No, Same-Sex Marriage Does Not–and Should Not–Lead to Polygamy

Polygamy Of all of the arguments against same-sex marriage that I have encountered, the most ridiculous has got to be the argument that if we accept same-sex marriage, we have to accept polygamy as well. The argument is absurd for a number of reasons. Let’s focus on two of those reasons.

The first reason the argument is absurd is that it relies on the slippery slope, which as we all ought to know, is a conditional fallacy. When you run into the slippery slope, it is really best to do a 180 degree turn and run the other way as fast as humanly possible, but unfortunately, a host of opponents of same-sex marriage have decided instead to embrace the fallacy and put it forth as an actual argument, hoping against hope that no one notices that doing so is a bad idea. Just because we have decided that same-sex marriage is a constitutional right–and just because many people have concluded (rightly, in my view) that it is good public policy to support and implement laws allowing same-sex marriage–that does not mean that we are also obliged to conclude that implementing laws allowing polygamy constitutes good public policy. We can draw a line between the two, and any halfway intelligent society would do so, without sacrificing its ability to sleep comfortably at night, secure in the knowledge that it has remained intellectually consistent and rigorous in doing so.

The second reason flows neatly from the first: Polygamy would lead to terrible public policy outcomes. Jonathan Rauch explains:

I am a gay marriage advocate. So why do I spend so much of my time arguing about polygamy? Opposing the legalization of plural marriage should not be my burden, because gay marriage and polygamy are opposites, not equivalents. By allowing high-status men to hoard wives at the expense of lower-status men, polygamy withdraws the opportunity to marry from people who now have it; same-sex marriage, by contrast, extends the opportunity to marry to people who now lack it. One of these things, as they say on Sesame Street, is not like the other

[. . .]

Unlike gay marriage, polygamy is not a new idea. It’s a standard form of marriage, dating back, of course, to Biblical times and before, and anthropologists say that 85 percent of human societies have permitted it. This means we know a thing or two about it.

Here’s the problem with it: when a high-status man takes two wives (and one man taking many wives, or polygyny, is almost invariably the real-world pattern), a lower-status man gets no wife. If the high-status man takes three wives, two lower-status men get no wives. And so on.

This competitive, zero-sum dynamic sets off a competition among high-status men to hoard marriage opportunities, which leaves lower-status men out in the cold. Those men, denied access to life’s most stabilizing and civilizing institution, are unfairly disadvantaged and often turn to behaviors like crime and violence. The situation is not good for women, either, because it places them in competition with other wives and can reduce them all to satellites of the man.

I’m not just making this up. There’s an extensive literature on polygamy.

Here’s a 2012 study, for example, that discovered “significantly higher levels of rape, kidnapping, murder, assault robbery and fraud in polygynous cultures.” According to the research, “monogamy’s main cultural evolutionary advantage over polygyny is the more egalitarian distribution of women, which reduces male competition and social problems.”

The study found that monogamous marriage “results in significant improvements in child welfare, including lower rates of child neglect, abuse, accidental death, homicide and intra-household conflict.” And: “by shifting male efforts from seeking wives to paternal investment, institutionalized monogamy increases long-term planning, economic productivity, savings and child investment.”

There’s more, but you get the idea.

In this article, I noted other research suggesting that societies become inherently unstable when effective sex ratios reach something like 120 males to 100 females, such that a sixth of men are surplus commodities in the marriage market. That’s not a big number: “The United States as a whole would reach that ratio if, for example, 5 percent of men took two wives, 3 percent took three wives, and 2 percent took four wives—numbers that are quite imaginable, if polygamy were legal for a while.”

By abolishing polygamy as a legal form of marriage, western societies took a step without which modern liberal democracy and egalitarian social structures might have been impossible: they democratized the opportunity to marry.

Read the whole thing. Rauch neatly and expertly demolishes the notion that a society that has accepted same-sex marriage also needs to accept polygamy. I am not naïve enough to believe that we have heard the last of this nonsensical argument, but no fair-minded person can possibly believe that we ought to take it seriously.

(Photo Credit.)

(Cross-posted.)

Comments

  1. if it was society that accepted it, via referendum or state wide votes you might be right. But it wasnt. It was decided by the supreme court, and the logic used should be pplied to polygamy. All the other arguments against it are window dressing. Argue against it-if you can- based on the courts reasoning

      • Arguments about polygamy’s ill effects to society, acceptance by society at large and complications with legislation are all completely irrelevant. We are talking about fundamental rights. There are many things that are inconvenient or even outright harmful to society that are and should be legal. Tobacco, adultery and hatred are just a few examples. Does anyone dispute that we should have the right to those things? If not, then what right does the state have to dictate how a family, however unconventional, lives their lives?

        • “Arguments about polygamy’s ill effects to society, acceptance by society at large and complications with legislation are all completely irrelevant.”

          Um, no, they really aren’t. And adultery, tobacco and hatred are hardly comparable to polygamy.

