Richard Carrier and Logic (And Polyamory)

So, Richard Carrier has made a long post defending his polyamory against the attacks of Christians. At one point, he says this about the Christians opposing him:

… which just demonstrates Christians don’t do logic well. (That’s why they’re Christians.)

And:

Note to Christians: Learn how logic works. Please. By all you think is holy. Because this **** is just embarrassing you.

Now, I don’t really care about polyamory, although I think there is a good debate to be had there. Carrier’s post, however, is not a good debate on the issue, or even a start to one. Carrier commits massive failures in logic and reasoning and argumentation in his post, and yet has the gall to argue that about the Christians. Which, to be honest, might be true of at least some of his Christian opponents, but what we have here is an example of what happens when you fail to remember this key phrase:

With great snark comes great responsibility.

And by that, I don’t mean that if you have great snark you must go out and ensure that you use that snark to better mankind. I mean that the more snarky and insulting you are in your posts or arguments, the more burden you have to ensure that the same snark and insults can’t be used against you. In short, if you are going to rely heavily on snark and aggressive argumentation — like saying that your opponents don’t know logic — you had better be right. Because if you’re wrong, calling them out in any way for bad arguments will only make it worse when your opponents point out how bad your arguments are. Which is one reason why I try to be as charitable as I can when posting, because that way when I’m wrong — not if, when — then at least I don’t look like someone who was dishonest or hypocritical about it, blasting others for their sins while ignoring the worse sins _I_ committed.

So, let me go through Carrier’s post and point out all of the problems with it, which also requires me to say some things about polyamory. I will stress from the beginning that I don’t have any set opinion on the matter, but will note some issues that I can see with it, and will oppose Carrier’s idea that polyamory should be the default state of relationships. How much will simply be pointing out Carrier’s foibles and how much will be serious discussion remains to be seen; there’s a lot of both here.

To start, let me start with a preamble on what I think is Carrier’s specific case, because that must be understood or else many parts of the post and the criticisms can’t be understood. So, essentially, it seems to be this: Richard Carrier was married for a long time — approximately 20 years — to his wife. At some point in this, it came out that he had had at least one if not more affairs. At this point, it seems, Carrier came to believe that he was not cut out for monogamous marriage, and instead wanted to enter in a polygamous relationship. I believe — but am not certain — that they tried this for some time, but that essentially it wasn’t working, and so eventually they divorced after 20 years of marriage. As far as I can tell, she didn’t simply divorce him for the cheating; they tried an alternative first.

(Carrier’s description of the events is here).

So, keeping that in mind, let’s move on to the first criticism that Carrier addresses:

Commonly, of course, there were calls to pray for my ex-wife. Because she must be so downtrodden. Divorce between equals that is to the best of both is not conceivable to conservo Christians. They cannot imagine a strong financially independent woman who gets to do her own thing when she wants.

Except … look, she obviously wanted to stay married to him. If she didn’t want to be married to him, she would have divorced him when she caught him cheating. But instead she was willing to try the open marriage thing to see if she could indeed give him what he said he needed, and what he now says is just part of who he really is (I expect this will come up more later, but let’s put that aside for now). And, presumably, it didn’t work for her. Given that Carrier wasn’t willing to budge on his wanting some kind of open marriage and return to the traditional marriage model that presumably she was comfortable with, there really wasn’t any other option for her. So this isn’t a case of a strong, financially independent woman getting what she really wanted, because from this what she clearly wanted was what she had originally. Or, at least, if the main issue was the polyamory that’s how it works. So while Carrier seems to be quite happy with the arrangement — although even in his post he says that “Breakups are always hard”, she probably wouldn’t be that happy with it. Is she better off divorced from him than married to him, given the situation? Probably. But that doesn’t mean that this shouldn’t be considered a tragedy, and certainly more so from her side than from his, given where it started. She was obviously very willing to compromise to keep the relationship going, and possibly even over things that were really important to her. He was definitely unwilling to compromise on at least the one big thing that was important to him, which is the very thing that Christians say is what you need to compromise on to make a marriage work.

So, yeah, it’s perfectly understandable and reasonable to feel sorry for her in this situation, as she was kinda pushed into a situation by what Carrier felt he needed. It’s also reasonable to feel sorry for her and not for Carrier because, at the end of the day, Carrier got the sorts of relationships he wanted and she didn’t get the one she wanted: the one with him. Yes, he lost her (presumably) but he wanted more anyway; there is no evidence that she really, really wanted anything more than him.

So, given the situation, Carrier’s description here is massively misleading, and ends up being used as a cheap, almost ad hominem shot at his opponents: they can’t conceive of an independent woman being happy without her man. Except that if she thought that she’d be happier without him, she wouldn’t have tried the compromise in the first place. This is definitely a small consolation prize for her at best, and it is reasonable for people to express that.

And then:

They also think prayer can make someone they never have any contact with feel better about personally sad changes in their life. Because they believe in sorcery. And third-party mind control. These are, after all, superstitious magical thinkers who believe superbeings in outer space not only listen to them, but also cast mind-altering emotion spells on random people they don’t know.

Carrier talks about ad hominem/poisoning the well fallacies later, but how is this not that in a post where he talks about bad logic, and even directly links religious ideas to an inability to do logic? Will their prayers help her? Maybe not. The theory, of course, behind doing and saying this is two-fold:

1) That it’s a way to express that you are concerned for them.

2) That they ask God to give her the support she needs, who surely — if He exists — would be able to provide that support.

