are wrong about what is best for us, and that we often need to appeal to something larger than us (a community, an idea, etc) to figure out if what we have chosen, while not terrible or overtly bad, may not actually what will make us happiest and most fulfilled. I think that there is always room for improvement in our lives, and we need to perpetually question our assumptions and worldview.

I agree with the idea that morality, even absent a god or cosmic purpose, is in some way objective and definable and that morality has a lot to say about how we could live in order to be happier, fulfilled, and live more authentically.  I believe that honesty, attention, and authenticity are high values that we all should try and incorporate in our lives.  And I think that we need to be prepared to both challenge and be challenged, and if we do so we can transcend the cultural idea that criticism and judgment are bad things.

So, what if we were to try and come up with a metric for what is more rational and better behavior for people in terms of leading to more happiness and fulfillment?  Would it turn out that polyamory is the option which would be better for most people?

The rub for me is that I think there are objective facts which can help us make such judgments, but that how we rule on such questions will depend on too many unknown factors.  I am willing to admit that it may end up being the case that monoamory is objectively better for most people.  The point is that I think that this is a real issue that can really be tested, not something merely subject to personal taste or mere choice—especially given that most people don’t know enough about polyamory to effectively choose it.

I think there may be ways to objectively judge if polyamory is or is not better for people, even if I cannot fully define such a project right now.

So, rather than ask if polyamorous people are better than monoamorous people, the question should be whether polyamory is better than monoamory for people given that currently-monoamorous people are indeed fine people in most cases and that they are currently generally content with their choice.  The implication is not that monogamous people are doing anything wrong, are unhappy, or any such thing.  The question is whether polyamory fits better with human desires, behavior patterns, etc. and will serve as a more objectively practical relationship style in terms of providing humanity with a better way to think about love, sex, and well-being.

I make such a distinction because I perceive that when I make a claim like “polyamory is better than monogamy” I think people interpret this to mean that I think I’m better than monogamous people because I’m polyamorous (or even that I’m polyamorous because I’m better, in case anyone has forgotten about that fracas).  No, I think I’m better than some people because I’m better than some people.  I’m worse than others because I’m worse than others.  My being polyamorous is, in part, a result of some of the attributes that I like about myself—I’m honest with my desires, I seek to live authentically, and I seek to challenge myself to perpetually grow as a person.  I just happen to be convinced that polyamory is a wonderful way to be human and that it fits very well with what I observe as human inclinations  and follows along nicely with efforts to be a better person in general.  And if some (or many) people end up being accidentally happy as monoamorous, then so long as they are not suppressing anyone’s desires to do so, I have no quarrel.

In the future, I will want to sketch out the criteria about how we might pursue such a question as whether polyamory is actually objectively better than monoamory, but for now I want to make it clear that this is not a competition about what people are better than other people (although that can be a fun game too, I suppose), but rather what relationships behaviors are better for groups of humans.

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Comments»

1. wfenza - July 1, 2012

See, this is another one of those posts where I feel the need to respond in another full post

tl;dr = I find it easy enough to phrase it “if you value trust, respect, and love in relationships, polyamory is superior” OR “the assumptions that are build into polyamory are more loving and respectful than the assumptions that are build into (my preferred form of) polyamory.”

I like that phrasing people if forces people to either (a) explain how rule-based monogamy is more/equally compatible with love & respect (which is impossible), or (b) admit that love & respect aren’t their top priorities in a relationship.

2. Relationship Agnosticism: process over teleology « atheist, polyamorous, skeptics - February 8, 2013

[…] dealt with the question before (As has Wes), but I want to take a different approach–a different […]

3. caelesti - November 3, 2014

I think one of the biggest problems with monoamory/gamy is that it’s unexamined- thus umpteen couples get into arguments about what “counts” as cheating. Poly people tend to acknowledge that there are different forms of polyamory, and diff things work for diff people, but mono people tend to assume monogamy is basically the same for everyone, until this assumption comes back to haunt them…


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