Poly Means Many: the ethics of due diligence

Poly Means Many: There are many aspects of polyamory. Each month, the PMM bloggers will write about their views on one of them. This month we’re talking about “types of non-monogamy’”. Links to all posts can be found at polymeansmany.com

This month we PMM bloggers are supposed to write about ethics in polyamory (aka why we’re not cheating). I suspect that others may discuss ‘why we’re not cheating’, with specific arguments pertaining to knowing about and consenting to all other relationships at any given time. I’d like to cover something a bit more specific, however before I delve into that I want to establish some basic definitions.

As a polyamorous person I’ve often said that I adhere to ethics but I am largely amoral. When looking online for some solid definitions to share to show the difference between ethics and morals, I struggled to find any – they usually meld together, as in the following from Oxford Dictionaries:


  • 1 [usually treated as plural] moral principles that govern a person’s behaviour or the conducting of an activity:medical ethics also enter into the question

  • 2 [usually treated as singular] the branch of knowledge that deals with moral principles:neither metaphysics nor ethics is the home of religion

  • Schools of ethics in Western philosophy can be divided, very roughly, into three sorts. The first, drawing on the work of Aristotle, holds that the virtues (such as justice, charity, and generosity) are dispositions to act in ways that benefit both the person possessing them and that person’s society. The second, defended particularly by Kant, makes the concept of duty central to morality: humans are bound, from a knowledge of their duty as rational beings, to obey the categorical imperative to respect other rational beings. Thirdly, utilitarianism asserts that the guiding principle of conduct should be the greatest happiness or benefit of the greatest number

See also: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Morality

I eventually found an explanation of the difference that is very close to my own view:

“The difference between ethics and morals can seem somewhat arbitrary to many, but there is a basic, albeit subtle, difference. Morals define personal character, while ethics stress a social system in which those morals are applied. In other words, ethics point to standards or codes of behavior expected by the group to which the individual belongs… So while a person’s moral code is usually unchanging, the ethics he or she practices can be other-dependent.” (Wisegeek)

NB: To much of the world, poly (and queer and kinky) people are considered immoral. I’ve often tended to identify as amoral because ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ within our society is generally determined by systems and social norms that I have actively chosen to reject (e.g. religion). However I do consider myself a very ethical person – someone who can follow a system of expectations to which I consent to be held to account.

In general I’d say that there is a common system of ethics for polyamorous people, one in which we communicate honestly and transparently about our relationships, such that we can give our informed consent. But generally speaking this is viewed on a fairly one or two-dimensional scale: do all of our partners know about our other partners? Are we keeping to the various boundaries we’ve agreed?

What is often missing is conducting what I call ‘due diligence’ prior to starting a relationship with someone. I don’t mean googling a partner before your first date or anything like that. What I’m talking about requires a lot more time, patience and keen observational abilities; this process is partly why I usually take months or sometimes longer before agreeing to enter into a relationship with someone. Instead this due diligence pertains to a potential partner’s other existing relationships, and it is something I’ve personally learnt the hard way (but that is a story for another time… and probably not for this blog!).

I tend to form my relationships and romantic interests very slowly over a period of months, partially due to my experiences of how important this is. (And time, as I’ve discovered, is sadly sometimes not enough to reveal all of the information you might need when people do not know their own needs/desires and don’t communicate them clearly.) Why would I want to find out more about my partner’s other relationships? Because I honestly think that entering into a relationship with someone who is having major problems with their other partner(s) is an ethical issue. If a relationship is on the rocks, it will require more time and energy to resolve than a relationship that isn’t. If you enter into a relationship with that person anyway, you could be knowingly jeopardising their other relationship(s) because your new relationship will require time, energy and effort that is needed elsewhere. Of course, the other side of it should be considered as well; if one of your relationships is on the rocks, it probably isn’t the best idea to engage in new ones.

As we know, the capacity to love can be infinite but the other resources required to sustain a relationship are certainly not. Knowing that many of those resources will be invested in your new relationship is an ethical quandary that I see as particularly relevant to the Kant and utilitarianism schools of thought. Is engaging in a new relationship, despite the negative effect this is likely to have on other existing relationships, ‘obeying the categorical imperative to respect other rational beings’? In my view, probably not. It certainly does not fit into utilitarianism, as it is unlikely that to have the greatest happiness or benefit the greatest number. More likely than not it will cause unhappiness for everyone involved, including yourself as the new partner. In such circumstances it could be more ethical to engage with that person as a friend and not as a partner.