The Slippery Slope to Polygamy?

(It seems a bit meta to be writing a blog post about another blog post. I hope you can forgive me.)

Reading this fine example of careful reasoning has me thinking about the issue of marriage. I am pleased with how this argument was made. To summarize, the linked post addresses the argument that allowing homosexual marriage will create a snowball effect that will ultimately end with polygamist marriages becoming legal,* so for the sake of avoiding polygamy, we should not legalize gay marriage. This slippery slope argument (from gay marriage to polygamy) does not hold water, in large part because the arguments for and against each of these things use completely different reasoning. Demonstrating the legal necessity of one does not establish the necessity of the other.

The issue of polygamy isn’t receiving much attention in the media, but how about it? Is it okay for people to marry more than one person? I have to confess that I see little reason this should be universally forbidden.

After all, what’s the difference between an adulterer and a polygamist? And if it’s not illegal for a married man to support a girlfriend or two and father children out of wedlock with them, how can it be illegal for him to bind himself to them according to the laws of his church? Why is a practicing Mormon with two wives a criminal while [a politician, publicly] embarrassed by the discovery of his second family, is simply a punchline?

* * *

“Religious liberty” arguments have been ubiquitous in politics recently, so why hasn’t this issue been in the news? Polygamy is no longer accepted in mainstream Mormonism, but it still exists in the world (and, it seems, illegally in rural Utah). Wealthy Christians in Haiti practice polygamy. Wealthy Muslims in Saudi Arabia practice polygamy. I have long wondered what would happen to these families if they sought to immigrate to the United States. Would the government deny them entry? Would it restrict them to one spousal visa, splitting up the family and leaving the non-chosen spouse(s) to remain in their home country, presumably in squalor? Would they perhaps be eligible for dependent visas as “sisters” instead?

I am sympathetic to arguments rejecting the traditional Mormon model of polygynous marriage because of its inherent inequality. The Mormon practice of polygamy was inexcusable because only men could have multiple wives; women could not have multiple husbands (and men couldn’t marry multiple men, and so on). A man may have multiple women sealed to him, but a woman can only be sealed to one man. Thus, Mormon polygamous marriages were discriminatory and thus immoral. This same reasoning applies to Islamic marriages, where one man can have four wives, but one woman can have only one husband. Indeed, every form of polygamy I’ve discussed here has been a polygynous marriage.

The inequality inherent in these models of polygamy constitutes an excellent reason to reject them, but what about a system of truly equal polygamy, where men can marry multiple women (or men) and women can marry multiple men (or women)? Is there any good reason such a system should be categorically forbidden? From a comment on the initial article, suggesting a traditional argument against this form of marriage has been that they become complicated in the case of death and divorce:

When you have two surviving (or otherwise assuming power) spouses, it becomes highly likely that everything will end up in a courtroom.

I don’t see why this would be a problem. In the case of a person with a living will, the issue has been settled already. In contemporary society, a dead spouse’s property is transferred into the surviving spouse’s name. Why would joint ownership by the two (or more) remaining spouses in a polygamous marriage be controversial?

But by asking that question, I have revealed a preconception that would not have been reflected by the reality of traditional polygamous marriages. When two women were married to one man, his death would have meant the women were no longer legally bound to each other. In my mind, I assume the archetypal equality-based polygamous marriage to be one in which all members are married to each other, constituting a group marriage—a legal web, rather than a spoked wheel. If a given polygamous marriage was indeed a spoke-based one, I can see how that might be legally confusing, but this could be solved rather simply by requiring all members of polygamous marriages to sign prenups and have relatively up to date living wills. Or by mandating a web-based approach.

Also, if polygamy is widely practiced it has destabilizing effects on society due to the scarcity of marriageable women.

I’m unaware of any evidence to back up the presupposition that being married can spell the difference between an adult male criminal and an adult male non-criminal. There is some research suggesting marriage reduces crime, but is this sufficient to conclude that having a greater proportion of unmarried men would lead to social instability? (And if women were equally allowed to and did take multiple husbands, would this even be a concern?)

Furthermore, following this logic of marriage reducing crime, I note that opponents of gay marriage do not seem to think much about the reduction in crime that allowing teh gayz to marry would usher in.

People have used polygamy to justify marrying children.

Well, that’s not a problem because we have consent laws, and anyone who tried to do that would be rightly thrown in prison. Are there any other objections to polygamy that don’t involve direct appeals to religious holy books (i.e., objections that would hold up in a court of law)?

Unilaterally opening the doors to legal polygamous marriages with no restrictions strikes me as a questionable legal decision. In our current social environment, I don’t imagine the consequences would be overwhelmingly positive. I suspect the patriarchal nature of Western culture would result in the predictable nature of most polygamous marriages involving one man and several women, but I cannot possibly imagine this being anywhere near as much of a problem as it was before women had the legal right to be people. Still, is the likelihood that some women would choose to enter unequal marriages with misogynist husbands sufficient grounding to consider polygamous marriages intrinsically immoral? If being in such a crappy situation makes those women happy, can we say that their choice is wrong? Can we say that they should not be permitted to make this choice? (Wouldn’t this be one of those “nanny state” situations?)

Perhaps most importantly, what about Twilight‽ If polygamous marriages were legal, Bella could marry both Edward and Jacob! Then there’d be none of this socially divisive Edward v. Jacob hatred!

You’re welcome to throw up now, if you like.

But seriously, are there good reasons why polygamy should be illegal?

* I’m actually pleased that the slippery slope suggested here went from gay marriage to polygamy. I normally expect the slippery slope argument to end up with “dogs” or “kitchen utensils” or whatnot.

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