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

Your wife, however, will be

Your wife, however, will be less so.

The problem with fouls in

The problem with fouls in basketball and cheating at monogamy is that there is a conflict of interest between the players. It is in player A’s interests to foul player B. But only if player B does not retaliate. Since B will retaliate, it is the interests of A not to foul or to limit or be sneaky about his fouls. It requires intelligence and skill to detect and commit advantageous fouls. If the same situation applied to marriage you could see how there could be a similar conflict. Societal rules are the referees, and vary from society to society. Without referees you get violence and chaos. Just because fouls occur that doesn’t mean that the players or the society doesn’t need rules.
I guess open marriage could work now that we have good birth control methods, but we still have the genetically developed traits that our ancestors used to enable them to prevail over weaker competitors in the past. Remember that for a million years hanky-panky begot children, a matter of some consequence for us. Survival characteristics were selected for including jealousy, stealth, charm, intelligence, and many other characteristics that can be both cooperative and self-serving. I’m afraid that Micha will not be able to reason them all away. Thank goodness.

More seriously,

More seriously, however...

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".

I'm having trouble verifying your historical assertions; could you provide some citations? I checked wikipedia and found the following seemingly contradictory statements:

From the article on "Monogamy":
Historically, monogamy was much less practised than polygamy (specifically polygyny). Mostly because of European expansion, monogamy is more popular than it was ever before. See article about polygamy for details.

Then a few lines later:
While most pre-modern societies exhibited varying degrees of polygamy, in most instances, pair-bonding was more commonplace than not. It is interesting to observe that even in cultures that permit polygamy, its practice may nevertheless be discouraged.

It sounds like you are right about the historical record but is there something more definitive you could cite?

As for the people who have talked about gibbons, chimpanzees and marmosets, I think this part of the article pretty safely rules out those kind of comparisons:

Although modern groups that advocate polyamorous relationships attempt to construct historical or archaeological evidence as favouring these types of relationships as "natural", it is impossible to portray human relationships as simplistically as this. Humanity's closest relatives, the bonobo and the common chimpanzee display very different types of sexual behaviour - chimpanzees favour fairly rigid hierarchical relationships while bonobos are openly promiscuous. Other close human relatives such as marmosets and gibbons are more or less monogamous in their habits. It should also be noted that the Neandertal lived in small groups revolving around a single breeding couple

And of course, even if monogamy is almost universal, it still doesn't answer Micha's question about what we should or should not discourage in social norms. To this question I would probably have to plead ignorance; it's a question outside of libertarianism proper, and from what I know of people it seems like some would be more suited to polygamous relationships than others. Also, for what it's worth, here's a Randian viewpoint in support of polygamy.

Micha, I think your reply to

Micha,
I think your reply to Jonathan featured an impoverished theory of human behavior, basically tantamount to the Socratic "we all choose the good." That's just a tautology and is not particularly insightful as to the nature of human behavior. When our conception of the good life is unattainable, or we struggle to attain it I don't feel that the experience is one of shifting priorities. When I was drinking too much in college and wanted to stop but was struggling, it was because of weakness of character (sounds vague, I know- I'll explain.) Of course you could pinpoint a time when maybe I seemed to "value" a drink a drink more than I valued my conception of the good life, but I would say it's mistaken as it assumes rationality when there is none. Here's the difference: if I had been given the option, even before I was about to take another drink, to rid myself of the desire I would have chosen to rid myself of it. As such the motivation to drink was irrational. However if I'm making a choice about whether to go to El Salvador vs. Panama (which I am at the moment) and I keep changing my mind, that is a different state of affairs entirely. I wouldn't excercise my godlike powers in order to get rid of my desire to go to El Salvador because I really think I may want to go there.

I think Jonathan is quite right in implying that monogomy is an ideal that we stray from in moments of weakness, rather than an idea that we keep changing our minds about every time our prowess in political argumentation makes some new attractive female all tingly inside. If I had the power to rid myself of all desire to cheat on my current girlfriend I would do so.

Stefan,
I know you weren't replying to me, but I was basing my "natural monogomy" claim on Jared Diamond's claim in the third chimpanzee that monogomy is the current scientific consensus.

Dave,
I'm glad you liked the analogy. I think you're correct that the existence of fouls isn't an argument against the foul rule. As Leonard pointed out, things are complicated a bit by something like a prisoner's delimma but that complication doesn't call into question the ideal of monogomy.

Should we encourage monogomy as a social norm? Again, I don't think that's a much more fruitful question than "should we prefer vaginal intercourse as a social norm." I could cite a few good reasons against it but it's hardly a fruitful question- I'm certainly not about to stop.

Micha.- Reply to leonard.---

Micha.- Reply to leonard.--- The question 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?
My gut feeling is -that sounds like social engineering. I hate social engineering!

since we're discussing

since we're discussing arbitrary movements to change social norms, let's not stop there. Which direction should we push the social norms of:

cleanliness
not shitting where we eat
wearing clothes
eating with our hands rather than our feet
dancing to music
shivering when we get cold
resetting broken bones
sleeping
working
using shoelaces

and so forth?

Those are some good ones

Those are some good ones matt, but of course I think my list of gross stuff earlier up is much worse than yours. :behead:

Although I really love the

Although I really love the one about whether we should wear clothes or not--I can just imagine Micha now, saying "Clothes are widely accepted as a social norm to protect against inclement weather, promote human decency, etc, but the widely shared confidence in the efficacy of wearing clothes nevertheless puzzles me."

I'm looking forward to

I'm looking forward to spirited debate on the clothes wearing issue, believe you me.

I suppose the

I suppose the loincloths-only embara tribe of columbia and panama would be least cost avoiders in this case, putting the eskimos to shame. :cool:

Incidentally, I remember

Incidentally, I remember pondering the social utility of a pro-clothes wearing norm a few days ago.

Given the amount of pain and suffering caused by romantic conflicts, many of which are a result of cheating, and so long as the possibility exists that these conflicts could be better avoided by changing the existing social norm, this is a very fruitful question.

Given the amount of pain and

Given the amount of pain and suffering caused by romantic conflicts, many of which are a result of cheating, and so long as the possibility exists that these conflicts could be better avoided by changing the existing social norm, this is a very fruitful question.

My suspicion is that if it was merely social norms keeping open-relationships from being more common, we'd be seeing a lot more of them. Our biology - men's feelings of rage at the thought of their woman with another man, and women's feelings of abandonment amd loss of intimacy at the thought of their man with another woman - is the factor that is responsible for the lack of open relationships.

Rather than changing social norms, which I don't think are that significant, I think the pain and suffering associated with romantic conflicts can best be minimized by understanding our biology- why men and women have unique biologic drives for cheating, and recognizing within ourselves those tendencies when they arise. If a couple decides after evaluating this knowledge that they're better off with an open relationship, more power to them.

It's worth pointing out that

It's worth pointing out that in the 60s/70s, many young people ran the experiment. Free love: considerably looser norms. They ended up returning to the same old cultural norms, pretty much. This is fairly strong evidence that the current sexual norms are not merely arbitrary.

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Why do you assume that

Why do you assume that infidelity reflects a desire for polygamy? Isn't it just a desire for monogamy - but with a different partner? It seems most people involved in affairs tend to cut back or completely stop sex with their spouse/partner. Of course, some people just sleep around. So, given that people who are not constrained by social norms against cheating choose either monogamy or polygamy, it seems the issue is a matter of individual preference. If that's true, I don't see what the relevance of "social norms" is here.