Gay Marriage Today: Why Not Polygamy Tommorow? …Here’s Why

Advocates of gay marriage are often far too glib about their institutional goals. Myself included. We dismiss all sorts of slippery-slope and social fears as simply being based on bigotry (and perhaps we luck out there, because we often turn out to be right, even if it was just a knee-jerk accusation). But many of those fears do make logical sense, particularly when social changes are made by judicial rulings based on distressingly broad and unmoderated principles.

One of the most legitimate of these fears has always been that judicial rulings about gay marriage that are based on bare notions of equality and fairness would carve a path towards the legal recognition of, well, polygamy. And with a polygamist cult controversy still driving news cycles, and HBO’s Big Love back for another season, polygamy can no longer be casually dismissed as an esoteric issue.

That doesn’t mean, that it can’t be dismissed though. It just means that it’s going to take a lot of serious work and argument to do it.

And so, over at Volokh Conspiracy, Dale Carpenter has penned a must-read “Cliff’s Notes” version of some of the best arguments against the “gay marriage/polygamy” connection. Personally, I find them convincing. I’d appreciate any arguments concerning why I should not.

As to the recent California gay-marriage decision itself, I’m of two minds. It should come as no surprise that I like the result. But I also have very strong sympathies with the view that the judges in this case (most of whom were Republicans, by the way) are using methods that overstep important boundaries in our system of government.

On the other hand (again!), I have slightly less sympathy given the fact that people often write constitutional and legal language that claims to be based on lofty moral principles and language… but then whine when someone actually goes and takes those principles seriously, rather than merely conventionally. If you don’t want constitutions to be treated any differently than literal regulations and craven contracts of social convention, then don’t write them as if they were shining beacons of truth and justice.

For all the gay couples who will finally be able to codify their partnerships in the law of our society, there’s little to offer aside from congratulations.

Update: Over at Dean’s World, Dean links to law prof John Witte Jr. and his take on the issue. Among other things, though, Witte notes that one of the traditional reasons that polygamy has been verbotten in the West is that is “routinizes patriarchy.” I’m no women’s studies stooge, but that particular reason strikes me as a little implausible except as a very, very recent development.

28 Responses to Gay Marriage Today: Why Not Polygamy Tommorow? …Here’s Why

  1. magentaraven says:

    NIcely said. Thank you. Perry

  2. Charlotte says:

    There are always people who come up with weak ideas who are against equality. Marriage is a basic civil right that should be attainable by all Americans if they choose. For those who are uncomfortable with gay marriage check out our short produced to educate & defuse the controversy. It has a way of opening closed minds & provides some sanity on the issue:

  3. For Prez '24 says:

    If people want to marry multiple people, I see no reason not to allow it. It would certainly make taxes a little more difficult but its not a huge deal. Every spouse must agree to the new addition and sign the contract with the two newly webs. The more people in the family though the less tax relief, since you can have more people working to support children.

    Theres really no reason to restrict it, though much like homosexual marriage, its not something I think I’ll personally ever really need to worry about.

  4. Bad says:

    For Prez: I think the article I linked to makes several decent cases against polygamy.

    And Charlotte: I think it’s sort of weak to simply assert that every objection to gay marriage basically comes down to “weak ideas against equality.” I’m all for gay marriage, but I don’t think it’s a “no brainier” or that all objections are the result of closed minds. It takes some argument and some reassurance, and some recognition that it does constitute a change in social ideas about marriage that are new and are unexplored territory.

  5. For Prez '24 says:

    The need to change and add laws is really just a vote for or against laziness. I honestly don’t see it becoming popular and there will always be a crowd it appeals to. Not drawing the contract in a civil law doesn’t really stop the practice either. As far as increased abuse, it seems to me the issue would favor power in numbers. I certainly could be wrong, but I don’t think it would be as chaotic as people like to make it out.

