Ambigamy

Insights for the deeply romantic and deeply skeptical

What If Wedding a Moral Principle Were Like Marriage?

On the parallels between wedding people, gods and moral principles

Soul and R&B started as gospel music.  There’s not much to switching between the genres, just replace the beloved God with the beloved guy or gal.

Old Testament scholars say the good book is all about God as the husband; the Hebrews as His wife, His sometimes wayward devoted subordinate spouse.

Such parallels between monogamy and monotheism are obvious. In the swell of romance we see our partner as a God, our savior, his or her blessing as worth all sorts of devotional commitment. Sex is prayer, in monogamy a devotional ritual to our one and only, above all others, to whom we pledge lifelong fidelity.  When we fall in love it feels like we’ve been granted everlasting life.  When we fall out of life it feels like being condemned to hell.

The parallels between polyamory and polytheism are striking too.  We love the pantheon. Sex is not an exclusive devotion to the one true God but a celebration of life itself in all its many incarnations (See the Sharon Old’s poem below).

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Polyamory and polytheism are similarly stigmatized too.  The compellingly argued, yet controversial book “Sex at Dawn” argues that polyamory wasn’t always frowned upon, suggesting that monogamy became the social norm with agriculture, tribes settling down, and therefore stationary enough for the powerful to accumulate wealth and wives, tempting others to steal, compelling the wealthy to protect their property including their wives. Interesting that monotheism and monogamy both have this possessive quality. Interesting too that civilizations became monogamous and monotheistic around roughly the same time.

These days for whatever reason we seem to be relaxing our standards about monotheism and monogamy. Though conservatives of all faiths strive to stem the tide of change, the tides appear unwilling to wait for no man, theology or moral principle. 

“In olden days a glimpse of stocking was looked on as something shocking; now, heaven knows, anything goes,” at least between honest and consenting adults, adults mature enough to declare honestly what they’re seeking. Don’t claim you’re monogamous and then cheat--that’s unfair.

The tide seems to be towards us all designing whatever love lifestyle we want as long as we send honest signals. In love, all else is fair. Chances are, in a few decades people will have relaxed even more about the range of romantic and spiritual options, but probably not about sending false signals. 

Only today did I notice a third parallel to secular morality. You say, “I’m wedded to this moral principle,” meaning you’re dedicated to upholding it.  For that to be more than lip-service means changing to meet your moral standards, like changing to meet God’s or your partner’s standards. Today, I’m exploring the parallels between our relationships to partners, to God and to secular moral principles.

As with dedication to God, commitment to a moral principle is not a two-way negotiation.  Unlike a modern partner, our Gods and moral principles won’t adjust standards to accommodate you.

The Old Testament marriage of God to the Jewish Tribes wasn’t one of your modern give-and-take marriages.  I went to a nephew’s Bar Mitzva and was fascinated to watch the conservatively dressed crowd listen calmly to the 13-year old read scripture about when members of the Jewish tribe stray, God fulfills his spousal duty by torturing and killing them.

And then we had a party with chopped liver. 

Gods may forgive you for failing to live up to their standards, but they don’t lower them on your behalf. The same, in principle, is true of a moral standards.  This is somewhat like strict monogamists’ commitment to monogamy.  They say, “Look, we can negotiate anything but this.  You stray and its over between us. Take it or leave it; but monogamy is the standard here.”  Spouses cheat and lie about cheating, which is cruel.

Today, I noticed the parallel between wedding a partner and wedding a moral standard when a friend admitted, in effect that she was not in a committed relationship with a particular moral standard.  She had posted a moral standard she liked on Facebook, and, pain in the ass that I am, I argued that one couldn’t be devoted to the standard without compromising other standards I knew she held high. She wrote back to say that she wasn’t committed to the moral standard. It just fit her situation in the moment. 

I think a lot of us do that about moral standards.  We resonate with whichever ones work for us in the present, the moral equivalent of giving up on finding Mr. Right, resigning ourselves to Mr. Right Now, the moral standard that fits todays situation. As with the polyamorous, it makes us no less devoted in our temporary weddedness to a moral principle.  After all, the polyamorous express temporary devotion. They just don’t assume its exclusive or forever.

Living in Berkeley, California, I hear a lot of be-here-now talk, often as though it’s an absolute moral principle you could live by always. Maybe the be-here-now approach to morality is best understood as a declaration that you should be with whatever moral principle moves you today, like my friend did when she admitted she wasn’t wedded to the moral principle for always, just for today.

Some of us are morally promiscuous, and I don’t mean that derogatorily. I say whatever gets you through the night, whether it be the thing that gets you through all nights or just tonight.

I embrace the change that makes romantic promiscuity an acceptable lifestyle, and I embrace that change that makes moral promiscuity acceptable too. The Catholics talk disdainfully of “Cafeteria Catholicism,” the heretical style that picks and chooses which Catholic moral principles to wed as situations change.  I don’t object to cafeteria morality at all, so long as we’re honest about it, the way my friend was.

Perhaps other cultures embrace this cafeteria approach too. The religious scholar Huston Smith argues that Asian cultures have tended to be much more ecumenical in their theology. The early Christian missionaries were impressed by how rapidly the Chinese took to Christianity until they realized, much to their disappointment, that the Chinese weren’t embracing Christianity to the exclusion of their other traditional religions. About theology, the Chinese said “It’s all good, whatever works.”

About moral principles, some of us are true monogamists, wedding only those principles we can uphold always.  Some of us are promiscuous, wedding  moral principles du jour, not always right, but right, right now, like my Face Book friend perhaps.

Some of us are moral celibates too I suppose, disavowing all moral principles, since they can’t find any worth wedding forever and won’t settle for claims to wed what they can’t commit to for the long haul.  And some of us are moral bigamists, pretending to wed principles and then cheating on them without confessing. 

The only moral principle I’ve ever found that holds in all situations is “Do today what worked tomorrow.” Maybe that means I’m a moral monogamist. Then again it’s not much of a principle since it opens bare four questions--worked for whom? worked how? Which tomorrow? and since tomorrow isn’t here yet how can you tell what will have worked then? So maybe I’m a moral celibate.


Then again I’m anything but passive about morality.  I’m a bit of a moral rubber-necker, fascinated by the moral principles that I see around me. I’m out there looking for the right thing to do, the thing to do today that will have worked tomorrow.

And one thing I don’t think works in love or morality at least (I have no Gods—no need for that hypothesis) is sending honest signals about what vows you can be relied upon to live up to. Partners are ripped off royally when you say you’re devoted and the cheat. 

Of course, the moral principles don’t care if you cheat on them, but when you espouse them to other people, they count on you to live up to them, and you can rip them off royally when you don’t, especially when you don’t even try, or when you lie pretending you’re living by them when you aren’t.

I have no moral objection to any moral lifestyle but the bigamist’s.  I think it’s immoral to pretend you’re wedded to a moral standard and then make all sorts of hypocritical exceptions.  People do that a lot, often in a single breath.  For example, they say, “I’m wedded to the moral principle that you shouldn’t be judgmental” which is in fact a judgment.  I’ve listed other such hypocritical, or bigamist moral stances elsewhere.

If you want to just hook up with moral principles without committing that’s cool, whatever gets you through tonight. I like how my friend admitted that that’s what she was doing with that Facebook quote. Honest signaling. I’m willing to wed that moral principle.

Sex Without Love 
Sharon Olds

How do they do it, the ones who make love
without love? Beautiful as dancers,
gliding over each other like ice-skaters
over the ice, fingers hooked
inside each other's bodies, faces
red as steak, wine, wet as the
children at birth whose mothers are going to
give them away. How do they come to the
come to the come to the God come to the
still waters, and not love
the one who came there with them, light
rising slowly as steam off their joined
skin? These are the true religious,
the purists, the pros, the ones who will not
accept a false Messiah, love the
priest instead of the God. They do not
mistake the lover for their own pleasure,
they are like great runners: they know they are alone
with the road surface, the cold, the wind,
the fit of their shoes, their over-all cardio-
vascular health--just factors, like the partner
in the bed, and not the truth, which is the
single body alone in the universe
against its own best time.

Jeremy Sherman is an evolutionary epistemologist studying the natural history and practical realities of decision making.

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