  2. I find the argument against polygyny unconvincing because the arguments aren’t as one sided as Rauch claims. I agree it would be worse for men, but not for women. Rauch says it’s not good for women because they would be competing with each other. Women compete with each other now; if polygyny were legal, competition between women would decline because they would have more choices–not only unmarried men, but married men. More men–the married and unmarried– would be competing for women, which would be to the latter’s benefit. The inferences on the malign impact of polygyny from history and other cultures is suspect because of confounding cultural effects. By the way, what’s the data on the public policy impact of gay marriage? There’s very little, because gay marriage is so historically novel. If it turns out to have bad consequences for children, e.g., because they are more likely to thrive with two opposite-sex parents, what are the chances it will be reversed, and how soon?

    • No, competition between women would not decline; multiple women in a polygamous marriage would have to compete with one another for the attention of the man in the marriage. Men would not benefit because there would be fewer women to marry. Your “confounding cultural effects” argument makes no sense, seeing as how it is a phrase without any meaning whatsoever. There is, finally, quite a lot of data on the public policy impact of same-sex marriage, as same-sex marriage has been legal in various states and other countries for a number of years, and people have been able to gather data as a consequence. Thus far, none of the data suggests that the world is about to end. Funny, that.

  3. Rauch’s arguments against polygamy, based on a sound assessment of its destructive social effects, ring true. But what strikes me is that these sorts of “social effects arguments” were pretty much ruled out of court in the gay marriage debate.

    Even the religious liberty angle, visible as far back as 2003, and blatantly obvious since about 2008, has been denied emphatically as relevant to the question of whether people who love each other and want to spend their lives together in a legally-recognized union, can be married. (Denied, that is, right up until the predictable goalpost moving: “Your religious liberty will never be threatened, fool.” “What? You dissent on religious grounds? Well you’re just a dirty bigot who deserves no liberty and it’s quite right that we’re coercing you.”)

    So now, when the subject is polygamy, all these wider social effects of innovations in marriage law become decisive?

    In truth, Rauch is advancing exactly the type of arguments, to criticize polygamy, that he rejected as profoundly inapposite, when the issue was gay marriage.

    “Yes, I realize that all three (four, five, etc.) of you love each other dearly, but unfortunately, social considerations like allocation of spouses and class status prevent us from permitting you to marry.” Say what?

    I thought is was all a matter of fundamental rights, of human dignity in our chosen forms of romantic attachment.

    Justice Kennedy’s pernicious opinion repeatedly assumed a basis for marriage in monogamy, but it was all pure ipse dixit. He didn’t even try to show us why marriage is by nature monogamous. And indeed, in their incautious moments, even the saner advocates of gay marriages like Andrew Sullivan have admitted that monogamy is not what they really want.

    Rauch protestations are, in the end, feeble and bare assertions of preference that his own principles will not allow.

    • Rauch’s arguments against polygamy, based on a sound assessment of its destructive social effects, ring true. But what strikes me is that these sorts of “social effects arguments” were pretty much ruled out of court in the gay marriage debate.

      No, they weren’t. They were just found unpersuasive. There is a difference.

      Even the religious liberty angle, visible as far back as 2003, and blatantly obvious since about 2008, has been denied emphatically as relevant to the question of whether people who love each other and want to spend their lives together in a legally-recognized union, can be married. (Denied, that is, right up until the predictable goalpost moving: “Your religious liberty will never be threatened, fool.” “What? You dissent on religious grounds? Well you’re just a dirty bigot who deserves no liberty and it’s quite right that we’re coercing you.”)

      No one moved any goalposts, and no one has denied religious liberty.

      So now, when the subject is polygamy, all these wider social effects of innovations in marriage law become decisive?

      Well, yes, they do, as polygamy is quite the different animal.

      In truth, Rauch is advancing exactly the type of arguments, to criticize polygamy, that he rejected as profoundly inapposite, when the issue was gay marriage.

      Actually, no, he’s not. Moving on . . .

      “Yes, I realize that all three (four, five, etc.) of you love each other dearly, but unfortunately, social considerations like allocation of spouses and class status prevent us from permitting you to marry.” Say what?

      Say that. Rauch recited the standard–and compelling–arguments against polygamy that do not apply to same-sex marriage. Quite frankly, this should surprise no one . . . at least, no one who is not determined to move the goalposts, which you accused same-sex marriage proponents of doing.

      I thought is was all a matter of fundamental rights, of human dignity in our chosen forms of romantic attachment.

      It’s not, when social situations spring up that would make polygamy fail to stand up to strict scrutiny, or the rational basis test.

      Justice Kennedy’s pernicious opinion repeatedly assumed a basis for marriage in monogamy, but it was all pure ipse dixit. He didn’t even try to show us why marriage is by nature monogamous. And indeed, in their incautious moments, even the saner advocates of gay marriages like Andrew Sullivan have admitted that monogamy is not what they really want.

      As I have written, I believe that Judge Posner’s opinion in favor of same-sex marriage was much stronger than Justice Kennedy’s opinion, but in fairness to Justice Kennedy, his job was not to show why marriage is by nature monogamous. That wasn’t an issue before the Court. In related news, proving Euler’s Identity was also not an issue before the Court. I think that I have demonstrated a very real antipathy towards many of the writings of Andrew Sullivan, but point out where Sullivan has “admitted that monogamy is not what [he] really want[s].” Then tell me why I should care.

      Rauch protestations are, in the end, feeble and bare assertions of preference that his own principles will not allow.

      Writing that doesn’t make it true.

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