  6. I’ll read the article, but off-hand I don’t see why the polygamy argument is a reductio ad absurdum against gay marriage in any event. I am not going to condemn polygamists view of the good, and even if I did based on my personal moral beliefs I don’t think that the state should be doing so in a liberal society. So, if we are going to give state recognition to marriage at all, why not to polygamous marriages as well (provided all involved are competent adults to the same extent as is required for ordinary marriage)?

    Of course, I have repeated argued elsewhere that the best solution is for individuals to enter into whatever domestic, sexual, and familial relationships they like, with whatever support they can muster from their religions, cultures, families, and friends, and for the state to refuse to give any particular recognition to any particular template for relationships as “marriage”. On that scenario, anyone, gay, straight, monogamous, polyamorous, or whatever, can have a marriage ceremony, call themselves “married”, and sign up with their favourite religious organisation that will conduct and record that sort of marriage – but the state will be neutral.

    I’ll say, once again for the record, that I do support same-sex marriage, but only as a realistic compromise in current circumstances, not as the most principled long-term outcome.

  7. Bad says:

    Even if you think polygamy, or the total abstinence of government from judging this or that union, are good or at least permissible ideas, I still think the arguments are worthwhile insofar as they explain to many gay marriage skeptics why granting gay marriage (the issue on the radar at the moment), doesn’t necessarily do many favors to the cause for polygamy. I often feel the same way about the government getting out of the marriage business, but unfortunately, the institution is pretty darn intertwined in terms of bodies of civil law and practice at the moment, and so that would be no small alteration either. Gay marriage has the advantage over nearly every other change of being a matter of slightly broadening a few terms in the basic contract, rather than changing anything substantive in the laws.

  8. For Prez '24 says:

    Oh certainly I can agree to that; much of the same absurd reasons were used when it came to white interracial marriage (I say white interracial, because the virginian law the supreme court struck down only prohibited intermarriage between whites and others). We knocked that one down years ago.. It was only a matter of time for Homosexual marriage to be sanctioned.

  9. […] from Metamagician and the Hellfire Club.) Over at the Bad Idea Blog, "Bad" notes that advocates of same-sex marriage often simply dismiss slippery slope arguments such as the claim […]

  10. Gwenny says:

    Why not polygamy tomorrow? Why not tell the govt to go worry about it’s REAL job and not tell consenting adults how to live their lives? If you only knowledge of polygamy is the sensationalist crap written about the FLDS, I suggest you do a little research. Polygamy is NOT just about patriarchs with a dozen wives anymore. Called polyamory by the non-religious who practice it, it is gaining believers as even a two income family can no longer make ends meet and folk grow past the “limited resources” model of inter-personal relationships.

    Seriously, you are intelligent people. Monogamy is a religious model. It was designed to control people. Statistics on infidelity can only cause one to conclude that monogamy is NOT natural for humans but the humans are more like our primate cousins who practice various forms of tribal community where access to breeding opportunities is based on status.

    But if you are monogamous, no problem. No one is going to force you to have multiple partners.

  11. Bad says:

    Why not tell the govt to go worry about it’s REAL job and not tell consenting adults how to live their lives?

    Well, in this case, what people are asking is for the government to recognize a union and also to ascribe all sorts of particular rights and responsibilities to that partnership. So it’s a little hard to leave the government out of things: it’s a core part of the picture. Gay marriage changes very little in this picture. Polygamy is a HUGE change, complete with all sorts of very confusing issues about precedence and resolving legal rights and so forth. Even with the libertarian solution to marriage (to which I have some sympathies) a lot of these problems and ambiguities remain. Again: I don’t think it does anyone any favors to be so glib about it, and assure everyone that it’ll all work out great. You don’t know that.

    And I don’t believe that monogamy is “designed to control people” by some overarching religious authority, end of story, or anything so simple. Are gibbons religious? Swans? Monogamy is far far more complicated than that.

    And monogamy is a particular aspect of our cultures that really is long-standing and well vetted by the experience of history as a social tradition. Polyamory as a modern practice is experimental at best, and often even somewhat temporary. Monogamy is also, frankly, what the vast vast majority of people seem to want and fall into fairly naturally: even if it does seem like serial monogamy is more our speed in practice than lasting life-long partnerships.

    Finally, as I noted, our “primate cousins” have a quite diverse range of sexual practices, from the chimps, whose sexual practices involve a heck of a lot of rape and sexual violence, to bonobos, who are just weird, to the mostly peaceful polygamy with gorillas to monogamy with gibbons. I’m not sure what relevance any of these have to how we might want to, or be naturally inclined to, behave. We are likely to be as different and singular as any of they are from each other.

    Thanks for calling me intelligent though! :)

    I personally don’t have any fundamental objection to this or that person practicing polyamory, though I’m deeply skeptical of it as a lasting social institution. And I certainly think that the governments treatments of various social and familial relationships could use an overhaul to make it more universal and equitable. But I’m afraid that monogamy has and will continue to have a great deal of appeal, and all sorts of critics all over the spectrum will continue to have legitimate concerns about all these things, each of which needs addressing, rather than simple dismissals.

  12. As usual, an interesting and thought provoking post.

    First of all, I don’t for a moment believe those who claim to fear that “judicial rulings about gay marriage that are based on bare notions of equality and fairness would carve a path towards the legal recognition of, well, polygamy.” What they fear is gay marriage. The polygamy argument is just a red herring. Yes, the arguments make sense in a certain context, but I just don’t believe these people are really afraid that the U. S. will be overrun with polygamists. Their goal is simply to prevent gay marriage, by whatever means necessary.

    But this leads to another question: is polygamy necessarily immoral? It seems to me that the arguments against polygamy, like the arguments against gay marriage, are rooted in the Judeo/Christian notion of what constitutes morality in general, and sexual morality specifically. Simply put, God will be displeased if you have a gay relationship, or a polygamist one.

    Personally, I have a hard time believing God gives a flying one about this.

    Interestingly, the great science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein often depicted some rather elaborate marital arrangements in his later books, often depicting several men and women “married” to each other, forming complicated but close knit family units. Realistic? Probably not, given human nature, but interesting nonetheless.

    The biggest threat to the institution of marriage is not gay marriage, simply the fact that marriage has become optional. If you want to live with someone in a committed (or not) and monogamous (or not) relationship, you just do it. Marriage, at least in this country, is an option, not a requirement.


  13. Bad says:

    Simply put, God will be displeased if you have a gay relationship, or a polygamist one.

    Well, of course, God seems to have come to that understanding rather late in the game, given all the polygamy he smiled on back in the day. But then, when God or some avatar of God apparently came to eat with Abraham, Abraham in Gen 18:6-8 served him a decidedly non-kosher meal (in fact, one which broke what would later become one of the ten commandments!) that included both milk and meat from the same animals, which was apparently eaten without complaint. I suppose that it was only later on that God developed indigestion, and decided to call such a meal abomination. :)

  14. Mike says:

    Bravo, Bad. Excellent post.

  15. Bad says:

    Seriously though: I do think there are problems with polygamy, many of which do track with Carpenter, and which I do think can’t be lightly dismissed. Most of them are not issues stemming directly from polygamy itself being wrong as a single thing in and of itself, but rather the sorts of seemingly inevitable consequences of it on a society. Now, maybe, as R. Blackford suggests, these second-order worries will just turn out to be my own cultural prejudices: the same sort, in fact, that make many people think that gay marriage and gay families have fundamental problems (when in fact, I don’t think they do). But I think the key is that we do have to make the case: we can’t just assume that all worry and concern is cultural bias. Gay marriage is a good idea because there are good reasons for it being so. Polygamists are going to have to make their case, and those that want to make their case for them, I think, are going to have to acknowledge the burden of proof.

    Of course, this is really a separate issue from either a) whether the state should be involved in this debate to any extent at all (I have sympathy with this idea) and b) whether, if the state is involved, it’s legitimate to fear that the exceedingly broad legal principles necessary to justify the judicial creation of gay marriage create a true slippery slope (I have sympathy with this idea too).

  16. Jon says:

    The government shouldn’t have the right to grant marriages at all. Leave that to the churches. Let governments over see civil unions only, whether heterosexual or homosexual. I feel like a huge part of this argument is an Orwellian one. People are upset by the word “marriage”, which they think is religious in nature.

    As for polygamy, I don’t know. Are polygamists only physically attracted to multiple people at once? Are they as emotionally incapable of monogamous relationships as gay people are of heterosexual relationships? It’d be hard to sell.

  17. Bad says:

    It is a hard sell, especially given that marriage no longer legally requires monogamous fidelity per se. Plenty of married couples “swing” and I’m not aware of any state power that can use this to end their legal marriage against their will. Of course, one party could use it against the other in a divorce, but that’s a different issue.

    I have gay friends who basically think that gay marriage is a distraction, and we should be pushing for the legalization of non-traditional unions as a whole: i.e. breaking marriage as a civil institution altogether. This strikes me as 1) politically unrealistic and tone deaf 2) on far far more dubious legal grounds than gay marriage 3) on far more dubious ethical and social grounds than marriage.

    The reality is that marriage does have a whole host of social benefits and responsibilities, and when people blithely dismiss them as if they were ephemeral and unimportant, I get very very skeptical about the seriousness of their position. Again, I’m not saying that the door needs to be shut on polygamists trying to make their case. But they first have to acknowledge the difficultly of the case they are making, and then do the hard work of meeting that burden, instead of just insisting that it’s all good in the neighborhood and the rest of us are just being stuffy sticks-n-the-mud.

  18. Jon says:

    I pretty much agree with you entirely.

    I definitely think there’s something to that whole monogamy thing, whether it’s socially ingrained or not. I don’t think that all non-traditional unions deserve recognition. I don’t want to be able to get legally BFF’ed to my bestest friend forever, for instance. It’s something informal that the state shouldn’t be caring about. Of course that’s not what most people mean by a civil union, but… I’m not sure what other marriage-related non-traditional unions there are (taking away the possibility of marrying animals or inanimate objects). Perhaps the one you suggested might be one: two couples entering into a union together. It’s polygamy, but not polygyny or polyandry. Not sure what the demand for that is; I’d imagine it’s not very high.

  19. kadaoffeway says:

    Arent you concerned about it? Her turn would come next. It was just this once. Have you ever met him? Miss Taggart, you do not understand the problems of scientists. You can state the truth about Rearden Metal. They are nothing but vicious animals. because I thought of them as mine.

  20. Johnny says:

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    תיירות גאה

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  22. Carol says:

    This is foolishness!I can’t believe that people are actually trying to reason about what is acceptable and what isn’t in regards to marriage. It is quite clear, based on the fact that two men or two women can’t create anything other than disease, that marriage is between 1 man and 1 woman. You know, when you have the conversation with your children about the birds and the bees(nature) and you tell them that mommy and daddy were in love and they got married and God gave them Jr. as a gift… There is no provision in that speech about daddy and daddy finding a volunteer to sleep with so she could have Jr. for them smh. But on a very, very , very serious note: People , please repent before it is too late. No matter what the supreme court says or any other court in the nation, the highest court in Heaven will never agree that two men or two women are married(no matter what you say, you’re not married!) So please, you know in your spirits that this is wrong(which is why you so oooooo desperately want it to be “legal” in man’s sight). But you see, God and man are very different! Just because man says it is right , doesn’t mean that God agrees. You have another chance to repent today. Please don’t let lust cost you your soul! I guarantee you it’s not worth it! Jesus loves you and so do I!

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