Friday, April 27, 2007

The Morality of Monogamy

6/25/07 - Citation Note: This article was written in 1998 (when I was 19), was later edited in 2005, and was not originally intended for publication. For that reason, I did not properly cite sources as I would for a published article. Though I did not take any direct quotes from any other works, please note that the description of the concepts "psychological visibility" and "private world," and the logical progression for the argument for why psychological visibility is a need (w hich I included in the "Background" section of my article), are based on Nathanial Branden's The Psychology of Self-Esteem and The Psychology of Romantic Love, specifically his discussion of the "Muttnik Principle." The argument I make for monogamy based on these ideas is entirely my own, however, and my views are not necessarily shared by Mr. Branden.


Psychological visibility is the experience of perceiving a psychological "mirror" in reality that reflects one’s most fundamental values. This experience has epistemological and psychological significance because man needs a direct perceptual experience of the connection between his mind and reality. One is able to focus on a relatively limited number of entities at one time. The contents of your mind are vast and you are able to consider only a few aspects of your own consciousness at once. Through another living being one can experience the reflection of many of his values, all at the same time.

One gets this experience on a limited level when looking at plant or lush landscape. A tree grows towards the sun and pushes its roots deep into the earth, in an effort to gain those minerals and chemicals that sustain its life. Man shares with a tree his struggle for survival. He perceives in the tree a miniature mirror of his values and experiences the actualization of those values as an emotional sum. He shares even more values with animals, which have the capacity of perception and locomotion. Animals also possess a rudimentary form of emotion, which is obvious to anyone who has ever owned a dog. The dog can often tell if one is happy or sad, excited or stagnant, and it responds in kind. One experiences pleasure when a pet displays recognition of his intentions.

Through another human being, one is able to directly experience almost all of his most treasured values. Your good friend not only possesses intelligence, but also knows those aspects of your personality that make you different from any other entity in the universe. One generally thinks of himself as a flow of thoughts and perceptions, but he think of others as a united whole, like “Dan,” “Kelly,” and “Chris.” When one lays his eyes on a close friend, he can feel as if all is right in the world, and that he shares life with another being who truly understands him. This is greatest experience and potential of psychological visibility.

The need for romantic love is a corollary of the need for psychological visibility. Romantic love is the most powerful psychological mirror because, ideally, a lover reflects all of the fundamental aspects of self. Like a close friend, she shares most of one’s philosophical ideals and appreciates the unique aspects of one's personality. Beyond that, she is able provide immediate perceptual realization of one’s body. She can provide physical as well as emotional pleasure.

Merely looking at one’s friend can cause a feeling of inner contentment. Making love to one’s romantic partner is the ultimate celebration of life. All perceptions are active at that moment. One can see his lovers face, hear her voice, smell her scent, and touch her body. It’s almost a perceptual overload. This is the most intense perceptual-emotional experience of psychological visibility possible. For most of us, it is the greatest form of happiness we ever feel.

The Morality of Monogamy:

Monogamy is a long-term romantic relationship in which both partners preserve romantic and sexual exclusivity. I hold that monogamous relationships are the ideal channel for romantic love over the long term.

Psychological visibility is of critical importance to romantic love relationships. Through a lover, one can experience the deepest form of self-love possible. In order to attain this highest level of happiness, it is necessary to directly perceive another being that reflects both the broadest and the most specific aspects of self simultaneously. The person must reflect one’s broader intellectual values like philosophical and political beliefs, and also the specific traits, personality quirks, and physical attributes that make him unique.

Self-love is a psychological prime mover. I don’t need a reason to love the fact that I am a man, have green eyes, like to play chess, and tell stupid jokes. I would not want to trade my life, my personality, or my body (or especially my girlfriend) with anyone else. Most individuals with a healthy self-esteem feel the same way. It is appropriate for one to highly value his own optional value judgments and individuality. The direct, perceptual experience of a being that psychologically mirrors many or all of these specific traits will generate an emotional reaction in proportion to the depth and scope of the reflection. A lover can provide such a mirror.

Through interaction, shared experiences, and physical contact, two lovers can build an immense private world with one another. Those who have been in a rational and mutually beneficial relationship for an extended period of time are able to read each other’s minds, anticipate each other’s choices, and generally display an acute understanding of each other’s distinguishing attributes. In a good romance, no one knows your various likes and dislikes as well as your partner.

Lovers become a part of each other as they share life experiences. This is not any kind of second-handedness, but a marvelous consequence of living and growing with another sentient, rational being. Often, one’s most treasured memories are of things he learned or experienced with a loved one.

