So, this is the first in a series of posts looking at philosophical perspectives on ethical non-monogamy. A note on terms: to avoid spelling it out every time, I’ll refer to ‘non-monogamy’ to included all the varying flavours of ethical non-monogamy, though my own version is far closer to polyamory than, say, swinging, so I’ll try and be aware of my own biases there. I’m also referring specifically to open and honest non-monogamy, rather than cheating, or lying by omission, and to non-monogamy to which all parties have given informed consent, rather than being coerced.
I’m planning to put quite a lot of work into looking for sound arguments against non-monogamy, because I suspect they’re going to be harder to find than arguments for it. Most arguments against non-monogamy, in its various flavours, are either personal (ooh, I couldn’t do it, don’t you get jealous?) or theological (my religious teachings say this is bad) – neither of which are really open to being picked apart via analytical philosophical traditions. So, because my version of fun is looking for really good solid logical arguments against things I like, I will be trying to find arguments against non-monogamy. (I live a wild life)
That said, I’ve chosen to write my first post on J S Mill, which is… Well, you’ll see the problem in a moment.
J S Mill: On Liberty
Read On Liberty online
This is one of the founding works of liberal thought; published in 1859, its main thrust is the complete sovereignty of the individual over their own life – unless harm is being done to other people, neither the state nor other people can compel someone to do anything.
Mill begins by outlining why any concept of liberty is needed at all: even in a democracy, the rulers are not (always) the same people as the ruled, therefore a small number of people have a potentially limitless amount of power to be used against everyone else. We accept that there should be limits on the power of the rulers to prevent abuses of power, but the difficulty is in determining where those limits should be. Mill cautions, though, that political oppression at the hands of the state is not the only sort of oppression we should be concerned about: it is possible for the majority to want to oppress a minority, “and precautions are as much needed against this as against any other abuse of power.” Perhaps more interestingly, Mill argues against the oppressive power of ‘Society’ and social expectations of morality and behaviour throughout the book just as much as against state oppression, if not more:
Society can and does issue its own mandates; and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with which it ought not to meddle, it practises a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself. Protection, therefore, against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough; there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling, against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them; to fetter the development and, if possible, to prevent the formation of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compel all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own.
But why should this matter? Why shouldn’t everyone think and behave in the same way, whether because the government enshrines it in law, or because society effectively enforces it? After all, what if I’m just right – wouldn’t it be better to get everyone to do things my way?
Mill argues that we should not only permit individuality – even eccentricity – in thought and behaviour, but we should encourage it and value it in itself. Humans are not infallible, our opinions – even widely held ones – may be wrong, so dissenting opinions are valuable in helping us reach the truth. The same argument applies to behaviour – different ways of living should be not only tolerated but encouraged, as living experiments towards a greater truth and greater understanding of human natures.
That mankind are not infallible; that their truths, for the most part, are only half truths; that unity of opinion, unless resulting from the fullest and freest comparison of opposite opinions, is not desirable, and diversity not an evil, but a good, until mankind are much more capable than at present of recognising all sides of the truth, are principles applicable to men’s modes of action not less than to their opinions. As it is useful that while mankind are imperfect there should be different opinions, so it is that there should be different experiments of living; that free scope should be given to varieties of character, short of injury to others; and that the worth of different modes of life should be proved practically, when anyone thinks fit to try them. It is desirable, in short, that in things which do not primarily concern others, individuality should assert itself. Where not the person’s own character but the traditions or customs of other people are the rule of conduct, there is wanting one of the principal ingredients of human happiness, and quite the chief ingredient of individual and social progress.
This is all well and good, but what if I know I’m right? I’ve sorted it now – I’ve discovered the One True Way to happiness and fulfilment; wouldn’t it be better if I could just get everyone to do it right? I’m sure they’d appreciate it in the end. Can’t we just make it so that everyone is atheist/religious/agnostic/capitalist/socialist/polyamorous/monogamous/celibate/etc?
No. Individuality, in behaviour and thought, is not only valuable (says Mill) because it might uncover a previously ignored ‘right’ way of thinking or behaving; it’s not just a means to an end. It’s an end in itself. He argues that the way modern society is developing, mediocrity is on the rise, and people won’t accept those who try and rise above mediocrity by being truly original (NB: 1859. Try reading the articles complaining about X Factor with that in mind… Plus ça change, etc). Given this love of mediocrity, eccentricity is all the more valuable – the very act of refusing to conform, of doing something outside the norm, is a way to break the ‘tyranny of opinion’, no matter whether it’s with good ideas or terrible ones.
In addition, choosing a mode of living for oneself allows you to exercise your intellectual and critical faculties, and to choose based precisely on your own character and dispositions – you are the world’s foremost expert on yourself, even allowing for the accumulated knowledge of people who have lived before you.
