Wednesday 3/20

Monogamy and Polygamy



Quiz Questions

  • What are Bayles' arguments in favor of monogamy?
  • Given what he says in this essay, how might Clark respond to Bayles' argument?
  • Is polyamory perverse? Why or why not?
  • Is polyamory plausible? Why or why not?


We began today picking up where we left off last time: Halwani's critique of casual sex and promiscuity.

To be clear, Halwani's point is vastly more nuanced than, say, Bayles' sneering condemnation of sexual and/or romantic arrangements other than traditional heterosexual marriage. Halwani is keen to identify what can be problematic about casual sex and promiscuity--potential pitfalls, if you will, which made provide a kind of prescription for how to justifiably engage in the hooking-up culture, say.

The problem for Halwani, of course, with casual sex and promiscuity comes down to objectification. Now, because objectification is such an ambiguous term such that it is morally unproblematic in some senses and morally problematic in others, Halwani is careful (following Nussbaum and Langton) to distinguish different senses of 'objectification' or ways in which one might objectify another person. Quoting at length,

One way of treating someone as an object is to treat her as an instrument or a tool for our purposes. Yet there seems no escape from this treatment in human interaction. In virtually any example of human interaction—between grocer and shopper, salesperson and client, student and teacher, tenant and landlord, flight attendant and passenger, waiter and diner, and so on—we use people as tools: we use the grocer as a tool to obtain our groceries, the tenant to make an income, and so forth. Even in interactions between friends and loved ones, about which we don’t believe that people use each other as tools (e.g., a lover giving his beloved a gift), one might argue that the lover uses his beloved as a tool to attain his goals (of, e.g., giving her a gift: no beloved, no gift-giving). We can then plausibly assume that treating each other as tools is unavoidable. (Perhaps those who believe that not every human interaction involves using people as tools should provide us with uncontroversial cases.) What we should aim for, then, is to treat them not merely as tools or objects.

However, one might claim that being used as a tool is only one way to be objectified. Are there not other ways in which we can avoid using people as objects altogether?

Martha Nussbaum lists seven different ways to objectify someone. Rae Langton adds three. I quote them at length (this is also useful for the discussion in Part II). Nussbaum’s list:

  1. Instrumentality: The objectifier treats the object as a tool of his or her purposes.
  2. Denial of autonomy: The objectifier treats the object as lacking in autonomy and self-determination.
  3. Inertness: The Objectifier treats the object as lacking in agency, and perhaps also in activity.
  4. Fungibility: The objectifier treats the object as interchangeable (a) with other objects of the same type and/or (b) with objects of other types.
  5. Violability: The objectifier treats the object as lacking in boundary integrity, as something that is permissible to break up, smash, break into.
  6. Ownership: The objectifier treats the object as something owned by another, can be bought and sold, and so on.
  7. Denial of subjectivity: The objectifier treats the object as something whose experience and feelings (if any) need not be taken into account.9

Langton’s additional three:

  1. Reduction to body: One treats [the person] as identified with his or her body, or body parts.
  2. Reduction to appearance: One treats [the person] primarily in terms of how he or she looks, or how he or she appears to the senses.
  3. Silencing: One treats [the person] as silent, lacking the capacity to speak.10

Other than instrumentality (already addressed), we can treat people as not objects, at all, in any of those ways. We need not treat others as incapable of making decisions (lacking autonomy and self-determination), as lacking in agency (inert), as interchangeable with others (fungible), as permissible to smash up (violable), as owned, as having no feelings and experience, and as reduced to body and appearance. If the above list is a list of ways of treating people as objects, then it is possible to not treat people as objects, at all, in any of these ways.

Our strategy today was different, somewhat, than Halwani's. What I wanted to know about was 'catching feels'. What it is, specifically, and how in hooking-up we can avoid it. Here I thought our discussion was superb. We considered many different ways to understand what it is to catch feels. None of them seemed wholly satisfactory, yet all of them raised the dilemma hooking-up so clearly presents: If catching feels is under any of its many different interpretations antithetical to casual sex and promiscuity, then it seems that a default approach to avoiding catching feels is to objectify; thus the likelihood, albeit certainly not the certainty, of objectifying in a morally problematic sense when engaged in casual sex and promiscuity.

This is a different way around to the point Halwani is making. Although objectifying without also treating ones partner as an end in themselves is a possible or even likely outcome of engaging in the hook-up culture, it is by no means a necessary or essential feature of casual sex and promiscuity as moral scolds like Bayles would have it.

We concluded today by considering Bayles' arguments for traditional heterosexual monogamy: Promoting interpersonal relationships and promoting the welfare of children.

To be sure, almost everyone piled on Bayles' arguments, pointing out for example that promoting the welfare of children is surely better done the more people are involved, whereas Bayles himself has a very limited view of the role of (at most) extended family in child-rearing.

Contrasting Bayles' traditionalist position with more complicated polyamorous (not necessarily polygamous or polyandrous relationships, but also including those) such as those Clark describes generates more questions for Bayles, and more questions indeed than we had time to take up.

In any case, it was an excellent discussion. Next time we consider arguments for and against, believe it or not, adultery. That will close our discussion of sexual relationships per se, after which we turn to erotic entertainment, prostitution, and pornography.