Poly Rationalization

So, Richard Carrier as we’ve seen advocates for polyamory as the default relationship style — if polyamory can actually be called that — in society. As we’ve also seen, he tends to advocate for it very badly and illogically. This pattern continues in a recent post, where he attempts to show that polyamory solves more problems than it causes and, anyway, the problems people say it causes it doesn’t cause anyway, as he’ll show using logic and empirical evidence so that no one dare challenge his view lest they be considered illogical and fighting against actual empirical evidence!

Let me challenge that …

He starts with an argument that some feminists have made, arguing that it’s fine to not get married and all, but that sometimes economic considerations get in the way of that. Thus, it’s easy for well-off women to advocate that women don’t need to get married — and even that they ought not — but poor women don’t have that choice; they need at least the economic if not the actual support of another person — especially if they want to have children — that a spouse provides. Since this would be advocating for formal marriage and Carrier is advocating against that — even as he insists that for people for whom it works it should be an option — this can be seen as an attack on his view of polyamory, and so he wants to argue against that.

And he starts by dealing with the simple economic problems — outside of having children — by talking about a wonderful new thing that can solve this:

Even the presumption that two incomes are needed merely to support two adults, because wages are so low that the poor are forced to resort to economies of scale, is brought down by the simple fact of a thing we have in society now called a roommate.

Wow, so even outside of children, Carrier thinks that the whole solution to economic and financial concerns is, in fact, to get a roommate to share rent. Because, presumably, there are no other financial benefits at all to marriage, unless you have kids. The only thing you have to worry about is rent and utilities, because things like food, transportation, incidental expenses, life and health insurance, and a host of other things aren’t part of the standard roommate contract. Also, they don’t have to — and likely won’t — share their savings with you. And if they decide to leave — and if they can generate enough economic clout or get married themselves, they’re going to want to at some point — they don’t have to leave you anything. All they have to do is wait until the lease expires, or sublet it, or whatever, and move out, leaving you with nothing more than that they paid rent for X amount of time, so you didn’t have to pay for it all yourself.

Contrast that to a marriage, or any committed monoamorous relationship. While in the marriage, all expenses are shared, from rent to food to transportation. If it’s a formal marriage, you can lump yourselves together to, for example, get loans based on the earning power of both of you, which doesn’t carry over to a roommate. Thus, even getting loans will be easier. And even if the marriage does not end up as a lifetime committment, if you separate you get half of the communal property, which includes savings, and thus you are both encouraged to save, and can work together to save for things you need or want, which a roommate won’t do. Sure, you also don’t have to be responsible for the debts of your roommate — beyond rent if they can’t pay it because they’re too heavily in debt — but that seems like cold comfort since the only reason you have a roommate is to have them pay that rent that they might not be willing or able to pay, and you get nothing more out of it than that (maybe they can be friends, too).

So, no, it doesn’t seem like you can simply substitute “roommate” in for a spouse. Carrier also adds the option of living with family, which ignores the fact that they have their own lives to lead and things to do, and supporting children, grandchildren, or nieces and nephews might not fit into that … and might not be something that they ought be asked to do to support the life choices of those people.

He kinda almost sorta excludes the case of if the person wants to have children, but then denigrates what it means to get married:

Until you have kids. The cost of helping then becomes enormous. And how are you going to pay those helping you for that labor? Green, essentially, recommends you pay them with sex. In legal fashion, of course. But still. That’s all marriage then becomes.

Well, no. The idea is that if a woman wants to have children, they have to realize that, practically, a lot of resources have to go in to raising children, in terms of money and time and labour. Thus, if you want to have children, you have to think about how that’s going to be provided. If you can do it yourself, or have the money to pay people to provide it for you, then you don’t need to worry about having a spouse or anyone else to help you with that. But if you can’t, then who ought you call upon to provide that? Well, as stated above, it might be unfair to ask your friends and extended family to sign up and commit to providing that for the life of your children, but reasonably there is one person that you can call on: the other biological parent. After all, if we assume that they want children, too, then they also have to be thinking about how to provide for it, and want to be involved in that child’s life. From this, the ideal relationship is, indeed, a monogamous partnership with someone that you at least respect enough to life with day-in and day-out, if not completely love, as this partnership provides the financial benefits outlined above, and builds in the sharing of child raising, for two people who really ought to have an interest in doing it. So, no, not paying them with sex (and it’s a bit sexist to assume that women want children and pay men with sex so that they’ll help them raise them).

Carrier, though, thinks that polyamory can do this as well if not better:

I know of several poor poly women and men who share resources to raise children. Whether those resources are money, property, time, or other things (like emotional labor).

We’ll talk a bit more about this later — as Carrier takes on issues with children and polyamorous relationships — but the issue here is that this is great if it works … but there is no reason, even with Carrier’s “ethical polyamory” for someone entering into one to sign up to this. If I was polyamorous, and liked someone who had children, the idea that I didn’t have to deal with her children might well be a benefit, and thus part-and-parcel of my entering into that relationship. And if I agreed to help with her children because I liked her and so was willing to give her what she needed there that I could provide, if it became too onerous or problematic I could easily — and have to be able to easily, under Carrier’s view — leave and seek out a better relationship, leaving her in the lurch. Yes, this can and does happen in monoamorous relationships as well, but Carrier’s whole principle of polyamory lends itself to the idea of ditching a relationship when it doesn’t work out as nicely as you’d hoped, while monoamory discourages that sort of thinking.

Of course, Carrier’s next move is to make these things more formal:

And even insofar as marriages are secured within polycules today for their legal empowerments, society could be providing much easier access to those rights and privileges without requiring a whole-shebang marriage contract. The concept is obsolete anyway. Hence the state has been trying to “privilege” marriage by stacking heaps of legal advantages onto it. But we could have rethought that, and still can. Those advantages could be distributed by different instruments than marriage. Legal and tax advantages to parents should be awarded simply to parents, and through parenting contracts. As for example. Likewise hospital “visiting rights” should be something we can award to anyone we want. And so on.

Many of them you can, but the question is going to be this: why should a non-parent of a child commit in any way to them when they enter into a polyamorous relationship? Why accept that obligation? In monoamorous relationships, the other person enters expecting this relationship to last for the long term. No such assumption can be made about polyamorous relationships, and many of them will be entered into with the explicit assumption that they won’t be. Heck, that “freedom” is one of the main benefits of polyamory according to Carrier. And he can’t appeal to “ethical polyamory” here because ethical polyamory, for him, has to include the ability for someone to leave a polyamorous relationship when they want, for whatever reasons they want, or else the other person is being too controlling, and thus unethical.

So, at first blush, it looks like Carrier’s advice for women who want to get married and need someone else to help them with that is to ask people to support their life choices, and potentially to pay off polyamorous suitors with sex — or other favours — in return for giving them what they want. Huh.

Next, he compares monoamory and polyamory in a few categories to argue for how polyamory isn’t any worse and is often better in these specific arguments against polyamory. He starts with STDs:

Guess what? Research shows you are just as likely to catch an STI when “monogamous” than when ethically non-monogamous. In fact, if you are “monogamous,” you are actually substantially more likely to catch an STI if your partner is cheating. Because ethically non-monogamous people are extremely conscientious about safe sex practices, testing, and communication. Monogamous couples are not. In reality, if you are in a monogamous relationship, odds are good you are actually just “monogamous.” Because it’s all too common for one of you to in fact be unethically non-monogamous.

Note the subtle slight-of-hand here, which is usually the sign that someone is rationalizing their choices. What does Carrier compare here? He compares ethical polyamory to unethical monoamory to claim that since ethical polyamorists will all practice safe sex but that cheaters in monoamory won’t, you’re more likely to get an STI from monoamory than from polyamory. Thus, he contrasts the best case in polyamory and the worst case in monoamory and declares polyamory, therefore, superior.

Things look a lot different, though, when we compare ethical monoamory to ethical polyamory. Since ethical monoamorists don’t cheat on their partners, for any monoamorous relationship all you need to do is take a test before you commit and you can be guaranteed to not catch an STI. On the other hand, with polyamorous relationships, you have to make sure that everyone in the relationship is safe and is always using safe methods … even while trying to get pregnant, one assumes. With ethical monoamory, you only have to practice “safe sex” to avoid having children; beyond that, there is no risk. That doesn’t hold true for even ethical polyamory.

