Tag Archives: philosophy of sex

Do we need laws banning polygamy?

This is the hot topic for the week, following the judgment of a Canadian court upholding a ban on polygamous marriages.

Here are two online articles criticising the outcome of the case: one by Kate Heartfield, writing for The Province; the other by Stephanie Zvan in a post on her blog at freethoughtblogs.com.

I have a lot of sympathy for both of these pieces. That’s not to say that the case is wrongly decided as a matter of law – I think that’s quite a difficult question, and I’d like to think about it further. In particular, I would like to – *sigh* – read the 300+ page judgment in its entirety (does anyone have a link for it?).

One interesting issue for legal theorists is this: what if a statute was initially enacted to achieve a purpose that was in breach of such concepts as freedom of religion (which might have constitutional protection), but is now, generations later, best rationalised on some other, seemingly legitimate, basis? Should we now see the statute as serving a legitimate secular purpose? Perhaps … but it’s not just obvious. What if the constitutional protection of freedom of religion came along after the statute was enacted? Does that make a difference? I don’t see a clear philosophical answer to questions like that. Maybe it’s just a policy question. I’m open to hearing some views.

In any event, public policy on this issue in Canada will now be in a mess. It’s clear that the state won’t register polyamorous relationships (polygynous, polyandrous, or more complicated) as marriages. I could agree with this – in fact, I argue for exactly this in Freedom of Religion and the Secular State (though not with any great enthusiasm … see for yourself if you don’t mind shelling out).

But that doesn’t mean that all such relationships are prohibited. You’d think it might end there, in fact: in Canada, polyamorous relationships are not prohibited, but nor are they registrable as marriages with whatever social and legal benefits that might entail. Full-stop. I could go along with that. But it seems that there is going to be a middle category of relationships that are actually prohibited, if they show sufficiently marriage-like properties – perhaps including extra-legal recognition as marriage through a religious ceremony. If so, that is just a mess. I don’t necessarily mind the state deciding what relationships it will extend its blessing – and certain legal privileges – to. But I don’t want it getting into the bedrooms of consenting adults with criminal bans on their private erotic arrangements, for which they are asking for no particular privileges from the state.

We should try to avoid dogma … especially if we haven’t read a legal judgment in its entirety, so as to see the full argument. I’d like to know more about the judge’s reasoning. But at the moment, I’m very sympathetic to Heartfield and Zvan.

What do you think?