Now, Carrier doesn’t think God exists, and so doesn’t think that 2) will happen. That’s fine, but since they do there’s no failure of logic or reason on their part there. And 1) occurs regardless of whether it’s expressed through prayer or “You’re in my thoughts” (which is actually more a kind of magical thinking than religion is, if one takes it literally). All in all, all Carrier does here is essentially rant about how stupid he thinks religion is by interpreting it in such a strong way that it doesn’t resemble what the people actually think … and is irrelevant anyway, because the point he’d want to make is that both are content with the situation because they were or at least have become incompatible, so going off on prayer is, well, not relevant to that. Unless he thinks that them praying for her will suddenly make her unhappy, which can’t be the case.

So, angry, snarky, irrelevant and uncharitable rant. Good start.

There have also been a slurry of ad hominem / well-poisoning fallacies, of the general form “Carrier is polyamorous, therefore his arguments about history and theology are all bollocks,” which just demonstrates Christians don’t do logic well. (That’s why they’re Christians.)

The claims don’t actually seem to be that, though (as you can see in the defense of him by Matt Dillahunty) but rather that Carrier is motivated by this to reject Christianity, because if he decided to live by the Christian lifestyle he couldn’t do this anymore (in much the way as if he stayed married to his wife he wouldn’t be able to have this). The only time these arguments are worthwhile is when they are used to point out that the person cannot be considered to be a neutral party here, so in terms of his examination of the existence of Jesus we have to note that he isn’t unbiased and so his work should not just be taken as such a work, and so should be scrutinized to ensure that his bias didn’t creep into it. Dillahunty makes the one good point — after the accusation of “well-poisoning’, which I think generally false — that Carrier outlines his work, arguments and methodology, and so people should indeed just be scrutinizing that. Carrier … does not say that. He simply calls it “well-poisoning” and leaves it at that. And then he says:

Likewise the “this proves you are only atheists because y’all just wanna sin” argument, which is funny, because Christians frequently use that argument in defense of evil (e.g. attacking homosexuality or women’s autonomy or even the freedom of speech and conscience).

Um, and claiming that they do it “in defense of evil” isn’t well-poisoning? Look, either the argument works or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t work, point it out. Otherwise, why do you snark me (them)?

To call polyamory, which is about honesty and love and the assurance of consent, “sin” is just to expose how immoral Christianity has become as an ideology. What Christians call “sin” is all too often “being a decent, well adjusted human being minimizing harm in the world.”

Um, isn’t this what you’re supposed to demonstrate? This is way before he gets into the purportedly reasonable response, and so before he actually addresses any reasonable concerns about it. Heck, it’s before he even addresses reasonable concerns about it directly. And yet he thinks that he can claim that, hey, this thing is just really good and really great and really moral and all of these wonderful things and the people who try to use it as a “smear” against his other work — which is the most charitable interpretation of what Carrier feels the objections here are doing — is just a sign that they are really immoral, not him. Bluntly, it’s not relevant. I know that you think that Christians are terribly immoral people, Dr. Carrier, but you calling them that for the positions you don’t like isn’t any stronger an argument than when they do it to you. Simple logic, no?

I’m not going to talk about the purported bigotry Carrier goes after in point 3, because I can’t easily get access to read what the original was and, well, that there might be some bigotry is not surprising to me (although generalizing that to all Christians is a problem). But I do want to highlight this problematic passage:

Ammi also repeatedly and confusedly thinks polyamory means having “temporary sexual parterns de jour” (never mind the redundancy; he’s fond of the phrase). He didn’t get that from anything I wrote. In fact, one of the things I am enjoying now is the opposite of that: building multiple lasting relationships with my loves. And that is in fact a major credo of polyamory: having many non-temporary sexual partners. So, bigotwhocantgooglesayswhat?

Except that what traditional monogamous relationships insist on is a dedicated, lifetime commitment to your partner, not one that lasts as long as it benefits you. Carrier says later:

Similarly, because Peters is a superstitious magical thinker, he thinks contracts should be eternal—to hell with happiness (almost literally). Secular folk know better. Any contract can be dissolved. It’s not a promise “forever.” It’s a conditional arrangement: if x, then y. Which means when no longer x, no longer y.

That’s a temporary arrangement by definition. The idea seems to be that you enter into it out of convenience — ie that it works for you — and you end it when it stops being that. Marriage is not supposed to be that sort of contract. It’s supposed to be one that you don’t drop when it becomes inconvenient. For example, if Carrier, say, entered into a relationship that was primarily sexual in nature, and the person had an accident that left them scarred in a way that Carrier found unattractive, what would happen to that relationship? Under traditional monogamy, you stay married to them, because a) it’s not supposed to be primarily about sex and b) you committed to them through thick and thin. Would Carrier then abandon that person? I hope not, and I hope that he would still support that person through this troubling time … but could it still be a polyamorous relationship? Or would that person be just a friend?

Also, this causes issues overall for Carrier, because to make this argument he has to accept implicitly that temporary sexual partners is inferior, and maybe even immoral. But what reason does he have for making that divide, so that he can say that polyamory is about the somehow superior non-temporary ones as a “major credo? Who is he to say what polyamory is? Who is he to define what relationships count and what don’t? How is he not being just as closed-minded and bigoted by his own standards here?

Later, it turns out that he’ll end up denying that temporary relationships are bad. Kinda. But we’ll get into that later.

I’ll skip 4 and 5 because they are utterly irrelevant to the main issue of polyamory and criticisms of it. Whether that’s the fault of his critics, of Carrier, or of both is something I’ll let you decide.

