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Monogamy

Caeli: Hi!
Elliot: Hi, Caeli.
Caeli: What's wrong with monogamy?
Elliot: One of the problems with monogamy is that you only get to try out one theory of who you should be with, for all of time.
Caeli: Is it really forever?
Elliot: You have to commit to not change partners anymore to really call it monogamy. If you kept changing partners as much as you wanted (say, a few times a day, depending who you were with) that would be something else entirely.
Caeli: I see. Plus forever is how marriage is supposed to work.
Elliot: Right. So, you have this one partner forever. You can't try out rival ideas of who you should be with. This is very bad.
Caeli: What's so bad about it? If your partner tried out someone else, he might like it and leave.
Elliot: If he did find a better life for himself, wouldn't that be good?
Caeli: Not for me.
Elliot: Would you want to hold back someone you loved, selfishly, and keep him from being as happy as he could be?
Caeli: No, I guess not.
Elliot: You may be worried he will leave because of New Relationship Energy: because he's excited by benefits with the new person that won't last. This does indeed happen. It's a parochial error. It means he's lost perspective on his life, and is misjudging which things will have lasting importance.
Caeli: OK, so how do you avoid that mistake?
Elliot: Well, one way is not to be monogamous in the first place. But never mind that for now. If the new relationship has temporary benefits, wouldn't it be a shame to miss out on that? He'll learn cool stuff, and when he comes back, he will share it with you. You'll both be better for it.
Caeli: Hmm, maybe.
Elliot: In general, criticism makes good theories stable, and crushes bad theories. Good theories only appear good when you compare them to their rivals. Just by themselves, we have no way to judge them. We don't know how close to the truth we are. We only know if they seem to solve our current problems. Having a history of being adaptable, and defeating rivals, is a way to boost our confidence in a theory.
Caeli: So what does that mean for relationships?
Elliot: It means that trying lots of relationships will make it clearer which are good and which are bad, and help you see why the good ones are better than the others.
Caeli: People usually do try a lot of relationships before they settle down.
Elliot: Yes, and that's good. But once they settle down, they stop doing this. They stop learning about relationships in this way. They limit themselves, and don't try new relationships they think would be valuable. They avoid them without learning about them. As long as their are still temptations, it proves the person still has more to learn (or is in the wrong relationship).
Caeli: Can you give some more concrete examples?
Elliot: Marriages get unstable after a while because people forget what being in other relationships is like. There is actually a common experience in stories and on TV of someone who cheats on his longtime partner only to realize that he prefers to be with his partner. He just needed to be free to spend time with other people, and compare, to see that being with his partner was best. But he wasn't allowed to, and had to cheat to learn about the issue. That's bad for everyone involved. Who would really want a partner to stay with him in ignorance?
Caeli: That's not appealing. Like if he said he loved me, I couldn't believe him, because he wouldn't really know.
Elliot: Spending time with lots of people increases our perspective. Like with everything else, the ideal policy as far as learning is concerned is to do it as much as we are interested in.
Caeli: What about STDs?
Elliot: They are parochial, they have nothing to do with learning, or what the ideal sorts of relationships are, and you are assuming that relationships have something to do with sex.
Caeli: Don't they?
Elliot: In our culture people equate the two. But there is no good reason to. Sex isn't very interesting, and it doesn't make sense to choose who to live with based on who we like to have sex with.
Caeli: But you should live together if you want to share a bed.
Elliot: Sharing a bed is annoying. You have to deal with snoring, and waking each other up, and it makes it less convenient to sleep at different times. And there is no need to share a bed in order to have sex. (Though if you sometimes fall asleep together, there's nothing wrong with that.) Everyone should have a room, and a bed, of her own.
Caeli: Why "her" own? You usually use masculine pronouns when you are not talking about a specific person.
Elliot: Because "a room of her own" is a famous quote by Virginia Woolf.
Caeli: Why isn't sex very interesting?
Elliot: It consists of rubbing your bodies together, and playing with ancient remnants of our animal past. That part is very simple. More complex is the ideas our culture has about sex, but those are extremely parochial. And none of them have much to do with learning, they are just things purported to make people happy. But happiness is a bad goal.
Caeli: Is it wise to attack happiness while criticizing monogamy? Should you pick so many fights at once?
Elliot: Do you mind?
Caeli: I guess not. So what's wrong with happiness?
Elliot: Nothing is wrong with happiness. The problem is aiming for it. It should be an indirect consequence of a good life. Trying to get happiness directly is either meaningless (because we only do what we think is moral), or it means we sometimes do things that we do not think are moral.
Caeli: I thought the happiness thing would be very controversial, but your argument seems solid. Except, why is morality the right thing to aim for?
Elliot: Morality is about how to live. By definition it's our best ideas about how to live. Whether they provide happiness, money, knowledge, whatever. And it takes into account, by definition, whether we are treating others rightly or not, and so on. Seeking happiness does not necessarily take all those things into account.
Caeli: People often say the reason they want to do something, like go get ice cream, is that they will enjoy it. In other words, it will make them happy. Do you object?
Elliot: That's fine. If an activity provides one valuable thing, that is a noteworthy fact about that activity, and a good answer to why to do it.
Caeli: So let's get back on topic. You were saying sex is boring and has nothing to do with relationships.
Elliot: That's right. In general, a relationship (which is not a very good word) just means people cooperating in some way. Well, it generally doesn't mean free trade. What we mean is a personal relationship. So, if it's not about wealth or stuff, then what's the point? Well, people can share ideas.
