Infidelity, Jealousy, And The Coase Theorem

Monogamy is a social norm. This norm is promoted as the ideal, and infidelity is discouraged.

The harmful consequences of violating this social norm are manifold. Those who cheat on their partners suffer from guilt and shame. If the partner finds out, the relationship may end in a break-up or divorce. The jilted lover experiences jealousy, inadequacy, and dishonor.

Given these harms, the social norm against infidelity hardly needs any further explanation. But social norms are tricky things. Norms influence our preferences, but not always in a good way. Widely accepted social norms have been used to promote racism, sexism, and other forms of bigotry that we now reject as ignorant, unnecessary, and undesirable. Yet those who believed in and perpetuated these norms thought they were perfectly natural. In fact, many believed these norms are grounded in nature, that their rejection would cut against the grain of human biology.

To be sure, some norms do produce desirable social results. The norms against murder and rape, for instance, act to counter natural human impulses. Without such social norms, civil society is impossible.

So while we should be wary of rejecting traditional norms willy nilly, we should also be skeptical of enforcing norms that may be socially harmful. It is not clear to me whether the norm of monogamy is a worth keeping. Rather than being rooted in biology, it might very well be the case that monogomy is unnatural, and that the norm against infidelity is more harmful than infidelity itself.

To see why this may be so, consider the Coase theorem. Coase urges us to recognize the reciprocal nature of externalites:

The question is commonly thought of as one in which A inflicts harm on B and what has to be decided is: how should we restrain A? But this is wrong. We are dealing with a problem of a reciprocal nature. To avoid the harm to B would inflict harm on A. The real question that has to be decided is: should A be allowed to harm B or should B be allowed to harm A? The problem is to avoid the more serious harm.

This is the least-cost avoider principle: the party who can avoid the harm at the lowest cost should do so; it would be inefficient do otherwise.

It may be the case that the least-cost avoider is the potential cheater who can prevent the conflict by remaining faithful, but it might just as well be the case that the least-cost avoider is the cheatee who can avoid the conflict by not objecting to the affair. The conflict can be avoided if the couple remains monogomous and no one cheats, but the conflict can also be avoided if everyone in the relationship agrees to open terms.

Whether open relationships are compatible with human nature is a question to which I do not know the answer, nor do I know how one would even begin to answer it. But the widely shared confidence in monogomy puzzles me.


Update: I'm reminded of Stephen Landsburg's economic case for promiscuity. Share this

I too value intellectual

I too value intellectual curiosity Micha, which is I suppose is part of why I raised the objection--I don't like to see the quality of debate needlessly soiled, yet the examples you cite of people's "guts" being in support of racism, homophobia, etc are certainly real. At any rate you've certainly given me something to think about. :idea:

As for the claims of matt

As for the claims of matt and Stefan that social norms need no further explanation: while I agree that moral arguments hit rock bottom at some point, I see no reason why we should allow them to end at the social norm level. When you allow moral argumentation to end without explanation at too high of a level, you have no response to the homophobe who thinks that homosexuality is just wrong, period; to the anti-abortionist who believes that abortion is just wrong, period; to the pro-war-on-drugs advocate who believes that drug use is just wrong, period, and the government cannot legalize it without thereby sanctioning it, etc. We are all back to where we started, and moral argumentation has gotten us nowhere.

Yet again, I find myself referring back to Ophelia Benson's "Yuk Factor" article:

It's a popular thrill, saying 'We don't do that here.' Leon Kass, chair of the Council on Bioethics in the Bush administration, wrote a famous article for The New Republic in 1997, entitled 'The Wisdom of Repugnance.' 'Repugnance is the emotional expression of deep wisdom, beyond reason's power to express it,' he said. But this business of repugnance we can't quite articulate should give us pause - should make us come to a screeching halt, in fact. Why can't we articulate it? Could it be because there is nothing to articulate? If we have good reasons for doing or not doing a thing, aren't we normally able to put them in words? 'Because I said so' is all right when telling children what to do, because who has time to explain every single thing to a five-year-old, but for an actual official indeed presidential council, one expects a little more. Arm-waving and saying 'I can't explain' don't really match the job description.

