Sex, Monogamy, and Human Nature – A Response to Dan Savage

This summer, whenever I haven’t been writing or reading about etiquette, I’ve been listening to Dan Savage’s “Lovecast” – a sex advice podcast that I find entertaining and informative. Dan is well-known for his weekly syndicated advice column, which runs across the country and around the world in independent newspapers, and he’s been doing the column for about 20 years. He’s also known for his rights-activism and for founding the It Gets Better Project, which is dedicated to helping homosexual teens and young people see through the tough times of being young and gay/lesbian in America. Incidentally, a lot of what Dan offers is advice about relationship etiquette, so this is tangentially in my current field of research (though I listen mostly just for fun).

A lot of the time, I find myself agreeing with Dan. Of course, at other times, he and I hold opposing views. I’m going to treat one of those differences here, though indirectly. Specifically, Dan often advocates what he calls “monogo-mish” relationships, which are partnerships in which two parties consider each other to be the primary romantic partners in the relationship, but in which clear boundaries are defined such that each partner can seek sexual or romantic attentions outside of that two-party relationship. There are all sorts of caveats and disclosure-rules, when it comes to monogo-mish relationships, but this is the gist of the idea.

In one call to the podcast, back in 2008, a caller asks him to explain his position about monogamy. The caller asks…

… I’m just wondering if you really feel that most humans, the way that we’re structured emotionally, can handle anything that’s not monogamy…?

Now, because this is a call-in podcast and not a New York Times op-ed piece, or a journal article, Dan responds conversationally and so not precisely. To nail down what he thinks, I’ll quote him here and then give a charitable interpretation of his view – which I hope I can represent fairly in this context. Dan Savage responds to the caller’s question as follows:

People aren’t structured to handle non-monogamy or non-monogamous incidents or infidelities or adulteries emotionally because we structure people in such a way that they aren’t prepared to handle that, emotionally. We fill people with bullshit notions that monogamy is easy or an expression of love and that, if you’re in love with someone, the way you show that love is by refraining from sleeping with other people if that’s the commitment you’ve made. It’s not that love drains you of all desire to sleep with other people – that’s just bullshit. However, when we’re in a long-term, loving, committed relationship, we want to feel like we come first… we want to feel like we are that other person’s primary partner, their first priority. And one of the ways we’re made to feel that way, I think, and one of the ways that shores that up is monogamy – emotional monogamy and the assumption of or the appearance of physical monogamy – a sexual devotion. For some people that comes easier than [for] others – there are people out there who are very good at monogamy. And there are people out there – the majority of them – who are not very good at monogamy. And human beings didn’t evolve to be monogamous…. And there are very few animals in the animal kingdom that are monogamous. And there used to be ones that we celebrated [for their apparent monogamy]…. Now that we’ve done a little more study [we find that we were mistaken]… We are structured unfortunately emotionally in such a way that makes non-monogamy emotionally difficult… There are also people who, because they are human… fail at this [monogamous ideal]….

To summarize – and I hope I have Dan right here – there’s a social norm that says that monogamy is crucial to what it is to have a successful relationship. However, that social norm isn’t derived from what comes natural to us, and so we should expect that most people wouldn’t be able to live in accordance with that standard. In other podcast episodes, Dan says that he doesn’t favor monogamy as a rule for all people. It’s not something that most people should be shooting for, because most people will fail to be monogamous. The theme in this episode and in others is that, because monogamy is not natural, it isn’t something we should pursue.

Here’s my response:

Rather than argue against Dan’s conclusions alone, I think it more beneficial to address his reasoning, though some of this is implicit in his response to the caller, so I do my best to tease it out here.

Any philosopher worth her salt will probably know where I’m headed with this already. You guessed it: the naturalistic fallacy.  In brief, the naturalistic fallacy is a mistake in reasoning in which one assumes that because something is natural it must also be good. Dan’s emphasis on the natural order and on what humans are naturally inclined to do indicates his implicit assumption that because it’s in our nature to be non-monogamous, we ought to be non-monogamous. This is a mistake, of course. One can imagine all of the natural things that are not good, or all of the non-natural things that are good. These serve as counter-examples to Dan’s implicit premise.

