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While I was driving home from work today, the DJ on the radio mentioned the reality show about polygamy. Since I needed a blog topic, this was clearly a sign from God.

While polygamy is illegal many places, there is still the question of whether it is morally acceptable or not. While I am not a scholar of the ethics of polygamy, the main arguments against the practice on moral grounds tend to be aimed not at polygamy itself. Rather, the main moral arguments seem to be against various ills that are often associated with polygamy, such as the oppression of women.

However, it is important to distinguish between the ethics of polygamy itself (that is, having multiples spouses) and the ethics of specific manifestations of polygamy (such as cases involving underage brides or when the spouses are ignorant of the polygamy).

I am, obviously enough, morally opposed to forced marriages and marriages involving those who are most likely incapable of informed consent (that is, underage brides). It is easy enough to argue that it is wrong to force people to marry or to get “consent” from people who are actually not capable of providing true, informed consent.  I am also, obviously enough, opposed to “secret” polygamy-cases in which a person marries multiple people who are unaware of the polygamy. However, the challenging part is to argue about polygamy itself.

One stock and obvious approach is to argue that polygamy is a form of cheating and hence inherits its immorality from this immoral act. However, polygamy seems to be different from the usual sorts of cheating. First, there is no deception since the spouses are all aware of each other. Second, the spouses are not straying outside the relationship since they are all in the relationship. As such, there is no breach of agreement or violation of relationship rights. It also would not seem to be adultery, since no one is having sex with someone s/he is not married to. As such, polygamy does not seem to be cheating.

Of course, it can be argued that polygamy is wrong because a person is morally entitled to only one spouse at a time. However, that is the question at hand. To conclude that polygamy is immoral because people are morally limited to one spouse seems to beg the question. What must be shown, obviously enough, is that the moral limit is one spouse per person. This could be done by arguing that this is inherently the case or perhaps it could be done by arguing that the consequences of polygamy will always be bad enough to outweigh the good (that, for example, a spouse or spouses will be ignored or exploited). Or perhaps some other means of argumentation can be employed.

So, the challenge is this: come up with an argument for the claim that a person is morally limited to one spouse. Religious arguments, of course, need to be converted to moral arguments.

Bonus points if you can prove that the moral limit is zero spouses.

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  1. Nora Carrington

    Polygamy means “more than one woman.” If you want to discuss polygamy, you’re limited to discussing whether or not it’s morally permissible for a man to have more than one wife.

    Polyamory [“more than one love”] would be a better starting point for discussion, even if it doesn’t get to the legally sanctioned marriage aspect that I believe you want to explore.

    If you genuinely want to discuss legally recognized marriages where there are more than 2 parties [whether or not these need to be of the opposite sex], you shouldn’t use “polygamy” to describe it.

  2. I thought about this not long ago after someone brought up polygamy during a discussion about gay marriage. My immediate reaction was that there was nothing wrong with polygamy itself, as long as it was many-to-many and between consenting individuals of any sex. The main difference between an equal polygamy and the dating scene is that the former requires documentation (marriage certificate).

    While I can’t come up with any moral arguments against polygamy, at the least, it would be a nightmare from a legal perspective. If every individual were free to have as many marriages with others as they saw fit, it would radically alter many of our existing legal structures based upon the family unit (taxes, property, etc.).

    I expect that polygamy could have other negative effects based upon existing instances of jealousy, domestic abuse, and child custody battles. Those issues might be multiplied by allowing polygamy based on the increase in complexity.

    Not too many instances of one-to-one contract arrangements exist in our society other than marriage. If the corporation is an individual, then many employment contracts are also one-to-one, with some of the same implications (legally) for not allowing many-to-many. In that case, it is easier to argue morally that it would be wrong for someone to work for more than one corporation if it meant that the individual were working for competing corporations at the same time.

    (Nora: you’re thinking of polygyny.)

  3. We should distinguish two questions about polygamy:

    (i) what is the moral status of polygamy in so far as it involves a romantic/sexual relationship between one man and more than one woman?

    (ii) what is the moral status of polygamy in so far as it is the legal recognition of the sort of relationship described in (i)?

    These are different, though probably related questions.