Okay, but we can’t rely on everyone being ethical all of the time, so what happens if we don’t assume that everyone is acting ethically? Well, if that’s the case, your partner might be cheating, and so might not be practicing safe sex, and so might pick up and give you an STI. So you might want to practice safe sex with your partner just in case. On the other hand, if we don’t assume that all polyamorous partners are acting ethically, you … still have to insist on that for the same reasons. In monoamory, the only reason you have to worry is because your partner might be having unsafe sex with other people who might be infected, but polyamory pretty much guarantees it if we don’t assume that everyone is acting ethically. And in monoamory, at least, you have to decide if you can trust your partner, whom you also ought to know really well; in polyamory, you have to know if you can trust all the partners of your partners, and their partners, and their partners … some of whom you don’t even know.

This, then, carries forward if we expect that there will be unethical people, but that the majority will be ethical. In monoamory, there’s one person you need to trust; if they aren’t trustworthy, you’re in trouble. In polyamory, every partner of every partner has to be ethical. If one of them is unethical and spreads the STI, unless you’re engaging in safe sex all of the time with all partners, well, it won’t take long for that to spread.

Carrier can only make his argument by doing two things: comparing ethical polyamory to non-ethical monoamory, and ignoring the fact that the behaviour that puts you at risk in monoamory — if we don’t assume that polyamorists are all ethical — is the encouraged behaviour in polyamory. The worry in monoamory is that your partner might have sex with other people; in polyamory, they will have sex with other people.

He also tries to argue, as if he realizes this at some level, that STIs aren’t all that bad anyway:

Of course, we also over-stigmatize STIs. Just as we used to over-stigmatize unwed mothers. In reality, getting an STI is no worse than getting food poisoning from eating takeout or a friend-cooked meal, or a staff infection from using a public restroom or visiting a hospital. Our reaction should be the same.


This is ridiculous; we all take strong measures to avoid getting those things, and STIs can be more problematic and can be spread before we realize that we’re sick. We’re seeing pushes in business for people staying home while sick to avoid spreading illness, and he somehow thinks that we think these things are no big deal? The only reason they get brought up specifically wrt polyamory is that sex is the whole point of polyamory for most people, Carrier especially included. I assume that he’d like to avoid getting an STI, surely.

He then turns to jealousy:

The research so far shows no advantage to monogamy in avoiding frequency of feeling jealousy or avoiding its negative effects in a relationship. In fact, polyamory performs better: most people will experience jealousy less often, and less noxiously, and its effects will be less damaging. This is because polyamory forces you to continually confront the reasons for your jealousy, and to communicate and work through those reasons, which ends up reducing how often you get jealous, and how jealous you get, and substantially reducing its effect on the relationship.

The issue here is self-selection: the people in polyamorous relationships are, of course, going to be people with less issues with jealousy than people who are in monoamorous relationships, because polyamorous relationships require that. So anyone who cannot get over the jealousy issues will move back to monoamorous relationships, thus leaving only those who, for whatever reason, aren’t that jealous. Thus, trying to use that self-selected sample to prove that somehow people in polyamorous relationships just would be less jealous isn’t valid. We don’t know what would happen if people who normally did have problems with jealousy were strongly encouraged to try polyamory anyway, and work through it by confronting the reasons for it.

Especially since Carrier’s model actually provides reasons to be jealous. As I said in my other comments, Carrier’s model favours the person who needs or cares for the other person less, because if they feel that they need something or need to be excluded from something in the relationship, they have more power to get what they want by taking the totally acceptable step — in Carrier’s view — of saying that without that the relationship isn’t working and that they then want to end it. This means that it is always the case that the person you’re with could end the relationship at any time, for any reason. If you’re okay with that, then that’s not a problem, but if you like them enough and want to maintain that, then there are going to be issues where you try to make sure that they don’t leave. So that’s the one side of what we commonly call “jealousy” in a relationship. The other side is that in polyamory for anything except primary relationships — again, by Carrier — there’s only one or two things that you provide to a potential partner that causes the relationship to be formed. In short, you are in a relationship with that person because you fulfill specific needs of theirs. If they manage to find someone who satisfies those needs better than you do — even if that’s just that they find them more attractive — the reasonable and rational thing to do in Carrier’s model is for them to leave you and take up with that person, if that person will have them. Thus, if you care about what they give you at all, you have to be nervous about them being friendly with anyone who gives them what you give them, in case they might be better at it and have you be out in the cold. Again, it’s only you don’t care about the relationship that this won’t bother you.

