Jul 8, 2015

The traditional marriage argument for polygamy

Opponents of gay marriage have long argued that the social and legal acceptance of gay marriage will lead to the social and legal acceptance of polygamy. If marriage is not only a relationship between a man and a woman, but can also name a relationship between a man and a man or a woman and a woman, then why not between a man and a five women?

The slippery slope is slippery. So the argument goes. 

This was raised in the Supreme Court during oral arguments in Obergefell vs. Hodges. Justice Samuel Alito brought it up. As did Justice Antonin Scalia.

And Chief Justice John Roberts wrote about the polygamy problem in the dissent to the court's 5-4 ruling. If gay marriage, why not plural marriage?

I don't find this argument persuasive. For one thing, it depends on an insistence that marriage has only ever been defined one way, which is historically, empirically inaccurate. It depends too on the idea that any redefinition means throw-up-your-hands-because-now-it-can-mean-anything. That's not how redefinition actually works, though. Humans, it turns out, are quite capable of expanding their definitions without losing all definition completely. 

For another, the argument that same-sex marriage leads to polygamy seems to misunderstand how same-sex marriage advocates have been advocating for marriage. They have not actually argued that marriage is whatever. Marriage, they have said, as Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in Obergefell vs. Hodge, should be about dignity, identity, commitment and, especially, love.

The slogan, after all, has been "love wins," not, "eh, whatever."

At least some of those defining characteristics -- for example identity and commitment -- would not play the same role in plural marriages that they do in either same- or opposite-sex marriages.

There doesn't seem to be any necessary connection between Anthony Kennedy's view of marriage and polygamy. Perhaps redefining marriage will result in further redefining marriage, which will result in the social and legal acceptance of polygamy, but the argument that that is logical inevitable seems lacking. 

At the same time, the argument can be reversed. Isn't it actually arguments for traditional marriage that will lead to the necessary acceptance of polygamy?

Advocates of traditional marriage say marriage must be procreative. They say marriage is only meaningfully "marriage" when it involves the conception or at least potential conception of children. They also argue that tradition is the most important factor in determining the meaning of this social institution. They argue, further, that it is in the interest of the state to enforce this definition because children do measurably better when they are legally bound to both a biological mother and a father.

But aren't all these things true of polygamy?

Polygamous marriages are procreative. They are very traditional. And children raised in polygamous marriages are raised with both a father and a mother.

Certainly there's nothing about the biological basis of conception that demands the pairing be exclusive.

If marriage is about babies, why not polygamy?

Indeed, if you argue that "the record of human history leaves no doubt that the institution of marriage owes its existence to the undeniable biological reality that opposite-sex unions -- and only such unions -- can produce children" and that "irresponsible procreation and childrearing -- the all-too-frequent result of casual or transient sexual relationships between men and women -- commonly results in hardships, costs, and other ills for children, parents, and society as a whole," it would seem that it is in the state's interest to require marriage between all procreative couples.

Regardless of whether that's a first marriage, a second marriage, a third marriage, or a complex marriage.

What is the traditional-marriage argument against polygamy?

The logic would seem to go the other way.