Essay on Sexual Exclusivity Wins Journal of Applied Philosophy’s Annual Prize
“Is the Requirement of Sexual Exclusivity Consistent with Romantic Love?” That’s the title and central question of the paper selected as the winner of the 2017 Journal of Applied Philosophy essay prize.
The essay was authored by Natasha McKeever (Leeds).
The prize is £1,000 (approximately $1,408) and is awarded for the best article published in that year’s volume, as judged by the editors of the journal. Previous winners are listed here.
Here’s the abstract of the paper:
In some cultures, people tend to believe that it is very important to be sexually exclusive in romantic relationships and idealise monogamous romantic relationships; but there is a tension in this ideal. Sex is generally considered to have value, and usually when we love someone we want to increase the amount of value in their lives, not restrict it without good reason. There is thus a call, not yet adequately responded to by philosophers, for greater clarity in the reasons why it might be reasonable for a couple to adopt a policy of sexual exclusivity.
This article argues that we cannot justify the demand for sexual exclusivity by a need to protect the relationship from the risk of one partner ‘trading‐up’, or by appealing to jealousy. However, sexual exclusivity can be intelligible if it supports the romantic relationship and helps to distinguish it from other relationships. Nonetheless, sexual exclusivity ought not to be the hegemonic social norm that it currently is in some societies because this diminishes the potential value it might have and gives the idea of faithfulness the wrong focus.
The whole paper is available here.
It may be that the benefit to children of having monogamous parents is a matter that needs more research, but it is nevertheless rather surprising that the goods that may accrue to children from monogamy play no role in the author’s argument.Report
Sorry, should have said “sexual exclusivity”, not monogamy, to avoid ambiguity.Report
My understanding is that the existing evidence doesn’t justify the hypothesis that monogamy is overall better for child rearing than polyamory. If the concern on this point is empirically unfounded, isn’t the author entitled to leave it out of the paper?
Moving beyond the immediate concerns of the paper to what may be background concerns that we share, Arthur, I think it’s worth noting that the author’s opposition to a hegemonic monogamy norm is compatible with support for a children-within-marriage-only norm, which, to my knowledge, is an empirically supported norm. I wonder if the latter norm’s prospects for wider acceptance improve if it’s made to include more kinds of marriage and if it’s more clearly separated from religious ideals of sexual purity.
Anyway, I really enjoyed the paper. It’s impressively convincing for a work of its kind. I disagreed with its conclusion when I began reading it; now I tentatively agree.Report
I would have thought that the polyamorous family groupings studied in the articles you cite, Jonathan, would have been groups of individuals who deliberately chose to raise children together as a group. (Correct me if I’m wrong about that). That’s very different from a married couple who encourages sexual relationships on the side. If there is science on this latter type of relationship and parenting, it is not something most readers will be familiar with, and so I would expect McKeever to engage with it.
At the very least, the fact that she doesn’t consider how norms of marriage are connected to norms in parenting *at all* bothers me. She should engage the point, even if just to say what you said above.Report
I’m no expert on polyamory, but this was the best I could find through a bit of Googling:
Here’s the authors’ definition of (mutual) monogamy: “Mutual monogamy means that you agree to be sexually active with only one person, and that person has agreed to be sexually active only with you” (125)
They contrast this with “consensually non-monogamous” (CNM) relationships, which are “relationships in which both partners have openly agreed that they and/or their partners will have other sexual or romantic partners” (126).
Parents in CNM relationships report (predictably) that such relationships have both advantages and disadvantages; and at the moment, we don’t really have any more to go on than that. The authors don’t systematically disaggregate the (quasi-)data into sexual relationships on the side, as you put it, and polygamy.
