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What I Learned from Autonomy Respecting Relationships

Autonomy Respecting Relationships (ARR) was an online discussion group led by Sarah Fitz-Claridge (SFC) and David Deutsch (DD). They eventually left. I owned and ran the group when Verizon bought Yahoo and deleted all Yahoo Groups in 2019 and 2020. The archives are still available on my website.

I wrote a summary of ARR in 2011. Most of the ARR discussions were 5+ years earlier.

ARR was an offshoot of Taking Children Seriously (TCS), a parenting and educational philosophy founded by DD and SFC. It had similar themes like non-coercion, classical liberalism and Critical Rationalism.

The first thing I learned when I joined ARR is that monogamy can be questioned. Previously, like most people, I’d taken monogamous relationships for granted as simply how relationships work. I hadn’t known that any reasonable alternatives might exist.

I learned that romance is dangerous and hurts people. Conventional relationships are a problematic area in need of improvement and reform, not a solved problem. The pain of breakups, divorces and broken hearts is a big deal that should be taken seriously.

I learned that (romantic) love is a vague concept which can be used in bad ways. Love can be pressuring or foolish. And no one seems to be able to put into clear writing what “love” is or what’s good about it.

I learned that there are dangerous anti-rational memes involved with romantic relationships.

I learned that the idea of merging two lives into one shared life is problematic and contradicts individualism. Everyone needs to have their own life and be their own person. No one fully or clearly advocates losing individuality in marriage, but there are lots of ideas about partially doing that. I became skeptical of e.g. fully sharing finances and recognized that significantly sharing of finances is hard to do well and merits more serious attention and consideration than it often gets.

Later, elsewhere, I learned that romantic/passionate/sexual love was called “eros” by the ancient Greeks (our word “erotic” comes from the Greek “eros”). The Greeks invented philosophy and also had warned of the dangers of eros over 2000 years ago. Eros was both a concept and a Greek god. The Roman name for the god Eros is well known today: Cupid. Cupid shot arrows because arrows were the most powerful and feared weapon in the ancient world, and people saw sexual love as dangerous. Arrows only became more cute after we got used to guns. You can read about eros in the book Eros: The Myth Of Ancient Greek Sexuality by Bruce Thornton.

Polyamory

ARR advocated polyamory (which means having romantic/sexual love relationships with multiple people at once). It questioned monogamy and wanted to replace that with more freedom and autonomy. Why should you be shackled by conventional ideas that work poorly? Use your rationality to solve any problems that may come up while being promiscuous and having fun!

Although I partly agreed with this at the time, I had doubts about it early on. What had I learned initially? Monogamy can be questioned. But also, love, romance and sex are dangerous. If romantic relationships work badly and hurt people, why have more of them? Instead of having more of this stuff in our lives, we could try the standard amount or less.

Most posters, including SFC, wanted more love and more sex, despite warnings from SFC and others about dangers. DD was more friendly to the possibility of just not doing romance. But I got a lot of resistance when I pushed back against polyamory. People told me how great sex was, and how sex was uniquely important for learning and communication. I thought that was a rationalization. No way is sex an irreplaceable tool for general education or for sharing your ideas. That was an excuse used by people who wanted lots of sex and also wanted to be rational persons who valued knowledge.

Tradition

Sex is important because our culture imbues it with meaning (and because of the facts of pregnancy and STDs). The philosopher William Godwin had explained that 200 years earlier, as DD showed me. Although sex is not as inherently, innately important as people think, that doesn’t prevent it from actually having a lot of meaning to people and being a big deal. DD and I knew that was hard to change, and I now recognize it’s even harder to change than I used to think. Also, if you’re going to put significant work into self-improvement to change something, there are a lot of other things that could be a higher priority.

ARR (and myself initially) overestimated how easy it is to go against cultural knowledge. Culture is very powerful. If something is cultural rather than genetic, that doesn’t mean it’s easy to change, nor even easier. Memes can be harder to deal with than genes. Ideas rule the world, as both DD and Ayn Rand say.

DD talked about rational respect for tradition, but never emphasized it enough. I learned more about tradition later when reading Edmund Burke and, after that, when learning about the tradition of western civilization from books like Greek Ways: How the Greeks Created Western Civilization.