Caeli: What's a better term than relationship?
Elliot: Human coordination is better.
Caeli: What do you mean by coordination?
Elliot: People who share goals (or parts of goals) can coordinate (act in a way that works together) to achieve those goals. Coordinating means people changing what they do so that the overall result of the actions of a group of people achieves what they want better.
Caeli: That does seem like a more universal way to look at it. But what does it have to do with sex?
Elliot: Not much. That's part of my point. :)
Caeli: What do you think of love?
Elliot: It's a vague word. Do you mean strong liking?
Caeli: Have you been in love? I don't think it's vague.
Elliot: It doesn't matter if I have.
Caeli: Yes it does. How can you know about it if you haven't?
Elliot: If there is an important part that is hard to figure out without being in love, you can tell me about it. Even people who had been in love might not have noticed it.
Caeli: OK. Well, when people commit to each other they feel safer. And when they love each other, they try to help each other. They are able to trust each other. They both benefit. And it makes them happy.
Elliot: That's a lot of purported benefits. First, we should keep in mind that those are not the usual experience. People often are in love then break that trust and hurt each other. Lovers and families have some of the worst fights (excepting wars and other deadly violence).
Caeli: If they break the trust, it wasn't true love.
Elliot: A policy of calling all instances of love that ended badly, "fake love", does exist. But if you want to talk about it that way, then what we should really discuss is the state of thinking you are in love, but not being sure. And since you can never be entirely sure it won't end badly tomorrow, that will be the only kind of love there is.
Caeli: Oh, hmm. Is there no way to be sure it will last?
Elliot: If there is, no one has found it. If someone did, he would write a book and get very rich.
Caeli: Maybe some of the people who have lasting marriages do know.
Elliot: But people try to take advice from them, and it does not work reliably.
Caeli: So can you reply to more of the benefits I said?
Elliot: Yes. Trust is bad. Trusting someone is just refusing to take responsibility for your own expectations of the person. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Once you know a person, you should make your own predictions about what he will do, and if you are wrong, you should not hold that against the person. If you can't safely expect someone to do as he said, then make sure your plans don't count on him doing it. Trusting people is just setting yourself up to have fights.
Caeli: Are you against making promises as well, then?
Elliot: Yes, exactly. Don't take people's word for what they will do, and play the victim if they don't. Be a responsible, independent person who prevents being let down by proactively considering what will happen, not taking anything on trust or faith.
Caeli: What about feeling safe together?
Elliot: Partly that is a matter of trust. Partly that is a matter of knowing each other well, and having genuine reasons to consider the person safe. The second thing is purely good, but it can be isolated away from the term love.
Caeli: Why isolate things away?
Elliot: If we can identify components of love, and pull them out, we can then see if there is anything good left we haven't identified. If there doesn't seem to be, we will know what love is, or at least the good part: it's the individual parts we identified. Doing this will help it to be less vague.
Caeli: OK. So what about helping each other?
Elliot: First, people should help themselves. Second, if a policy of cooperating seems mutually beneficial, and also they are willing to risk that the other person may not do as expected, then great, help each other. This happens all the time. People who aren't in love do it.
Caeli: Maybe people who are in love want to do it more.
Elliot: People should cooperate when their rational judgment tells them it is best, and not otherwise.
Caeli: Isn't it helpful to have someone who will go out on a limb for you, without being persuaded?
Elliot: Most of the time, no it is not. It's better to persuade people to do things. They won't have to trust you, so they won't blame you if it goes wrong. And they will understand what's happening better. But now and then, there is a reason not to explain, such as a great rush, or needing to protect someone's privacy. In that case a person who will "go out on a limb for you" is valuable. What he should be doing is using his best judgment to decide he should help out. He doesn't know the reasons, but his best judgment tells him that you do have good reasons.
Elliot: Let me add that I don't see this to have anything to do with love. The default policy of many people is to help strangers in relatively minor ways if they ask for help. This is a good thing. Living in a society where help is easily available makes us all more powerful. It's easier for everyone to achieve their objectives. Most people in our society have good objectives. And in general people try to have good objectives. Humans being powerful is good. The opposite, humans being weak, would only ensure our destruction (one day an asteroid will come, or whatever, and if we don't have good enough science then -- if we aren't powerful enough yet -- then we will all die).
Caeli: What about love making people happy?
Elliot: People should be happy about love if and only if love is a good, rational thing. So this can't settle the argument.
Caeli: I guess we'll discuss this again. Can you summarize your main point?
Elliot: We shouldn't be scared of trying things that aren't best, and if something is genuinely good, it shouldn't fear criticism and rivals. If it's good, it will beat those rivals. Trying bad things helps us see why the good ones are better, so it stabilising good things. It helps make sure we'll stick to good things in the future. It means when you have second thoughts, you'll be able to remember why that thing was bad. And if you're still not sure, try it more. Learn and find out what's best. Marriage means not trying rival theories about who to live with and have sex with anymore. It means committing yourself not to. That is bad for learning.
Caeli: Maybe marriage isn't about learning.
Elliot: Maybe. But learning matters a lot. And if people admit marriage harms knowledge growth, that'd be a good first step.
Caeli: See you later!
Elliot: Bye.

Elliot Temple on October 22, 2006

Comments (4)

I can write strawmen and pretend it's dialog too ...

E: Trying poisonous berries is a good thing as it helps us see why edible berries are better. We may know which berries taste nicest and provide the best nutrition but why should we trust them to taste nice, perhaps the poisonous ones will taste good too.

C: Maybe we should just enjoy the berries we know are nice. Maybe we shouldn't worry about testing the poisonous ones to see how quickly we die.

E: But knowing which berries are going to kill us increases our knowledge.

C: Um, not really, we only have one life, why screw it up eating poisonous berries?

pbhj

Anonymous at 5:27 PM on May 19, 2009 | #1760

Thank you

You have help me realize why monogamy is a good thing.
Monogamy isn't about learning. Monogamy is a good thing if you find somebody who you really connect with on many different levels (ie. taste in music,food, music, hobbies, etc.). Those people are rare and in the off chance that you actually find them monogamy just happens to follow. I think you'd win more battles if this were about emotional infidelity instead of monogamy. Love is a vague thing I'm not sure if it exists either. Learning doesn't stop in a monogamous relationship. You can't try everything nor do you need to. In fact you can learn about polygamy inversely through a monogamous relationship. Tell me what you think. and @ anonymous you're missing the point, this is just Elliot's style (albeit annoying as Caeli is such a flat character).

Jon at 4:22 PM on October 12, 2009 | #1919
First of all you mention polygamy which FYI I don't like either: I see it as more of the same.

As to monogamy, in practice people do keep learning and only limit it in specific areas. However, that contradicts their marriage vows. They are being reckless, and they shouldn't make promises they might not keep and should acknowledge the possibility their interests will diverge.

The growth of knowledge is unpredictable. If you learn, you change, and you may change differently than someone else to the point of no longer having any current, active interests in common.

Also, the focus one *one* person is very strange. In the vast majority of cases it's better to have at least 2-4 good friends in your life (or more, it varies), and to have some variety. And most people do that! But then still say how focussing on one life partner is crucial.

There's also that common thing where if people can't have everything with someone, they often opt for nothing. I think it comes from the focus on finding *one* person.

Elliot at 5:11 PM on October 12, 2009 | #1920

monogamy

This is a hoot. t seems to me that although marriage can be difficult at times, it's really quite enjoyable. Having been in one for many years and raised a bunch of children, all I can say is "weeee" like on a roller coaster ride. AND we both love roller coasters. AND my hubby's is my best friend, as well as my lover. Maybe that helps. Like the part about false expectations. Take that out of the mix and manipulation ceases to exist. We decided to just have fun. Much easier.

Dialogue at 5:41 PM on February 20, 2011 | #2108

What do you think?

(This is a free speech zone!)