The sixth point is where he finally gets into the criticism that he considers the most thoughtful, this one by Nick Peters. So let’s see how Carrier responds to a thoughtful response. It doesn’t start well:

Nick Peters, son-in-law of renowned Christian apologist Mike Licona, blogs at Deeper Waters. He reacted. Not surprisingly, as Licona and I have debated twice, hung out a few times, and communicate occasionally. Maybe that Kevin Bacon number was too small not to try and intervene before the floods of relationship chaos spread too far to crush Christian control.

Peters also fell for the lies and bubble of ******** promulgated by the Slymepit trolls Yeti and Shermertron. But I already covered that. Note this means Christians don’t know who the fringe atheist wingnuts are. But we can just laugh at that. And return to his more serious article…

Amusingly, Peters begins the substantive part of Along Came Poly with, “prominent internet blogger Richard Carrier, who seems to be the answer to all conservative NT scholarship in the eyes of internet atheists everywhere, wrote a post about” coming out poly. So, a well published Ph.D. in ancient history from Columbia University with numerous peer reviewed books and articles in major journals and presses is just an internet blogger. Whom Christians are evidently annoyed everyone keeps citing and quoting at them online. Okay.

So, informative point about the relationship between Peters and Carrier, with a potshot about “crush Christian control” (ie poisoning the well). Then a shot about Peters’ view about a completely unrelated topic (and remember, Carrier already thinks that his post is “thoughtful” on polyamory, so there’s no need for him to point out other points he’s made that Carrier will not reply to here) and that then goes on to generalize about Christians in a way that is clearly meant to imply that they are not able to properly read and discern arguments. Finally, a gripe about being described as a prominent internet blogger instead of being given his purportedly full props … in a post that doesn’t talk about history at all. As Carrier said, okay.

Let’s get into something that’s actually substantial. Please?

He then quotes a good definition of polyamory from a legit organization, and responds immediately with, “Now if you want to say as I seem to take it that this entails a desire to have sex with many people other than one’s own spouse, then I will tell you that there are many many people who I think are really polyamorous. Namely, every male on the planet, including myself.”

He missed the egalitarian part (um, your wife or girlfriend also gets to do this…and nearly as many women as men want to, BTW; and many men actually aren’t interested, either—and not just asexuals, who are in fact a thing; plus, not all of us poly folk are married, but conservo Christians balk at sex without marriage anyway, so maybe unmarried free lovers aren’t readily conceivable to them). He also missed the loving or caring about your partners part (sex isn’t just ****ing; compassionate persons regard their sexual partners as friends…and as people…and have room to be in love with more than one of them). And the honesty and negotiating what you want part (this is with the consent and approval of all involved, not on the sly or against their wishes).

First, he starts from the fact that Peters describes it from the male perspective as evidence that he doesn’t get that it’s egalitarian, when all that is is evidence that, well, he talked about it from the male perspective. It’s certainly not a criticism of his point that women get to do it, too, since that isn’t Peters’ claim (ie he’s not calling it “sexist” because it gives freedom to men that it denies to women). So that’s another pot-shot at the purported sexism of Christianity … a point that he will rely on again and again in his post, and one that’s completely irrelevant. He also tries to work around a claim that it’s just about sex … by arguing that sex is really all about love and more than just sex, but if that’s the definition he’s using then Peters’ claim there is right, but Carrier would be arguing that Peters shouldn’t think it bad then … but Peters is defending traditional monogamy and so is definitely going to think that being in love with multiple people and having sex with all of them is a bad thing, too, and for the same reason: that it’s you refusing to commit wholely to one of them. So that doesn’t work as a defense against Peters. And, again, there’s nothing in what Peters says there to indicate that he thinks that polyamory involves not being open about it; Peters likely thinks that being open about it is better than not being open about it — ie cheating — but that doesn’t mean that it’s moral or right.

So, the first salvo … misses.

So, does that describe “every male on the planet”? Nope. If only it did. The world would be a far better place. But if you obsess over just the sex part and miss all the rest, you won’t even be able to start getting why the world would be better if all of it were poly. By which I mean, all accepting poly as the baseline, and monogamy or celibacy as the rare personal choices that just suit certain people and not most of people.

This, then, is a very strong case to make. Carrier sets himself up here to defend a stronger claim than “Polyamory works for some people and so they should be allowed to do it without shame!”, but instead that we should start from polyamory, as that will somehow make the world a better place. Except that he cites the three major ethical considerations that polyamory entails, and then argues that most men don’t think that way. Are they suddenly going to start when we push monogamy out of its current position as the default? Carrier cannot assume that monogamy itself doesn’t allow for equality, caring about sexual partners, and honesty, and so monogamy can have all of those as well. Starting from the polyamorous default won’t make people any better, and so all you’ll end up with are the same morons with a different way of being a moron.

And it’s still not an objection to Peters because Peters does not oppose polyamory on those grounds. He opposes them on the grounds, essentially, that you can’t have your cake and eat it, too, and that’s what polyamory wants. Carrier does disagree with that, but hasn’t even started to address it.

People should get to negotiate the relationships they want. Period. Autonomy demands no less. There is no basis, rational or scientific, for forcing on anyone a given model of monogamy. And certainly none for stigmatizing, slut shaming, belittling, or treating with bias and bigotry anyone who chooses not to use that outdated and limiting model of relationshipping. Trying to culturally manipulate people into following and norming that model is just one more way Christianity ****s up people’s lives.

But as with taking away abortion rights, women’s rights, gay rights, free speech rights, denigrating or punishing alternative sexuality, warmongering, pushing for theocracy and forcing religion on people, feigning or even denigrating actual concern for the welfare of the poor rather than preferencing the rich, bigotry against immigrants and anyone who looks even remotely maybe Muslim, and dozens of other ways Christians in actual practice fuck up the world in the name of Christ, it’s vitally necessary to defend the obsolete and damaging institution of socially compelled monogamy. So Peters has to. He has no choice.

