Featured Philosop-her: Carrie Ichikawa Jenkins

I am very happy to welcome Carrie Ichikawa Jenkins.  Jenkins is Canada Research Chair in Philosophy at the University of British Columbia, and Professor of Philosophy at the Northern Institute of Philosophy in the University of Aberdeen. She is also a member of the musical group 21st Century Monads and one of the principal editors of Thought. Her first monograph Grounding Concepts was published by OUP in 2008, and her work on the philosophy of flirting has been described as ‘ground-breaking’.

Her post follows.


Modal Monogamy

Carrie Ichikawa Jenkins

In this post I’ll be talking about romantic love. I’ll call it ‘love’ for short.

My terminological choices from this point on involve a certain amount of stipulative definition. (This is required for clarity and precision in an area where vagueness and ambiguity are pervasive.) I’ll use ‘love relationship’ to describe the relationship that holds between someone who is in love and the person(s) who are the object of this love. I’ll use ‘dyadic’ to describe love relationships that involve exactly two parties: one lover, one beloved. And I’ll use ‘exclusive’ to describe love relationships which are such that the lover in them is the lover in no further love relationships.

An initial clarificatory point: dyadicity and exclusivity so characterised are not the same thing. They are in fact two-way independent. An example of an exclusive but non-dyadic love relationship is that which holds between lover and beloveds in a closed triadic relationship. A closed triad is a relationship in which three people are all in (mutual) love, but none of them is in love with anyone else. An example of a dyadic but non-exclusive love relationship is that between hinge lover and beloved in one of the two love relationships which comprise a V. A V is a relationships situation in which one person is in two (distinct) love relationships with two other parties (who are not in love with each other). The hinge of the V is the person who is party to both relationships.

Note that I’m using this terminology in such a way that in the case of a closed triad the lover bears a single love relationship to her two beloveds jointly, whereas in the case of V the hinge lover bears two distinct love relationships to her two beloveds severally. (It is consistent with this, however, that the lover in the closed triad also bears distinct love relationships to each of her two lovers severally.)

I’ll use ‘monogamous’ to describe love relationships which are both dyadic and exclusive.

Next I want to distinguish two hypotheses: 

Moral Monogamy: The only morally permissible love relationships are monogamous ones.

Modal Monogamy: The only metaphysically possible love relationships are monogamous ones.

This post is about Modal Monogamy.

Modal Monogamy appears to be operating as an unstated assumption in many discussions of romantic love, often to the point where it (and/or claims that entail it) are taken as definitive of love, or at least so obvious as to need no defence.

To give a few examples, Robert Solomon tells us that‘[l]ove is the concentration and the intensive focus of mutual definition on a single individual, subjecting virtually every personal aspect of one’s self to this process’. Eva Illouz writes: ‘to love is to single out one person among other possibilities’. Alan Soble says that ‘exclusivity … is actually an essential part of romantic love’, making explicit elsewhere that he means dyadic exclusivity, and that this claim forms part of a conceptual analysis of romantic love. And so on. (All emphases in this paragraph are added.) In a paper (currently in progress) on this topic, I’m engaging with two recent papers on romantic love (published in 2011 and 2013) the theses of which substantively depend upon the truth of Modal Monogamy.

Modal Monogamy and related assumptions even more commonly fly under the radar, leading to the existence of papers, chapters and books on the nature of love which include no explicit statement flagging the assumption but proceed by way of unremarked use of phrases like ‘the couple’, ‘the other person’, and so on, and employ examples, thought experiments and arguments that pertain to exclusive dyads only. Of course, a certain amount of this sort of thing can be done without assuming anything close to Modal Monogamy. But when it pervades entire philosophical investigations, it becomes clear that a methodological presumption has been made that no other kinds of love could possibly be relevant. This presumption is appropriate if Modal Monogamy can be taken to be so obvious as to need no comment, but it is otherwise questionable.

There are various grades of modality weaker than metaphysical modality; correspondingly, weaker variants of Modal Monogamy can be formulated. Some of these variants can also be found as operative assumptions in the literature. Nozick, for example, says that ‘it is not feasible for a person to simultaneously to be part of multiple romantic couples (or a trio), even were the person to desire this’. This looks like a weaker modal claim, concerning what is possible within the bounds of feasibility. Interesting though such weaker modal claims are, in this post I am considering only the claim that non-monogamous love is metaphysically impossible.

It may be that for at least some of those who assume Modal Monogamy, Moral Monogamy is tacitly motivating (or even perhaps even being confused with) it. But I take it to be obvious, once the two theses are laid out side by side, that they are distinct, and that there is no straightforward way to infer from the latter to the former. I also take it to be obvious that any account of love which does not accommodate the possibility of states of affairs which are in fact possible is thereby a mistaken account, regardless of the moral standing of such states of affairs. For current purposes, therefore, the truth-value of Moral Monogamy is irrelevant: even if it is true, [1] Moral Monogamy is both distinct from, and insufficient to motivate, Modal Monogamy. (Compare: an account of killing which made murder metaphysically impossible would be a mistaken account of killing, regardless of whether or not murder is morally wrong. [2])

Despite being so often taken for granted, or even treated as a matter of definition, there is reason to believe Modal Monogamy is in fact false. In fact, there are a number of reasons think so. I’ll offer three here, in descending order of compellingness.

