More Than Two: Guest Post on Ethical Polyamory from Franklin Veaux


I’m going into writer hibernation and taking a blog break through October 31, while I finish my next book, “Coming Out Atheist: How To Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why.” This is a guest post from Franklin Veaux.

“Without God, there is no morality.”

Anyone involved in skeptical, atheist, or freethought communities has probably encountered this trope; and if you’ve been around for awhile, you’ve probably run into it quite a number of times.

Any alternative community of any sort that’s poorly understood by mainstream society probably has an equivalent–some common objection that gets trotted out whenever a discussion of that community comes up. In polyamorous circles, the trope is “rules and hierarchies (often, by implication, the rules and hierarchies of monogamy), are the only things that keep relationships from descending into unbounded, anything-goes chaos.”

The atheist community has an answer to this trope in books like Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe. Whether we find their arguments compelling or not, at least there’s an effort to address it.

In the polyamorous community, though, that book doesn’t seem to exist…at least not yet. Our goal is to change that.

We’re working on a book on polyamory called More Than Two. There are already quite a few books on polyamory on the market; Jenny Block’s memoir Open: Love, Sex and Life in an Open Marriage, for example, and Tristan Taormino’s survey of open relationships, Opening Up: A Guide to Creating and Sustaining Open Relationships. What’s largely missing, though, is a book on the tools and strategies to create and maintain successful, healthy polyamorous relationships, and that’s what More Than Two is.

It’s difficult to talk about polyamory without hearing the expression “ethical non-monogamy.” There’s a bit of a sticky wicket, though, in that we rarely talk about the definition of “ethical,” beyond the obvious “don’t lie to your partners.” That’s a good start, sure, but it’s not enough to construct an entire foundation of relationship ethics on. When we’re living in a society that proscribes everything except heterosexual marriage between exactly two cisgendered people of opposite sexes, how do we even start talking about what makes an ethical non-monogamous relationship? Where do we turn for ethics? What distinguishes an ethical relationship from a non-ethical one? Are ethical relationships egalitarian, and if so, how does that align with BDSM relationships that are deliberately constructed along the lines of power exchange? If two people make an agreement and then present that agreement unilaterally to a third person, who is given few options other than accept the agreement as-is or walk away, is that ethical? What happens when people make relationship agreements, and then their needs change? What are ethical ways of revisiting and renegotiating previous agreements? How do we even define “ethics” in the first place, without resorting to religious or social conventions? What does it take for a person to make ethical relationship choices that aren’t aligned with a religious tradition or a cultural norm?

To us, it’s not possible to talk about non-traditional relationships without addressing the core foundation of ethics; once we remove religious tradition and cultural expectation as the foundation on which we build our relationships, it’s hard to imagine any other framework other than an ethical one.

We have an ambitious goal. We are trying to set out a rational basis for ethical relationships. Our focus is on polyamory, naturally, though the same ethical principles could apply to any romantic relationship: couple or plural, gay or straight, with or without elements of BDSM. Everything else we write about follows from the core ethical foundation we are seeking to create.

The approach to ethics we’re taking in this book centers on the ideas of consent, agency, opportunity, and expectation management. These ideas seem straightforward when considered independently, but interact in complex ways. For example, we would argue that the principle of agency allows people to negotiate for, and enter into, relationships that best meets their needs, even when those relationships don’t fit established social or religious templates. However, we also argue that consent is an integral part of ethical relationships, and consent is meaningful only when it’s informed; therefore, a person who enters into multiple relationships without informing his or her partners has deprived those partners of their ability to give informed consent, and by doing so is behaving unethically. We also argue that creating relationship structures whose primary function is to transfer relationship risk from one person onto another person, without acknowledging that that’s what’s happening, is unethical.

So it’s definitely a sticky wicket. It turns out that constructing a robust and consistent ethical framework that doesn’t rely on external authority is a nontrivial undertaking; in fact, when we have finished More Than Two, we plan a second book entirely dedicated to the ethics of interpersonal relationships.

More Than Two is aimed at people who are new to polyamory and are looking for practical resources for building healthy, stable relationships. We are two polyamorous writers; Franklin has maintained a website on polyamory since 1997; currently housed at www.morethantwo.com, it’s among the top Google hits for “polyamory.” Eve has over a decade of experience in professional editing, and she owns a communications firm in Canada, Talk Science to Me, dedicated to publications support for science organizations. We’re blogging about polyamory and the book project at www.morethantwo.com/book. And we’re running a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo at http://igg.me/at/morethantwo, which will help pay for editing, design, copyediting, indexing, printing, and distribution. We’re hoping to contribute significantly to the poly community worldwide, and we’d love to have you on board. Please help!

Comments

  1. says

    I am happily monogamous, and yet I think that this sounds like an interesting project.

    I know many people who are in poly relationships, and they often take great pride in informing me that poly folks are inherently more ethical than non-poly folks because of the amount of time that they spend talking about the nature of the relationship, working out the emotional issues, etc. However, I have always found this claim to be little more than a defensive posture with the actual behavior generally being, in most meaningful ways, neither more nor less ethical than monogamous people.

    So, that these authors are making an effort to actually address relationship ethics and consider what is an is not ethical behavior is excellent, and I look forward to seeing the end result. Even if the end result is not as good as one might hope, the effort itself is valuable.

  2. dickspringer says

    If you successfully develop good ethical principles we should try to apply the same principles to economic relationships. That would be truly revolutionary.

  3. says

    It’s pretty simple. The same things make relationships ethical in either monogamy and non-monogamy. Consent of all involved. In order for consent to be achieved, communication and lack of coercion are necessary. Whatever other rules you and your partners work out are done by talking and checking in frequently.

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