We can accept Dan’s evidence and endorse the claim that humans are naturally non-monogamous (though I have my doubts about this – some of which follow from my claims about social norms below – they aren’t really important here). However, endorsing that claim doesn’t get us to the conclusion that we ought to be non-monogamous. Perhaps there are other reasons that humans ought not to be monogamous, but this method of reasoning cannot prove the case.

In short, that we are not naturally inclined to do X or that we are naturally inclined to do X can never prove that we ought or ought not to do X. So the argument that humans are naturally non-monogamous does not stand as sufficient proof that we ought not to be monogamous.

This first mistake in reasoning is related but not identical to what we refer to as the is-ought fallacy, which David Hume identified a long time ago (far, far away). This is a mistake in reasoning in which one assumes that because something is a certain way, it ought to be that way. It seems that, while Dan endorses reasoning that violates the first fallacy, he often comes out flat against the reasoning in the second. For instance, that society dehumanizes members of the queer community is no reason that society ought to dehumanize that community. This is just an observation, and, were Dan to read this, he might see this as an argument by analogy. We don’t embrace claims proved by the is-ought fallacy, and, for the same sorts of reasons, we should not endorse the claims that are founded on the naturalistic fallacy.

Here’s a second consideration: culture counts. Dan tells his audience that because many expectations – social norms – are not rooted in what comes naturally to us, those social norms are bullshit. What does the quality of being bullshit confer on a social norm? Does being bullshit mean that it isn’t appropriate, or that it’s ill-rooted but appropriate nonetheless, or something else?

Many people respond to social conventions with which they don’t agree by saying that “That’s just a social convention,” as if noting that a given expectation is a social convention is enough to undermine a defense of that norm. On the contrary – that culture is a major, or the only reason that a norm exists is not sufficient proof to think that the norm is inappropriate. Social norms considered alone give us prima facie reason to act in certain ways because we live in societies that require us to communicate with one another, and often, social norms provide the only or best way for us to communicate with one another. If society has generated a norm that is contrary to human nature, we still have prima facie reason to follow that norm. The reasons we have for following social norms are defeasible, of course – and there are plenty of social norms that are bad for us – but the fact that a social norm is contrary to human nature isn’t enough to undermine a defense of that cultural norm.

Here’s one more consideration that applies specifically to the realm of giving advice, which is Dan’s business. That most people will fail at X is not a reason (by itself) for any particular person not to aim for X, unless we can be certain that that person isn’t capable of X and that aiming for X will not improve that person’s life. Because we can’t predict in advance who are the folks who are likely to succeed and who are likely to fail, we may have good reason (i.e. social norms and their accompanying psychology) to encourage people to be monogamous.

(Dan makes a similar move in his print column here, but it’s not so explicitly generalized and normative – and is tied to advice for one person in particular – though the mistake in reasoning is the same)

What do you think?

About Steve Capone

Interested in Domestic and Foreign Policy, Ethics, and Political Thought. One-time adjunct instructor and current full-time educator of small humans. Europhile, historophile, & bibliophile. M.S. Philosophy (Univ. of Utah 2013) M.A. Humanities (Univ. of Chicago 2007)
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13 Responses to Sex, Monogamy, and Human Nature – A Response to Dan Savage

  1. Great post, Steve!

  2. Marcos Ortega says:

    Dear Steve- I find your posting very interesting and I could not agree more with your conclusions. Acting on instinct vs. acting morally is the crux of humanity, and I believe is the nucleus of mankind’s condition in the present. An overly hedonistic lifestyle, while gratifying its perpetrator, does not guarantee its morality. Granted, very few have the “monogamous instinct”, partly, I believe, because sexuality is a base need for humans, much as eating or sleeping, and variety is the norm (I am speaking on a purely animalistic point of view). While our base instincts are part of our “survival wiring”, our tendency is to overindulge in base needs, vastly surpassing their survivalistic function, with little regard to their subsequent consequences. If we strip sexuality of morality, we have a solely physiological act without much meaning but the satisfaction of an urge (or maybe a hidden instinctive need to “spread our seed around”). Morality, however, is what defines humans, whether we like it or not; animals are unable to make moral decisions, because their life is based on instinct and its satisfaction, without overindulgence or deviance. Humans, on the other hand, can reflect on their actions and imbue them with the sense of right and wrong. While some people say that morality is a “learned behavior”, imposed by the elites or religious constraints, this point of view does not satisfactorily explain the origin of morality, even if we based our argument on purely darwinistic terms and eliminated the “divine” or “human spark” option from our layout. Therefore, the question is: Are we instinctively monogamous? Maybe not. Are we able to be monogamous? Absolutely. The real triumph of the will, finally, is the overcoming of our animality (not our return to it) and its restriction to higher moral thoughts. Paraphrasing Pascal: “Truly, men are reeds, but they are sentient reeds”. That higher state of awareness is our best definition. Thank you for sharing these thoughts with us.

