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?