In a recently published paper, CU Boulder PhD student highlights some of the benefits of being in a monogamous relationship, for those who are so inclined
“It would be morally fine for you and your partner to be monogamous. You don’t have to be. You can be non-monogamous if you want. Either option is permissible.”
With that introduction, University of Colorado Boulder PhD student in philosophy Kyle York begins his paper, “A Couple of Reasons in Favor of Monogamy”—a lighthearted defense of having just one relationship partner, if you want—which was recently published online in the Journal of Social Philosophy.
In his paper, York says the ethics of monogamy and non-monogamy is a fairly new area of systematic research, one in which much of the writing on the subject has been critical of monogamy. In fact, he says some philosophers have gone as far as to say that monogamy is “immoral.”
“I can’t speak for all of them, but with some writers, there is the idea that, with monogamy, you are restricting your partner” in a way that’s akin to asking a partner not to have additional friends, York says. As an example, he mentions papers published by philosopher Harry Chalmers. “If you choose to look at it that way, then it (monogamy) is going to seem like an immoral practice, or at least one that we should grow out of.”
York says he doesn’t see it that way, but at the same time he’s quick to add that he’s not advocating that everyone must be on Team Monogamy.
“I should just mention, because I don’t want to come off the wrong way, that I’m not saying non-monogamy is bad,” he says. “I’m saying they’re both good, in different ways. And so, one of them isn’t a flawed version of the other. They both have valuable things to them.”
York recently spoke with Colorado Arts & Sciences Magazine about the case for monogamy, why the topic interests him and how monogamy fits into his larger focus on the ethics of love. His responses have been edited for space constraints and lightly edited for style and clarity.
Question: Can you summarize what you see as some of the main arguments in favor of monogamy, as outlined in your paper?
York: The first one is practicality. I think that might be one of the biggest ones. Practicality can include things like being able to move around together (with a monogamous partner), because, alternatively, if you have multiple partners, and some of them move to different places, then it’s not clear who you’re going to be with or who you should move with. So, it can be simpler to plan a life with just one person. Every other person that you add to the mix is going to make it that much harder to plan out together.
There’s also the issue of time constraints. You might get more time with someone if you have less partners, and that might tie in a bit with the second reason, which is intimacy. One part of intimacy is mutual influence, which includes the frequency of contact you have with that person and also the diversity of ways in which you interact. If you are sharing your life with one person, there’s going to be a greater diversity of mutual influence, or how many ways in which you influence each other.
Another reason is specialness. In my paper, I give the example of meeting (the musician) Beck at a party, and he invites you to play guitar on his new album. So, in one case, you show up at the studio and there’s just Beck waiting there, and you and he record a song together. In the other version, you show up and there’s 100 other guitarists there. Then you’re like, ‘OK, well, I guess he selected me on the generic grounds that I’m a guitar player.’
So, you’re likely to feel more special if Beck selected you as the one rather than one among 100. I’m not saying that non-monogamous people don’t select each other out with some exclusive criteria, but this is also because specialness and exclusivity go together to a certain degree.
And the last example is jealousy, although I don’t think that’s one of the most important reasons. And the example I give there is a couple contemplating visiting a sex club (separately). It doesn’t necessarily threaten the practicality—or, in their case, the specialness—of the relationship, but the couple might decide the pleasure they would receive from it isn’t worth the jealously they would go through. So, then it seems reasonable to say, ‘Well, let’s just not do it then.’
Question: You previously published another paper that also defended monogamy. Why have you chosen to focus on this topic?
York: The first paper I wrote, the one before this one, was because I didn’t see many (philosophical) defenses of monogamy. There have been some defenses of monogamy to the extent of: How is it compatible with a loving attitude?
So, I tried to offer reasons why people might want to be monogamous, such as to preserve a greater amount of intimacy or maybe it just makes commitment easier. And maybe there’s a certain specialness that is easier to get being monogamous. …
This is something that I had (personally) thought about for a long time. I think that I had a desire to be monogamous but couldn’t exactly figure out why. And where I was at, the values of non-monogamy were often extolled, which made me think hard about whether there could be distinctive reasons for monogamy. Some ideas also came from conversations with my partner, now wife, about the topic.
Question: You make several arguments in favor of monogamy in your paper, but one argument you don’t make is to be monogamous simply because it’s what society expects.
York: There is a writer whose work I like, Natasha McKeever, and I refer to her in my paper. She argues that monogamy should be less of a norm, just because then, if people do decide to be monogamous, they do it for the right reasons, which makes sense to me.
I don’t have a strong opinion about what the norm should be, exactly. …
People should be able to write their own contracts for what they want out of their relationships, within reasonable limits. I do think there are some things that you can’t forbid your partner from doing, such as, I can’t tell my partner, ‘Don’t talk to other men.’
But I think the limits of monogamy are things like, we can agree not to have sex with other people or go into romantic relationships with other people. That seems reasonable.
Question: For you, it seems like the subject of monogamy is part of a larger focus on the ethics of love.
York: A little bit. I think that love is really interesting. I once wrote a little article for Blackwell’s Pop Culture and Philosophy series website, specifically about the movie Everything Everywhere All at Once (in which a middle-aged laundromat owner becomes able to access parallel universes and the more glamorous and exciting lives she could have led). And there’s this great scene where she tells her daughter, “No matter what, I still want to be here with you. I will always, always, want to be here with you.”
I think that’s a great illustration of how, when you love someone … that love kind of grabs on to them—to a significant extent— independently of whatever desirable qualities that they might have. The beloved person is non-fungible—they can’t just be replaced by someone with similar but better qualities.
That’s why I love that movie—because it shows that she (the main character) has all these alternative lives and alternate universes with maybe even better versions of her family, but there’s just something about her daughter and her husband being her daughter and husband that makes her say, ‘I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else except here with you.’
That’s a part of love that I find interesting.