Moral Perfectionism, Moral Pragmatism, Free Love Ethics, and Adultery

Kelly: You are a moral absolutist, Jaime.

Jaime: Nonsense. You are the one who wants to impose monogamy on everyone, whether they like it or not.

Kelly: No, when we talked the other day, I conceded it was your right to have whatever kinds of open relationships you wanted. I only said that, given human nature, I didn’t think open relationships were a good idea for the vast majority of people and so we should not encourage them as a general rule. But you were saying it was wrong for everyone to be monogamous. You are demanding everyone be promiscuous. You make promiscuity your absolute moral principle for everyone.

Jaime: Well, whether or not you conceded my “right” to multiple partners or not, you still had a firm view of what sex should mean to people and what it should not mean to them. What we were both doing was asking, “What would be the most ideal for all people?”  And that’s perfectly fine, we were discussing morality, which is about what is truly best, not merely what should be politically permissible.

Kelly: But what is truly best for people varies! How can you talk about a “truly best” for all people?

Jaime: Well, what is truly best does vary, but it also does not. I think we could imagine an ideal human being as one who was perfect at every kind of rational investigation, had a perfect memory, had a perfect ability to express sociable and humane virtues, had a body which could excel at every kind of physical activity, had an adventurous courageous spirit willing and able to execute dangerous tasks, had a mind which was able to get the maximum pleasure out of every situation and which knew how to find the most intrinsically pleasurable experiences and maximize them in his or her life all while still being able to maximally produce the best works of art, the best political outcomes, the best philosophy, the best comedy, etc. In short, an ideal human being would fulfill every human potential to the maximum and have every kind of pleasure to the maximum.

Kelly: But that’s impossible. There are time limitations, there are physical and mental limitations, there are some good pursuits which by their nature require developing oneself in some excellent ways that would preclude simultaneously developing in alternative excellent ways. No human being could develop every talent maximally or pursue every good in life maximally. We are not gods, we must acknowledge our limitations and construct realistic accounts of a good human life which recognize them and work the best within them. Setting such ridiculous, unachievable standards for people such that they have to be literally perfect is not a helpful way to do moral thinking. If anything it strikes me as counter-productive to good moral thinking since it burdens people with impossible standards so that they feel bad about themselves for their inevitable natural limitations. And by only setting such high bars in every area of life for them, rather than training them in how to figure out which standards they can best attain and which ones they cannot, it means they might use their time and energies on the wrong pursuits for them.

Jaime: All of that is true. I do not mean to imply that everyone can attain full human perfection with respect to every possible human talent or have every kind of wonderful experience. I recognize there must be trade offs and that, absolutely, we must encourage others to make judicious choices among their own individual options for how to best use their limited time and resources so they can live the best lives possible. That is the hardest and most crucial moral task we have in life—figuring out where we can most excellently direct our finite energies at any given moment in our lives so that we can live as powerful and enjoyable goodness-producing lives we can.

Kelly: So then why won’t you respect monogamists’ choices to “forego” all others? What if they do not have the time to pursue multiple lovers or what if they do not even find it pleasurable to be with people they are not in love with or would feel guilty if they did or jealous if their partners did? Why especially should they even worry about being promiscuous when they are utterly and contentedly in love with one person and feel no lack in reserving their sexual expression for only that one person? How are you not being a moral absolutist here? How are you allowing for these people to have a different path to the good life than yours?

Jaime: I am not saying those people do not exist or that they should necessarily change their lifestyles in order to be good people. I am saying though that those among the monogamists who might have a lot more pleasure if they opened their minds to at least explore other possibilities should feel completely free to contemplate such an alternative and should not feel selfish if they do. I think that the countless people who already long for extra partners or are outright having affairs should not have to beat themselves up because of an absolutist norm in the culture which says anything outside of monogamous is morally suspect. Even common practices of pre-marital sex are in a murky ethical land where people accept that most people engage in it and yet its moral status is ambiguous and the unashamedly promiscuous (rather than the serially monogamous) are both celebrated as the equivalents of super heroes by some and feared like super villains by others. And many who think they will be, or who actually are, happily monogamous should not be ashamed and terrified if they accidentally do get emotionally and/or sexually involved with an extra person, to their own complete surprise. I want the default assumption to be that sex is good, that jealousy is bad, that love and intimacy with as many consensual autonomous people as one can find it with is always good and that the impulse to want to limit others’ pleasures is suspect.

Kelly: But that last part is not allowing the monogamists to be who they are and feel as they do without your judgment. You may want them to be more open, but what if they are not and what if their partners have committed to them that they would not be. If their partner marries them knowing it is a monogamous relationship from the start, how can you blame them for being furious when their partner starts behaving in a promiscuous way behind their backs or when their partner wants them to remain monogamous even as he or she has affairs?!

Jaime: Well, obviously I would full throatedly denounce anyone who takes a “promiscuity is okay for me but not for my partner” attitude. Those people are as selfish and possessive as jealous monogamists and then they are even worse since they are also hypocrites. So, yes, I have no use for such people. And as for the people who break their monogamous arrangements; they are a good reason to not have such an unquestioned norm of monogamy in the first place. It is forcing all people, even those who might be very happy and loving in promiscuous arrangements to feel pressured to accept a monogamous relationship as the only respectable kind. When people commit to monogamy either not knowing it won’t fulfill them or knowing this but trying anyway because they think they will be a “bad person” if they cannot be monogamous, then they wind up in this trap where they have to deny themselves varieties of physical and/or emotional contact with others that might still come about or they are “the bad guy”.

Kelly: But is it fair to the other person who remains faithful and denies him or herself just as much to have their partner cheat on the agreement and betray it?

Jaime: Well, if it is something the other partner wants too, then why not have an open arrangement?!

Kelly: But the other partner does not want one.

Jaime: Then why is the other partner jealous that their partner has another lover, when they don’t want one themselves? Either get an extra lover of your own or don’t be upset that your partner has one!

Kelly: But it hurts them to think of their lover with another, it makes them feel inadequate and unloved.

Jaime: But it should not hurt them to not be adequate to fill another person’s life completely. Talk about teaching people to expect, and to get, happiness only through the fulfillment of unrealistic, unattainable ideals! We should not have to feel that much responsibility to satisfy another person in order to feel worthy of love and secure in ourselves! Feeling loved should not require being loved to the exclusion of all others in all sexually and emotionally intense ways.

Kelly: But for some people it does. And their lives will be much worse if their partners divide their love and their sexual and emotional energies like that. They will not get enough love that way. Why don’t those people count? Just because you can imagine a different cultural set up where everyone blissfully accepts non-exclusive relationships, does not mean the people who require exclusivity for happiness will cease to exist or that they are small, mean, selfish people. They can and constantly do have big hearts which love many people even though they don’t have sex with all of them! Why do you want to impose on them a standard by which they are made to look inadequate, just because the way they romantically love and feel loved requires a dimension of exclusiveness for heightened specialness?

Jaime: Because I think they are setting themselves up to get hurt over something they don’t have to get hurt over.

Kelly: But that ignores that when they are cheated on, it is not their partner only pursuing extra pleasures but their partner is usually explicitly betraying their promises. Regardless of whether you think those promises are foolish or ill-made and unfair, they are promises—vows, even. Even if you think someone should not make a given promise, do you think it is okay for them to break it? And when breaking a promise will crush someone else who made the exact same promise to you, is that irrelevant?

Jaime: No, it is not irrelevant.

Kelly: We do not live in a world where pleasure and pain are just abstractions. Even if in theory total promiscuity would increase total pleasure, in the existing world with its existing network of commitments, institutions, psychologies, and obligations, more pain results from adultery than pleasure on a net accounting. So it is irresponsible for you to claim that anger over infidelity is only a matter of selfishness. Things are not that black and white here.

Jaime: But all that pain caused by adultery is not the fault of those of us who favor permanent egalitarian promiscuity, but it is caused by the monogamists’s institutions and expectations.

Kelly: Look, hate those institutions all you want, but being indifferent to the suffering of people who believe in the institution of monogamy for perfectly valid reasons—at least according to their own judgment and the judgment of many billions of people, the world over have seen them for centuries—is unfair. You cannot recommend actions as morally best which would only work in a hypothetical world and not in the real, existing world. That’s where you are a moral absolutist whose demands would be counter-productive to the real life flourishing any legitimate, defensible morality must serve.

Jaime: I am not a moral absolutist, I’m a moral idealist, there is a difference. I don’t believe in narrowly circumscribing the boundaries of our practices so that they only protect the current state of feeling and behavior. I believe in encouraging people to be ever experimenting with a wider view of how to flourish and to have pleasure and to increase the flourishing and pleasure of others. That involves partly challenging people not only to try new things but to have an open minded attitude receptive to new things, rather than to treat their present feelings as psychologically fixed for all time.

Kelly: Fine, but will you realize that adulterers are often not brave new “first adopters” of the improved moralities of the future but selfish people who weigh the actual pain they will cause others against their own, lesser pleasures and knowingly choose the course that will lead to more hurt and pain for others and not as much increase in pleasure to themselves?

Jaime: I will admit that if you will admit that many faithful people suffer emotionally and sexually depleted lives for the sake of not hurting others and that they are as much victims as those who are cheated upon and that a more pleasure and autonomy embracing ethics would be the path to everyone’s greater happiness.

Kelly: Hypothetically.

Your Thoughts?

More debates between Jaime and Kelly:

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.


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