    • Steve Capone says:

      I want to be careful here… because I’m not certain that I agree with or disagree with Dan’s conclusions about monogamy. I’m only pointing out in this post that the evidence he often cites doesn’t get us to his conclusions about non-monogamy.

      With that said, I don’t have any particular view about the virtues or vices of what you’re calling a hedonistic lifestyle. Perhaps hedonism is the way to go… But I don’t really have an opinion on it – at least not in the context of this discussion.

      Truth is, because Dan’s business is giving advice, it’s not necessarily crucial that he have logically sound arguments… That is, it needn’t be the case, for his purposes and his audience, that his premises always and necessarily lead to his conclusions. But places where the reasoning isn’t sound provide an interesting in-way for philosophers like me to point out a mistake in reasoning, in hopes that someone comes along with a more logically sound argument.

      I lot of folks put a conclusion out there (monogamy is good/bad) and then cite evidence that does not lead to that conclusion, and I think it’s worthwhile to point out (for either side) when the evidence doesn’t support the conclusion.

      Thanks very much for reading and for commenting – I appreciate it!

  3. Said Simon says:

    The problem, I think, with what you are arguing is that in the business of practical ethics, ‘is’ matters greatly. It may be that you cannot derive ‘ought’ from ‘is’ (if you are a Humean; if you are, say. amenable to the WIttgensteinian tradition, you’d say that ‘ought’ infests ‘is’), but for all intents and purposes you can derive ‘not-ought’. As Searle (2001) showed, any ‘ought-like’ statement’ (‘world to mind’) is conditional upon the truth of certain ‘fact’s (‘mind to world’). If those facts are false, then there is no way to satisfy the broader ‘ought’ statement in which they are embedded.

    The point Dan is making appears to be that monogamy is extremely difficult /even/ for people who love their partner greatly. Dan is referring to a social norm which not only specifies how we should behave, but also – in many articulations – appears to contain the assertion that if we love someone enough, if we’re really committed to them, we won’t really be all that tempted to shag other people. It is this proposition that Dan is attacking. And it is not at all a naturalistic fallacy, since he is actually making an argument about nature.

    He is calling this bullshit because he, it appears, thinks that if we have a more realistic understanding of how difficult monogamy actually is, we may be more forgiving when our partner cheats or not treat infidelity as an indication of ambivalence or insufficient commitment or whatever.

    • Steve Capone says:

      First – Your point about Wittgenstein’s view and Searle’s point are well-taken and I appreciate you directing me that way.

      Next on the docket – “Dan is referring to a social norm which not only specifies how we should behave, but also – in many articulations – appears to contain the assertion that if we love someone enough, if we’re really committed to them, we won’t really be all that tempted to shag other people. It is this proposition that Dan is attacking.”

      I’m with you until we get here – because it seems that Dan is doing two things: (1) arguing that, because we are fundamentally/naturally disinclined toward monogamy, he shouldn’t advise people to aim for monogamy, and (2) he’s trying to disabuse people of the notion that, if they really love someone, they won’t *want* to have sex with anyone else. I only discuss (1) in my post because that’s the one that is derived from an argument I argue does not lead to that conclusion. I don’t have any qualm with (2). But he’s pretty explicit here and elsewhere about (1), and I still take issue with it.

