Polyamory

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.

Exclusivity

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

Why Vegan?

I normally try to avoid talking about “why vegan” … but some people are very insistent in asking. All in all, it is an uncomfortable topic: for me, because it highlights yet another “deviation” from the norm in my behaviour (and being the defendant in those cases, putting up “excuses” for your non-standard behaviour, is very unpleasant). For the other side because it challenges their established beliefs (the very fact that they insist in getting a justification for someone being a vegan betrays a sort of insecurity). Anyway, sometimes the discussion cannot be (easily) avoided. Since it comes up somewhat regularly, I decided to write down how I feel about the entire thing.

Why not?

First of all, I assert that the question is not “why vegan” but “why not” – at least for anyone who seeks a consistent set of rules as a basis for their morality. Implying, naturally, that you are trying to live morally (for whatever your notion of morality is). Moreover, as most people will agree, I will assume that your morality decrees that killing, abusing or torturing animals is not OK (if you are not sure, imagine your favourite pet animal as a stand-in for the generic animal; if that doesn’t seem wrong, you are just sick and there’s no reason for us to even talk to each other). Finally, most reasonable systems of morality will judge an abhorrent behaviour equally bad regardless of whether you do it personally or pay a third party to do it (there might be finer distinctions for cases where you were honestly unaware of bad things being done by proxy as the means of some end you were paying for; such exceptions, however, rarely apply in cases of willful ignorance).

For many people, different animals fall into different moral categories – sometimes, this might be justified: the nervous systems of insects are much simpler than the nervous systems of mammals, for example. It is hard to judge what is the capacity for suffering in insects: nevertheless, we will still frown upon people tearing off wings from domestic flies for amusement. It is just mean, and in some sense it violates our sense of morality, which penalizes torture very harshly (usually more so than a swift painless killing). So even though we can give fairly solid evidence that flies have very limited capacity for suffering, we still afford them a fairly high moral status. The status of vertebrates, then, and especially mammals, should be proportionally higher. In other words, torturing a mammal would be, by default, an inexcusable offence.

Nevertheless, the majority of people will have special moral categories for some species of mammals and a few other vertebrates, in which such protections simply do not apply, for no particular reason. It seems that the existence of such special categories is a matter of religion, so to speak: it has no scientific justification, is passed from parents to their children and carries over to adulthood as a firm, almost unquestionable belief. Of course, those special categories are the “food animals”: in our local religious (cultural) practice, those are predominantly cows, pigs and chickens.

As I said earlier, for someone who seeks consistent, reasonable rules for their moral system, arbitrary and groundless rules like “cows have no moral status by fiat” are simply not acceptable. On the other hand, giving up the moral protection of all animals (and it is surprisingly hard to exclude humans here, although with some mental gymnastics you could probably justify that) is a rather unappealing option… it would strip you, after all, of any right to be offended by people buying the cutest of puppies to beat them to pulp for entertainment. In fact, there isn’t much maneuvering space in between. Allow a little abuse and a whole lot of it pours in (unless you make up arbitrary exceptions based on existing practice, but that defies the idea of a consistent moral system).

Gray Areas

Now of course, any practical system of morality cannot be entirely black and white. Obviously, there is black, and all sorts of gray (you could argue there’s never anything really white). Any rule will have to admit exceptions sometimes: if for nothing else, then because there will be times where all the choice you have is breaking one rule or another. Of course, there will be more mundane considerations: some actions are more costly than others, some are more inconvenient, etc. If you save money or labour by breaking a rule, you could spend those on actions that create well-being in the world that outweighs the suffering your transgression caused. And on and on and on. Nevertheless, breaking your moral rules always requires a justification. As such, being a vegan is neutral: it breaks the fewest rules possible, among all otherwise equivalent options. Not being a vegan is what requires a justification. QED.

Now to spice things up, I posit that not all justifications are equally good. Namely, “but it tastes so good” is an awful reason to break moral rules (figuring out why is left as an exercise for the reader). So is “but everyone is doing it” (a.k.a. social conformity) – all sorts of atrocities were committed under this excuse, and no-one in their right mind would now say that abuse perpetrated by (or with the support of) a large group of people is okay. (And as a sidenote, neither is health a good reason – this has been thoroughly debunked in relevant scientific literature).

Denial

Finally, people will sometimes convince themselves that the atrocities of animal industry (and factory farming in particular) do not exist. Unfortunately for them, what really happens on farms is very well documented and if you think about it, is basically unavoidable. Even small-scale animal farming is very hard to justify morally: you will hurt the animals whether you want to or not, as long as you intend to derive any non-trivial benefit from the practice. Especially city dwellers have a tendency to idealize the rustical life in “harmony” with nature and farm animals. Based on this, they will construct a case where animals live happy lives and are mercifully slaughtered, a delightful experience in itself. Then, in a rare display of mathematical thinking, those people conclude that since this is possible, replacing the entire horrific machinery of factory farming with bucolic pastures full of happy cows is a trivial exercise and not worth of further consideration (or worry). Such are the wonders of the mind that is trying to resolve cognitive dissonance.

(In theory, it is possible to make – for example – cruelty-free milk and milk products. The cost is, however, staggering. If we assume that a single lactating cow could spare enough milk for an entire human family in addition to its own calf and that a natural lactation period is about a year, this means that each family would need to support a herd of around 20 cows. One of those would be lactating at any given time – the others will be either old no-longer-lactating cows, or the calves responsible for previous lactations; they would also need to be sterilised, a morally dubious action in itself… now, supporting 20 cows requires about a square kilometer of pasture, give or take – hence, providing such cruelty-free, free-range milk for the population of Prague would require pasture area larger than Italy, or about 4 times the size of Czech Republic… considering that you can buy “organic” milk in a supermarket, we have to conclude that the “organic” standard is extremely far from what could be, with a little lenience, called cruelty-free…).

– 4.10.2014