The Polygamy Argument & Same-Sex Marriage

Wasatch Polygamy Porter

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One of the many stock fallacious arguments against same sex-marriage is the slippery slope argument in which it is contended that allowing same sex-marriage will lead to allowing polygamous marriage (or at least bigamy). The mistake being made is, of course, that the link between the two is not actually made. Since the slippery slope fallacy is a fallacy, this is obviously a bad argument.

A non-fallacious argument that is also presented against same sex-marriage involves the contention that allowing same-sex marriage on the basis of a specific principle would require that, on the pain of inconsistency, we also accept polygamous marriage. This principle is typically some variant of the principle that a person should be able to marry any other person. Given that polygamous marriage is supposed to be bad, this would seem to entail that we should not allow same-sex marriage.

My first standard reply to this argument is that if different-sex marriage does not require us to accept polygamous marriage, then neither does accepting same-sex marriage. But, if accepting same-sex marriage entails that we have to accept polygamous marriage, the same would also apply to different-sex marriage. That this is so is shown by the following argument. If same-sex marriage is based on the principle that a person should be allowed to marry the person they wish to marry, then it would seem that different-sex marriage is based on the principle that a person should be allowed to marry the person of the opposite sex they wish to marry. By analogy, if allowing a person to marry any person they want to marry allows polygamous marriage, then allowing a person to marry a member of the opposite sex would also allow polygamous marriage-albeit only to a member of the opposite sex. But, if the slide to polygamy can be stopped in the case of different-sex marriage, then the same stopping mechanism can be used in the case of same-sex marriage.

In the case of different-sex marriage, there is generally an injunction against people marrying more than one person at a time. This same injunction would certainly seem to be applicable in the case of same-sex marriage. After all, there is nothing about accepting same-sex marriage that inherently requires accepting polygamous marriage.

In light of the above, the polygamy gambit against same-sex marriage would seem to fail.  That is, the claim about the slide into polygamy that would supposedly result from legalizing same-sex marriage is unfounded.

There is, however, still an interesting question in regards to polygamy, namely the matter of whether or not it is wrong. After all, even if it could be shown that same-sex marriage would lead to polygamy, this would only be a problem is polygamy was actually wrong in some relevant way.

While polygamous marriage is not unheard of and there are also traditions of the practice, appealing to common practice or tradition to defend polygamy would obviously be fallacious. What is needed is a proper examination of the practice.

It is often the case that polygamy is condemned not directly because it is polygamy, but because of other factors associated with the specific sort of polygamy in question. For example, a culture that accepts polygamy might do so based on the view that women are inferior to men. In this case, it would not primarily be the polygamy that is problematic, but the way women are regarded and treated. As another example, polygamy might be practiced with under-aged and coerced brides (as has been seen in certain cults in the United States). In this case, the main concerns would seem to be with the coercion and age.  In these and similar cases, the main point of concern would seem to not be that a man has many wives, but the treatment of the women.  Thus, the moral problem with polygamy might not be a moral problem with the polygamy aspect, but the context of the polygamy.

Let it be supposed that polygamy was occurring in a situation devoid of such other negative factors. That is, those involved were not coerced, underage, or mistreated.  The question would then be this: what is it about having multiple spouses itself that is wrong, if anything?

It might, obviously enough, be countered that any polygamous nature would be defective. For example, it could be argued that polygamy, by its very nature, must involve an imbalance in marital power (usually the male over the females) or, at the very least, it would always result in some of the spouses being denied the full benefits of marriage (that is, a single man could not attend to the emotional and physical needs of multiple women).

Naturally, it can easily be pointed out that critics of “traditional” marriage have pointed to the traditional imbalance in power between men and women and women being denied the full benefits of marriage. As such, these defects could be defects in marriage rather than a defect specific to polygamy-a polygamous marriage might merely multiple the disparities.

It is worth noting that these defects seem to arise from polygamy of the traditional sort: a male possessing a harem of wives. As such it would seem worthwhile to consider various forms of non-traditional polygamy, especially one involving multiple spouses of different sexes. Naturally, there could be different-sex polygamy of this sort (the marriage holds between the different sexes but not between the same sexes) or same-sex polygamy or bi-sexual polygamy. The notion of an extended marriage (with co-wives and co-husbands) was considered in science fiction by Robert Heinlein and he seemed to regard it as a potentially healthy and effective system of marriage. Of course, the fictional consideration of this matter could, at best, be considered a thought experiment. However, Heinlein did note the advantages for children (which he seemed to be regarded as of great importance in the context of marriage) in terms of the number of parents available to provide care and support.

Obviously enough, we have no real evidence of how a polygamous marriage between free and equal spouses would actually work-we just have our unfree and unequal world to draw upon for examples.  However, it should, perhaps, not be dismissed out of hand or regarded as inherently defective.

In response to the obvious question, I would not want multiple wives. I failed with one wife and have no desire to multiply my failure.

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  1. Why marry at all? A far more interesting question…

  2. To claim any form of marriage has “traditional grounds” when we reject the notion that marriage between a man and a woman is the default tradition is simply inconsistent.

    Societies that have had a tradition of polygamy appear to have developed a variant of the dichotomy of male an female cultures in which wives have more of a support structure among themselves than they share with husbands. If anything such a culture seems to accentuate the boundaries between the roles of men and those of women.