      Even if it turns out that many people are literally incapable of monogamy – that still, on my view, does not generate the conclusion that we ought not advise (any) people to aim for it. Consider that the mere fact that there exists a social norm provides reason to aim for meeting that norm. For instance, the psychological apparati that are worked into our social and emotional brains by social norms incur on us a cost if we violate those norms. The reasons provided by the mere existence of social norms are defeasible reasons, of course – but they’re reasons that must affect the kind of advice we ought to give people nonetheless.

      I don’t follow the last bit of your comment – “And it is not at all a naturalistic fallacy, since he is actually making an argument about nature”. I think my not following perhaps derives from my identifying and focusing only on (1), whereas your focus is on (2). Am I getting this right?

      Thanks for reading and for your comment – I appreciate it.

      • Said Simon says:

        ‘Even if it turns out that many people are literally incapable of monogamy – that still, on my view, does not generate the conclusion that we ought not advise (any) people to aim for it.’

        I don’t think that Dan is suggesting that there should be no norm of monogamy at all, since he seems to endorse monogamy as a legitimate way to demonstrate commitment. or devotion. Rather, he seems to be attacking the notion that monogamy is a choice. He moves from discussing how and suggesting why it is difficult, then excuses some of those who fail by noting that their failure is due to being human. Again, this seems more like an excuse for non-monogamy rather than a justification; there is possibly a normative connotation to his use of the term ‘bullshit’, but I don’t want to presume too much because he’s speaking colloquially and he’s an iconoclast.

        This is why I don’t think that what he is committing is a naturalistic fallacy, and what I meant by him making an argument about nature. It is absurd, though not logically impossible, for me to hold the norm ‘you should do A’ when I simultaneous believe ‘you are incapable of doing A’. It is also reasonable for me to say that because doing A is really difficult for most people and impossible for some, we should be very careful just how unforgivable it should be if someone fails to do A, and how much moral importance we place on doing A. Were I attacking the notion that A is obligatory, it isn’t unreasonable for me to question whether A is, as a matter of fact, all that possible or easy. Sure, it would be a formal fallacy to go from ‘A is impossible’ to ‘we shouldn’t be obliged to do A’, but this is not a formal argument we are studying.

        ‘Thanks for reading and for your comment – I appreciate it.’
        I so rarely get the change to have a good discussion on ethics 🙂

  4. Hm. What happens if you replace “monogamy” with “homosexuality”? I say this only because a lot of people argue, usually against anti-gay Christian conservatives, that homosexuality is not a choice. Then there’s a lot of debate over whether or not homosexuality is biological-genetic. Instead, those arguing against homosexuality could say, “So what if it’s biological or if it’s in your nature? It’s still wrong because…” They can summon the is/ought distinction.

    By the way, just to clarify, I have no problem whatsoever with homosexuality. I just brought this up because it seems that people often fail to make the is/ought distinction in this area. I certainly did until I put two and two together just now!

    • Steve Capone says:

      I think homosexuality is one of those areas where it doesn’t make a practical difference whether it is or isn’t natural, though I’m sure we can find lots of examples of homosexuality and of heterosexuality in nature. I tend to think that whether or not something occurs in nature isn’t instructive about how we ought to do things or how things ought to be. In nature, perhaps we’d all kill each other for food – but we probably ought not…

      • I tend to agree. There are so many people out there, though, who think that we must “get back to nature” somehow. That is, morality consists in finding our place in it. I doubt they’re considering the “is/ought” distinction.

        Not sure where I stand on this one, really, but I think it’s more pragmatic to keep the moral realm in the “ought” side of things. Otherwise I’d have to start reading stuff like Sam Harris’ “The Moral Landscape” to figure out how science can determine human values…oh wait. I am. (He has a big section in there about this very issue. He says there is no “is/ought” distinction.)

