A slippery slope to polygamy?

I don’t think everyone who supports same-sex marriage is logically obliged to support polygamy, and say so in this post taking issue with columnist Mona Charen. She responds here.

P.S. More thoughts from Eli Lehrer at Huffington Post (“Gay marriage is increasingly accepted precisely because its results, to date, have been good for society. Polyamory on a large scale would have negative short-term results and that’s a good reason to think it’s just not going to happen.”).


  • What would be wrong with that? Legal polygamy would not be like that stupid cult.

  • The problem I have, both with Ms. Charen’s and Walter’s arguments is that neither proceeds from first principles. For several millennia, marriage in Western Civilization has been a relatively stable legal institution in which one man and one woman at any given time may be married. By admitting, as the current trend indicates, that a wider definition of legal marriage is acceptable, I find the positions of both debaters to be off the point. No, there is no obligation to support polygamy. However, given the implied statement that the institution of marriage needs to be substantially revised, I think it is intellectually cowardly not to dig down to basics and consider what else needs to be revised. It may be politically advantageous to say “this far and no farther” but it is also intellectual appeasement.

    Personally, my feelings are that marriage should be a private contract and the state should keep its nose out of the entire marriage. If two (or more) individuals decide to form a partnership for cohabitation, sex and pooling of assets and responsibilities, any of which are legal, that is an effective marriage. It is also a private contract.

    If we as a society and through our proxies, the state, decide that there is any interest in the matter, it should legitimately be limited to matters in which others who are not responsible but subject to the terms of this contract may be affected. I think it may legitimately be argued that children are those people. Given that assumption, state sanctioning of marriage and attending benefits should be limited to marriages (under whatever definition you choose) to those who are or have been engaged in the rearing of children. In other words, a marriage between a man and a woman would not be restricted nor receive any benefits if they had no children. A gay couple — or a polygamous couple — who are engaged in child rearing would be.

    There are many aspects of our laws which exist under custom and habit which have grown irrelevant or injurious under time It is good to reconsider them occasionally from the bottom up. A system that is fundamentally sound may be revised. A system that is fundamentally flawed should be replaced.

    Finally, let me note that the claims that married couples are more stable strikes me as logically flawed. I feel that too much of the reasoning involved in that statement fall under the dictum of post hoc, ergo propter hoc. Do couples become more stable because they are married, or are couples who are stable get married? I suspect it is at least a little of both.


  • Walter Olson (no relation) argues against polygamy in that countries which practice polygamy relegate women to inferior status. That is no argument against polygamy in countries where women retain equal status. Nor would it be an argument against a multiple marriage where the multiple spouses were the husbands instead of the wives. No, if human freedom grants you the right to decide which sex of person you should be free to marry, the same human freedom gives you the right to decide how many of them you may marry. If homosexuals argue that homosexual marriage does not undermine heterosexual marriage, then polygamists can equally argue that polygamy does not undermine monogamous marriage. If homosexuals argue that equal protection of the laws gives homosexuals the right to marry each other, then equal protection also gives polygamists the right to marry each other. Once you make the argument that respect for individual sexual preference gives a man the right to marry another man, or a woman a woman, the same individual sexual preference gives a man the right to marry more than one woman or a woman to marry a man who is already married.

  • I’m not a big social issue conservative, but, at the risk of oversimplification, the argument against gay marriage has always been – “We’ve never done it that way before.” If that argument is no longer valid, on what basis can we oppose polygamous marriage? If gays didn’t choose to be gay, did polygamists choose to be polygamous? If Jack wishes to marry Joe, why does anyone else need to be concerned? And if a man wishes to marry the female soccer team he coaches, as long as all are consenting adults, well, what’s wrong with that? Brigham Young would have approved.

  • BD> “the argument against gay marriage has always been – ‘We’ve never done it that way before.’ If that argument is no longer valid, on what basis can we…. ”

    Surely it is not fair to the opponents of gay marriage to characterize this as their argument. To begin with, no one actually accepts “We mustn’t ever try something we’ve never tried before” as an axiom — otherwise no revolt against King George, no automotive travel, no toaster pastries, no designated hitter rule, etc. Presumably all anti-SSM arguments go on to add an “and” such as “and it is destructive or dangerous or ethically suspect to do so in this case because…” That further argument is open to analysis to see whether, if rejected, it must also be rejected in exactly the same manner with respect to polygamy.

  • The problem with saying “it’s a slippery-slope argument” is that you haven’t actually said the argument is wrong. People really did use same-sex marriage as an example of where Loving v. Virginia might lead. And now here we are.

    I look forward to the brave new future where, due to the confluence of redefining of “marriage” and the requirements of health-insurance regulation, I am required to marry my boss.

  • Well, as someone who has worked in Muslim countries since 2008 I would have to ask, are you prepared to require, by law, a Muslim with more than 1 wife (in theory they can have 4) to divorce all but 1 as a condition of entering the US, even on vacation because the law is the law, and which one? If the answer is no or if the answer is “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” then Polygamy is already tacitly approved…

    And a question, has anyone ever used that argument in court?

  • A lot depends on how the institution of marriage came to mean what it does in whatever jurisdiction you’re talking about. In places where the courts have compelled the state to adopt same sex marriage under an “equal protection of the laws” application, I don’t think it’s reasonable to subject other arrangements of would-be spouses under a different standard.

    Same sex marriage does not ipso facto lead to polygamy, but same sex marriage mandated by the courts under some Grand Right to Marry might…and probably should.

  • 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!

  • If you and several others wish to live together, eat meals, have sex, whatever, it’s up to you. That’s a matter of rights.

    The q at hand is what obligations others in society should agree to place on themselves in terms of supporting your relationships. That’s a matter of entitlements.

  • The real complaint of gay marriage opponents is against homosexuality itself. If there were a real “cure” for homosexuality, then there would be an increased supply of desirable mates for heterosexuals of both sexes. So far, however, all such cures have been quackery, too often bringing underachievement, suicidal tendencies, and/or heartbreak for heterosexuals unsuspectingly committing themselves to a mate of unstable sexuality.

    If a real “cure” emerges for homosexuality, turning out contented heterosexuals with no undesirable side-effects, (something I consider a real possibility in the next 10-40 years), then the terms of debate will shift dramatically, especially as it applies to parents and children. But for now, gay marriage opponents remind me of those stunningly obtuse people who insist that the US Treasury continue to mint worthless pennies at a loss, because somehow 80 years of inflation will not exist if we just pretend it never happened.

  • One fact that gets lost in many of these discussions is that marriage isn’t a private contract. Historically, it is institutionalized peer pressure to establish a monogamous heterosexual norm. Society has powerful vested interests; non-monogamy is conducive neither to general peaceableness nor to the overall child-rearing environment. Marriage also protects women, the gender harder hit (economically and otherwise) by promiscuity. SSM didn’t exist because some societies viewed homosexuality as a social ill and others viewed it as a private diversion irrelevant to social interests and thus not warranting regulation.

  • You would be surprised. In the State of Utah, their bigamy statute specifically forbids living arrangements that look like polygamous marriages.

    The polygamists in the State would argue in Court that they hadn’t broken the law, they had 1 marriage under the Laws of Utah, and would have religious marriages to their other wives that had no legal standing in Utah. So Utah changed the law, even if you are not married, if you are a man, living with 2 women, you have broken the bigamy law.

  • Walter Olson,

    I’m a big fan of yours, but you constantly avoid the core argument here. Equality only means something if it applies to everyone. If consenting adults are allowed to marry the person they want to marry, then it should apply equally whether it’s a man, woman, or men or women. The objections you give us are group’s objections out of political or religious expediency (like feminists). You don’t offer us an explanation over why the equal protection clause should apply to homosexuals but not polygamists.

    There’s also the great irony that historically, polygamy was the norm for most of the world’s civilizations, including Biblical ones. So we certainly have “done it before” although never in the context of a society where women have equal rights under the law. That would only improve it, don’t you think?

  • John Rohan wrote:

    >There’s also the great irony that historically, polygamy was the norm for most of the world’s civilizations, including Biblical ones. So we certainly have “done it before” although never in the context of a society where women have equal rights under the law. That would only improve it, don’t you think?
    [end of quote]

    Women’s equality under US law does not seem to help women in the incest-ridden mega-families of breakaway Mormon cults, not to mention the throw-away boys. Many of the worst abuses could be curbed if women were prohibited from marrying into a polygamous relationship before age 21, but then purists would decry “age discrimination.”

    Robert Heinlein had fun with an alternative marriage pattern in The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. Women’s equality was not an issue, however, because the multiple wives shared multiple husbands.

  • All of these comments are perfectly sensible – except for the paragraph by Boblipton that marriage should be a private contract, and that the state should get out of it. To do that would cause incredible complications and injustices. Marriage implies a whole lot of rights and responsibilities to its members. To name just a few: spouses are expected to support each other; normally you cannot get unemployment benefits if your spouse is working. Your spouse is your next of kin; he/she can make decisions for you in emergencies. Your spouse is a default legatee if you die intestate. Likewise, if you do not provide for him/her in your will, the will can be contested. In particular, minus evidence to the contrary, a husband is assumed to be the father of the wife’s child.
    Do you want all of this to be the subject of private contracts – with the state picking up the pieces if the contract is incorrectly drawn up?
    And, of course, the real problem is the innocent results of the contract: the children. They are the whole reason for marriage laws. Yes, not every marriage is fertile, but if marriages never produced children, then there would never be any reason for the law to get involved. After all, the law doesn’t regulate whom you choose to be your best friend.

  • Hugo, the problem of the “incest-ridden mega-families of breakaway Mormon cults” is happening NOW, when polygamy is illegal. Insinuating that the rest of society would turn to incest is the same scare-mongering that some people are using for gay marriage. Moreover, making it legal would level the playing field – the problem of “throw-away boys” would not be an issue, because women could take multiple husbands as well, and so the numbers would even out in the long run.