Especially since people have always 'just somehow known' in their guts or their hearts or their gluteus maximus, without being able to say why, all sorts of things that the world would be better off if they hadn't just known. That Africans should be slaves, that Jews were polluting Germany, that women should be kept under house arrest at all times, that witches should be burnt, that the races must never mix. We're all too adept at thinking what we're not used to is inherently disgusting. John Ruskin never consummated his marriage because he thought his wife's pubic hair was disgusting. He'd never seen a living naked woman before, only paintings and statues, and he wasn't used to it. No doubt he thought it was very wrong of Effie to have it. All sorts of things are disgusting. Slimy wet rotting vegetation is disgusting, pus is disgusting, a swollen decomposing squirrel in the woods is disgusting. But is there any moral content to this disgust? Should the squirrel pull itself together and stop decaying in that nasty way? Should pus take thought and transform itself into peach ice cream?

Habit and familiarity have a great deal (though not everything) to do with what people find disgusting but very little to do with ethics. Cruelty, exploitation, injustice, violence don't become better with repetition, they only become easier for the perpetrators, such as the regular guys turned obedient Jew-killers of Christopher Browning's Ordinary Men. Disgust is good clean fun and provides endless amusement for children, but it's worthless as a moral compass. Saying 'Ew, ick, yuk, gross,' and saying 'That's wrong' are two different things. It's a long-standing confusion, going back to Plato if not farther, to think the beautiful is the good and the good is the beautiful, but it's not necessarily so.

This nicely answers Stefan's objections to coprophagia, incest, cannibalism, and adoption markets. Are there reasonable arguments against these activities? Perhaps, but there are also reasonable arguments against prohibiting or even discouraging these activities through social norms.

Stubbornly slamming one's foot down and claiming "It's wrong because it just is, and you're a douchebag if you question me" doesn't satisfy my intellectual curiousity.

And that's what this blog is all about, isn't it? :grin:

Stefan, I think Micha would

Stefan,

I think Micha would respond that the rapist is the least-cost avoider; but then that seems to beg the question of how to calculate least-cost.

Indeed.

I don’t want to be a mouthpiece for conservatives, but sometimes Micha it seems like your spirit of free inquiry is too free. Sometimes I wonder if things like “The widespread aversion to selling your children” would puzzle you as well.

I'm the first to admit Micha's nuts, but I believe, in his defense, Judge Richard Posner once wrote an article on that very topic, i.e. "selling your children."

given that widespread

given that widespread polygamy, especially with regard to women having multiple partners, is the exception

But it isn't. I believe the statistic is more than half of married people have affairs. Polygamy is widespread, as is the social norm against it.

I’m hesitant, as always, to invoke the authority of evolutionary psychology but I believe it is commonly accepted that human nature naturally tends toward an imperfect monogomy.

I have no problem with you invoking evo-psych; that's just the sort of thing I am looking for. But I have seen nothing to convince me that human nature tends towards monogamy.

I'd also like to add that

I'd also like to add that since the threads obviously exist in the context of an ongoing exchange about our beliefs here, it's not at all inapplicable for me to mention a belief of yours with regard to the rape example that JTK mentioned, regardless of whether it follows from your main post.

Don't we want that kind of

Don't we want that kind of objectivity?

And I assure you, Micha's not being satirical.

Micha RE: cheating, I think

Micha
RE: cheating, I think the same holds true for monogomy- I feel somehow that it is "right" and That polygamy is "wrong" and I don't feel this way because I've been exposed to a good reasoned argument as to why polygamy produces negative social consequences. Of course you're right that we should consider social norms, but insofar as this particular norm seems rather rooted in unchangable aspects of our biology (given that widespread polygamy, especially with regard to women having multiple partners, is the exception) I don't see the merit in discussing it in consequentialist terms. Maybe a bit like discussing the merits of vaginal intercourse- would you find a consequentialist analysis of such a thing even relevant?

I'm hesitant, as always, to invoke the authority of evolutionary psychology but I believe it is commonly accepted that human nature naturally tends toward an imperfect monogomy.

scott, I'm not sure if you were talking to me so I won't respond at the moment.

Matt

When did Micha pretend to be

When did Micha pretend to be an objective judge?