  5. Ryan Bergen says:

    disclaimer: im devoid of the energy to formulate a thorough and cogent response with adherence to proper grammatical standards, having just wrote several essays, but ill contribute my two cents nonetheless.
    i think you missed the mark in your major argument here. while your logical deductions are individually sound, your defense of monogamy seems to be tainted by a (potentially unconscious) desire to preserve your predisposed view favoring monogamy. i gather this because your execution of analysis seems to swerve right around an often perturbing hard truth: that monogamy is (quite clearly) not the appropriate way for humans. i use the term “appropriate” with the intention of avoiding terms like “proper” or “right,” which could imply some wrongheaded inclusion of morality in the matter. by “appropriate,” im referring to both the status of monogamy as being natural, and to its empirical conduciveness to healthy life in humans. i assert that monogamy is neither natural, nor favorable to healthy life in humans. of course, the major basis of my argument does not rest on some appeal to nature logical fallacy, as i am well aware of the flaw there (friendly note: you mistakenly referred to “naturalistic fallacy” in your piece, when i believe you intended to refer to appeal to nature logical fallacy- these are two completely different forms of fallacy…understandable mistake, of course!). my argument rests primarily on the objective assertion that humans can simply live better lives when unconstrained by the implications of monogamy. to evaluate this in a semi-mathematical form for the purpose of clarity: observe all of the benefits of living free of monogamy, then subtract from this the benefits gained by living monogamously, and it should seem clear to an objective observer that there is a net gain. that is to say, the benefits of living non-monogamously (lack of sexual repression, lack of related stressors resultant from sexual monotony, improvement in libido and subsequent expression of libido, lack of interpersonal tension arising from contractual obligations of monogamy between partners, etc.) outweigh those of living monogamously (ostensible sense of structure, ostensible deepening of relationship, etc.) thus, one can safely conclude that monogamy is not more conducive to healthy life in humans than non-monogamy is. it follows then, that monogamy is not the appropriate way for humans. further arguments can, and have been, made in defense of monogamy, such as that the apparent moral and intellectual superiority that we humans possess means that we should, indeed, apply these aptitudes to engage in more wholesome and righteous romantic relationships. aside from ironically being a very additional employment of the appeal to nature fallacy, this basis for argument is simply hollow and provides no actual objective ground for the argument defending monogamy.
    to elaborate on my prior comment that your argument seems to be tainted by, if not based entirely on, your predisposed favoring of monogamy, i made this presumption because i observe many people make similar arguments in favor of monogamy, and they all seem to ignore the simple reality that seems to stare us in the face: that, no matter how romanticized and comforting it may be, monogamy is not the appropriate way for us humans. i must now acknowledge the significance of subjectivity in this matter. certainly, it can be said that individuals arrive at their own conclusions regarding reality. after repeated observation of the same instance in which individuals argue defensively for monogamy with largely empty reasoning and no inherent reason to defend such an institution, i’ve arrived at a conclusion regarding reality of my own: that many individuals without a firm grounding in purely objective thinking will argue- often times incessantly- in favor of an institution that they have come to favor as a result of various influential factors such as social conditioning (i.e. an individual will create argumentative defenses and apply off-target logical deductions employed to defend monogamy because they are partial to it and want to protect and preserve their predispositions, a false basis for argument related to the affective/romantic fallacy).
    to wrap things up, i have no intention to destroy potentially fulfilling social norms. i do, however, have every intention to seek and disperse objective truth. as far as ive yet observed, there exists no objective and infallible way to defend monogamy as being an appropriate human affair (pun definitely intended). the strange/admirable/condemnable institution of monogamy is only justified insofar as individuals perceive it to be. if two people believe in monogamy and feel that it works well for them, then, they can rightfully say it is appropriate for them. of course, even when particular individuals endorse monogamy through its practice and claims that “it works for them, so its good,” there emerges no newfound intrinsic value to the argument that monogamy is a generally appropriate way of life for humans.

    • Steve Capone says:

      Thanks a lot for replying, Ryan.

      Don’t let me be misleading: I am not making a positive argument in favor of monogamy – only pointing out that an argument (even if effective) that “monogamy isn’t natural” isn’t the same as an argument that monogamy is bad.

      For the Naturalistic Fallacy, see the SEP entry: — it’s similar but not identical to the is-ought fallacy.

    • Steve Capone says:

      (Sorry I didn’t approve and did not reply to your comment for a few weeks. I wanted to ensure I had time to read it carefully before saying anything at all.)

      I don’t actually care whether or not people are monogamous. I just don’t think it’s a good reason to reject monogamy to point out that it isn’t natural to us. Irrespective of whether or not it is natural to us, it may well be good for us (though I stop short of defending this position).

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