Monogamy, Jealousy, and Private Property
I just finished Carrie Jenkins' What Love is: And What it Could Be as part of my dissertation research on intimacy. It's a quick and interesting read and while Jenkins didn't have much to say about intimacy (to be fair, few analytic philosophers do), the core proposal that love has both a social and biological nature strikes me as essentially correct. The book also made me reconsider and reassess some of the assumptions I've had about the nature of polyamorous relationships and, most interestingly, about what Jenkins calls amatonormativity (the view that holds that a life without romantic love is fundamentally deficient). The book is written for a general audience and I highly recommend it if you want to read some philosophy of love stuff without getting into the weeds or exposing yourself to too much philosophical jargon.
One of the things in particular that struck me while reading Jenkins' book involves (part of) a discussion on jealousy, marriage, and monogamy. This is the core topic of this post.
Regarding marriage and monogamy Jenkins first notes that traditionally, love and marriage were not socially or conceptually linked, but that marriage has traditionally been "about procreation and the controlled inheritance of property. It was created as a kind of transaction in which fathers could present their daughters to prospective grooms as gifts, prizes, or reward." (pg. 40). She implies not only that the act of marrying constituted a kind of transaction, but indeed, that the women involved were part of the transaction itself.
This claim is verified by the remarks of an English lord chief justice regarding so-called crimes of passion:
The idea of a crime of passion and the related legal defense of "provocation" have served disproportionately to secure lenience for me who violently killed or injured their adulterous wives and/or the men with whom their wives were being adulterous. The attitudes behind this have a long and sexist history. In England in the early eighteenth century, the lord chief justice called sex with another man's wife "the highest invasion of property" (because women were property) and said that since "jealousy is the rage of man," the violent killing of someone caught in the act of committing adultery with one's wife should not count as murder. In his own, more graphic words, "if the husband shall stab the adulterer, or knock out his brains, this is bare manslaughter."
I find no grounds (nor seek them) to disagree with Jenkins either about the current and historical function of such legal rules, or about their sexist underpinnings.
What these passages got me thinking about, however, is the link between romantic jealousy and the history of monogamy. Specifically, in light of the chief justice's remarks, we can paint the following picture: historically (and perhaps currently), women in monogamous marriages have been treated as their husband's private property. This treatment has come with supposed accompanying property rights of exclusivity. And jealousy is a response to a perceived violation of those supposed rights.
Now, the chief justice makes a couple of assumptions here that I wholeheartedly disagree with--that wives and women are property, that men and husbands actually have property rights over them, that jealousy is a fitting response to a violation of those rights, and that, consequently, acts of violence performed while experiencing acute jealousy are not to be punished as they normally would be. To stress, I disagree with all of these assumptions. However, I do wonder whether something like this picture remains in the back of my head when I think about jealousy.
Let me be explicit: I absolutely hate feeling romantic jealousy and I think I would be better off if I never felt such jealousy. I think it not only tends to show a kind of insecurity in a relationship that I find extremely off-putting, but I also think it's harmful to the relationship itself, and to the people who feel it or are involved in it. Crucially, I also worry that when I feel it--and I still do feel it from time to time--it's because I've subconsciously internalized these historical sexist norms through which I view my partner as my property. In other words, I worry that being jealous indicates that one views the other as property.
I've put this worry in terms of being a cis man inheriting sexist baggage, but I think the worry is one that any person in a monogamous relationship might have. In these broader terms, the worry is simply that to suffer romantic jealousy is to view one's partner as a piece of property and that this is somehow just baked into monogamy. Indeed, I've wondered whether I have always been and continue to be monogamous because I harbor some nebulous, inchoate commitment to this horrible view of treating people like property. I've also wondered if polyamorous people are both more moral for being able to be in relationships in which there's no assumption of mutual propriety, or if they're just stronger for being jealous but for not seeing that as a reason to change that part of their lives.
At those times when I feel this worry the link between monogamy, jealousy, and possession of the other has never been in question: I feel jealous and I immediately think to myself "this is because you think that this other person belongs to you; stop it! They don't!" The jump from jealousy to possession has always seemed like a natural one.
But I wonder if this is the correct way to think about romantic jealousy.