So I don’t think child rearing grounds a pressing objection to McKeever’s argument. But I take your point about how this could have been worth mentioning.Report
This is weird, sex means nothing to me and with the wrong person it is even repulsive so I can not understand and it would really make me sad, if my significant other would want to engage in this naked act with multiple people, not only because of STD’s but also because it just feels… wrong and it seems like I can not change this feeling no matter how much I ponder over it.Report
Sex with the wrong people definitely sounds like a pretty bad idea. But are you assuming that there can only be one right person at a time? What justifies that assumption?Report
It is worth noting that removing norms censuring polyamorous relationships does not entail replacing them with norms that censure monogamous relationships. As with homosexual relationships, that they should be accepted does not mean you need to be in one.Report
Oh, yes I can perfectly imagine being in love or loving multiple people at the same time, after all there are plenty kinds of love. Thank you for your reply, it has really calmed me down, I tend to forget how subjective I am when I base my opinion on a ‘feeling’.Report
I’m not sure why sexual exclusivity needs to be defended in any deep terms, and did not find the arguments in the paper against paying heed to the practical reality of sexual jealousy compelling. Those arguments seemed to demand not just that sexual jealousy exist, but that it be itself an independently morally justified attitude (before it could morally justify anything else, like a request for exclusivity). But that seemed like the wrong standard to me.
If merely believing that some emotional attitude lacks justification were enough to liberate oneself from it, then no one would ever be depressed. Correspondingly, it seems to me that critiquing sexual jealousy as undesirable is interesting enough, but not really that relevant to relationship choices. Our partners meet us where we are, not where we would be if our emotional natures were governed by effective rational norms. An open relationship is unwise if one partner can reasonably foresee that they ~will~ experience painful jealousy, regardless of whether a different, more desirable version of them wouldn’t–or, so it seems to me.
In any case, interesting read–thanks to Justin for posting it, and congratulations to Natasha McKeever for winning the prize!Report
Aren’t our attitudes subject to reflective review? Say I suffer from feelings of inferiority, and my spouse having a higher paying job will cause me distress. Isn’t it illegitimate for me to say “you must meet me where I am” and not take any job more lucrative than my own?
If, as the paper argues, a demand for sexual exclusivity causes harm (or at least denies a good) then why does ‘well that’s just the way i am’ excuse the causing of that harm?Report
The paper uses the similar example, that of people who are jealous of their partner’s platonic friendships; even if that jealousy is brute, surely that’s the problem of the jealous person? –or so the question goes.
I am less convinced. Both that example you give and the one from the paper are culturally loaded; attempting to cut others friends’ out of their lives is a red flag for abuse, and feelings of inferiority over lower pay are patriarchal and coded as regressively masculine. I don’t think that what seems objectionable about them is a failure to rationally justify per se. I would counsel a friend to run out the door the second their boy/girlfriend started telling them they couldn’t see their friends, not because I am disappointed by the abstract rational foundations of their attitudes.
Furthermore, it’s also true of in both cases that 1) it’s considerably less plausible that “meet me where I am” describes a point that is really genuine, and 2) it’s also typically a more harmful disposition–no friends, no jobs, are for most worse than no extracurricular sex. For those, by contrast, for whom no extracurricular sex is a really serious burden–well, yeah, they should probably be in open relationships! (I am all for open relationships; what I am against is the idea that you could issue a decision about whether relationships as a rule should be open in terms of an analysis of how romantic partners should be, in abstraction from how any given two romantic partners in fact are. As far as I can tell, open relationships are great for some and definitely very bad ideas for others).
In any case, the example you give and also the one from the paper seemed so rife with confounders as to be pretty weak evidence one way of the other.Report
“I am less convinced. Both that example you give and the one from the paper are culturally loaded; attempting to cut others friends’ out of their lives is a red flag for abuse, and feelings of inferiority over lower pay are patriarchal and coded as regressively masculine.”