It is the privilege and proper condition of a human being, arrived at the maturity of his faculties, to use and interpret experience in his own way … He who does anything because it is the custom makes no choice. He gains no practice either in discerning or in desiring what is best. The mental and moral, like the muscular, powers are improved only by being used.
But what if people make the wrong choices? Like I said, I’ve figured out the One True Way; the choices made by People I Disagree With may not be harming other people, but they’re definitely harming themselves – they’re behaving immorally, or irresponsibly, or stupidly, or just taking too many drugs for my liking. Plus, they’re setting a bad example – what if everyone else looks at them and decides they’d rather live like that?
Mill has very little patience with the ‘bad example’ problem; if people are choosing a mode of living that’s such a disastrous idea, surely they’re more a salutary lesson than an example? If their life is such a poor choice, then people will learn from their mistakes, not try to emulate them. As for harming themselves, this is really no-one else’s business, says Mill. You may try to encourage someone to behave differently, but the final decision rests with the individual themselves, as no one else has a keener interest in their well-being.
Human beings owe to each other help to distinguish the better from the worse, and encouragement to choose the former and avoid the latter. They should be forever stimulating each other to increased exercise of their higher faculties and increased direction of their feelings and aims towards wise instead of foolish, elevating instead of degrading, objects and contemplations. But neither one person, nor any number of persons, is warranted in saying to another human being of ripe years that he shall not do with his life for his own benefit what he chooses to do with it. He is the person most interested in his well-being: the interest which any other person, except in cases of strong emotional attachment, can have in it is trifling compared with that which he himself has…with respect to his own feelings and circumstances the most ordinary man or woman has means of knowledge immeasurably surpassing those that can be possessed by anyone else.
This gives you, I hope, a good flavour of the arguments behind On Liberty. I’d love to go through the whole thing, but I fear this is already getting quite long! It’s pretty obvious that, even if we non-monogamous types are completely wrong-headed, there’s a substantial argument that we should be allowed – even supported – to conduct our lives however we see fit, without state interference or substantial social disapproval. However…
A problem with Mill’s arguments for liberty is that they could be seen to rely on informed choices. What if I’m underinformed? What if it really were provable and known that non-monogamy is 100% a terrible idea? What if I’ve spent all my time hanging out with apparently happy non-monogamous people, reading books about non-monogamy, and haven’t come across the reliable and solid evidence that says all non-monogamous relationships will crash and burn horribly? (yes, I know, bear with me). But assuming all the other freedoms Mill identifies have been respected, I have always had the freedom to seek out more information about my chosen way of life, and to educate myself further – if I’ve ignored that possibility, then that is also a choice I have made for myself. So even if I make foolish choices due to a lack of information, that lack of information is down to my own choices and actions.
Another thought: what if Mill’s harm principle does actually apply here; what if by choosing non-monogamous relationships I am causing harm to my partners by conducting that model of relationship with them? This isn’t really a concern, though, unless we change definitions to include coerced or forced non-monogamy – as I outlined at the beginning, ethical non-monogamy relies on all those involved being fully informed consenting adults, and even Mill allows for the possibility of conduct that affects others if they so choose: “There is no room for entertaining any such question [whether interfering with someone’s conduct will promote general welfare or not] when a person’s conduct affects the interests of no persons besides himself, or needs not affect them unless they like (all the persons concerned being of full age and the ordinary amount of understanding).”
Now, I saved this for the end: it’s been fun to look at this in the abstract, but Mill actually does address Mormon polygamy. He has a deep dislike of the religion itself – “the product of palpable imposture” – and of its sexism and poor treatment of women – “it is a direct infraction of that principle [of liberty], being a mere riveting of the chains of one half of the community, and an emancipation of the other from reciprocity of obligation towards them.” And yet even in this case, a religiously-motivated and oppressive form of non-monogamy, he points out that it is just as voluntary as any other form of marriage institution, and if most of the world insists on teaching women that marriage is the most important thing for them, we shouldn’t be surprised if some women choose being one of many wives over being no wife at all. He considers the setting up of Mormon polygamous communities to be a “retrograde step in civilization”, and yet “I cannot admit that persons entirely unconnected with them ought to step in and require that a condition of things with which all who are directly interested appear to be satisfied should be put to an end because it is a scandal to persons some thousands of miles distant who have no part or concern in it.”
It’s not hard to imagine what Mill might have made of the modern forms of non-monogamy, freely chosen by consenting adults, and without the gender imbalance of polygamy.
A final note: Mill wrote On Liberty in collaboration with his adored wife, Harriet Taylor. Before they married in 1851, they conducted a 20-year ‘intimate friendship’ during her marriage to her first husband (who died in 1849). Mill sent her love letters, they dined together in London, he spent weekends in the country with her (usually without her husband) and took long trips abroad with her, sometimes with one of her children too. Tempting though it is to see history through a polyamorous filter, there is apparently no suggestion whatsoever that this was a sexual relationship; however, it was clearly outside the norms of what was expected, for both of them.