To keep focused, let's consider the case in which one partner in a relationship is jealous that the other is spending some significant time with an ex-lover. When thinking about this case, I was struck by the fact that jealousy in this sense is never a feeling that I attribute towards anything that I own or consider mine. I hold that I own my laptop, but I can say with certainty that I've never experienced jealousy towards my laptop or, for that matter, towards anyone using my laptop (with or without my permission). The same goes for my house, my car, and even my body. When these things have been used by someone who didn't have right to them I've felt anger, certainly, but never jealousy.
We come much closer to the matter, I think, when we talk about objects that I feel I should have owned or expected to own, but didn't. I've certainly felt jealous of people who won scholarships that I didn't, who got into better schools than me, or who had publications in their first year of graduate school. Maybe romantic jealousy is like that and we only need to specify that instead of feeling that we already feel we have some proprietary rights over our partner, we wish we did or feel that we deserve to have such rights. Perhaps in this sense we can say that I'm jealous over my partner spending time with an ex-lover because I think I wish or deserve that she pay attention to me rather that other clown (and, yes, they're, of course, all clowns). And it still makes sense to say that if one feels that they wish or deserve to have property rights over a person in some respect they treat that person like property as well.
Still, there's something that sits ill with me about this formulation. In the first place, it seems to me that not all cases of jealousy imply anything like proprietary rights and that the jump between the two is too quick. Consider, again, the jealousy one experiences when a friend gets a windfall of cash (or publishes a paper, or gets into a good school). It's possible that the object of the jealousy is some particular object over which we have property rights (e.g. the actual money, the printed name in the journal, the acceptance letter), but it seems just as well to say that one is jealous because one wishes that some state of affairs or other applies to oneself. Less stiltedly, we might be jealous because we want something to have happened to us--we want to have been the kind of person who won the lottery, who got into Harvard, etc. In those cases there need not be anything like considerations of property in the background. I suppose some people might claim that they view moments in time or states of affairs as objects that belong to them, but this seems to me to be a stretch (I'd need to hear some arguments to the contrary at least).
The same seems to me to apply to at least some cases of romantic jealousy. When one is jealous that one's partner is spending time with an ex-lover they're upset that a certain state of affairs (their spending time with the ex) has occurred rather than a different one (their spending time with their beloved). This, too, might be objectionable, but not on the grounds that there's an assumption of property rights in the background.
I also think the formulation is ill fitting because it appears to leave out an important dimension of jealousy. One of the reasons I don't experience jealousy towards the things that I own (or towards the people who use them without my permission) is that those things aren't agents. At least part of what's upsetting in situations where romantic jealousy arises is the fact that it at least appears that one's romantic partner is willingly or actively participating in something you don't want them to do.
This, too, can be given a property rights reading insofar as it can be interpreted as a wish for someone with agency not to have that agency. In other words, to be jealous of your partner talking with an ex-lover is to wish that your partner was like a laptop or a stereo--without will of their own. Surely there are people who think this way, but I suspect it is far from the norm. Rather, it seems to me that the jealous person wishes that their partner didn't want to spend time with their ex, or that they wanted to spend time with them instead of their ex.
This might seem like small potatoes, but I think it's rather important since jealousy in this sense doesn't express a desire for the other person to become property, or an assumption that they already are property, but rather expresses a desire for the other person to be a different kind of agent--one with a different set of desires and preferences than the ones they actually have. Now, this may itself be a horribly toxic attitude and we might find something problematic about one person wanting their beloved to be fundamentally different (or about feeling so passionate about their beloved being different in some small respect), but the moral problem problem here seems to me to be a different one from the one in which one views the other as property. The moral problem in the latter case is that they're treating their beloved as an object with no agency; the problem in the former case is that they are overbearing or domineering. The two can overlap, but they need not.
If all this is correct, then it seems that at least in theory there's some wiggle room between romantic jealousy and viewing others as property. Which I guess is alright.
I honestly don't know whether in practice this theoretical room is ever enough to take seriously. Maybe there are serious reasons to think that when people experience romantic jealousy they really do think of their partner as property (regardless of how odd this might seem). Maybe there are serious reasons to think that men and women experience romantic jealousy differently; indeed, it would be surprising if there weren't any differences given how we're socialized. And maybe it really is true that being monogamous by itself carries with it the baggage of all sorts of horrible stuff. I don't take myself to have shown any of that is off the table.
But maybe the picture that's in the back of my head that automatically links monogamy, jealousy, and being a terrible person is also not entirely accurate.
(Yes, all research is me-search. Get over it.)