  4. easy, right? it would start with an empirical claim that, as a matter of fact, given our biology, long-term sexual relationships around which families are organized tend to work best when between only two people. and since, on this view, attempts at polygamous (or polyamorous) relationships would more often than not cause more suffering than flourishing, they are usually wrong on consequentialist grounds.

    not necessarily an argument i would agree with, but that’s how it would go.

  5. “come up with an argument for the claim that a person is morally limited to one spouse”

    Surely there is no such argument? Any relationship between two or more people is — in general — morally acceptable if it has the informed consent of all involved parties, yes?

  6. Nora,

    I could be in error, but “polygamy” is usually defined in gender neutral terms. That is, polygamy is having multiple spouses. This could be multiple wives, husbands or multiples of both.

    In any case, my intent was to address the ethics of multiple spouses regardless of gender.

  7. A,

    Quite right. There is the moral status of the relationship itself and also the ethics of the legal recognition of said relationship. While the two are probably connected, the legal recognition of polygamy (that is, having the laws needed to handle property, inheritance, visitation, divorce and so on) might have moral problems of some sort.

  8. I’m curious, how does out biology indicate that?

    I do agree that polygamy has generally been associated with other problems, but this might be due to the specifics of the situation (for example, that a religious group allows underage marriage) rather than polygamy itself.

  9. Steve,

    Well, one could use a fairness argument. If there is a picnic with 20 sandwiches and 20 people, then each person should be limited to one sandwich. Likewise, one spouse per person, otherwise some folks would get shorted.

  10. This is a stretch, since i don’t really believe such problems couldn’t be overcome in a society where polygamy is practiced openly and legally:
    1. If a man were free to choose several wives, the wives would have to live with other women whom they did not choose. That’s wrong.
    Turn it around, woman choosing husbands, and it’s still wrong.
    Even if the earlier spouse(s)’ signed consent were required to allow any new addition in law, how do we know – or enforce – that consent isn’t coerced?
    2. Presumably, if these are all consensual marriages, divorce is an option for any member of the group. Children born into an extended family of this kind would form deep bonds with several, or all, parents, and be torn too many ways in case of any divorce.

  11. On further consideration, all marriage is wrong, on the moral ground that the state and/or church imposes a single type of contract on variable type of relationship – and charge a fee for doing so.
    In most cases, the state and church have slightly or widely different expectations and requirements of a married couple and their responsibility to each other; often neither one compatible with the couple’s own expectations and requirements.

    The state and church both exact penalties for dissolving a union that should really be a unique contract between individuals,and nobody else’s business.

  12. A friend maintained two separate
    households in a completely open and transparent manner.

    He wasn’t legally married to either woman, but they were longterm relationships.

    Everyone involved was well over the age of consent, in their 30’s.

    As far as I know, both women accepted that state of affairs, and I didn’t see nor do I see anything ethically wrong with it.

    I didn’t know him well enough to see how he handled the possible stresses and jealousies involved in such a situation, but he was
    a people person, generally found in leadership roles.

  13. Mike,

    Sandwiches are commodities; spouses make their own decisions. The only unattached woman in a community including many single men may choose to espouse an already-married man. Would you coerce her in the name of fairness?

  14. Mike,
    I don’t see any moral problem connected to polygamy, per se. I can visualize reasonable, moral societies which have nonstandard possible marriage combinations, e.g. same-sex marriage. Of course, both sexes must have equal rights as to positioning in such combinations.
    You seem to think obvious that polygamy is cheating. Why so?
    Personally, I think you have to be out of your mind to want more than one spouse.

  15. I would respond with one of my favorite philosophy quotes by Socrates (or Plato, if you want to be technical):

    “By all means marry: If you get a good wife, you’ll become happy; if you get a bad one, you’ll become a philosopher.”

    And there’s always the age-old addage: “They say polygamy is having one wife too many. They say monogamy is the same thing.”

    But I kid. I am a happily married man. I just wanted the extra points.

  16. Humans are chimpanzees. If one ignored what was said, one would simply observe humans behaving with all the sexual variety primates are capable of.
    Add language and you get taboos, and morality, both of which rely on authority, not rationality. What you want to discuss is ethics, behavioral rules that have some other warrent than a shepard said so 3000 years ago. As far as ethics go, protecting mothers and children is the only rational basis of ethics if we value human DNA (which it is polite to do, if nothing else). Beyond that I am a fan of informed consent, but I don’t honestly expect much from chimpanzees with delusions of granduer

  17. I see no way of resolving this one. Granted, moral dilemmas are not my forte. I spend more time asking myself: How does one know if someone will make a good wife? Since there is no way for my meger brain to be able to calculate an answer to this question, for all practical purposes I’m “zerogamous” or “nongamous”. I suppose that is an argument for the bonus points! 🙂

  18. The argument for polygamy being immoral is simple. It makes each involved women worth less than that man. Women are not objects to collect and show off manhood.

  19. The world..it is a changin.
    Same sex marriages,men being pregnant,polygamy. There are plenty of marriages with one spouse who are not faithful.
    As long as they are consenting adults…to each his own.
    It is strange to me but I dont have to do it!

  20. to Nora Carrington: Unfortunately, you are mistaken. Polygamy comes from the Greek “polys gamos”, which if translated literally means “often married”. When a man has more than one wife is called polygyny (also from the Greek: poly – “many”, and gyny – “woman or wife) and when a woman has more than one husband, polyandry (Greek too! poly – “many”, and andros “man”.

  21. Lauren,
    Let me emphasize that I’m not a proponent of any kind of polygamy, but especially those encouraged by religion, e.g. Mormon, for the purpose of producing a ton of kids.
    But, why do you feel it necessarily the case that in a polygamous marriage with more than one wife, the women are degraded, or lose out in any way?
    Since there might have been some confusion about it, assuming anyone read it, I took in my comment, as per my dictionary (also see GTODE above,) the meaning of polygamy as a person with more than one spouse. Of course, this leaves the possibility of interesting combinations.

  22. An interesting question. Here’s one possible argument for the two-partner-only marriage.

    If I remember my Aristotle correctly, true friendships are based on two people having virtues the other lacks. Marriage is (in Aristotle) an imperfect friendship, so I think he would say marriage should in some fashion be between people who have “complementing” personalities. If I am married to two people rather than one, then neither one of them is as good a complement to my personality as a single person would be, or else my two spouses have very similar characters. Put another way, if one spouse is a suitably perfect complement to my own character, why would I need a third under an Aristotelian view?

    Another point on the friendship model: IIRC a major point of “perfect” friendship was that it led each person to develop virtues they lack. If I am cowardly I marry a courageous person, and hopefully that will lead me to develop that virtue because I want to become more like the person I love. But in polyamory there is confusion here. If partner A is a good match in some respects, and partner B in others, then in each case I must decide which partner I want to become more like. That could be quite tricksy. (I would say this argument is more true today than it was for Aristotle, because he had some… interesting views on the respective natures of the genders.)

    I am not 100% sure I accept this argument. I have not thought it through enough. But if there is a convincing argument, I suppose it would be set up along a similar line. The prima facie argument for polyamory seems to be, whatever consenting adults freely choose to do, they should be allowed to do. So the obvious counterargument might say that their choice is not “good” for them in some respect. Showing why it runs counter to human nature just might do that, if polyamory turns out to do that…

  23. I think polygamy is morally acceptable between consenting adults. I consider it equivalent to people engaging in multiple partners (not at the same precise moment which would be called something else). If it is done without knowledge (which does not give consent a chance), then that is cheating and morally wrong for the people involved. I think the moral responsibility lies with the people involved, not others looking onto the scene.

  24. I believe polygamy should be de-criminalized at the very least. There is quite a bit of information on the internet giving reasons why such a thing should happen. If EVERYONE was able to have multiple spouses then there would NEVER be a shortage of available partners. And you would be able to marrry someone who had already proven themselves in marriage. There would be a crap less divorces because many times we divorce because we find someone better suited to us. This would not have to be the case in polygamy. You could all just take a vote whether to include this new person in your marriage. Speaking strictly concerning polygyny, It’s also better for the women to have sister-wives because there is someone to share the load with, be it sex, child raising, child rearing, chores, working, etc. There is always a baby-sitter. The men can have their cake and eat it too. Men can have sex immediately after the birth of a baby without damaging their wife. The relationships between all the partners can grow exponentionally, the multiple emotional connections that come with it, between the man and each wife, between the wives… the dynamics increase to amazing proportions. It is wonderful to have a best friend with them in the same house that they don’t have to worry about their husband cheating on them. The husbands would be less able to cheat because he already has to keep up with two (or more) women. Besides, every woman needs a wife.

  25. I recently changed my relationship from a monogamous one to a polyamorous one. I wrote an article to lay down my perspective on the matter (both to myself, my girlfriend and others). Here it is:



  26. I believe the best argument is provided by a perspective with a slightly religious tone, hinted by the historical relation between monogamy and monotheism.

    I have not refined the argument into well-defined steps, but I hope the overall structure is there.

    The goal of marriage, in some sense, is to explore the highest forms of love (and if possible maintain them). This relates to the intimate conceptual relationship between marriage and family. (The family unit is intrinscially a reflection of different forms of love and relationships).

    If one is not marrying for such an end goal, then marriage is simply a formality or tradition/ritual. Let’s assume that we are talking about the most morally unoffensive (admirable?) form of polygamy, which explores the higher forms of love and is based on consent, regardless of the formal status of marriage. If there are moral problems with this form, then the more offensive forms are probably more problematic (for whatever their consequences and rule utilitarian or deontological misgivings). [The word offensive is not meant to be a technical word or heavily morally loaded (more like intuition/gut feeling type of “offensive”).]

    So I think the best argument comes from a virtue ethics framework about the virture of love. The simplest thought is that one cannot explore the higher forms of love in polygamy because the assumption that you cannot “truly” love more than one person at the same time (whatever truly means). This is false because people can “truly” love their parents, kids, and spouses at the same time.

    If we try modifying the true love statement to address a sexual relationships only, I still believe this is not wholly correct. There is no good evidence that one person cannot love more than one person (in a non-platonic sense), and usually it is argumentatively better just to take (successful) polygamists words for granted that they love all their spouses truly.

    So really, the only problems I see with polygamy are that there are morally superior alternative options to polygamy due to, and second to the fact that there is a corruption in polygamy. Let’s highlight this corruption by contrasting it to monogamy, and note that this corruption only occurs in morally extreme situations. Think about the following intuition pump.

    Let’s say that you had to sacrifice your life for someone; further try to rank-order your priorities (the ranks should be based on moral justification and/or rational reasoning). Normally, the virtuous (wo)man willing to sacrifice her/his life would have family members at the top in some order. Given human nature and the moral obligation to future generations, we probably put children first (if applicable). Siblings and parents may come immediately next (doubtful), but nonetheless somewhere below children is your significant other. If he/she is polygamous and truly loves everyone of the spouses, how does s/he rank order them (if s/he can only save one of the several)?

    If a polygamist truly loves each spouse, then if s/he rank orders them, there has to be some genuinely moral explanation/reasoning. (One’s true love of kids, spouses, siblings, and parents are intrinsically different, and so can be rank ordered differentially). What would be the moral difference maker that is genuine to the motive to explore higher love and given that each one truly loves each one? I believe this ends up as a Buridan’s ass situation, or you have to make a decision based on a non-moral judgment.

    What all this means is that, when one enters into/begin a polygamous relationship, s/he is intrinsically unable to truly love/value everybody appropriately (not just equally). The second one picks favorites based on non-morally justifiable reasons, s/he has then hindered the capacity for reciprocal and equal love between two members of the arrangement.
    Spouse A is willing to sacrifice his/her life for B, but B is not willing because B would rather save spouse C than A.

    This motive is morally suspect and is not appropriate for people who truly love each other. (Regardless of whether A cares or not about B’s decision). Essentially, the only problems with polygamy are of this nature…very circumstantial and really, who-cares-kind-of-moral nit picking. But this means that it is not morally admirable/virtuous to enter into polygamous relationships because of suspect moral motives … which ultimately means only “saints” (and other very pious people) care. Because western civilization under the influence of monotheism believed in the spiritual quest to saintliness, then this probably relates to why polygamy eventually became unfavorable. If modern people cannot find a moral basis for upholding this tradition, specifically here in terms of polygamous motives, then we better grow out of our moral disgust of polygamy. If we can, there is certainly a moral reason to not be polygamous.

    In ending, it is interesting to note that most polygamous relationships do not even come close to the level of unoffensive-ness (which I set up above), and when we observe cruder forms, some of us find polygamous people’s motives suspect in general (probably for other reasons). But monogamous marriages are far from perfect either, and a really successful polygamous marriage could be morally better than a mediocre-to-lacking monogamous marriage.