  3. When determining whether or not something should be legal, there’s really only one question you need to ask: does it have the potential to harm anyone other than the consenting adults who participate? If the answer is no, then there is no reason to make it illegal. Thus, polygamy should definitely be legal as long as it only involves consenting adults. One legitimate argument against polygamy is that it might not be the best environment to raise kids in. But if we accept that group homes are appropriate environments for children, then it seems that we would also have to accept a polygamous marriage as an appropriate environment as well.

  4. There’s also the “up the slippery slope” argument.

    Suppose we concede the slippery slope: that accepting same-sex marriage will lead to accepting other kinds of non-traditional marriage. Go back 50 years, when the slippery-slope argument was being used against interracial marriage. And suppose the slippery-slope argument was correct: accepting interracial marriage led to where we are today, on the verge of accepting another kind of non-traditional marriage. Does it follow that we SHOULDN’T have legalized interracial marriage? Should we have kept it illegal MERELY to prevent the slide down the slope?

    I guess this is just a way of pointing out why the slippery slope fallacy is a fallacy.

  5. “The notion of an extended marriage (with co-wives and co-husbands) was considered in science fiction by Robert Heinlein and he seemed to regard it as a potentially healthy and effective system of marriage.”

    Heinlein didn’t draw the line at just polygamy. In his writings he regarded incest as a potentially healthy and effective system of reproduction. Things like great grandsons travelling back in time to impregnate their great grandmothers.

    “Of course, the fictional consideration of this matter could, at best, be considered a thought experiment. ”

    The ideology of eugenics. Heinlein was a fascist. Which, it happens, many Sci-fi writers are.

  6. “Let it be supposed that polygamy was occurring in a situation devoid of such other negative factors. That is, those involved were not coerced, underage, or mistreated.

    The question would then be this: what is it about having multiple spouses itself that is wrong, if anything?”

    It depends on whether your system of morals is based on egalitarianism or if it’s hierarchical. The hierarchical system to a naive egalitarian looks perplexing, and indefensible. The hierarchical conservative believes the social and economic order is defined by a divine or just cosmic power. That it’s not the product of very random and arbitrary twists of history. These people will always find a justification for some awful inequity – that the master is serving the slave in some equitable reciprocity.

    This is the school teacher, who redeems the Antebellum plantation owner with “but, the plantation owner provided the slaves with food, clothing and shelter”. It seems risible, but it’s a more complex set of beliefs than egalitarianism. Without the plantation owner to enslave the workers, the workers would live wild and chaotic lives, ultimately causing everyone to perish.

    Where does polygamy come into all this? The core belief of the hierarchical conservative is that the structure of society is a house of cards – remove one card and the entire structure collapses. There is a truth in this, in that minor social and economic changes can radically alter society. Polygamy is permissible under Islam, but it’s not obligatory. In some Muslim countries, where secular governments have as a part of modernization drive attempted to discourage or outlaw polygamy, they have met with fierce resistance from conservatives.

    The substance isn’t same gender or polygamous relationships. Afghanistan, a deeply conservative society. The interesting thing with the conservative Afghan family unit, is not only does it have the Islamic heterosexual polygamy, same sex relationships are part of the same unit. Older men take on a young boyfriend, the boyfriend becomes part of the household, there are wives. But it’s not a bisexual free for all. Expressions of sexuality outside the rigid norms of Afghan society can result in death.

    It just a twist of history that the American family unit is not multi-gender polygamy. If the government of Afghanistan attempted to make heterosexual monogamy the law, Afghan conservatives would react in the same way American conservatives would react to compulsory bisexual polygamy.

  7. There is no good reason to deny that we must keep evolving until an adult, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, monogamy or polyamory, race, or religion is free to marry any and all consenting adults. The limited same-gender freedom to marry is a great and historic step, but is NOT full marriage equality, because equality “just for some” is not equality. Let’s stand up for EVERY ADULT’S right to marry the person(s) they love. Get on the right side of history!

  8. I enjoyed this series of posts thanks. For the record, I know of two stable, non-coercive polygamous relationships — neither linked to any particular religion. One is a guy who partners with two girls, one is a guy who partners with two guys. I think both evolved out of open relationships with the first partner, and the biggest disadvantage for the participants seems to be the prejudice and discomfort felt by many about such situations.

    However, aside from the arguments you provided, I can think of one reason why we should at least be slow to extend marriage to polygamous relationships: the actuaries would need to adjust their rules and calculations to work out to factor in multiple partners (e.g., do they share death benefits or get set amounts each?).

  9. The argument that legalizing same-sex marriage will lead to legalizing polygamy is not a slippery slope as there is a link- that being (though more legal that philosophical) the legal reasoning behind restricting either being the same. Constitutional lawyers understand this- that if the equal protection clause is applied to same-sex couples, in regards to marriage recognition and benefits, through the use of strict (or perhaps intermediate) scrutiny, there is no rational legal barrier to prevent this extension to polygamous couples (unless there is damage done through these relationships which receives more recognition that that done through same-sex relationships.)

  10. If the transition from same-sex marriage to polygamy holds, then the full transition would seem to be this:allowing different sex marriage means that same sex marriage should be allowed and this means that polygamy should be allowed. So, different sex marriage seems to lead to accepting polygamy.

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