Mostly with the remark about child-selling, but to be honest it feels like there's a little bit of it in the original post too, although I am sympathetic with polygamists to some extent. Like you point out, there are taboos with questionable origins (the cousin-cousin thing), but like most people I'm just shocked by someone who appears to have a dispassionate, emotionless attitude toward certain taboos (e.g. baby-eating, child-selling), so part of me wants to doubt that such a writer is being serious at all, as with reading Swift's essay "A Modest Proposal".

When did Micha pretend to be

When did Micha pretend to be an objective judge?

You think eating babies

You think eating babies doesn’t involve aggression?

Well I assumed Micha didn't regard them as fully deserving of rights, but if you're worried then we could change it to mid-term fetuses, or 2-month old embryos.

As for the brother-sister thing, it is true there is a degree of difference between cousin-cousin and the Oedipal thing, but my broader point stands, namely that Micha seems to be acting a little silly by pretending to be an objective judge standing outside human society, dispassionately questioning the value of widespread social norms against such repugnant and disgusting activities (and yes, for the record, I consider child-selling to be a revolting affront to human dignity).

The incest taboo puzzles me

The incest taboo puzzles me as well. I understand it in its disapproval of brother-sister love, or Oedipal urges, but so far as being directed towards love between cousins, and more distant relations, I don't quite understand it.

I may or may not believe it,

I may or may not believe it, but I don't see its relevance to this post. My argument is not about cheating; that was just a bad choice of words. I'm talking about the social norm of monogamy, and whether it is preferable to open relationships. When evaluating social norms, what other criteria should we use apart from social consequences?

“The widespread aversion

“The widespread aversion to selling your children” would puzzle you as well.

It does, for the reasons Scott noted.

Well, at some point this becomes silly, because I can think of a host of disgusting and revolting actions that don't involve aggression, and I would find it hard to believe you are "seriously puzzled" by social norms against them. :)

A few examples off the top of my head:

-Eating babies, or opening up a Baby BBQ restaurant.
-Eating your own excrement.
-Incest
-Chopping off your own dick and (you guessed it) eating it.

On a literary note, I could easily imagine a hobbit named Micha from Buckland being "seriously puzzled" by the aversion of hobbits to hiding underneath mountains and hoarding rings of power for centuries. I agree that monogamy is something we can and ought to question, though reluctantly, but the idea of selling your own children, eating your own dick, etc seem beyond the pale. :end:

spall do you disagree with

spall
do you disagree with that? I assumed it was implicit in your position. You begin your post by discussing rational consequentialist reasons for monogomy, as if I make a decision not to cheat on my girlfriend based on the very consequences of such an act rather than a principle. I think that this is what Digamma was pointing out. I don't do it and that's because I feel it's wrong and I'd feel it was wrong even if no one knew.

I think the rather grotesque

I think the rather grotesque sounding point about rape does seem to follow from the basic premise that's being adopted by Micha, namely that morality can be reduced to simple observations about individual utility calculation. Aside from being demonstrative of a certain "reductio creep" effect of radically utilitarian libertarianism, it's wrong for a slightly deeper reason: namely that ethical theories like utilitarianism are descriptive at root. That is to say, first and foremost they have to accurately describe our moral intuitions and group them under a common principle. Insofar as they fail to do this, they are just wrong. When the common principle would logically promote such inanities as the punishment of an innocent man who is widely thoght to be guilty or rape under certain (not so extreme) circumstances, we just be rejecting such principles outright.

Micha, you're also right to point out that the same problem exists for private property rights, especially when considering how land can be "justly aquired." For me that's just the end of the road for such consequentialist theories, as well as for absolute private property rights as a concept.

You think eating babies

You think eating babies doesn't involve aggression?

The Coase Theorem is not a

The Coase Theorem is not a moral theory, though it can be used to bolster or weaken moral arguments. It merely focuses our attention on the reciprocal nature of externalites, and allows us to consider alternative means of conflict resolution. I don't see how this conflicts with a bright-line rule against rape. Perhaps JTK can make an argument that the rapist is not the least-cost avoider? I don't find it very plausible.

It seems rather obvious to

It seems rather obvious to me, at least, that the pain of the raped is greater than the pleasure of the rapist.