Contrast that with monoamory. The other person has committed to you, which ought to both give you a reason to stay with them — since they were willing to do that — and gives you a reason to think that, at least, they don’t think they’ll get anyone better. And monoamory encourages people to choose the best aggregate partners, which means that even if someone else is better in one area they’d have to be better across the board to replace you, at least in theory. Given all of the factors that are supposed to control jealousy in monoamory, one should be skeptical that polyamory can solve them for most people that easily. Sure, as Carrier says you pretty much have to be able to deal with it in a polyamorous relationship, but that doesn’t mean that everyone or even most people will, just because those who are in them now are the ones who can. And, on top of that, the best way to deal with it is to take Carrier’s advice to heart and follow its implications to treating the relationship as merely something that satisfies your needs, but that you can easily replace. That’s not all that deep and meaningful a relationship, in my opinion.

Finally, Carrier talks about children:

There is actually no evidence any harm results. And in practical fact, the benefits are obvious. If two people are an asset in dividing expenses and labor, three people are even more so. Likewise four. Five. Six.

But how can he assume that that will be divided that way, and that any new partner won’t be demanding the time and money of the other partner? Why should other partners want to support children that are not theirs, and put aside their desires and needs at times to provide for the children? Sure, this can indeed happen in cases, but surely this can’t be expected.

Think also of the effects of moving for work, or changing schools, and all sorts of life decisions that affect children by making their life less stable, forcing them to deal with the loss of even their own friends and having to find new ones, and so on. This happened to a lot of us. In actual fact, we do just fine. We even learned from it all. And with good parenting, we adjusted readily

Um, many of these things are considered to be very problematic for children, and most people agree that these things should happen only when necessary. For polyamory, these things will happen regularly. That might cause issues in the long run, and especially if polyamory becomes common place.

Carrier, thus, is rationalizing away concerns, assuming things that he can’t assume should polyamory become the default, and makes invalid comparisons to try to prove that polyamory is a really good thing. His logic, then, simply doesn’t work. He might be right about polyamory, but the more he tries to defend it the more it seems to me that it depends on people not caring about each other and having shallow relationships, or else simply devolving to an open marriage. I see no “Polyamory Solution” to anything here.

3 Responses to “Poly Rationalization”

  1. bb Says:

    It seems to me that Carrier just wants to have a lot of sex with different people. I don’t see where he wants to have genuine “loving relationships”. Can you begin to imagine how much work the latter would be? Especially when all the “lovers” he has are spread all over different cities. That is convenient for when he travels around and wants some nookie. But how convenient is that for true intimacy? And how could he have that anyway unless the other partners had that some of that intimacy with each other as well, which isn’t all that possible given their separate locations. When Carrier wants to bring someone new into the fold (as with his trying to “date” the women who now says she was sexually harassed by him), does he have to consult with all the others in the fold: should they not be part of the courtship if he really has an intimate relationship with them? No, I think, its, “hey honies, I’m home, and btw, there is now another one of you”, except that they don’t live together mostly, so this would have to be delivered separately to each of the honies, or perhaps a group email? or conference call? except if these others also have their own intimate sets, well, would all those folk have to be present too. Oh the mindi boggles.

    I think more likely its basically just Carrier wants to have a lot of sex and his boring old wife was cramping his ability to get it.

    • verbosestoic Says:

      Yeah, in his dedication to his wife in “Sense and Goodness Without God”, he explicitly at least adds (I haven’t found the time to look up the entire quite) “my buxom blonde” when talking about her, which is … odd, as most people when dedicating things to their wives don’t explicitly make reference to their looks as being something important wrt their role in inspiring them to write the work. Given that and his discussions, Carrier is polyamorous only because he wants to have lots of sex with lots of other people, which leaves him with a shallow idea of what the word “love” means.

      It’s also ironic that in “Sense and Goodness Without God” he uses his marriage as an example of proper and moral love to demonstrate that we can still have it, which all gets blown out of the water when we know that Carrier’s marriage ended and, no matter how you interpret it, it was all Carrier’s fault that it ended.

      • bb Says:

        Hah, shows what you know, it was “buxom *brunette*”. But, seriously, is that gross in a dedication or what? It’s a euphemism for “busty” for God’s sake!

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 )

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: