This is a question I’ve been grappling with for a while.
Even though I’ve been wavering about this for a number of years, I miraculously (lol) read two posts today that made me finally decide to write my own. Even more oddly, about a week ago, my grandmother made the startling argument that marriage/kids isn’t for anyone. She went on further to say that having a kid these days is basically madness; if she were a young adult in today’s age she wouldn’t have kids.
The first post I read today was a post over at Less Wrong, the subject of which was about Unknown Knows; why we choose monogamy and why we don’t choose non-monogamy (i.e. polyamory or some other relationship format) . As a society, we “know” that monogamy is “correct”, but we don’t know why it’s “correct” (scare quotes for a reason):
By definition, we are each completely ignorant of our own unknown knowns. So even when our culture gives us a fairly accurate map of the territory, we’ll never notice the Mercator projection’s effect. Unless it’s pointed out to us or we find contradictory evidence, that is. A single observation can be all it takes, if you’re paying attention and asking questions. The answers might not change your mind, but you’ll still come out of the process with more knowledge than you went in with.
When I was eighteen I went on a date with a girl I’ll call Emma, who conscientiously informed me that she already had two boyfriends: she was, she said, polyamorous. I had previously had some vague awareness that there had been a free love movement in the sixties that encouraged “alternative lifestyles”, but that awareness was not a sufficient motivation for me to challenge my default belief that romantic relationships could only be conducted one at a time. Acknowledging default settings is not easy.
The chance to date a pretty girl, though, can be sufficient motivation for a great many things (as is also the case with pretty boys). It was certainly a good enough reason to ask myself, “Self, what’s so great about this monogamy thing?”
I couldn’t come up with any particularly compelling answers, so I called Emma up and we planned a second date.
Since that fateful day, I’ve been involved in both polyamorous and monogamous relationships, and I’ve become quite confident that I am happier, more fulfilled, and a better romantic partner when I am polyamorous. This holds even when I’m dating only one person; polyamorous relationships have a kind of freedom to them that is impossible to obtain any other way, as well as a set of similarly unique responsibilities.
In this discussion I am targeting monogamy because its discovery has had an effect on my life that is orders of magnitude greater than that of any other previously-unknown known. Others I’ve spoken with have had similar experiences. If you haven’t had it before, you now have the same opportunity that I lucked into several years ago, if you choose to exploit it.
This, then, is your exercise: spend five minutes thinking about why your choice of monogamy is preferable to all of the other inhabitants of relationship-style-space…
…If you have a particularly compelling argument for or against a particular relationship style, please share it. But if romantic jealousy is your deciding factor in favor of monogamy, you may want to hold off on forming a belief that will be hard to change
Someone in the comments made a pretty good observation:
More specifically, the concept of love seems to have the concepts of fidelity and jealousy inextricably woven into it, at least in mainstream Western culture. On a philosophical level, this doesn’t exactly make sense. If we care about the overall happiness and flourishing of man kind, it seems likely we would be far better off if we took the effort we put into suppressing, say, premarital sex, and moved it into suppressing jealousy.
Obviously, this is the view of a rather small minority, but it is nonetheless fascinating that most people are incapable of conceiving of love without fidelity: consider the seriousness of the implications of a romantic partner saying, “I love you,” for most people.
The second post I read, about 30 minutes later, was over at the blog Debunking Christianity. The Christian who was quoted in that post said that atheists, if they are deferring to rationality (i.e. probabilities and the scientific method) for their life choice about god, then they should be using the same skills for their personal relationships:
That brings me to the first part of the title of this brief essay, “Why Atheists Shouldn’t Marry.” Entering into marriage requires a leap of faith beyond the scientific probabilities. For atheists who claim that we should only believe what science can support, the claim that another human loves us so much as to lead us to pledge our lifelong love and commitment to remain married to them is absolutely hypocritical. How can science prove beyond doubt the love of another for me? We can observe signs of what we call love, we can scan the brain for activity in the appropriate sectors, we can even use our own feelings as a guide. These can all be manipulated or faked. And if you use science as a guide, atheists have to admit that the statistical probability of a lifelong happy marriage is well below 50%.
