William Saletan’s latest piece in Slate tackles the question of how to draw a principled line between same-sex unions and polygamy, which is apparently what deep thinkers on the right are scratching their heads about these days. Forget about that question though. I’m interested in the way that Saletan invokes nature in his argument. His basic idea is that two is the natural number for both mixed and same sex-unions, and it’s natural because jealousy is natural. Oh sure, many of us want a little on the side, but we dislike our partner getting a little on the side more than we like to get some ourselves:
The average guy would love to bang his neighbor’s wife. He just doesn’t want his wife banging his neighbor. Fidelity isn’t natural, but jealousy is. Hence the one-spouse rule. One isn’t the number of people you want to sleep with. It’s the number of people you want your spouse to sleep with.
For all I know, and for all I’m going to say, that could all be perfectly true. But Saletan’s piece is still irritating because he’s just so damn sloppy with his subject matter.
Saletan’s research seems to have consisted in reading a few articles on polyamatory unions which reported that polyamatory unions had . . . many of the same problems that monogamous (in either theory or practice) unions have. Now, it seems to me that if you wanted to take an honest look at non-standard behaviour of this sort you’d want to keep an eye on a few issues. Among them:
1. Am I falling prey to confirmation bias?
It’s ironic that Saletan shows so little awareness of this potential problem in an article sympathetic to same-sex unions, since much of the explicitly homophobic opposition to same-sex unions gets into the same damn problem. Here’s how it works: People observe heterosexual unions breaking up over various issues, including infidelity, and think, “How terrible,” and then they see a same-sex union break up for similar reasons, and think, “Ah ha! It’s not natural.” There’s – ahem – a natural tendency to slip into this trap when evaluating nonstandard arrangements like polyamatory unions, so we ought to be highly suspicious of anecdotal or impressionistic results of the kind that Saletan has lazily scrounged up for his article.
2. Are the allegedly dysfunctional or harmful effects of the practice under investigation intrinsic to the practice itself or (partly?) the result of prejudices against the practice?
I’m reminded of the Philip Roth novel in which the parents of a Jewish-Gentile marriage oppose the marriage because such marriages tend not to work out, and some of the marriage’s troubles are traceable to the opposition of the parents and their complete lack of support. Again, this pattern ought to be familiar to us from the debate over homosexuality. Homophobes like to justify disgraceful treatment of homosexuals by pointing to data apparently showing how unhealthy homosexual lifestyles are (e.g., greater incidences of depression) – without asking first whether any of that is attributable to the disgraceful treatment! Given that polyamatory unions face a lot of social resistance and don’t have the kind of social acceptance and support that regular unions have, it’s worth asking what effects that might have on polyamatory unions as they exist in this culture.
3. Does the rarity of the practice under investigation skew our observations of the effects of the practice?
Related to this is the worry that because polyamatory unions are less socially acceptable, the subset of people who engage in them will be more adventurous, more transgressive, and possibly wilder, than they would otherwise be if this sort of arrangement were more common. An unmarried 20-something year old woman in the 1950s who slept with several men over several years is a very different case from an unmarried 20-something year old woman in NYC right now who has slept with several men over several years. The former was engaging in fairly non-standard behaviour, the latter in something she might casually mention to her mother in conversation. Same behaviour, but we would be less surprised to find the former case associated with other sorts of unhealthy activities (drinking too much, for example), since sleeping with several men over several years isn’t the sort of thing that good girls did back then, whereas it’s perfectly normal now. It would have been arguing in a circle back in the 50s to point to our adventurous lass and her problems as evidence in favour of sticking with 1950s pre-marital sexual mores, since those problems were arguably at least in part artifacts of the fact that wilder people tend to be the ones deviating from the mores. Once the behaviour became more widespread, it began to attract more conventional types, the sample size increased, and many of our (using “our” tendentiously, of course) worries subsided. And it’s very difficult to know if this might also be the case with polyamatory unions. (Obviously I’m simplifying a lot here in order to get across the basic idea.)
4. Are we projecting our own cultural quirks onto our image of human nature?
The piece under discussion isn’t quite as bad as this earlier one, in which Saletan kept referring to what “men” and “women” preferred exclusively on the basis of American opinion polls, since at least in his latest reflections on human nature Saletan reached for his Bible as an aid to speculation. But still, it’s annoying that Saletan doesn’t indicate more puzzlement about this very tricky problem.
5. In discovering what is natural, have we discovered the limits of what is possible without undue strain?
There’s an odd assumption that many people make that if an activity is unnatural in some interesting sense of the word, then engaging in the activity will necessarily result in an intolerable strain. That’s not necessarily so. To borrow Frans de Waal’s example, it’s natural for a tiger to kill a dog. But if you raise a tiger with a dog in a zoo (dogs are sometimes used to socialize tigers) then the tiger won’t be interested in killing its adopted mom or siblings. This is highly unnatural, but it’s hardly an intolerable strain on the tiger. (Similarly, there’s no easy inference from the fact that something is a strain to the claim that it’s unnatural. Lots of things we recognize as natural are strains on us.)
And so on. There’s a lot more to say about Saletan’s piece, but I’m well over my alloted blogging time for today. Again, I’m not taking any position on polyamatory relationships or polygamy or polyandry or jealousy or whether you should always wear matching socks. Also, since liberals are often accused of having a radically pared-down blank slate conception of human nature, let me just point out that what sensible liberals object to is not (necessarily) attempts to ground normative claims about humans on claims about human nature, but rather crude and unreflective appeals to human nature to ratify whatever prejudices a writer happens to have. Indeed, there’s a venerable tradition in Western ethics, from Aristotle to Aquinas to Philippa Foot of looking to human nature to draw far stronger and more interesting conclusions than Saletan does in his article.
Update: More here.
Howls of outrage (12)