The more one grows as an individual, the greater capacity he has to experience an even higher emotional sum in response to his values. There is more self to sum up, i.e., there are more aspects of self automatized in the subconscious. In a long-term romantic love relationship, memories and experiences of one’s lover become a substantial part of that sum. Your long time wife is not only a value because she is wonderful, but because she has been wonderful for years. If you both continue to grow individually and with one another, the shared private world embodied in your partner can become your highest perceivable value.

The problem with polygamy is that the value of psychological visibility is judged by its intensity, not its quantity. The private world between two long-term lovers can become massive, and it is automatized into each partner’s subconscious. It cannot be transferred to someone else at whim. The private world is intimately, physically connected to one particular person. The fact that exactly one perceivable entity represents a host of one’s values is what makes psychological visibility possible. An infinite number of casual romances will never add up to the degree of happiness that monogamous, long-term relationships can provide.

If one focuses his time and energy on one person, a private world is able to grow faster and deeper over a period of time. It would be impossible to develop the same kind of depth with even two people, much less three or more. It is simply more time-efficient to pursue one relationship at a time, and to pursue a long-term monogamous relationship when possible. There is no salary cap on the spiritual paycheck. The private world continues to grow as long as each partner grows as an individual.

Sexual exclusivity is also important because man attaches a symbolic value to the act of love making, creating a channel though which he experiences the emotional sum of psychological visibility. Just as we punish criminals proportional to the severity of their crimes, so we honor loved ones according to their ranking in our hierarchy of values. One does not French kiss complete strangers. He doles out physical affection proportionate to his degree of intimacy with each individual. One hugs his friends, kisses relatives, but usually goes no further than this except with a romantic interest. If a man begins to focus on one romantic relationship, he ought to be sexually exclusive with that partner, because in this way he connects the greatest possible emotional and intellectual pleasure to the greatest possible physical pleasure. He reserves sex as the highest celebration of his values, which will only be shared with the one who maximizes his feelings of happiness and self-esteem.

If two lovers preserve sexual exclusivity, then their sex life becomes an even more intimate part of their private world. It is something shared with one individual, and no other. One automatizes the symbolic value that he places on sex, which adds even more to the emotional sum he experiences with his lover.

During my adult life, there has never been a question in my mind about what kind of romance I want: One woman, one wife, one life-long friend to grow old and raise a family with. Most of us have dreamed about it since adolescence. It is time we recognized that monogamy is the ideal form of romantic love. Anything else is like a genius aspiring to be a janitor.

--Dan Edge


The Damn Rational Egoist said...

Very nice essay!

With regard to psychological visibilility, is it merely the reflection that one is after or is it something more?

In the Nicomachean Ethics, where Aristotle develops the idea of "mirroring", he argues that it is not only that one wants to perceive one's values and see his own reflected, but he wants thereby to grow and use this mirror as a constant source of improvement. Aristotle argues that because we are better able to judge our friend than ourself and our friend is indeed a part of our life, we need friends (extend this to lovers) in order to be truly good.


Dan Edge said...


"Aristotle argues that because we are better able to judge our friend than ourself and our friend is indeed a part of our life, we need friends (extend this to lovers) in order to be truly good."

This is a very good observation. I do think that one's lover is his best critic. No one knows my strengths and weaknesses like Kelly does -- she continually encourages me to improve myself.

I don't know whether or not this benefit of romantic love (and friendship) is part of what makes psychological visibility a need. Nathanial Branden argued in The Psychology of Self Esteem that the need for psychological visibility is rooted in the crow epistemology -- the fact that we can only be aware of relatively few aspects of self at one time, but we need constantly to validate the actualization of our ideas in reality. What you propose may be simply an element of this same principle, but I don't know off hand.

Thanks for responding. I'm a big fan of anyone who brings up Aristotle in a discussion about psycho-epistemology (or any other discussion). :)

--Dan Edge

Ergo said...

I like the essay, even though I disagree with your conclusion. Aside from the fact that monogamy is the most time-efficient model of relationship-building, there is simply no rational argument to make monogamy intrinsically moral or ideal as such.

The value-oriented nature of Objectivism indicates that regardless of the model of the relationship, it is the character and values of the individuals involved that make a relationship moral or immoral, ideal or depraved.

Monogamy as such is merely a model of a relationship. And yes, it has its unique benefits of time and resource efficiency and of being suitable for most people; however, these are not *moral* considerations. Everything you said in your article regarding psychological visibility, reflection, and private world can materialize within a relationship including more than two mutually consenting individuals--although there is certainly a very short upper-limit to the number, at which point, the cost of maintaining the relationship outweighs the benefits of being in one (this upper-limit can only be best decided by the individuals involved with regard to their contexts).

The fact is there almost certainly is more than one ideal mate for a given person. Evading this fact only to adhere to some principle of monogamy can be a source of frustration, curiosity, and unhealthy repression. This does not mean that one should indulge in serious romantic affairs with every person one finds ideally suitable; that is not the issue. The issue is--accept that monogamy is not intrinsically moral--and then seriously evaluate (along with your partner) the needs, context, costs, benefits, values, trade-off, and many other complex issues involved in pursuing another romantic affair.

I remember Ayn Rand responding to a question of this nature in one of her Q&As; she said, open relationships are for moral giants and cannot be practised by just anyone lightly.

Dan Edge said...

Hi Ergo,

Thanks for your comments.

I originally wrote this article almost 10 years ago, when I was 19, so there's a lot I would change if I re-wrote it. However, I still stand by the thrust of the argument.

I would not say that monogamy is *intrinsically* moral, or that polygamy is *intrinsically* immoral. But I do think that monogamy is the best approach to romantic love. It's not necessarily immoral to be in an "open relationship" at any given point in one's life. But I think there is something wrong with the person who *aspires* to polygamy.

Those in an open relationship are usually in that situation because their primary relationship does not fulfill them in one way or another. I've never heard of anyone who successfully maintained an open relationship of an extended period of time.

Think about it in terms of the argument I made in the Opposite-Sex Friendships article. If you are having sex with other people outside of your marriage, then your relationship is a "marriage" in label only. You are *acting* like your relationship is a casual dating situation.

I think it is impossible for a polygamous relationship to be as emotionally fulfilling as a monogamous one over an extended period of time. This does not make polygamy immoral in all cases, but it is certainly inadvisable.

--Dan Edge

Laura Kipnis said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
logomachist said...

If one focuses his time and energy on one person, a private world is able to grow faster and deeper over a period of time. It would be impossible to develop the same kind of depth with even two people, much less three or more.[/quote]

I know, right? Which is why people with more than one sibling always complain that they had to split their time between two or more people as kids. Why couldn't their parents stopped with just two children? It would have for such a deeper and richer private world?

Dan Edge said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dan Edge said...

I wrote this post in response to a comment made under the name Laura Kipnis. Laura Kipnis is a professor at Northwestern University who wrote "Against Love: a Polemic," in which she supported extramarital affairs as beneficial to marriage. When you click on the name "Laura Kipnis" in Blogger, the link goes to a discussion of this book, so clearly the poster was intimating that he/she is, in fact, Laura Kipnis. I emailed Ms. Kipnis to let her know that I responded to her comment. She quickly wrote me back to tell me that she did not write the comments that were posted under her name. At her request, I have deleted these comments. I spent a good deal of time replying to this post, so I do want to publish my reply, but please keep in mind that the person I am quoting is *not* Laura Kipnis, but an imposter.


You raise a lot of issues, and I will try to deal with some of them.

>>...(are self-sufficient individuals part of the target audience of this essay?)."

I want to deal with this first because the need for psychological visibility is one of the underlying assumptions of this paper. In the introduction, I summarized Nathaniel Branden's discussion of psychological visibility, but I did not intend that summary to be a formal proof. I was just referring to Branden's original idea, setting a context for my argument to come.

Branden did prove that psychological visibility is a need. I refer you to his book The Psychology of Self Esteem for more information. If you disagree with his conclusion, then the rest of my paper doesn't follow. Suffice to say that needing friendship, romance, and art in one's life does not preclude one from being self-sufficient.

>>"What if my romantic partner doesn't get my stupid jokes, but a second romantic partner does?..."

I referred to this issue in my essay: "The problem with polygamy is that the value of psychological visibility is judged by its intensity, not its quantity." I should have added examples to make this more clear. (Of course, this argument only makes sense if you accept that psychological visibility is a value, which takes us back to the earlier point.)

Let's say that you have two lovers. The first shares your philosophy, your sense of life, and appreciates all the essential elements that make you a unique personality -- but lacks your appreciation for green eyes. The second lover shares your appreciation for green eyes, but disagrees with everything you believe in and knows very little about you as an individual.

So, does this mean that you can get 99 points of psychological visibility from the first lover, and 1 point from the second, to add up to 100?

Or what if you had 100 lovers, each reflecting some minute aspect of your self? If you split your time 100 different ways and had sex with all of them, would this add up to 100 points?

My answer to all of these questions is "no." It's not the reflection of non-essential, minute aspects of self that generates psychological visibility. It's the reflection of an *integration* of all the essential aspects of self, along with an understanding and appreciation of the qualities that make one unique.

To take a more challenging example: What if you have two lovers, each of which share your philosophy and sense of life? The first shares your appreciation for green eyes, while the second doesn't. The second laughs at your stupid jokes, while the first doesn't. So you split your time equally between the two. Does that mean that you get 50 points from each, adding up to 100?

Again, my answer is "no." There are so many individual elements of one's self that make him unique, even a single lover could never fully explore them all in a lifetime. As one continues to grow, he is constantly adding to his self, adding depth to his life. If he focuses on a single lover, then the depth of their love can grow along with the depth of his self. But if he splits his time between two lovers, then the potential for depth and intimacy in the relationship is crippled. As I wrote in the essay, it is simply more time-efficient to focus on one relationship when possible.

>>After one reaches certain emotional maturity, [sex and romance] can be separated.

I agree that sex and romance can, to some degree, be separated. The question is: Is it desirable to do so? I say "no."

But I'm sure you're not saying you want to separate sex and romance entirely. You want them to be integrated when you have sex with your lover, and separate when you have sex with your sex partner. I don't think this is possible.

I think it's true that one can teach his mind to separate love and sex. The problem is, one's subconscious automatizes this separation. You can't have it both ways. Either sex and love are integrated or they're not. If one automatizes the principle that sex and love are separate, then he will not experience the same degree of emotional pleasure when he has sex with his lover.

And why *should* he feel particularly good about it? According to his view, sex is nothing special. It is simply a pleasurable experience which can be shared with virtually anyone. Why should it be special to perform the same act with his lover that he performs with countless other women on a regular basis?


Regarding swingers, I think this is less an issue of monogamy vs. polygamy and more an issue of sexual exploration. I'm open to the idea that including other partners in one's sex life can be non-harmful. The main point of my essay is that aspiring to long-term polygamy (maintaining multiple romantic relationships) is non-ideal. The sexual exclusivity issue is an ancillary point.

However, I definitely think there are risks in having sustained sexual partners outside of a marriage, even if one's partner knows about it. First, it tendS to separate love and sex in one's mind (as I discussed earlier). Second, I think it's a sign that one is not getting what he needs out of his marriage. Else, why would he want to go out and have sex regularly with others?

There may be similar risks inherent in the swinger lifestyle as well, but there is one main difference. Most swingers go to swing clubs/parties *together*. It's something the couple does as a couple, to enrich their sex life. It's not like the husband has his own separate girlfriend that he screws from time to time. *This* is the kind of situation that I think is unsustainable and harmful.

I wrote this essay a long time ago with I was still a teenager, and there a lot of things I would add in a re-write. I plan to integrate these arguments into a book some day. I haven't read your book on the matter, but I think we can safely assume that my book with offer a very different view from yours.

Thanks for your comments,

--Dan Edge

Melissa said...

Hi Dan,

I'm a married objectivist swinger, just as is my husband.

I found your essay intriguing, and I'm going to touch on a few points.

First, to establish a correction perspective on swinging, I'd like to quote objectivist jouralist John Stossel's research on swinging at

I'll next address your comments:

But I'm sure you're not saying you want to separate sex and romance entirely. You want them to be integrated when you have sex with your lover, and separate when you have sex with your sex partner.

Correct, generally. When I make love to my husband, they are certainly integrated. When we have s quickie because we're both horny as hell, there's not much romance.

I don't think this is possible. [...] You can't have it both ways. Either sex and love are integrated or they're not.

As I mentioned in the quickie example above: most often we make long romantic love, but at times we just have hot sex when he pounds me like an animal. Both are pleasurable in their own way.

However, I definitely think there are risks in having sustained sexual partners outside of a marriage, even if one's partner knows about it. First, it tends to separate love and sex in one's mind (as I discussed earlier).

It does, indeed. When we go to a swinging party, we're not making love; we're having sex, alone or with other people.

Second, I think it's a sign that one is not getting what he needs out of his marriage. Else, why would he want to go out and have sex regularly with others?

The answer to this is really simple.

Imagine a married bisexual objectivist female. Her sexual needs clearly include sex with other women. Denying that would be denying her very nature. As long as her husband is OK with that (mine is -thankfully- immensely turned on by it!), that woman has no reason not to have sex with other women. That is sex outside marriage. That is non-monogamous sex. I think the argument is clear now, that one can have sex outside their romantically monogamous relationship, without anything being wrong with, or missing from that relationship.

Now on a more refined note: I happen to love to be pleased by two men at the same time, one of them being my husband. I clearly cannot get this within my marriage alone. Can anyone say that my fantasy, my sexual desire, is somehow evil or dangerous for my marriage?

For the record, we've been married for 12 years and love each other very much. Swinging has had a great contribution to our sexual fulfillment.

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