Polygamy, monogamy or adultery?

Did you know there are multiple dating websites for men who want lifelong relationships with two or more women, and presumably for women who will settle for being one of many? I tried to explore one of these websites, but I had to join the club and there’s a limit to how committed I am to performing background research for this column!

One site suggested polygamist marriage is a means to reunite the human family into a bonded whole. I quite like the idea of one global family looking out for each other, but it’s hard to imagine an extremely inequitable sexual arrangement as the path to happiness.

Surprisingly (not) I couldn’t find a website for the version where women have multiple partners (polyandry). Not that I’d join that one either. I’m too much the jealous type.

We’re not talking polygamy just because Big Love is back on SBS. These are serious issues and ethics should help with problems relating to love and sex. So here are some related ethical questions.

Is monogamy more ethical than polygamy or polyandry between fully informed, unexploited, consenting adults?

Is adultery always unethical?

Do we take the whole love and sex thing way too seriously?

The answer to the third question depends whether we view sex as the sacred and loving union of body and spirit, or just a bit of fun. For casual sex to be non-damaging to either partner there is a fairly exhaustive set of conditions which need to exist including knowledge of sex and it’s physical and emotional consequences, honesty regarding feelings, consent with no pressure or intoxication, safety from pregnancy and STDs, absence of hidden agendas etc.

Even with these conditions met, there is the possibility our conscience will engineer feelings of regret the next day. Was I being used? Did I exploit her feelings? Were we being honest with each other? Did I catch something? How come she looked different the next morning? Who took those photos and why are they on Facebook? Our conscience is our first ethical defence, so it’s best to tune in before we act.

To explore the first two questions let’s identify a set of principles to be honoured for an act to be considered ethical. Generally these principles are considered to be honesty, responsibility, respect, fairness, and compassion.

Is it possible for some cases of adultery to pass this ethical test? Imagine an open marriage where both spouses are together for reasons other than a sexual relationship and both approve of their partners having lovers outside the marriage.

Full consent and (discrete) openness by all parties could satisfy the honesty and fairness principles. This may not be our normal view of marriage; however there are many diverse cultural versions of marriage throughout the world, why would different cultural versions within one country be unethical?

Such an arrangement could be argued to be respectful of and compassionate towards each other’s needs. Is there a responsibility to a sexually dissatisfied partner in an open relationship, for example, to help them find a suitable lover? This hypothetical arrangement is unusual, but not necessarily contrary to the ethical principles identified. The openness of the open relationship may not be a problem; however the relationship itself could be superficial and short lived.

Is monogamy more ethical? This comes back to our view of sex. Are we just after a regular shag, or do we seek the ecstatic intimacy experienced when the sexual union is enhanced by love, exclusivity and commitment rather than sheer opportunity? The elusive and often fleeting nature of love leads to widespread acceptance of the alternative, more casual experience. Casual implies lack of commitment and the possibility of other sexual partners.

It’s difficult to imagine a polygamous arrangement which meets all of the preconditions mentioned above, as well as the man being honest, responsible, respectful, fair, and compassionate to every wife or partner. If these conditions are met, then maybe we have found superman.

Geoff Lamberton is a senior lecturer in ethics and sustainability at Southern Cross University.

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