  27. I’m actually thinking of doing this as part of my college debate paper. So if anyone knows of any good resources this would be very helpful to me. jjustine05@yahoo.com
    thank you

  28. You know… the big question is why do men have to have many wives? Why? It seems to me that one man hasn’t found the person who can fulfill his heart. Having many wives can cause one of the deadly sins to arrive constantly, and that is jealously. I SEE nothing good coming from Polygamy. Its the same the other way around too. Men get mad if a other man tries to take his girl.

    This is what you call human nature. You don’t need to go giving your gooey touchy love to 5 people. Its only one, and when its one, its more special for them to feel than them knowing that your doing it to …5? If there is no one out there to give their only kind of love to you ONLY, your going to feel half loved, and I don’t see why you would marry anyone for that reason.

    Marriage isn’t the reason here, its who you want to spend a lifetime with. Most people would like a partner that focuses on them when it comes to THAT kind of love.

  29. polygamy was also supported by all major religions. it was never considered illegal or sin. here are the references of the verses from different religions below:

    (5) Permission for Multiple Spouses (Wives/Husbands):- Ramayana: 2:8:12, Dasaratha; Mahabharata: Draupadi, Krishna; //BIBLE: 3Kings 11:3; 2Kings (2Samuel) 5:13; 2Chronicles 11:21; Exodus 21:10; Deuteronomy 21:15; //QURAN: 4:3.

    for complete text of these verses, please refer the following blog:


  30. Since polygamy does not always mean abuse of under age girls,but a contract between consenting adults.Polygamy in itself is not morally wrong because many biblical heroes were polygamist.Many people say that polygamy is about SEX.I think sex is a good thing when it is done with your wife or wives.Men who want to be responsible for the women they have sexual relations with are considered immoral by mainstream media.

  31. Peter Sloan:
    “as a matter of fact, given our biology, long-term sexual relationships around which families are organized tend to work best when between only two people”)

    “I’m curious, how does out biology indicate that?”

    Male parental investment in humans is high, like that of flying birds. And for much the same reasons: the development of the human brain, like flight feathers, makes unusual metabolic (and other) demands which require the attentions of more than one adult.

    The extra adult normally cannot be “any old” adult, because kin selection requires shared genes. (“Blood is thicker than water”, if you like.)

    So nearly all mammals and birds exhibit one out of two possible reproductive “strategies”: either polygamy (one involved parent, members of other sex in competition) or monogamy (both parents involved, making careful mutual choice of mate, and forming ostensibly exclusive pair-bonds). The symmetries between men and women in love make it clear that human biology fits the second strategy. Love is a human universal.

    All monogamous animals are liable to cheat, of course, even paradigmatically monogamous birds, but that’s just a side effect of monogamy (much as theft is a side effect of ownership). It doesn’t diminish the fact that the species follows a monogamous reproductive strategy.

    The assumption that there is a “spectrum” — both ends of which are “normal” rather than one end of which is exploitative — is a biological error.

    Having said all that, I should add that I don’t think there’s anything immoral about having many spouses as long as all parties are consenting adults.

  32. If you would talk to a true Polygamous family that lives by God’s laws you would find that the wives are happier and that the children or happier. Now, just those that have only one wife, you do have hose that abuse that right to kidnap and to force women to marry them against their well and eve child abuse where little children or forced to marry older men. These thing are not of God and or evil, but the state and federal governments already have laws against such things and all they did to do is enforce those laws and not go as far as to make the idea of polygamy illegal. By our constitution the state or federal governments have not right to make religious decisions for us and that just what is being done concerning polygamy.

  33. If you would talk to a true Polygamous family that lives by God’s laws you would find that the wives are happier and that the children or happier. Now, just like those that have only one wife, you do have those that abuse that right by kidnapping women and forcing these women to marry them against their well and eve child abuse where little children or forced to marry older men. These thing are not of God and or evil, but the state and federal governments already have laws against such things and all they did to do is enforce those laws and not go as far as to make the idea of polygamy illegal. By our constitution the state or federal governments do not have the right to make religious decisions for us and that just what is being done concerning polygamy.

  34. This is a full answer for polygamy<<<

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