Help! What is Ethical About Polyamory?

Louisa Leontiades Advice Column, Epic Relationships

Dear Louloria,

I consider myself polyamorous. Full on polyamorous. Or at least I did until I was trying to debate with a friend about the ethical component of polyamory. I defined polyamory as consensual, ethical and responsible non-monogamy.  I realised that I’m down with the area of consent and responsibility but for me, consent and responsibility *is* what is ethical about polyamory since it includes honesty, necessitates communication whilst responsibility for your actions and emotions means good boundaries and not treating other people like things i.e. not objectifying. So what part does the ethics cover if more than this? Isn’t it redundant? I’m uneasy with my polyamorous identity since I don’t have a handle on the ethical part… Can you help? What do you define as ethical about your polyamory?

– Ms. AmIEthical

Dear Ms. AIE,

Can open… worms everywhere… but you asked it, and here’s my answer.

  • About Ethics…

Ethics – broadly speaking – is the set of guidelines which stipulates what we believe is right and wrong. It determines how we might choose or strive to act when treating ourselves and other people. Here are two examples.

Utilitarianism ethics consider that what is right and wrong is what brings the greatest happiness for the most people in that society (and er, fuck the others). Laws and practises are designed around what is perceived to be best for most people. If taken to the extreme it results in systemic privilege, which in turn gives more power to the majority; this is easy to abuse.

Anarchistic ethics, broadly speaking, operate under the beliefs of solidarity, equality and justice for all as well as ‘the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth’. Yet whilst this may sound familiar, often people might say they believe in some form of anarchistic ethics, but act according to utilitarian ethics when push comes to shove.

So there is obviously a difference in ‘normative’ ethics–the belief in how one ought to act–and descriptive ethics–how one actually acts–and this is usually a function of each individual’s survival strategies.

  • About Polyamorous Ethics

Polyamorous ethics or ethical polyamory, rests on a set of beliefs which one observes (or strives to observe) and concerns how to treat yourself and your partners. In the book More Than Two, authors Veaux and Rickert have often used the term ‘ethical polyamory’ which indicates their belief that there exists a ‘non-ethical polyamory’. One can deduce from the two stated axioms or beliefs…

  1. Don’t treat people like things (do not assume their agency and/or responsibility and do not abandon your own)
  2. The people in the relationship are more important than the relationship

…that treating people like things and prizing the relationship above the people, are what the authors and many others believe to be unethical polyamory.

In this context, ethical is the umbrella term whilst consent and responsibility fall under this. By general consensus, ripe timing and my own personal opinion, it seems that the More Than Two definition may rapidly be becoming the definition of ‘polyamory’ itself and if that is the case, then it is these underlying beliefs which distinguish ethical (to be redundant) polyamory from other forms of non-monogamy, consensual or otherwise.

For example, consensual non-monogamy might include prescriptive hierarchical polyamorous arrangements. Consent is present between the ‘primary partners’ and might even be consented to by ‘secondary partners’ but this means that ‘secondaries’ may not have the same rights as the primary couple since the primary relationship is prized above others. Within the More Than Two context such a relationship configuration may therefore be ethically questionable if you believe in the axiom the people in the relationship are more important than the relationship and what was previously termed hierarchical polyamory is something of an oxymoron.

Yet not everyone adheres to the ethics laid out by Veaux and Rickert, because people’s ethics and beliefs are both individual and cultural. Their beliefs about what is right and wrong do not necessarily include consent from all parties, the same rights for all parties, or indeed a belief in responsibility and all the things these ethics rest on… e.g. respect, honesty, compassion, trust, communication, freedom of choice etc.

Why might people choose not to believe in or act according to these beliefs? For all sorts of reasons.

Some people believe that other people have forfeited their right to respect and many more believe that trust is not a given. Likewise not everyone believes that honesty is always the best policy… sometimes they even believe in lying for the greater good. It’s generally believed that power of minors must be restricted until they are of age to take responsibility (and that 18 is not necessarily the age at which this happens), whilst polyamorous parenting teams will often put their relationship with their kids, and even perhaps their relationship with the co-parent(s) above their relationship with anyone else. Cultural differences may mean that family (denoted blood or alliance) is prioritized, saving face or conforming to norms is crucial for social status. Thus there are circumstances in which people consider that some beliefs do not apply and/or are not merited.. and the ‘don’t treat people like things’ axiom i.e. do not assume others’ power/responsibility or make others’ assume yours, is not universally applicable without qualification and nuance.

My own polyamorous ethics can best–and unsurprisingly (since I set up the Postmodern Woman blog)–be described as postmodern.

Postmodern Ethics are about embracing and accepting the messy reality of humanity. It is, as the philosopher Bauman says, ‘modernity without illusion.’ What does this mean for me personally?

It means that choices like cheating or objectifying happen for many reasons and they are not in my view morally wrong per se, just as staying faithful is not morally right per se. Instead I choose to observe and suspend judgement as far as I can and see these choices in terms of acts and consequences in an individual context.

My understanding of my own actions and their consequences continues to evolve. I see that there has often been a gap in what I aspire to and how I actually act. It means I continually adjust my beliefs and/or behaviour accordingly (what I did five years ago, is unlikely to be how I believe and act today). The concept of narrative is useful for defining my ethical stance on a particular situation at any given time, since it concerns the individual and complex human experience rather than the assignment of an idea or norm to separate and individuated actions. Assigning right and wrong, is I believe, an attempt to force my ideology on others and as such is not ethical. Might I choose to act unethically someday–according to my definition–and define general right and wrong? Maybe. There are consequences to my stance because it’s messy and it annoys a lot of people who would prefer I buy into their definitions of what is right and wrong. It is confusing. I have also defaulted to ‘role ethics’ when trying to simplify things for my children. They are not able yet to see the spectrum of grey between the right and wrong polarities.

In terms of actions, my ‘polyamory’ is currently closest to anarchistic, with some role ethics thrown in as far as parental duties are concerned. I will fulfil my role as a mother first, although even that paradoxically means I must sometimes fulfil my own needs first to be the best mother I can.  My ethics are usually aligned with the More Than Two definition. They usually include consent and responsibility but they also encompass a broader self-knowledge and continued in depth study of how I really act and why in different situations.

The truth is that my desire and ability to practice what I believe is in itself partly a function of my experience and my privilege. It means that I’m not sure whether ethical polyamory as per More Than two might be possible or even desirable for others with different experience and different privilege. This is also why my second book Lessons in Life and Love… was written to my younger self and not as a prescriptive guide to others.

In short, ethics is usually not constrained to the practice of polyamory, but it is the set of beliefs you hold about yourself and about the world which in turn influence the way you choose to practice relationships. And where I agree with More Than Two, is that my purpose of life and relationships is to be the best version of myself.

Your purpose may be entirely different but if you’re committed to being ethical it will most likely be a never ending journey of questions, so above all enjoy it.

Good luck.