As I have outlined in a previous essay, consistent ethics matter to me. The motivation may be unclear, but simple and consistent sets of rules have a definite aesthetic appeal. Just like in engineering, a simple and consistent system is more valuable than a complex, unpredictable mess, partly because it makes reasoning much easier. And I like to be able to reason about things, to use a rational process to understand and tweak my world view. And ethics are an important part of this world view.

It might not be entirely obvious at first glance, but polyamory is primarily an ethical issue. The first concern in how we build our relationships is the effect this has on the people involved. Relationships are complicated, their dynamics involve a huge number of variables and they have a largely unmapped emotional component. Even though we barely understand most of what makes up relationships, we choose to apply a rigid set of very arbitrary rules to govern them. Rules that derive from tradition: a famously unreliable source of knowledge, the wellspring of ideas that gave us slavery, stoning, FGM and countless other inexcusable horrors. Nevertheless, we consider traditional, “common sense” ideas – at least those that haven’t been widely and thoroughly discredited yet – to be infallible and worth defending tooth and nail. At least on the surface; when traditional rules are inconvenient, we are somehow capable of casual doublethink.

Serial monogamy (widespread cheating included) is one of those curious doublethink exercises we gladly engage in. On one hand, we have the traditional ideal of one true love, exclusive relationships, exclusive sexuality, chastity, virgin marriage and whatnot. Various people will go into various lengths on this, of course… but all those ideas are deeply embedded in our culture. Most people will consider those things to be desirable, and more importantly, ethical. Promiscuity, the antithesis of those ideals, is almost universally portrayed as unethical and wrong but nevertheless also nearly universally practiced. Of course, if you – like me – desire to live by a sound system of ethics, something has to give.


Let’s have a look at the central tenet of the “traditional” rule set, the idea that relationships, especially those involving sexuality, need to be in some way exclusive. First of all, there is an uncomfortable double standard at play: the stick that measures women’s chastity is much stricter than the analog used for males. This asymmetry in itself is disturbing and needs to be corrected. Of course, if you are a privileged male (preferably cis and hetero), there just isn’t that much of a pressing need to worry about it. Nevertheless, it should bother you, because it is – from a rational (not historical and not evolutionary) standpoint – completely unjustified. And if we were to fix the asymmetry by adjusting the male end of the stick, some of us would be rather uncomfortable all of a sudden. On the other hand, if we allow the same slack to women that men traditionally enjoy, the exclusivity deal as such becomes a lot shakier. This somewhat undermines the entire concept – it doesn’t appear to be so central after all.

However, there are actual useful roles that (the illusion of) exclusivity fulfills. Most of us have inherited an evolutionary deficiency (which of course wasn’t a deficiency all along, but in a contemporary western society, it’s a lot more burden than worth), namely jealousy. Knowledge of infidelity (especially sexual, at least in men, and emotional, probably to a greater degree in women – the difference due to evolutionary and cultural baggage) triggers a chain reaction in our brains. It’s uncomfortable because it means that we were (probably) cheated out of our reproductive success. Well, used to mean. This semi-hard-coded reaction is of course hopelessly outdated. But sexual and emotional exclusivity in a relationship is something that shields us from this unpleasant experience.

While jealousy is essentially obsolete (the useful roles it plays are very limited, but it causes a great deal of harm), there is a bunch of other traits that play into this. Humans have a natural propensity towards both emotional and sexual promiscuity. We are social beings, and social contact feels good – and even though social isolation is maybe not as lethal as it used to be, it still has very real and very practical (and generally bad) consequences. In other words, our pro-social behaviour is beneficial to us… but it also easily triggers jealousy. Finally, a third major parameter enters the balancing act: trust. If we neglect trust, an optimal solution to the jealousy/promiscuity conundrum is cheating; sadly, compromising trust has the least-visible immediate consequences, and accordingly, cheating is a widespread phenomenon.

Trust and Ethics

The question of trust in relationships brings us back to ethics. We (well, many of us, apparently) have a deep-seated desire for building trust. It gives us a sense of security and it fuels our well-being. And breaking established trust is often very painful. While building trust is a cooperative effort, it is easily broken by unilateral action. These properties together make it very important from the point of view of ethics. We can probably agree that cheating undermines trust and can easily cause irreparable damage to a relationship. It is, however, all too easy to conflate the suffering caused by the violation of a trust relationship with the onslaught of jealousy: after all, our arrangements are such that those two often go hand in hand.

However, this is incorrect (as anyone who has experienced polyamory in some practical capacity probably understands). There are two separate issues, and two separate ethical considerations. Arguably, trust is the more important of the two: consequences of a trust violation are more painful, can last a very long time and can easily affect all other relationships of the violated person. And it is cheating – not promiscuity – that endangers trust. If a rule was established in a relationship – however tacitly (and the expectation of sexual and/or emotional exclusivity is so entrenched that a rule for it is rarely spelled out explicitly) – breaking this rule without the consent and knowledge of the other person is clearly a transgression. But the subject of trust in a relationship is flexible and negotiable: if both participants in a relationship agree (give informed and non-coerced consent) that such exclusivity is not a requirement, then no violations of trust can happen by breaking this (nonexistent) rule. This is the basis on which fulfilling and successful polyamorous relationships are built.

Jealousy and Freedom

While careful, explicit and rational approach to building trust can (even despite some practical difficulties) mitigate the dangers of its violation, this does very little to address the other problem – jealousy. Even though in most cases, jealousy causes less suffering and the damage it inflicts is limited to a short time horizon, it still is a very legitimate concern.

Again, as it is often the case in practical ethics, this becomes a balancing act: an uneasy one, because it involves acceptance of some degree of suffering of another person, in exchange for one’s own benefit. The suffering in this case is the experience of jealousy, the benefit is the freedom to engage in promiscuity – building relationships with multiple people at once. This freedom, and the relationships it affords us, can be extremely rewarding. However, justifying someone else’s suffering by one’s own fulfillment is a slope that’s extremely slippery. I believe that the only ethically sound way to address this is through symmetry; an approach that requires a steel-clad foundation of trust to work. The idea is simple: I pledge (within our established relationship of trust) to give you the requisite freedom and to accept – and deal with – the possible jealousy. You pledge that you won’t abuse this freedom, and that you won’t neglect my suffering from jealousy, but will work with me to assuage it. I will work to defeat my jealousy because your – and by symmetry, my own – freedom is more important to me. It is basically impossible to formalize those promises, to spell out a working contract that will make everything easy. But trust is not built on formal promises; it is a matter of basic human decency (a glaringly ill-defined concept) and of trying our best.

Nevertheless, the ethical rules that emerge from such an arrangement are simpler and more rational than the traditional deal. There is no longer a forced distinction between friendly and romantic relationships, the ethical framework that governs our – inevitably multiple – relationships with people is much more unified. Sexuality is no longer forced into a proxy role – where romantic relationships are defined by sexual content, and friendly relationships by the lack thereof. It frees us up to position our relationships wherever they feel comfortable on the multi-dimensional spectrum, without bumping into limits established by the imposed categories. It makes it possible to experience trust and security in a close but asexual relationship, without giving up on sexuality. It gives our relationships equal opportunity – a feature of ethics that I find very satisfying. More symmetry is (almost) always good.

– 6.12.2014