So why do atheists, even those who embrace some form of scientism, get married? …Loftus admits in [Why I Became An Atheist] that his own experience might have tainted his objectivity as he began to doubt his faith. Highly regarded experts in the Philosophy of Science such as Susan Haack, Paul Feyerabend, and Keith Ward admit that the scientific method is incomplete and that scientism has to be rejected because science cannot explain everything. Human opinion and experience has to be factored in. We all marry because we believe that, in the face of overwhelming odds against it, the love that we have with another is real, true, and lasting. That requires a leap of faith beyond the probabilities.
Non-sequiturs aside, I think he makes a good overall point. We should be entering into relationships/marriages (especially marriage, since it’s a business and/or financial contract) with as much rationality as we can muster, and try our best not to be influenced by the inherently irrational — at least, irrational as far as modern life goes, not irrational for our ancestors millions of years ago — pulling of our heartstrings.
Of course, just from some basic overall numbers, the divorce rate in the USA is around 50%. The more important number is the divorce rate when looked at by gender and who initiates it. Women overwhelmingly initiate divorce to the order of around 2:1. If there are 200 marriages and 100 of those end in divorce, approximately 65 – 70 of that 100 will be initiated by the woman; meaning that my own personal “get-divorced-on” rate is around 35%. That is, if the divorce initiate rate were actually gender symmetrical, the overall divorce rate would not be 50% but around 40%. This is one of the reasons I consider marriage to be inherently misogynist. Think about it: Who invented marriage? Who laments dropping marriage rates the most?
The above is overly simplistic though. There are a lot of other factors you could use in order to see how successful a marriage might be, like being over 30, education level, religiosity, number of sexual partners relative to age, and probably a whole bunch of other things. But I feel that would be overly complicated for a blog post.
Anyway, now that I’ve got some probabilities, we have to get into decision theory:
Decision theory is about choosing among possible actions based on how much you desire the possible outcomes of those actions.
How does this work? We can describe what you want with something called a utility function, which assigns a number that expresses how much you desire each possible outcome (or “description of an entire possible future”). Perhaps a single scoop of ice cream has 40 “utils” for you, the death of your daughter has -274,000 utils for you, and so on. This numerical representation of everything you care about is your utility function.
We can combine your probabilistic beliefs and your utility function to calculate the expected utility for any action under consideration. The expected utility of an action is the average utility of the action’s possible outcomes, weighted by the probability that each outcome occurs.
Suppose you’re walking along a freeway with your young daughter. You see an ice cream stand across the freeway, but you recently injured your leg and wouldn’t be able to move quickly across the freeway. Given what you know, if you send your daughter across the freeway to get you some ice cream, there’s a 60% chance you’ll get some ice cream, a 5% your child will be killed by speeding cars, and other probabilities for other outcomes.
To calculate the expected utility of sending your daughter across the freeway for ice cream, we multiply the utility of the first outcome by its probability: 0.6 × 40 = 24. Then, we add to this the product of the next outcome’s utility and its probability: 24 + (0.05 × -274,000) = -13,676. And suppose the sum of the products of the utilities and probabilities for other possible outcomes was 0. The expected utility of sending your daughter across the freeway for ice cream is thus very low (as we would expect from common sense). You should probably take one of the other actions available to you, for example the action of not sending your daughter across the freeway for ice cream — or, some action with even higher expected utility.
A rational agent aims to maximize its expected utility, because an agent that does so will on average get the most possible of what it wants, given its beliefs and desires.
So how much utility does monogamy and/or marriage have to you? How much utility does some other relationship paradigm have? How much negative utility do you place on infidelity/divorce? Personally, getting a divorce has a much higher negative utility than lifelong marriage; even if the utility for marriage/divorce had an equal probability of happening, marriage would not be worth it. Like I mentioned above, I think that marriage is inherently misogynist so, ironically, I think truly equal marriages can only be between homosexuals.