First, there exist many actual (and hence possible) people who take themselves to be in non-monogamous love relationships. Unless all such people are either confused or lying, Modal Monogamy is false. And I know of no reason to suppose that all such people are either confused or lying.

Second, analogies with other kinds of love suggest that non-dyadic and non-exclusive romantic love is possible. For example, it seems possible to have multiple dyadic loving but non-romantic friendships, or a triadic loving but non-romantic loving friendship. Similarly, it is possible to love multiple children, multiple parents, etc. Some might want to respond here that romantic love is to be distinguished from these other kinds of love partly in virtue of the former’s being necessarily limited to the exclusive dyadic case. But such a response assumes Modal Monogamy; as a way to resist the argument from analogy, this would be patently question-begging.

Third, Modal Monogamy is a strong claim. It can be construed as having the form of a double universal quantification: all possible worlds are such that all the love relationships they contain are monogamous ones. Correspondingly, its negation is a weak, doubly existential, claim: at least one possible world has at least one non-monogamous love relationship in it. Thus it’s reasonable to treat the negation as rather plausible by default, and Modal Monogamy as in need of substantial argument if it is to be accepted.

I am not sure what kind of argument could be mounted in favour of Modal Monogamy except perhaps one based on the claim that it is intuitive, true by definition, and/or a conceptual truth (or something in that ballpark). So let me finish by considering that kind of argument.

First, a cautionary note. Unreflective claims about what is ‘intuitive’ run the risk of sliding between what strikes the speaker as commonsensical on the one hand, and what is a matter of definition or a conceptual truth on the other. Philosophers use ‘intuition’-talk for both of these things, but they are very different. (I have a forthcoming paper on this topic.)

With romantic love in particular, there is a serious possibility that slippage of this kind could be mediated and/or rendered undetectable by the prevalence of a particular culturally dominant paradigm (or stereotype) of romantic love, which features monogamy prominently and unquestioningly. This paradigm is so deeply ingrained that one should expect exceptions to it to strike people as ‘counterintuitive’ on first encounter. They certainly aren’t going to feel ‘everyday’ or ‘commonsensical’. But when a paradigm or stereotype is as culturally prevalent as this one is, we should be particularly vigilant about the possibility of mistaking its contours for those of a definition or conceptual analysis.

In addition to this general reason to be cautious about ‘intuition’ when engaging topics where deeply embedded dominant cultural paradigms are operative, there is specific reason to be especially cautious in the case of romantic love. For, even setting monogamy aside, there are many features of the dominant paradigm that should not be understood as limning either metaphysical possibility or our concepts. Perhaps most obviously, these include heteroromanticism and a slew of gender-stereotypical assumptions about romantic behaviours and attitudes.

Given the strength of the arguments against Modal Monogamy, then, together with the relative ease with which ‘intuitions’ in its favour can be explained away, it is my contention that romantic monogamy is best understood as merely a feature of a culturally dominant paradigm of romantic love. It should not be inflated into something more metaphysically significant.

[Acknowledgement: Many thanks to Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa, Kris McDaniel and Audrey Yap for comments on this material.]


[1] It isn’t.

[2] It is.

5 responses

  1. This is interesting, and I’m pretty sympathetic to it. Could you clarify the set-up though, please? Are you thinking of love as a (kind of) symmetric relation which can have different numbers of arguments, each of which is a person? Or as a two-place relation with a person as lover and a (possibly unary) plurality of persons as beloved? Or something else? Thanks.

  2. Thanks for your comment Michael.

    For the purposes of this post (I say more about this in the paper currently under construction) I was aiming to leave open the question of how many places the love relation has. Short version of what I will probably end up saying: there are options about how to go with this, and no (to me) obvious reason to prefer one over the others. I imagine it’ll end up being useful to make a (somewhat stipulative) choice, but only to simplify discussion.

    (Although if anyone has any suggestions as to why it would be better go one way rather than the other, I’d be really interested to hear them!)

    I’m not assuming symmetry; it’s meant to be consistent with how I’m setting things up that (e.g.) A loves B but B does not love A.

    Hope this helps!

  3. Great post! I am very sympathetic to the idea that when it comes to matters about which there are deeply embedded cultural stereotypes, we should be careful about our “intuitions”, which may be influenced by those stereotypes. But at the same time, according to some (admittedly controversial) accounts of the nature of concepts, those embedded cultural stereotypes could in part determine the content of our ordinary concepts. But even if this is the case, there is still room to argue that for that reason, our ordinary concept is problematic and should be revised. For instance, it could be the case that at least in some communities, their ordinary concept of ‘marriage’ is such that it entails that marriage is the union of a man and a woman. This concept is obviously morally problematic and therefore we could argue it should be revised so that, say, it does not exclude same-sex relationships. Likewise, it could be argued that even if the ordinary concept of love turned out to be such that modal monogamy is conceptually true, this could give us reasons to revise the ordinary concept (especially if we have good reasons to think that moral monogamy is false). Here I have in mind the distinction that Sally Haslanger and others make between the descriptive project of finding out what concepts we actually use, and the ameliorative project of finding out what concepts we should use for some particular purposes.

  4. I totally agree, Esa. So far I am totally convinced that the ordinary concept delivers anything like modal monogamy, but /even/ if it did, that wouldn’t mean one ought to acquiesce in the unexamined deployment of such a concept.

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