Most of this is a rant at Christianity with no bearing on the topic. The only part that isn’t is the point at the top about people getting to negotiate the relationships they want. Fair enough, I suppose. But if you didn’t want to have a monogamous relationship, you can already do that: just don’t get married. And it isn’t clear that those sorts of relationships aren’t inferior to monogamous ones for most people. That’s what he’s supposed to be trying to establish, remember?

As one Christian apologetics clearinghouse says (see CARM on Polyamory), poly is just “another form of wife-swapping” (except that it often doesn’t involve married people, often not even at all, and not all marriages include wives, but whatever). “So,” they ask, “how is this ‘ethical nonmonogamy’?” After all, “adding the word ‘ethical’ to something doesn’t make it so.” Although adding honest and consensual and respectful does. And guess what? That’s the ethical part. So when CARM asks “Why not have such things as ethical adultery, ethical bank robbing, or ethical embezzling?” they obviously don’t know what polyamory is. Or why it is called ethical non-monogamy.

Except, as pointed out above, to be honest and consensual and respectful is not something limited to polyamory. So here all he’s doing is essentially pulling a “No True Scotsman” argument; any polyamory that is “bad” is not really polyamory, but abusive monogamous relationships are, of course, still monogamous relationships (and evidence that monogamy is bad; we’ll see that in his discussions on divorce). If you do polyamory unethically, then it isn’t polyamory. You’re doing something else. What, we don’t know, but it isn’t polyamory.

Or we could take the reasonable tack here and say that whether or not polyamory is ethical depends on how ethical the people practicing it are. Of course, that’s not a defense against those who say that polyamory itself is unethical … which is what he’s supposed to be demonstrating here. Oops.

So, “the necessary consequence is the attack and breakdown of the family” (read: it will end women’s subordination to men) and “an increase of immorality in subsequent areas” (the reader has to fill in the blanks here, because they can’t come up with anything), “and ultimately the demise of society itself.” Somehow. How? I don’t know. Neither do they. It just must, I guess. They are right that “moral integrity is the glue that holds society together” and that “without it, we can have no society.” They just don’t seem to have any clue what morality is. Honesty, compassion, respect, and reasonableness don’t seem to be moral virtues in their scheme of things. Just what objects you ****.

Leaving aside comparisons to other sexual practices, here Carrier is, well, still not responding to the point. You don’t have to be polyamorous to be honest, have compassion, respect, and reasonable, and there’s no evidence that it even helps. One can find those things morally virtuous and still say that polyamory isn’t. This is absolutely non-responsive, especially since it isn’t at all clear that Peters is even making these points (Peters talks about it damaging marriages, but uses Carrier’s as an example of that, which is a fair point). Carrier here is certainly not addressing Peters, and it’s even unclear that he’s addressing any Christian position on this … and for a post that in the title claims that’s what he’s doing, that’s pretty bad.

Thus, sexual desire has to be bad. It therefore, as Peters says, requires “self-control” to deny yourself what is obviously a natural and normal inborn desire. Because, for some unintelligible reason, “sex is meant to be between two people who make a covenant together,” even though, if that were the case, we would have been designed to only sexually desire our covenented partner. That we were built to desire many partners, as even he admits, seems to falsify his entire thesis.

Peters doesn’t say anything about sexual desire being bad. And his point about “design” can be refuted with the sweet tooth, which proves that something that works “in the wild” is not necessarily good in this society (which, bluntly, is his entire point about how monogamy is outdated). To be sexually attracted to a wide range of people is a good thing when you need to pair up to reproduce. It’s a detriment when you’re in a relationship that is committed and monogamous. But we can indeed resist our temptation to have sex with everyone we’re attracted to, just like we can resist eating sugar constantly. Peters says that, essentially, it’s natural to have those desires but that you shouldn’t move from having them to insisting that you should give into them. Carrier disagrees. Presumably at some point he’ll actually try to argue for why he disagrees.

Let me skip the digression on Biblical Studies, because it’s not relevant and is mostly just an attempt to show that the Bible supports polyamory with copious “You’re superstitious!” points tossed in, and move on.

Next Peters then lays out a standard sexist case for monogamy: polyamory is “going to a woman and saying ‘You’re not enough for me. I need more than you’,” and “That hits at the core of a woman’s identity very often.” Except when it doesn’t. Because just as often it’s the other way around: a woman going to a man and saying the same thing. Does that “hit to the core of a man’s identity?” Not evidently according to Peters, since he thinks all men want many partners. Yet these same men have to want to be the only one a woman desires? Nick Peters, meet sexism. Also, meet pseudoscience. Our identity should not be based on totally possessing another human being.

Realize that the only evidence of sexism here is that Peters talks from the male perspective and not the female or a neutral one. That’s it. And Carrier’s comment that just as often it’s the woman doing that in no way defends him from the point that it is devastating, at least to someone who is in a monogamous relationship, like Carrier was with his wife. Which, uh, happens to be the point Peters was making, and the example he was referencing. Oops. I mean, how does Carrier think his wife felt when he said that his cheating wasn’t just a failure of character on his part, but was an expression of who he really was and that it indicated that he needed something that he simply couldn’t get from her? That she turned cartwheels? Remember, they entered into a relationship where they promised that they would be dedicated to each other and would only need each other. That’s what a monogamous relationship is. How could she not take that as a sign that there was something wrong with her? Anyone, man or woman, would feel that way. So the sexism point fails.

What we’re going to need to see is what Carrier or people in polyamorous relationships are actually missing. Carrier needs it to be more than simply sex, but something more fundamental, something emotional. But if he does manage to establish that, then your one true partner not being able to satisfy that has to be problematic. Ultimately, Carrier is going to have to reject that line. Can he? We’ll find out.

Quite a lot of women want multiple partners. Quite a lot of men do. So why can’t they get together and negotiate what works for them? Indeed, shouldn’t those very people do exactly that, and not remain attached unfairly to monogamous partners? Ineed, if monogamy is the woman’s thing, and not her man’s thing, or vice versa, doesn’t that entail they shouldn’t be married? Relationships must be based on mutual consent and compatibility, not sex slavery. Right?

Peters’ point, essentially, is that most people would, ideally, want to be able to have their cake and eat it too, to have the sort of commitment that you get in monogamy while being able to have sex or relationships with other people. The question is if you can actually have that, and have that ethically. The question is if most people need that. The question is if polyamory is an unsatisfying compromise for most people instead of being able to have your cake and eat it, too. None of which Carrier has addressed.

Probably because he thinks it more important to make sterling points like this one:

Of course in all this I’m only speaking within the context of heterosexuality. Because I know Peters would not recognize the existence of loving sexual relationships between women and women, or men and men, polyamorous or monogamous. And bisexuality? That would probably blow a spring out of his head.

Which is, of course, utterly irrelevant to the debate, but is a nice ad hominem here.

Peters then goes on about monogamy being hard. Note: if you think “relationships are hard,” you are doing them wrong.

Parenting is hard. Coping with debt is hard. Being stuck in a job you hate is hard. Relationships should actually in fact be the one thing that isn’t hard. Does anyone say “gosh, friendship is hard”? No. Ask yourself why. Because if you are a mature person, adding sex to a friendship shouldn’t suddenly add a ton of hardship. It shouldn’t add even an ounce. So why do people like Peters think “marriage is hard”? What on earth are they doing wrong?

Well, you could start to look for an answer by looking at how Peters said monogamy is hard:

This is monogamous marriage? Is it hard work. You absolutely bet it is. It’s one of the greatest lessons in self-sacrifice you learn. It is indeed about dying to yourself and learning to live a life where you actually have to realize what it’s like to not only put one person’s good above your own, but you have to learn what it is to do so with one who is so radically different from you, and even if you marry someone very similar to you, their being of the opposite sex makes them really much more different than you realize.

Yes. It is hard work, but it is also worth it.

Essentially, it’s the idea that you have to put your wants aside in order to give them what they need. In fact, the idea of love is that you are willing to sacrifice your needs to give them their needs. And they are willing to do the same for you. If these relationships are ever easy, it’s because the two people are so focused on helping each other that both always get what they need. That’s not how Carrier is describing it. That also doesn’t seem to be how Carrier handled his own marriage, where she was willing to compromise to give him what he said he needed and there is no evidence that Carrier compromised in any way. She was fully within her rights to divorce him after she caught him cheating on her, and his response was to accept that but to point out that essentially that sort of relationship didn’t work for him. Her response to that was to try an open marriage as a compromise position to see if that worked. I don’t know what the ultimate reason for the break-up was, but given what Carrier talks about it’s hard to see how an open marriage didn’t give him everything he needed, or what kind of “compromise” he had to make in that arrangement. So, ultimately, she was willing to sacrifice and compromise for his happiness, and in general he was insisting — and still insists — that the relationships have to be organized to maximize his happiness.

Now, I’m just a poor bachelor (nearing the point of being a confirmed bachelor) who in some sense wants to know what love is (but I don’t want Carrier to show me), but Carrier’s view ain’t love to me. If you really love someone, you shouldn’t be looking at the relationship to see if it maximizes your own happiness, and entering into other arrangements to meet other purportedly unfulfilled needs (especially the “needs” that you knew you’d have to give up when you entered the relationship). Love is supposed to be selfless, not selfish, where once you fall in love with someone a major if not the major component of your happiness is supposed to be their happiness. This means that you have to give up things that you like in order to make them happier. And they do the same for you. “The Gift of the Magi” poignantly illustrates this attitude:

Mr. James Dillingham (“Young Jim”) and his wife, Della, are a couple living in a modest apartment. They have only two possessions between them in which they take pride: Della’s beautiful long, flowing hair, almost to her knees, and Jim’s shiny gold watch, which had belonged to his father and grandfather.

Della then admits to Jim that she sold her hair to buy him his present. Jim gives Della her present – an assortment of expensive hair accessories (referred to as “The Combs”), useless now that her hair is short. Della then shows Jim the chain she bought for him, to which Jim says he sold his watch to get the money to buy her combs. Although Jim and Della are now left with gifts that neither one can use, they realize how far they are willing to go to show their love for each other, and how priceless their love really is.

Each of them were willing to give up that which was most precious to them for the happiness of their partner, and while ironically in doing so ended up not actually achieving that with their gifts, in the end that’s exactly what they did, by demonstrating precisely how much they loved the other and proving that their love was worth more than those possessions. Carrier’s view of polyamory seems to flout that, as it seems to be about ensuring that all of your needs are met. Yes, the other person is looking out for that as well, but that hardly seems to be the sort of attitude that leads to the kind of true, selfless love that monogamy advocates and strives for … and leads to issues with negotiation.