Age of Consent

ARR, DD and SFC also criticized age of consent laws. While those laws aren’t perfect, I now think that criticism was unwise. In some ways, I think there should be more or stronger laws about this! E.g., I think all US states should ban child brides (under 18) with a significant age gap (you may be disturbed to find out that most states don’t do that and that there are thousands of child brides involved in US immigration every year – meaning either a child bride is being brought in from another country or an adult is moving to the US to marry an American child). A 2019 Utah law raised the minimum marriage age from 15 to 16 and also banned marriage between minors and adults 7+ years older than them. I think that’s an improvement, not a violation of young people’s human rights.

Imagine a 15 year old girl marrying a 40 year old man. That’s a terrible idea. I’ll grant that it doesn’t literally violate the laws of physics for that marriage to be a good idea and that the concept of greater autonomy for 15 year olds has upsides. But we as a society aren’t even close to figuring out how to make that kind of thing work well, and attacking age of consent laws can lead to more girls being victims. It’s not just that it doesn’t work well today; it’s actually very dangerous. Child marriage often means the girl becomes a sex and house slave and is raped repeatedly with no way out. Due to being too young, minors have limited ability to get out of bad situations by getting a job, getting welfare, using a woman’s shelter, or even filing for divorce. Yes, as dumb as it sounds, some married persons in America today are actually told they’re too young to divorce!

If you’re interested in the modern problem child marriage problem in the US and elsewhere, you can do a web search. There are news articles and info sites.

One of the reasons child marriage keeps happening is due to ageist adults who don’t care about the victims. So if SFC and DD wanted a campaign to improve laws to help children against ageism, it would have been better to start with this instead of attacking age of consent laws. But protecting children from being victimized by child marriage didn’t fit with SFC’s and DD’s goals of being edgy and controversial, proving what free thinkers they were, or focusing exclusively on advocating more independence and autonomy for children without admitting that there could be any problems with that.

Retractions

Due to my involvement with ARR, I want to be clear about what I think so no one does polyamory and thinks they’re following my philosophy. I know SFC changed her mind about some of this stuff but never told people, which I think was bad. I’m not sure what DD’s current views about this are, and whether they changed, which I also think is bad. Thought leaders who change people’s lives with their advice ought to let people know if they change their mind.

I’ve talked about some of this stuff previously, e.g. my Philosophy First article criticizing ARR, my podcast criticizing polyamory, and my podcast about rationalism and convention which also criticized polyamory.

I don’t remember exactly what I’ve said about relationships in the past, but I’m sure there were some errors, and that some people got the impression I favor polyamory. I was never half as friendly to polyamory as SFC and many other ARR group members, and I now have a fairly (but not entirely) negative opinion of it. I think most actual poly communities are pretty awful. (They might all be awful but I haven’t researched it and looked at many.) There were ARR people who were involved in a bunch of promiscuous, poly behaviors, but I was not the leader of any of that, and my impression is it worked out poorly for those involved (but none of them gave any public warnings about the failures of their attempts at ARR).

I thought of writing this particular article after rereading some of SFC’s old arguments against age of consent laws, which I found disturbing. I have other priorities so I’m not focusing much attention on philosophy of relationships currently, but I think it’s something I should share and clarify thoughts about sometimes. Besides my past involvement, it’s a topic that plays a big role in people’s lives.

People are too controlling of their partners in relationships, but there’s no quick fix. Just being less controlling will run into other problems. The control wasn’t random or pointless.

There are many dangers in romantic relationships and there aren’t good enough resources to help navigate them. (For example people think communication and rationality will be sufficient to make their relationship work better than a typical relationship; that isn’t a good enough plan.) I think there are lots of good points in my older writing about this (ARR emails, blog posts, and FI articles) but it’s nothing like a complete, batteries-included, ready-to-use, foolproof system. You can pick up some good-but-incomplete ideas from my old stuff but need to use your own judgment. I’d suggest, when in doubt, err on the side of convention (and when not in doubt, try to make your critical thinking much more vigorous). You’re also welcome to ask questions and start discussions about these topics here.

ARR and TCS had some good ideas mixed in (TCS more so) but a lot of dangerous errors, too. Beware.


Elliot Temple on March 24, 2021

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