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"Each individual should allow reason to guide his conduct, or like an animal, he will need to be led by a leash."
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Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Outlawing polygamy

Steve Janke at Angry in the Great White North has a post about the prosecution of the Bountiful BC polygamists: Polygamy: Outlawed for a reason (which few people will want to hear).

He starts by stating the historical reasons why marriage exists in society:
Traditional marriage and polygamy are both solutions to the problem of paternity of children, which is a concern independent of religious sensibilities.

Steve continues with an argument against polygamous relationships, and I agree with him that there are compelling reasons for the courts to uphold the current anti-polygamy laws:

Polygamy is fundamentally dangerous to a society. On an individual level, men and women suffer because polygamy is not consistent with the biological realities of human communities. Compare this with traditional marriage, which is consistent. On the larger scale, polygamy, if it is practiced, can only be practiced by a small subset of the population, and the state has an interest to ensure that the practice is never widely adopted. But then that creates two classes of citizens, with the stresses that inevitably result from that.

The only logical solution is to outlaw polygamy altogether, and apply the law universally.
However, I disagree with Steve's point that legalizing gay marriage in Canada has set a legal precedent that makes it difficult to prosecute polygamy:
But irrationality abounds, and I expect that people who are viscerally opposed to anyone suggesting that their own lifestyle choices are problematic and selfish will rally around the polygamists, as these same people did with gay marriage.

With gay marriage, the problem was that by redefining marriage to be utterly divorced from the issue of children and paternity, marriage loses its raison d'etre. Marriage becomes merely a contract of convenience for insurance purposes, or a quaint label for people who think traditions are collectibles, like those nasty little ceramic cats, and so portray themselves as "married" without a care to what marriage means or what it's for.

With polygamy, the problem is that the ability of the widespread practice of traditional marriage to stabilize society disappears, and instead we have a model of marriage that is destabilizing, and is more destabilizing the more people engage in it.

I've posted on this issue at length here and here. In a nutshell, I don't think that a society that allows gay marriage is by definition prevented from outlawing plural marriage. I respectfully disagree with Steve's argument that the institution of marriage is solely to provide stable paternity for children. There are three main purposes of marriage: the raising of children, the stabilizing and settling of the young (especially young men) in responsible relationships, and the provision of reliable caregivers in old age. For obvious reasons, gay marriage doesn't meet the first criteria but certainly meets the others - for this reason I find it hard to accept that civil gay marriage should be prohibited based on this principle alone. (Religious marriage, of course, is a different story).

Furthermore, we should try to use the long arm of the state to prohibit activities between consenting adults only when that activity causes harm to someone. I find it hard to see how gay marriage harms anyone - gay or straight - so I don't see a compelling reason to outlaw civil gay marriage. Polygamy is different - there is ample evidence that polygamous marriages cause harm to the women involved, and to the surplus young men who are ostracized by polygamous communities to maintain the supply of women for plural marriages. For this reason the state is fully justified in prohibiting plural marriages while allowing gay monogamous ones. To me, gay marriage is not about redefining a civil institution so much as extending the reach of that institution.

Religious marriage is something different altogether - most religions have scriptural & doctrinal reasons for prohibiting gay marriage and that's fine; one usually isn't forced to be a member of a church, after all. But, marriage is legally a civil institution, not a religious one. All the more reason I guess for the state to get out of the marriage business altogether & create some sort of domestic partnership & leave churches to their own devices.

7 comments:

Music Row Blogger said...

Polygamy is different - there is ample evidence that polygamous marriages cause harm to the women involved, and to the surplus young men who are ostracized by polygamous communities to maintain the supply of women for plural marriages. For this reason the state is fully justified in prohibiting plural marriages while allowing gay monogamous ones.

So, I wonder what your opinion of polygamous same-sex marriage would be?

There are three main purposes of marriage: the raising of children, the stabilizing and settling of the young (especially young men) in responsible relationships, and the provision of reliable caregivers in old age. For obvious reasons, gay marriage doesn't meet the first criteria but certainly meets the others

Doesn't polygamy meet all three of these, or at least two out of three, the same as same-sex marriage? Arguably the procreative function is by far the most important of the three, and polygamy is clearly beats same-sex marriage on this count.