Carrier is big on saying that everyone should be able to negotiate what relationships they have, in the name of “freedom”. But what he misses is that the sort of negotiation he wants is vulnerable to differences in bargaining position and power. For example, most of the major criticisms of Carrier are because it started from him actually cheating on his wife, but as a man it is generally assumed that being able to have sex with a lot of different women is inherently desirable for him; wanting that is generally seen as being immature for men. But for women, it’s different. For women, being married is important socially. So there are social factors that make this something that it is easier for men to pursue than for women to pursue. This is not to say that women don’t want to do it, just that it’s harder for them. Thus it’s easier for him to hold out to get that sort of open or polyamorous relationship than it is for a woman; she has to face social criticism to a level that he doesn’t, and so can be talked into dropping the requirement in the face of that.

Which also leads to the issue that given the sorts of negotiations that Carrier favours, the person with the stronger bargaining position is the person who loves the other person less, because they’re more willing to walk away from the relationship if the other person doesn’t agree to the requirements. This risks exploitative relationships where one person doesn’t really care about the other, but the other is madly in love with them, and so the first person gets everything they want and the other person allows it because they love them so much that they are willing to give up everything just to make them happy. Yes, this happens in monogamous relationships as well, but at least in those cases we’d see the first person as being selfish and exploitative. Since Carrier’s view about polyamory is about satisfying your own needs, it’s too easy under that model to argue that the first person gets what they want and the second person is getting what they want, so there’s nothing wrong with it. But consciously or no, it is exploitative in this case. In a monogamous relationship, we’d at least be able to say that the first person isn’t living up to the assumed agreement, that they ought to love, honour and cherish their partner as much as their partner loves, honours and cherishes them. In polyamory, all you have to manage expectations is the negotiation.

Additionally, you have a stronger bargaining position of you can position your “demands” as needs or as part of your identity, or at the very least if they are seen or are more important to you than their demands are to them. Take Carrier’s own comments that he “needed” to be able to have sex with multiple partners and that polyamory was who he really was. In that context, if his wife was just uncomfortable with the idea of an open marriage, then surely it would be seen as selfish for her to deny him that, and as Carrier goes on and on about in his post it might even have been bigoted of her to try to do so, as she would be attacking his identity. Given that, she’s in the tough situation of having to oppose his needs with her wants.

So any unequal position is problematic for polyamory, especially given that emotions are involved. The person who makes out the best in polyamory is the person who doesn’t really have any strong emotional attachment to the issue, and can let pragmatics decide what relationships to pursue and what terms they accept. Anyone else risks accepting an unequal arrangement and ending up at least not ideally situated, if not downright miserable. And given Carrier’s stated attitude, being shamed for being miserable as if they were just “doing polyamory wrong” as opposed to really being in a bad position.

Now, Carrier can reply that these sorts of things don’t happen in polyamory. However, it seems that that was exactly what happened between him and his ex-wife: she loved him more than he loved her because she was willing to give up more than he was, and he was able to frame his conditions as needs and as part of his identity while she likely wasn’t. Carrier can protest that I’m ignoring the “honest” part of the definition of polyamory, but I reply that the parties can be arguing in good faith and not consciously trying to exploit their relative power and this can still happen. The issue is not really with one person being honest or not, but is about the idea that the primary focus your side in these negotiations is your own ideal happiness, without overly much concern for the happiness of the other person. You should look after your own happiness, they should look after theirs, and all should work out, right? Well, wrong.

This leads to Carrier’s comments on friendship not being hard. Friendship can be hard, for the same reasons. The closer the friendship is, the more things you have to do that you don’t really want to do because your friend needs you to. The old joke of “Friends help you move; real friends help you move bodies” demonstrates this pretty well, even if it’d have to be a really close friend for you to help them hide the evidence of a crime. The closer you are to someone, the more things you ought to be willing to do that you don’t want to do to help them out. Romantic love is supposed to be the pinnacle of “closeness”, meaning that there should be a lot of things that you are willing to do that you’d rather not to preserve the relationship. Carrier, by his own admission, wasn’t willing to give up having sex with multiple partners for his relationship. It’s hard not to see that as self-centered and selfish, if not a sign that he, at least, didn’t really feel that sort of love for his wife. I would not want to be in any kind of a relationship with someone practicing Carrier’s idea of polyamory because I wouldn’t feel able to rely on that person when the chips were down and I needed them to do something for me that they didn’t want to do, as I couldn’t know at what point they’d just jettison the relationship as not making them happy anymore.

The sad irony is that Peters tries to use “people … did monogamy for centuries and found … it seems to work pretty well” as an argument in favor of it, knowing full well that that is false: cheating has been universal and rampant throughout all those centuries. As has marital misery, so common in fact it became a universal trope. Evidently, people can’t do monogamy.

So … is Carrier suggesting here that most parties in monogamous relationships cheat most of the time, and that most of them are completely and totally miserable in a monogamous marriage? Cheating happens, sure, but it’s not “rampant”, or at least not in a sense that would prove that it didn’t work. And the universal trope of marital misery is about the loss of freedom in marriage, which can be tough, but most people seem to think that overall that’s worth it. Most people who are married do not seem to live in abject misery. They seem to love their partners and are happy to be with them. Sure, some of them may stray on occasion but that’s rightly seen as a flaw and a weakness in them that they need to overcome, not as evidence that that whole marriage thing is just crap, in the same way that if people lose their temper with their kids on occasion it’s not seen as proof that this whole parenting thing is just crap.

Peters does make a strange foray into why you should put up with the things you don’t like about a spouse, although that can’t have anything to do with the case he is talking about. We didn’t divorce because my wife was too keen on collecting cats and I kept stealing the covers. We divorced each other because, given the reality (and not the lie) of who we are, we couldn’t be as happy together as apart. This wasn’t about minor annoyances of living together. This was about the fundamentals of our happiness.

Let us recall what was fundamental to Richard Carrier’s happiness and to him as a person: the ability to have sex with multiple partners. This seems to be a pretty shallow thing to base one’s happiness on, as most people don’t have that as being that fundamental to their happiness. To put it another way, it can be seem as being fundamental to my happiness to be able to play RPGs on a semi-regular basis. But if I was married and found that because she didn’t like video games or needed my help with things I wasn’t able to do that, to declare that as “fundamental to my happiness” and then divorce her because of that would seem shallow. I’d be told to “work it out”, and if we couldn’t it would seem like I considered video games more important then her.

Thus, Richard Carrier here is explicitly saying that he considered sex with multiple partners more important than his relationship with his wife. It’s really hard to see how he could be said to love her if that was true.

Peters doesn’t get that, because he thinks divorce should only be allowed in cases of adultery or abuse. Everyone else should just put up with being miserable and “make it work,” when in fact they both could be not miserable with someone else. So Peters’ recommendation is fundamentally irrational. And fundamentally destructive of human happiness on a wide social scale.

But … if you really do actually love someone, wouldn’t you be miserable without them? I have a hard time seeing any notion of love where you could say that you’d be miserable with them and happy without them. The typical romantic notion of choosing to live without the one you love is if you think that they would be happier with someone else, even though you will be miserable without them. Carrier here implies that he was miserable with her and happy without and with someone — or rather, somemultiples — else. At which point, I’d have to ask on what grounds he thinks that he actually loved her when they split.

Similarly, because Peters is a superstitious magical thinker, he thinks contracts should be eternal—to hell with happiness (almost literally). Secular folk know better. Any contract can be dissolved. It’s not a promise “forever.” It’s a conditional arrangement: if x, then y. Which means when no longer x, no longer y. Divorce is fundamentally built into the state contract for marriage. When you vow to marry someone, and sign on the dotted line, you are vowing also to allow them to divorce you whenever they want. That’s the law. The law Christians fought so damned hard in defense of just to prevent gay people from joining in. If Christians don’t like that unilateral divorce is also being promised to in secular marriage contracts, they shouldn’t be getting state marriage licenses.

Well, except that isn’t the condition of marriage, the x, nothing more than “I truly and deeply love you”? If you love them, what reason can you have for getting a divorce? The arguments for abuse and adultery are, in fact, arguments that show that they don’t really love you anymore, if they ever did. So in that case, you violate the contract. In what case can the two people really, truly love each other but still think a divorce is the best option? Only those little things that Peters says we need to work through. Are there cases where people are indeed so incompatible that they are better off separate than together even though they deeply love each other? Perhaps … but that reason isn’t usually “I want to have sex with people who are not you”.

But this indicates the flaw in the deeply contractual view of polyamory that Carrier has. Sure, we enter into business arrangements because they benefit us in some way, but even then we aren’t allowed to just drop the contract because it stops benefiting us as much. There are two main reasons for this. First, the ability to break a promise or drop a contract when it stops benefiting us would invalidate the notion of contracts and promises in the first place. We’re willing to put in effort that doesn’t benefit us up front only because we can see that over the long term because of the contract or promise we’ll get a return on that investment. If people can break contracts and promises as soon as it stops benefiting them, we can’t rely on that and so there’s no reason to ever enter into those. If someone can get a divorce for whatever reason they want at any time, what reason do I have for ever getting married, especially if a divorce would cost me? The other reason is more about respect for others, where if you break a contract that they were relying on unilaterally then you leave them in the lurch, unprepared and potentially in a very bad position. This also applies to marriage. So, no, you shouldn’t be able to get a divorce for whatever reason you want whenever you want, even if that’s what the law says. You should indeed try to work it out first, and perhaps even not get a divorce if it’s something trivial and shallow.

As for his shot at Christians, note that most of them see marriage as more than simply a legal contract. The state marriage is simply the recognition of their status, but they seem themselves as married in the eyes of God more than that. That the state, then, allows unilateral, no-fault divorce doesn’t impact their actual marriages at all. And also note that just because the law allows you to do something doesn’t mean that it’s right to do that, which is the argument that Carrier is making here.

In light of this complete disregard for human happiness, typical of Christianity, it’s particularly interesting that Peters says “Divorce … becomes a way of saying ‘I can’t love you the way you are’,” confusing not having your needs met with “not loving someone.” This may be key to a really harmful notion of love infecting Christianity.

As already pointed out, the point of getting married is to say that you love them so much that you want to live with them forever. When you get a divorce, then, it has to be saying that you don’t love them that way anymore. If the reason is that they can’t “provide for your needs”, then yeah, that sounds a lot like “I can’t love you for who you are, because who you are can’t provide for my needs”. If they could change to provide your needs, then they ought to do so and then the relationship can continue. It’s only if doing is fundamentally not them — or would make them fundamentally unhappy — that divorce is the only option.

When that “need” is “I want to have sex with different people and you don’t like that”, it’s even worse. It’s putting simple hedonic pleasure over love.

Imagine Peters saying the same of a mere friend who insisted he have no other friends but only them: that you had better do what they say, and abandon all your other friends, because otherwise you don’t love them. Or imagine a brother who insisted Peters love none other of his siblings, and not even his parents, but only him. Either scenario explodes the whole idea of love he is trying to sell.

