It all started when I asked: “would I stigmatize the lifestyle of a couple who are in an open marriage? Darn right I would.”
Ray Ingles, incredulous, challenged me to defend that position: “what’s the case for it being bad in your moral framework? (I.e., start from premises, through intermediate conclusions, to the conclusion that “an open marriage should be stigmatized”.)”
I agreed to provide an answer if Ray would first explain whether he is in an open marriage or looking to be in one, and if not then why not.
The reason I made the demand is simple. I want Ray to do my work for me. You see, my commitment to natural law, a law written on the heart, suggests that human beings perceive all sorts of basic moral truths. We then do one of two things: we either seek to live in accord with that moral law or we develop rationalizations to explain why we aren’t.
So as we consider Ray’s moral analysis of his own ethical choices we shall have to ask whether his explanation of his beliefs and actions is more satisfactory or whether mine is.
With that in mind I waited for Ray to provide his fuller response, a response which I had substantial confidence would help me support my claim.
I was not disappointed. I have reproduced the first part of Ray’s response here. It deserves our close attention.
For me, sex and love are intertwined.
Note the neutral way he attempts to state his position. There is no normative language here as in “For me, sex and love ought to be intertwined”. Instead, his position is stated merely as a personal preference akin to “For me, hot soup is not a real breakfast.” (Remember that. The hot soup will return shortly.)
Ray then goes on to explain his personal preference as a matter of taste:
On the one hand, I find the idea of using someone for my own enjoyment distasteful; whoever I have sex with, I want them to enjoy it, or it’s not going to be enjoyable for me. I couldn’t have sex with someone without caring for them. On the other hand, sex can be a wonderful way to say “I love you”. An emotional dimension makes it a much better, richer experience. I’m also territorial. The thought of my wife with another man is… ahem… uncomfortable. I don’t condone crimes of passion, but I understand the motivation.
Let’s focus on Ray’s opening explanation that he finds the thought of using a person “distasteful”. What function does the word have in Ray’s explanation?
If we are to understand Ray as standing in contraposition to my claim that those who pursue an open marriage ought to be stigmatized because marriage ought not be open, then his distaste is presumably not rooted in a moral perception. Instead, it merely indicates a personal preference.
To explore whether that is true we will now turn back to the hot soup. Brian has a strong taste for breakfasts that consist of bacon and eggs. Then he marries Saori from Japan. Saori finds the idea of bacon and eggs for breakfast to be distasteful. Brian in turn finds the idea of hot soup for breakfast to be distasteful.
Now put yourself in the place of Brian’s friend. Brian says to you: “Dude, I just don’t want to try having miso soup and rice for breakfast. So I make my own bacon and eggs instead. What do you think?”
With that backdrop, I think an answer like this would be wholly appropriate:
“Brian, I think you should at least give it a try. You might discover that you like miso soup for breakfast and thus find yourself developing the same taste as Saori.”
That would be good advice. Brian would be showing that he would set aside his personal tastes to try something new that was important to Saori. That’s what marriage is about.
Now consider a small tweak to the story. When they got married Saori shared Brian’s preference for bacon and eggs. But after a few years she found herself preferring hot miso soup for breakfast. Does that change our advice to Brian? Are we now going to say “Forget about Saori’s preference. She has no right to change her taste”? Of course not. Whether she preferred hot soup for breakfast when they married or not, the fact that she prefers it now is sufficient reason for Brian to give it a try and get over his irrational aversion to it.
Now let’s switch from Brian, Saori and hot soup to Doug, Jane and open marriage. In the same way that Saori finds miso soup tasteful and Brian finds it distasteful, so Jane finds an open marriage tasteful and Doug finds it distasteful.
Should Doug give the open marriage a try for the same reason that Brian should give the miso soup a try?
Doug doesn’t think so. Imagine that he responds like Ray: “I’m also territorial. The thought of my wife with another man is… ahem… uncomfortable.”
Jane might reply: “Doug, that’s not a good reason. You were generous enough to loan the lawnmower to the neighbor. Why not lend me to the neighbor as well? You’re just being selfish. Brian tried miso soup and developed a taste for it. Why don’t you try an open marriage? Try it and you just might like it.”
Here’s the problem for Ray. He is committed to the position that his aversion to open marriage is merely a matter of taste like Brian’s aversion to hot soup for breakfast. And if that is true then just as Ray would advise Brian to try the miso soup, so he should advise Doug to try the open marriage.
But this really isn’t true, and I believe Ray knows it. I think he knows that there is a category difference between trying hot soup and trying open marriage. The former is merely a matter of taste but the latter is not. Hot soup for breakfast is morally neutral, but open marriage is not.
And what if Ray continues to insist that I’m wrong and that in his view the one is as much a matter of personal preference as the latter?
Well as they say, show me what you believe by what you do. If you insist that you’re not arachnophobic, but every time you see a spider you scream in fear, I’ll believe your actions over your words.
With that in mind, I’d ask Ray to place himself in Doug’s shoes. If his wife started requesting an open marriage how would he respond? Would he treat the request merely as his wife’s personal preference akin to a newly discovered preference for miso soup, or would it constitute a devastating betrayal? And would he view his own revulsion toward the request reflect merely as a resistance toward trying new things coupled with territorial selfishness, or would it reflect a perception of what marriage ought and ought not to be?