I realize I’m not making any friends with controversial posts, but I’m open on my blog about the issues I think about. You know you’re getting the real deal. If you can’t engage in a rational way, then you don’t have to read my blog.
There’s a link going around called “How to Explain Gay Rights to an Idiot”. In a very sarcastic and condescending tone, it explains why gay marriage will not lead to people marrying children, toasters, or dogs. Unfortunately, it ignores a more historically relevant and philosophically-challenging issue: polygamy.
There is a great historical irony between polygamy and gay marriage. Utah wasn’t allowed to become a state until the Mormon Church agreed that polygamy would become illegal, and it is now the Mormon Church which has been one of the most ardent defenders of the definition of marriage as between one man and one woman. Funny how history works.
Discussing polygamy may seem like a pointless exercise, but explicit polygamy is fairly common throughout Africa and the Middle East, as are other forms of marriage, like first-cousin marriage, which are either illegal in the US or uncommon where legal. And off the top of my head, besides the rare royal family trying to consolidate power, I don’t know of any marriage traditions between individuals more closely related than cousins. (It’s rare in other species too, because of the genetic defects from in-breeding. The moral aversion to incest is something we share with sexually reproducing species — it’s a very widely-held aversion throughout nature.)
Polygamy is also relevant simply because I hear a lot of people mock someone like Presidential candidate Rick Santorum for saying that gay marriage will lead to polygamy. But we as a society are in the midst of a debate over various forms of state-supported marriage, and there are a variety of permutations that have existed throughout history, polygamy being one of them, first cousin marriage being another. Some countries have natalist policies that use the state to advocate having kids (Australia) or restrict having kids (China’s one-child policy).
I’ve been doing some reading, and I’ve come across essentially two types of arguments for or against polygamy.
1. Rights / Morality / a priori - These types of arguments say that it’s a fundamental question morals or rights. For example, most people in the United States believe that polygamy is immoral. Or some may take a rights-based approach and argue that peaceful and consenting adults should be able to form any kinds of contracts they choose and get the legal benefits associated with that. Either way, I group these together because they are pretty much all or nothing, black and white arguments often based on a priori reasoning and that don’t pay a lot of attention to actual outcomes.
2. Consequentialist / a posteriori - These arguments consider the types of individual or social costs or benefits that a given law imposes, not based on some universal notion of rights or morality, but on outcomes. Will it be prevalent, what are the social and individual harms, what are the social and individual benefits? On the political right, these are often arguments about the direction of civilization - for example, whether polygamy creates a large pool of young (high-testosterone) single men who aren’t vested in the existing social structure and have a tendency towards violence, and thus is undesirable.
(This is something, incidentally, which I believe to be true based, in part, on what happens in a wide variety of other species where a small number of males monopolize a harem of females, like elephant seals. These species are characterized by sexual dimorphism – where the males get bigger and meaner in an evolutionary arms race – and usually results in a lot of violence between the men and crazy, unproductive risk-taking.)
So here’s how this is salient to the gay marriage debate.
Arguments about rights and morality (#1) are clearly important on both sides of the debate, but I can’t see how any rights-based argument for gay marriage doesn’t also open the door to polygamy. I just don’t see how any purely rights-based argument draws a line between a contract between two people and three or more people without resorting to arguments that aren’t rights-based.
Consequentialist arguments (#2) are real and relevant — for example, reasons why explicit polygamy won’t become prevalent even if it were legal – but by using these arguments at all against polygamy, it opens the door to accepting consequentialist arguments against gay marriage.
That is the philosophical quandary for people who think about these issues seriously. (Many people don’t, on either side.)
I think people should be rightfully disgusted at the way homosexuals have been mistreated throughout history. It’s really just awful. I had a gay roommate in college who was assaulted and beaten up late one night right in the middle of Cambridge, right around Harvard’s campus. I have gay friends, co-workers, teachers, relatives, and blog readers. They aren’t evil or sinful people for being gay.
But Rick Santorum isn’t crazy for mentioning the word “polygamy” in a debate over the definition of marriage, and an honest conversation about the definition of marriage can’t ignore questions of polygamy, first cousin marriage, or hell, any restriction we have on the books that limit consenting adults. And if the gay marriage movement wants to argue that extending the marriage franchise is actually a way to strengthen the institution of marriage, to strengthen civilization – which is an argument I hear a lot — then I think it is incumbent on those who use that type of reasoning to show where the line gets drawn and articulate reasons why polygamy, first-cousin marriage, or other forms of marriage are undesirable or morally wrong. (Or not.)
Just to be clear, I’m not trying to push an agenda here and please don’t try to infer what my view are. The purpose of this post is to move past the same old debates and provoke some critical-thinking about the issues at hand. Both sides of this debate are dripping with contempt for the other side. And this concerns me, because in marriages between individuals, contempt is the emotion that best predicts divorce.
Note: I’m going to turn off comments on this post. If you feel strongly about something I’ve written – positive, negative, both, or neither – please send me an email at john [at] huntergatherer.com. I actually would like to hear what you think, but I know the comments will be a shit show. I will reply to all emails that use appropriate language and refrain from ad hominem attacks.