Except that this is a bad comparison. The only thing that the traditional notion of monogamy requires is that a) the marriage be the highest level of intimacy and closeness you have and b) that you don’t have sex with another partner. It’s perfectly reasonable for a friend to demand the comparative level of commitment, so that, say, you don’t blow off their birthday party to go to a hockey game even though you hate their parties and like hockey, or else claim that you aren’t really their friend. You’d better have a pretty good reason to not act like a friend should to them, and the same thing applies to a spouse. “I’d rather do X” is not a good reason, and Carrier very much bases his polyamory on “I want X”, translating it to “need” and then pushing it on others. I don’t think I’d want to be his friend with that attitude …

See, one of the big problems here is the pursuit of what I’ll call “hedonic happiness”, the idea that we should pursue happiness by appealing to simple wants and desires, generally for pleasures and pleasurable experiences. There’s nothing wrong with going for those things, but the problem is that these things are made the highest goal. If you aren’t feeling maximally happy and pleasure-filled, then you aren’t really happy, and need to fix that. On that score, I strive for contentment, not happiness, because to me true happiness is more than simply that sort of pleasure, but is about living a good life and being a good person, striving for Stoic eudaimonia. This does involve sacrificing things, but nothing that I can’t live without, and nothing that is worth pursuing in and of itself.

Richard Carrier considers having sex with multiple partners to be such a need that he can’t be happy without it. I think that he places far too much emphasis on sex, and in doing so ignores what true happiness is. Given his attitude, I have no doubt that his ex-wife is better off without him.

Just as people differ in their hobby and other interests, so people differ in their libidos and sexual interests. With every other domain, good spouses allow their partners to explore such things with others. If they aren’t into sports but you are, they let you enjoy sports with friends who share your enthusiasm. If they are into gardening and you aren’t, you let them enjoy gardening with friends who share their enthusiasm. And even when you share interests, you are still allowed to also share them with others. So why suddenly does this generosity end when it’s sex? There isn’t any valid reason.

If you treat sex as simply another kind of activity like any other, then this argument holds. But Carrier explicitly earlier didn’t. He chided Peters for thinking of sex as just sex, and not with thinking of their partner as a person. Except … that’s what this is here, and in his discussions of swinging and other things he treats sex as casual. So does he consider sex to be something like playing sports or playing board games? Do we have to think of the others as people in the same way? Then his objection to Peters about him thinking of sex too shallowly fails, as his view is at least as shallow if not more so. But the issue with sex is that it is often seen as more than that shallow sort of thing, but as an expression of intimacy. And it’s reasonable to think that the more serious a relationship is, the more “special” the intimacy is in that relationship. If Carrier was just pursuing sex without special intimacy, then it is not unreasonable to argue that it should be treated like other activities … but then Carrier can be seen as selfish and shallow for giving up love because he couldn’t get it. But if he was pursuing intimacy, then his spouse could be reasonably upset at losing the intimacy.

Which leads to another issue with polyamory: the idea that you are splitting up your resources among multiple seemingly semi-equal relationships. In a monogamous relationship, you provide the things that you can provide to your partner, and you’re there for them when they need it. And they can rely on that. Just as my friend can rely on me to not skip their birthday party to go to a hockey game, my spouse can rely on me to not skip our anniversary dinner to go to my friend’s birthday party. There’s a hierarchy here of where my time and effort goes. Even with a so-called “primary”, is that always the case? If one person really wants sex on one day and another needs emotional support, who wins? With monogamous relationships, that choice doesn’t happen, as you’re only trying to provide for the needs — at that level of the relationship — to one person, and their needs tend to take precedence over those of friends. If these are actual relationships, which get priority? How do you choose between the needs of these people? And since these relationships are built on satisfying needs, at what point does that choice mean that you aren’t actually satisfying them as you essentially agreed to do in the negotiation?

You can, of course, reintroduce hierarchies of priorities. But at this point we start to wonder what sorts of actual “relationships” Carrier actually has here. In what way, in Carrier’s mind, is a primary-secondary relationship different than having an open marriage and a friend with benefits? Even in triads, unless they are all mutually supporting what happens when the needs clash? With one person, it’s relatively easy, but with more you will get more conflicts of needs. Carrier will argue that when this happens either one of them has to give in or they can end the relationship, but this treats these relationships as things that don’t really matter. Either their needs aren’t that important so that they can at least postpone them or else the relationship isn’t that important so they can just walk away. That’s not what Carrier wants to imply, however.

Advertisements

6 Responses to “Richard Carrier and Logic (And Polyamory)”

  1. apologianick Says:

    Hi. Nick Peters here. Thanks for reading my piece as well and your defense is excellent. I am thinking of a further one, but I am writing an Ebook at the time on a theology of sex for Christians and much of what Carrier thinks that I think is simply nonsense. (I’m a married man. Does he really think I am going to say sexual desire is evil? I also do know about loving commitments between same-sex couples and bisexuals and such. It’s all in Thomas Hubbard’s book.)

    Carrier also engages in what i call presuppositional atheism. Atheism is seen as the route of all reasonable and intelligent people and if you disagree, well you’re not reasonable and intelligent. Now atheism could be true, but it doesn’t follow that anyone who rejects atheism is therefore unreasonable and unintelligent because we all reject true positions. (Of course, I don’t think atheism is true for a moment.)

    Excellent piece again! Much appreciated!

    And in case anyone doesn’t know it yet.

    I do happen to love my wife!

  2. Héctor Muñoz Huerta Says:

    I’m pretty sure this post is excellent but it is too damn long to read in my 5 spare minutes in the office. Sorry.

  3. GRA Says:

    Carrier, a guy who earned a doctorate in something that’s niche enough that it makes my eyes tired just reading it, was married for twenty years and within that marriage produced no kids to only announce that he’s polyamorous. So in other words the guy’s a loser.

  4. Poly Rationalization | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] Richard Carrier as we’ve seen advocates for polyamory as the default relationship style — if polyamory can actually be […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: