Friday, June 7, 2019

Truly going beyond the binary in marriage?

There is an interesting sense in which standard polygamy (i.e., polygyny or polyandry) presupposes the binarity of marriage. In standard polygamy, there is one individual, A, who stands in a marriage relationship to each of a plurality of other individuals, the Bs. But the marriage relationships themselves are binary: A is married to each of the Bs, and the Bs are not married to each other (they have a different kind of relationship).

The same would be true with more complex graph theoretic structures than the simple star-shaped structure of polygyny and polyandry (with A at the center and the Bs at the periphery). If Alice is married to Bob and Carl, and Bob and Carl are each married to Davita, the quadrilateral graph-theoretic structure of this relationship is still constituted by a four binary marriage relationships.

Thus, in these kinds of cases, what we would have are not a plural marriage, but a plurality of binary marriages with overlap. This, I think, makes for more precise terminology. The moral and political questions normally considered under the head of “plural marriages” are about the possibility or morality of overlap between binary marriages.

To truly go beyond the binary would require a relationship that irreducibly contains more than two people, a relationship not constituted by pairwise relationships. I think a pretty good case can be made that even if one accepts overlapping binary marriages, as in standard polygamy, as genuine marriages (I am not sure one should), irreducibly non-binary relationships would still not be marriages (just as unary relationships wouldn't be). The structure of the relationship is just radically different.

16 comments:

Heath White said...

I think this is the standard distinction between polygamy and polyamory. The latter are non-binary relationships.

Sean Killackey said...

Other than "love" what supposedly could unite polyamorous people in a way that makes, say sexual relations licit? Has anything struck you as halfway plausible?

Walter Van den Acker said...

Sean

The only thing that can really unite two people is love, so the same would hold for three or more people, I guess.
The problem with polygamy or polyamory is that it makes it much more difficult for each of the parties to be equal in the relationship. If a polygamous relation can lead to equality of the partners, I see no problem calling it a marriage, but I think that's a big if and i am not sure it is really feasible.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I am not sure polyamory escapes the binary. I would think that in typical cases it is still primarily constituted by a bunch of pairwise relationships, albeit ones open to further pairwise relationships.

Assuming the relationship is based on love, for a three-way relationship to be primarily non-binary, x would need to love y and z as a pair in a way that has a priority over x's love of y as an individual and x's love of z as an individual. I suspect, however, that typically the love for the individuals has a priority over the love of the pair (or larger group).

More generally (and now no longer limiting the discussion to erotic love), it is persons who are the most lovable things in existence. Groups of persons are not persons, and hence are less lovable. Thus, binarity is what we should expect in any form of love. If one loves one's group of drinking buddies in a way that has a priority over one's love of each one individually, something has gone wrong. (Dostoevskii has a character say: "The more I love humanity in general, the less I love the human being in particular.")

Walter Van den Acker said...

Alex

The point is that it seems at least theoretically possible that in a polymamorous relationship A is married to each of the Bs, and the Bs are also married to each other. So A loves each of the Bs and the Bs love each other as well as A.

Alexander R Pruss said...

But even so, the primary loves will be binary: A loves B1, A loves B2, A loves B3, B1 loves B2, B1 loves B3 and B2 loves B3.

Aron Wall said...

What about the Trinity? It seems wrong to say that the relations of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are constituted by independent pairwise relationships, as opposed to being an essentially unified and therefore trinitarian structure. (I believe this point is obviously true regardless of one's position on the filoque controversy, which involves the question of the best way to express the triadic dependence of the persons in human language.)

It also seems plausible that a father-mother-child relationship is essentially more than just a trio of pairwise relations. Indeed, two of the pairwise relationships require the third party in order to have come into existence in the first place. The pairwise relation of husband-wife does not, of course, require any children to actually exist, but it is nonetheless most intimiately expressed at the physical level by an act intrinsically capable of producing such children. And of course a baby does not start with free-standing "personhood" as if it were an atomized individual capable of freely entering into contracts, but rather aquires its personhood from others (biologically and socially) in the context of relationships. It is relationships that create persons, not the other way around!

Both of these triadic examples are quintessentially important examples of what we mean by "love" in a Christian worldview, so that would seem to seriously problematize your idea that love (considered generally instead of just erotically) is an intrinsically binary relation, best thought of as targeting a single person only. (This does not, of course, require us to say that polyamory can be a valid or healthy example of such a triadic love relation.)

It is perhaps relevant that both of my examples of intrinsically triadic relationships have in common that some subset of the persons (2 of them in the case of the Trinity, 1 in the case of the family) are produced by the other persons.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Notice, though, that on the Augustinian picture of the Trinity, we start (in the order of explanation) with the procession of the Son from the Father. That is a binary relationship. Then the Holy Spirit is the love between the Father and the Son. That is, indeed, a procession of one from two, but the love here is binary: it is the love between the Father and the Son.

In the family case, while the child loves the parents, the child presumably loves each parent as an individual: there are two loves, one for each parent, rather than a single love for both. There may be a further development whereby the child loves both parents as a unit, or loves the family as a unit.

You are right that there is something more than just a trio of independent binary relationships in the three-person family. But I think it can be seen as a trio of interdependent binary relationships. Each parent loves the other parent not just as a spouse but also as the parent of the child. Eventually, when the child grows up, they will love each parent not only as their parent, but also as the other parent's spouse.

Heath White said...

Without wishing to go very far in defense of polyamory ....

We have the concept of a family, which is a collective entity, and in at least ideal situations everybody loves one another. Now it is true that we ordinarily talk about each individual member loving each other individual member in a binary relationship. On the other hand it is a mistake to think that there is nothing to the entity other than whether the individuals love one another. Sometimes people in families don't love one another but the family endures.

The question (I take it) is whether we can conceptualize a collective entity that is marriage-like but has more than two people in it. Why not? What unites people in marriage is not love but promises and obligations. There is no conceptual obstacle to these things having more than two parties.

If there is anything fundamentally binary about marriage, I would say it involves the biological fact that it takes exactly two people to reproduce.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Helen:

I agree that it is possible to have such a collective entity. But I just doubt that "plural marriage" groups are typically such a collective entity, with primary promises being made to the collective as a whole, etc.

Also, even though love isn't required for the existence of a family, the existence of love is normatively central.

Aron Wall said...

I don't think appealing to (one of) Augustine's models blocks the implication. Surely you don't want to deny that the Holy Spirit loves the Father and the Son, and vice versa. After all, the Spirit is a person and you already asserted that persons are the appropriate thing to enter into love relations. But if the Spirit loves the Father and the Son by being the love between them, then that is an essentially triadic form of love, even if it may not apply to any other person...

Alexander R Pruss said...

It's not enough for love to be truly triadic that A love B and C. For the love to be truly triadic, A must love B and C *as a pair* in a primary way, not primarily as individuals.

Aron Wall said...

I think that Holy Spirit does love the Father and the Son as an essentially united pair; that they are too closely related for that not to be the case. This seems especially obvious if one accepts the filioque doctrine in which the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and Son united as one principle. How could the Spirit not love the source of it's own existence?

For that matter, I would say that we Christians love Jesus in an essentially triadic way, in that adoring him as God would be incoherent and even idolatrous if (which hopefully is not the case) we did it in ignorance of his union with the Father, i.e. the relation which grounds his very existence as a divine person. This all seems extremely biblical; think about all the passages in John where Jesus says that loving himself and loving God automatically go together, and that anyone who has seen him has seen the Father. In fact I would go farther and say that all real love for God is mediated through his Word, since we have no independent acquaintance with the Father which is not mediated through his Image. Thus we ONLY love God in a triadic way, since we are unable to properly adore either the Father or the Son in isolation from the other person, because the Father is invisible while the Son's identity consists in revealing and glorifying the Father.

Aron Wall said...
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Aron Wall said...

Or rather we are only able to live God in an essentially quaternionic way, because the whole discussion should be extended to include the Spirit, without whose inspiration we are unable to recognize and confess that Jesus is the Son of God.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Aron:

What you say about Christian love of the triune God is very convincing.