I don’t think you are engaging with these objections in good faith. Yes, there is a correlation between jealousy of a partner’s platonic friendships and abusive behavior. However, it is easy to imagine a partner who is very unlikely to ever be abusive and yet is jealous of her partner’s platonic friendships (in fact there is a certain kind of neurotic personality type many will be familiar with that is just like this). Yet when we imagine this person (or reflect on our experiences with a real life version of her) most of us have a strong intuition that her jealousy is rationally criticizable. Likewise, it is easy to imagine someone who feels inferior if her partner has a higher status career than she does and yet is not caused to have this preference by her endorsement (explicitly or tacitly) of patriarchal norms. For example, we can imagine this occurring in a Lesbian coupling where there is no masculine/feminine dynamic. Yet, when we imagine this most of us have a strong intuition that such career jealousy is rationally criticizable.Report
I am aware that we can change the case to remove the considerations I raised. My suspicion is that once we do, the intuitions you claim as strongly shared will no longer hold. This because I suspect that our negative reactions are a product of the background social meanings, including empirical assumptions about what a person making those demands is likely to be like and the likely results one way or the other. I think these are good enough reasons to ground a negative reaction to most of those cases, at the level initially described, although on certain extensions–your neurotic person, perfectly harmless but prone to be jealous, unlikely to ever change despite years of therapy, etc.–I also find it obvious that initial negative reactions should fall away. The best thing for such a person to do is to find an unusually introverted partner, one with whom they can build a mutually fulfilling romantic relationship that does not require the things that they are unable to give. Perhaps you disagree! And perhaps I am wrong about how others’ intuitions would change even on such extensions. Regardless, the claim of bad faith engagement seems misplaced, as this strikes me as a pedestrian disagreement over whether a thought experiment really shows what it’s supposed to.
In general: I agree that requiring sexual exclusivity of a partner is a restriction on their freedom, and also that it is therefore at least prima facie bad in an evaluative sense. But this prima facie-ness is incredibly thin. Any preference on how a partner might do or be is that kind of burden, insofar as almost any activity or mode of being could conceivably be enjoyed, and hence any preference on how a partner be or act restricts conceivably valuable exercises. Someone who wants to ‘check in’ with their partner by phone every night restricts their partner’s ability to be away and out of contact, and separation is valuable for some. Perhaps it would be better if everyone were flexible on this matter, rather than taking a stand one way or the other, or perhaps it would really be best of all if they just took whichever stand you think does better in the space of reasons. But that evaluative fact about how it would be nice for people to be, even if it is one, tells us basically nothing deontically about how actually-constituted people should carry on in their relationships. It especially does not tell us that it is morally wrong for a person who wants to check in with their partner–even if they are doing so for rationally shabby reasons, like unwarranted and clingy anxiety issues–to go about finding a compatible other and then build a relationship with them. Deontic claims will depend on all sorts of further facts, and those facts will definitely include reference to whether there is a practical prospect for change. People go to therapy for their whole lives without solving their anxiety issues. Learning to manage them in part by scaffolding one’s life with relationships that don’t exacerbate them ~is~ a form of rational, responsible, and effective agency.
This is not to claim that everything is innate, and no one can ever change. That’s absurd but also obviously not the claim I need. The claim I need is “it depends, and and at least some prospects for change are unrealistic.” That, by contrast, seems pretty hard to dispute.
Consider a case that strikes me as completely parallel, namely, that of a world free of parental attachment. Perhaps it really would be desirable if we all raised children collectively, not just in the sense of involving multiple significant figures like aunts and uncles, but in the sense of utopian communist style fully shared parenting without even nominally distinguished responsibility. I certainly don’t believe that the notion of parental love is intrinsically or inherently one or two-to-many, instead of many-to-many, and the prospects for some in-principle rational justification of traditional parenting relationships correspondingly strikes me as incredibly dim. Indeed, more strongly, it strikes as plausible that the partiality involved in the traditional parenting stance is rooted in actively bad and indefensible underlying values and dispositions. But it nonetheless really does seem like, given our cultural background, people have significant concrete psychological predispositions toward exclusive parenting (n.b. this is not the claim that there are no conceivable cultures where this is otherwise, and my impression is that anthropology teaches us that there are). But given that many people in our culture do feel this way, and the prospect of them coming to feel any way otherwise are weak, it would be strange to say the equivalent of “[t]here is thus a call, not yet adequately responded to by philosophers, for greater clarity in the reasons why it might be reasonable for a couple to adopt a policy of [parental] exclusivity.” It’s clearly reasonable for a couple to adopt a policy of parental exclusivity. They be skeptical that any other policy will be compatible with the future flourishing of them and their child, and even if not absolutely convinced of this have an obvious prerogative to play it safe. Furthermore, they may–should, if they do–hold that attitude independently of whether they think parental exclusivity is intrinsic to parenting as such. What happens in conceptually possible but speculative utopian fiction, e.g., or what has managed to be well-practiced by a far-flung and vastly materially different culture–those are not the right questions for a reasonable couple to focus on when deciding about what to do with their actual child, even if they are interesting in their own right for other purposes.Report
Again, this strikes me as saying something like “I am this way, so I should be this way” or “social customs are this way, so they should be this way.” But these are obviously bad arguments. Perhaps you are right that, as a practical matter, it is prudential to conform with the norms of our societies (and to the psyches generated by those norms). But this is very far from a philosophical defense of those norms.
You say the examples proposed as objections fail because they are condemned by the current norms, so we are disposed to view them negatively; whereas sexual/parental exclusivity are not condemned by current norms, so we are not disposed to view them negatively. Is that the only difference? If so you are begging the question – the argument is that current norms are fundamentally unjustified, and the examples are meant to show that current norms are inconsistent.
That said, I agree that romantic relationships do not exist in a platonic heaven. Still, I think it is worth the time and energy to reflect on whether or not we are truly treating our partners well.Report
I don’t have access to the whole text so my comment concerns only the abstract and posts by previous comentators – sorry!
I’m really interested in how plausible do people find the sentence ‘Sex is generally considered to have value, and usually when we love someone we want to increase the amount of value in their lives, not restrict it without good reason.’? For it seems to me that the first conjunct – sex is generally considered to have value – is too general to do justice. Shouldn’t it state that sex with the right person (JJI’s remark) – no matter how many of them – is generally considered to have value?
I agree with the second conjunct that restriction of goods and values towards loved ones requires justification.
Reply to Josh’s reply to r’s comment: I don’t think r’s comment entails our attitudes aren’t subject to reflective review nor precludes accepting your point of view in the situation you described. But just causing harm isn’t reason good enough to refrain from certain behaviour: one may find what is usually considered benevolent or unharmful behaviour to be harmful or unacceptable. I don’t think the other person *should* impose such behaviour or even try to convince the other on rational grounds that it is not harmful – it is a matter of their *choice* to do so or not, not an obligation on count of loving the person who feels harmed. One may wonder is love between such person even possible.
In short: though I accept that sexual exclusivity may not be conclusively justifiable as a requirement of true romantic love, I don’t see how poliamory would fare any better – both may be at best choices but not requirements.Report
If the telos is the increase of value, and value is construed from the individual’s psychological subjectivity, and the individual’s psychological subjectivity evaluates separately from knowledge of cognition-independent meanings/truths/”absolute” values (and is restrained only by negative duties), then I’d say the whole discussion is kind of pointless.
Or, if you’d like: if nominalism is true, then everything is permitted.Report
I don’t know if you’re a Thomist, but I have heard Thomists badmouth nominalism in precisely the way you do. But the criticism seems to have little to do with my understanding of nominalism. What do you take nominalism to mean, Brian?Report
I am a Thomist, and a semiotician. And yes, to be fair, I made many huge leaps between the explicit criticism and nominalism, which I take to mean the denial that relations as such, and not just the dynamism between action and patient, possess an ontological status independently of the mind, or, being effectively the same thing, if they do exist they cannot be known.Report
“Relations as such”? Are you talking about properties, or relational properties, or what exactly? (I am not a Thomist, obviously.)
Perhaps it is this — that there is one correct way to draw the boundaries of the Things That Are — that is, the furniture of the universe? And that this would apply not only to things like atoms or electrons, but perhaps also to things like justice and truth? That these things are not “up to us”?Report
Thanks for the questions. I don’t think one needs to be a Thomist to understand the issue, but a student of the history of medieval philosophy.
Since many people are not, I decided to take this opportunity to write a brief summary of the issue–as well as drawing a bit more explicitly the connection between nominalism and morality which I indicated here.