Also, it's not really an issue of allowing/prohibiting, it's officially recognizing/criminalizing. The vast majority of human activities fall in a middle category -- you can't get state benefits for them, and you won't go to jail for doing them. Just because one may argue that polygamy has associated harms does not mean that it should be criminalized. Simply by not recognizing it we guarantee that there will be zero official polygamous marriages. If that is not enough, the burden is on the government to demonstrate why it's not enough, and why we should prescribe jail time for those who even pretend to be married.

Eric said...

MRB:

Interesting question re: polygamous same-sex marriage. I think the potential for coercion and abuse is still there, particularly if it involves a big age difference in the participants (as is frequently the case in heterosexual polygamous marriages. Plus, since we're talking about state recognition of these relationships - the state can prohibit polygamous same-sex marriages for the same reasons as it does straight ones. If a group of people want to voluntarily live in a group relationship (gay or straight) without state sanctions - go for it. Just don't expect any rights or privileges associated with marriage.

As for the purposes of marriage - yes, they could apply to plural marriages. That wasn't my point. I was trying to illustrate the fact that many of the benefits of marriage apply equally to gay & straight marriages & using the argument that gay couples don't usually have children is not by itself a reason to deny civil marriage to them. The arguments against plural marriage lie elsewhere - harm to women, children, surplus young men. These don't apply to gay marriage.

Music Row Blogger said...

If a group of people want to voluntarily live in a group relationship (gay or straight) without state sanctions - go for it. Just don't expect any rights or privileges associated with marriage.

I completely agree. This was the situation for homosexuals before the change in 2005. And it is the situation for groups of more than two heterosexuals, so long as they call each other "friends" or "partners." If they have a little pretend ceremony and call each other "husbands" and "wives," however, it's a crime and they will be sent to jail.

Now, I don't think official recognition of multiple marriages is a good idea (no one is arguing for it, not even the polygamists), but the criminalization of a particular lifestyle really has nothing to do with marriage law. Surely three unmarried people living together, raising kids, and calling each other "friends" cannot be so different from the same three people calling each other husbands and wives that one should be legal, and the other a criminal offense? Or is there such a difference?

Eric said...

Surely three unmarried people living together, raising kids, and calling each other "friends" cannot be so different from the same three people calling each other husbands and wives that one should be legal, and the other a criminal offense? Or is there such a difference??

I guess for me the difference is this: I don't believe the women involved in polygamous "marriages" are truly free to choose this lifestyle. Is it possible for a young woman in Bountiful BC to choose a monogamous marriage? What would happen to a teenage girl there who refused to participate in a plural marriage? Even though these marriages are not sanctioned by the state, because they are official policy of the cult that runs the community, they are in effect the law of that community. That's a lot different than three or more people living together by choice.

KC said...

Eric - Judging by your first comment I think you are misunderstanding the issue here. The move that provoked this debate is a criminal prosecution for living in a polygamous marriage. No liberal actvist is demanding benefits for polygamous couples (at this point).

I find it pretty unbelievable to see so many conservatives who claim to be the guardians of person liberty against the evil nanny state liberals bent on social engineering can support a prohibition with the scope of this law.

We're not talking about the state recognizing plural marriage here. That isnt even on the table at the moment. As is it is illegal to have a dress up party with your friends, say some vows and live together in a house calling each other husbands and wives even if you have no expectation of state recognition. Thats a pretty broad limitation on personal choice that no truly freedom loving person could support.

I dont buy Steve's biological realities argument for one moment. There is nothing inherently biologically inconsistent about polygamy. In fact males have a surplus of sexual reproductive potential which would actually be consistent with polygamy (not that Im advocating it). Nor do I believe that vague, abstract public policy rationales can be lightly used to disregard liberty.

Its pretty rich hearing strong opposition from the same people who are outraged at social engineering and nanny state government. Public taxation to fund public daycare and gun registries is FAR less heavy handed and interventionist than this law.

Music Row Blogger said...

I guess for me the difference is this: I don't believe the women involved in polygamous "marriages" are truly free to choose this lifestyle.

Isn't this more of an argument against arranged marriages (which are legal) than an argument against polygamy? It may be that a greater percentage of polygamous marriages are arranged than monogamous ones, but since they're arranged in both cases, doesn't it make far more sense to criminalize arranged marriages, rather than polygamy, which may or may not involve arranged marriages (and which captures the ones with fully informed consent in its net)?

Lorenzo said...

Same sex marriage takes an existing contract and applies to a new set of couples.

Polygamy changes every existing marriage contract by permitting third parties to join.

Whatever other arguments people may have, that makes a bit of a difference to the politics and social dynamics.