Hmm, so if the rapist has an endorphin generator in his brain wired to increase pleasure when he inflicts pain, then it's ok? :juggle:

Where did I adopt the basic

Where did I adopt the basic premise that "morality can be reduced to simple observations about individual utility calculation"?

by the way guys, to add

by the way guys, to add something a bit more libertarian to the discussion Robert Nozick discusses a society which might ban epileptics from driving and then compensate them. Perhaps even the same for drunk drivers.

In my opinion this is just a surface solutions because it introduces paternalism (like the kind discussed on the eminent domain threads around here) and an objective value judgement to be placed on human experience (the idea that driving in a car is worth x dollars) which no one around here is too fond of. Like I said, I think this is the end of the road.

Likewise the supposed

Likewise the supposed “victims” of rape might avoid conflict by not objecting.

I think Micha would respond that the rapist is the least-cost avoider; but then that seems to beg the question of how to calculate least-cost.

You're on the right track, I think. As for question begging, the same problem exists with all property rights. David Friedman has an amoral, alegal account of property that may get around this problem.

"The widespread aversion to selling your children" would puzzle you as well.

It does, for the reasons Scott noted.

I don’t see what grounds

I don’t see what grounds he would have to argue that the inconvienience of the raped must be greater than the satisfaction of the rapist. And if the latter is greater we should want more rapes.

How about interpersonal comparison of utility?

It seems rather obvious to me, at least, that the pain of the raped is greater than the pleasure of the rapist.

"I think Micha would respond

"I think Micha would respond that the rapist is the least-cost avoider..."

I don't see what grounds he would have to argue that the inconvienience of the raped must be greater than the satisfaction of the rapist. And if the latter is greater we should want more rapes.

I reccommend "Monogamy and

I reccommend "Monogamy and its Discontents" by William Tucker. It makes a strong case that monogamy is a stabilizing stratgy which is imperfect but better than the alternatives.

But the widely shared

But the widely shared confidence in monogamy puzzles me.

I don't want to be a mouthpiece for conservatives, but sometimes Micha it seems like your spirit of free inquiry is too free. Sometimes I wonder if things like "The widespread aversion to selling your children" would puzzle you as well. :sweat:

Likewise the supposed

Likewise the supposed “victims” of rape might avoid conflict by not objecting.

I think Micha would respond that the rapist is the least-cost avoider; but then that seems to beg the question of how to calculate least-cost.

qwest, I have no doubt that

qwest, I have no doubt that there are substantial benefits to monogamous marriages; my question is whether those benefits are particular to monogamy or whether polygamous marriages might include those same benefits.

Well, that depends, if the benefits are given by the state, then no, because they don't provide the benefits of monogomous marriage("partnership") to polygomous couples.

If you look at polygomy from a capitalist economic point of view, if the polygomy is one of a partnership amongst 3 or more individuals, then it would of course be better as the benefits of a 2 partner relationship would be increased with each new partner(given the same emotional attachment to not cheat any of the other partners out of their share of the agreed upon relationship and its benefits).

If lets say, 4 people, agreed to get into a economicly beneficial relationship (and c'mon, 4-ways orgy's are way better as well!)for the rest of their lives to support the group, you get the cost savings benefits of currently-the-norm 4 person household with both kids working. You would have shared costs on food, houseing, utilities(heat, electricity, etc), insurance, etc.

Where the problem with polygomous relationships can occur is if one member of the partnership no longer wishes to abide by the agreement binding the partners together and tries to screw the others out of what they have built. Oh, wait, that can happen in a monogomous relationship as well...

"It may be the case that the

"It may be the case that the least-cost avoider is the potential cheater who can prevent the conflict by remaining faithful, but it might just as well be the case that the least-cost avoider is the cheatee who can avoid the conflict by not objecting to the affair."

Likewise the supposed "victims" of rape might avoid conflict by not objecting.

Digamma, yes, I'm talking

Digamma, yes, I'm talking about having more than one partner, not breaking promises.

qwest, I have no doubt that there are substantial benefits to monogamous marriages; my question is whether those benefits are particular to monogamy or whether polygamous marriages might include those same benefits.

