March 22, 2015 by aggiesez
People often refer to polyamory as a flavor of ethical nonmonogamy — but in the real world, are your ethics really what you think they are? In May in Denver, I’ll be co-presenting a session on ethics in polyamory at Loving More’s Rocky Mountain Poly Living conference.
My spin on this is that ethics are a very personal matter — they’re about how you walk your talk on your personal values. I boil it down to this fill-in-the-blank statement:
Because I value X, I will/won’t do Y — even if Z
- X = what you actually value. Value does not equal virtue. While personal values can be virtuous-sounding stuff (consideration, autonomy, collaboration, honesty, etc.), or practical-sounding stuff (stability, health, safety or simplicity), when they’re really honest, people often also value not-so-virtuous-sounding stuff (winning, power, pleasure, ease, avoiding conflict, etc.) For this reason, in the real world, our actual values often aren’t quite what we believe them to be, or claim they are. I will be encouraging people to be thoroughly honest with themselves about what they actually value.
- Y = an action you can either do or refrain from. This is only about what is within your power to do/not do. It’s not about other people’s actions. (Of course, one possible action you might do would be to attempt to exert control over, or manipulate, other people.)
- Z = A factor that would make this choice really, difficult — even painful. Something that would seriously push you to want to violate or compromise your own ethics. Such as: “…even if that might end a long-term relationship I treasure.” Or, “…even if they’re really hot.” Or, “…even if people I love would hate me or lose respect for me.” This part of parsing out your ethics is crucial, since ethics exist to guide our most difficult choices. If all choices were easy or obvious, we wouldn’t need ethics.
The interesting part is teasing out ethical conflicts. We all have them, myself included. This involves digging deep, to get beyond the first layer of claimed personal values to probe deeper, underlying values that are more about people and life in general, not necessarily about polyamory or intimate relationships.
For instance, often poly folk who come from (or are only familiar with) the couple-centric/hierarchical approach to polyamory justify imposing rules or veto power upon nonprimary partners by saying they value loyalty (to their spouse, family, etc.). But when I ask them about more general values not specific to polyamory (such as egalitarianism: believing that other people are neither more nor less inherently important or deserving of respect than you are), this often highlights a conflict: If I really believe that all human beings are inherently of equal value, then how can I justify treating some people as if my primary partner and I are entitled to dictate the terms of their relationship to them?
…Yeah, this stuff gets tricky. It’s not necessarily fun to realize that you’re not as virtuous as you thought or hoped you were. But if ethics matter to you, the first step in behaving ethically is being brutally honest with yourself, and others, about where you stand and what matters to you.
Solo poly folk, and people who practice nonhierarchical polyamory, are not immune from ethical quandaries and conflicts, of course.
For instance, if you prefer to practice solo polyamory (and therefore do not engage in relationships that are life-entwined or heading toward that relationship escalator goal), you’d probably look “single” to the dominant monogamy-presuming culture. Which means you’d probably find it relatively easy to date conventionally single people — many of whom are shopping for a monogamous long-term relationship, and thus would probably prefer to avoid dating people who are obviously partnered up and thus not available for an exclusive relationship.
Monogamy-minded people often are explicit up front about that goal/requirement — but they also may be tempted to view a solo poly person as someone who might be lured to monogamy “for the right match.” Conversely, poly folk who date mono-minded folk might be hoping, “after they get to know me, they’ll be willing to try polyamory.”
The ethical quandary then becomes:
Because I value my autonomy and freedom to connect intimately with others as I choose (plus other values), should I date someone who will expect or require monogamy — especially if they’re clear they don’t want polyamory, and/or even if they’re super hot and totally into me too?
Tricky, tricky. Sure, some solo poly people (myself included) choose to avoid getting significantly involved with people whose basic relationship needs and values would preclude an open/poly relationship. Taking this stand for integrity does yield a smaller local dating pool, and that can get lonely or frustrating. But it does, in my experience, increase the chances of more harmonious relationships when they do happen.
Other solo poly people employ a different ethical calculus. Such as: “Because I value informed consent and respect everyone’s autonomy, if someone who seems incompatible with polyamory wants to date me anyway, and I’m attracted to them as well, then we should feel free to explore that connection — even if it that incompatibility might later cause stress or end the relationship, perhaps on very bad terms.”
That perspective isn’t unethical. Nor is hoping that a partner will change to become more compatible. (Trying to manipulate or coerce people into changing, or withholding pertinent context, is another matter, of course.) Change can happen. Sometimes people who formerly preferred monogamy do come to embrace polyamory after getting emotionally involved with a poly person. Conversely, sometimes people who prefer polyamory decide to enter a monogamous relationship because they find a specific mono person very compelling, or because they’re tired of fighting against the social tide.
What ethical quandaries have you faced in your own explorations of polyamory? Whether you’re solo poly, partnered-up, a mono-minded person involved with (or considering dating) a poly person, hierarchical or nonhierarchical, I’d really like to hear a variety of ethical issues in polyamory, what you really value, and how your values and ethics sway how you approach really hard choices. (And what makes your choices hard?) Please speak up in the comments below.
Bonus points if you apply my XYZ structure to how you define your own ethics in real-world situations.