Monogamy seems to have

Monogamy seems to have benefits economically, that are not obvious. People that get married and stay married usually end up wealthier, as like a business partnership, the partner can help offset troubles that could be insurmountable for a single person, as well as acting as a safety valve against rash emotional decisions. This is the opinion of Jim Dale Davidson, a respected economics writer and investor. He's also a hard core Christian, so take it for what its worth. I'm sure the data is skewed because most singles are young and 'poor', while older married couples tend to be wealthier and have assets. It would be difficult to objectively screen the data and the outcomes.

Monogamy and "not cheating"

Monogamy and "not cheating" are two different things. In every interpersonal relationship, there are certain terms which each participant expects the other participants to respect. My girlfriend and I expect monogamy from each other. If I cheat on her, my real offense isn't against the social norm of monogamy, it's against the social norm of keeping promises and respecting other people's trust.

If my girlfriend and I have an open relationship, certainly there are people who will disapprove of my philandering, but it won't be nearly as universally condemned.

But it isn’t. I believe

But it isn’t. I believe the statistic is more than half of married people have affairs. Polygamy is widespread, as is the social norm against it.

But didn't you say earlier that by "polygamy" you meant open relationships rather than broken promises? The widespread occurrence of affairs doesn't come from the mutual acceptance of the relationship being "open" on the part of couples. Rather, it's usually one partner breaking promises.

True, Jonathan, not all

True, Jonathan, not all multiple partner relationships involve broken promises, but all broken promises involve multiple partners. So we can use the rate of affairs as a proxy for the widespread absence of monogamy.

True, Jonathan, not all

True, Jonathan, not all multiple partner relationships involve broken promises, but all broken promises involve multiple partners. So we can use the rate of affairs as a proxy for the widespread absence of monogamy.

But we can also say that there is a widespread desire for monogamy.

Is there a widespread desire

Is there a widespread desire for monogamy? The high rate of affairs and divorces indicates otherwise. And even if there were such a desire, it is still an open question whether this desire would exist at the same intensity in the absence of the social norm promoting it.

micha, were{nt you trying to

micha, were{nt you trying to distance yourself from cheating arguments? You just reintroduced a cheating motif inyour last response to me as a counter to what I wrote about monogomy. I don{t see what there is to respond to since I first you wrote about cheating and you corrected me, and then when I talk about monogomy you go back to talking about cheating. Monogomy is quite clearly the tendency (just vaginal intercourse is the tendency in sex, though not the absolute rule).

The moral disgust with jews in germany and so forth is certainly evidence that we can not just accept all feelings on blind faith. I don{t see that it has much to do with what{s under discussion, as those have been something more akin to collective outburtsts of insanity which often have economic causes. The desire for monogomy is widespread, old, and has been the rule forever. I feel that bringing up the anitirish racism and whatever as a way of talking about the social norm of monogomy is like a card trick. The incidents that you bring up are highly exceptional and as such have no bearing on our discussion of a subject about a serious human norm. Maybe that{s the whole problem- this isn{t a social norm we{re discussing it{s a human one. Once again, would you consider a consequentialist analysis of vaginal intercourse at all worthwhile? Why or why not?

Matt

Is there a widespread desire

Is there a widespread desire for monogamy? The high rate of affairs and divorces indicates otherwise.

I disagree. It indicates that people who enter into promises of faithfulness often fail to uphold those promises. I thought you agreed above that infidelity wasn't the same as polygamy.

And even if there were such a desire, it is still an open question whether this desire would exist at the same intensity in the absence of the social norm promoting it.

Are you saying that the desire for monogamy is mostly (all?) a result of social norms? That seems unlikely to me.

Matt, micha, were{nt you

Matt,

micha, were{nt you trying to distance yourself from cheating arguments? You just reintroduced a cheating motif inyour last response to me as a counter to what I wrote about monogomy.

Read what I wrote in response to Jonathan:

True, Jonathan, not all multiple partner relationships involve broken promises, but all broken promises involve multiple partners. So we can use the rate of affairs as a proxy for the widespread absence of monogamy.

Continuing...

Once again, would you consider a consequentialist analysis of vaginal intercourse at all worthwhile?

I'm not sure. I'd have to see the analysis first, or at least a sketch of it, before I could decide whether it is worthwhile.

I disagree. It indicates

I disagree. It indicates that people who enter into promises of faithfulness often fail to uphold those promises. I thought you agreed above that infidelity wasn’t the same as polygamy.

Perhaps they fail to remain faithful because monogamy is incompatible with human nature? I do agree that infidelity is not the same as polygamy, but my point is that the high rate of infidelity can be used as evidence that people don't value monogamy as strongly as many would want us to believe.

I don't think it makes much

I don't think it makes much of a good proxy, because the concept of polygamy changes the structure and nature of relationships, whereas cheating simply violates that structure. You might try and argue that an analysis of NBA fouls in the 2005-2006 season makes a good proxy for what basketball would look like if there were no foul rule but you'd be remarkably mistaken. Basketball would be an entirely different game without a foul rule and watching a team play hack-a-shaq wouldn't even come close to showing what'd be like.

But cheating indicates that

But cheating indicates that the structure is not as universally widespread and accepted as you seem to believe.

I agree that human action does change when the structure of incentives is modified, and changing a social norm certainly changes incentives. My point is only that the high rate of infidelity is a mark against those who argue that monogamy is widely desired. Apparently not widely desired enough to be practiced.

I think the foul analogy

I think the foul analogy works quite well here- there is deviance from the rule, but we shouldn't forget that it's a rule and it basically always has been. I don't think that just because NBA players occasionally foul out that's evidence that it's a "mark" against the foul rule.

If the claim was that people

If the claim was that people have a widespread desire to not foul, would it not be a mark against that claim if most people fouled? I guess you could claim that most fouls are accidental and unintentional, but then the analogy to infidelity wouldn't quite hold. Are most affairs accidental and unintentional in the same way fouls are in basketball?

And monogamy has not always been the rule. Our modern conception of family structure is unique in many respects.

And monogamy has not always

And monogamy has not always been the rule. Our modern conception of family structure is unique in many respects.

Really? My impression is that monogamous relationships are the human norm. Do you have evidence contra?

I agree that human action

I agree that human action does change when the structure of incentives is modified, and changing a social norm certainly changes incentives. My point is only that the high rate of infidelity is a mark against those who argue that monogamy is widely desired. Apparently not widely desired enough to be practiced.

I'm not sure I agree. I try to be a hard worker, but often I get lazy. People try to lose weight but struggle not to eat excessively. Recovering alcoholics sometimes can't resist the temptation of the bottle.

Would you say that people who get lazy don't really want to work hard, or that overweight people who go on diets don't want to lose weight, or alcoholics who can't stay dry even when they try don't want to become sober?

I think, for many lazy

I think, for many lazy people, dieters, smokers, and alcoholics -- though they may place some value on changing their behavior -- their actions express greater preference for satisfying short term interests at the expense of longer term interests. Whether failure to conform to long term interests is evidence that those interests are ranked lower than longer term interests, or whether it is merely evidence that people are weak with regard to their true preferences (determined how?), this failure certainly doesn't help the claim that longer term preferences are ranked higher than short term preferences.

Of course monogamy is the

Of course monogamy is the norm. The monogamous marriage is a feature of all known human societies. Of course some also have polygamy, but there is no society which treats monogamy as a degenerate polygamy, nor a society without "marriage". Monogamy is normal in marriage, also in non-marriage sexual relationships for societies allowing them. It is surely evolved.

Also evolved is the tendancy to cheat. And the emotional responses we have to cheating (jealousy of the male and female varieties).

What people want is:
(a) for themselves, sexual liberty; selectively (women) or not (men)
(b) for their partner(s), strict monogamy

The rate of infidelity does not necessarily represent a desire for polygamy. Rather it demonstrates a desire for exactly what it is: sex outside of marriage.

I feel I must once again

I feel I must once again recommend Matt Ridley's The Red Queen, an interesting book on the topic recommended to me by Dr. Wilde himself.

Very well, Leonard; that

Very well, Leonard; that sounds about right to me. The question still remains, though: which direction should we push the social norm? Towards stronger enforcement of monogamy through things like shame, or towards weaker enforcement of monogamy, and thus more tolerance of open relationships, by actively discouraging jealousy?

or towards weaker

or towards weaker enforcement of monogamy, and thus more tolerance of open relationships, by actively discouraging jealousy?

My mistresses and I will be glad to support the second option. :juggle: