Friday, March 17, 2006

Polygamy and Human Nature:

With that new HBO show, there has been lots of talk on the blogsphere about polygamy and its relationship to gay marriage. (See this post by Ann Althouse.)

As a libertarian, I see only one valid reason for forbidding polygamy, but recognizing gay marriage: The inevitable pattern that emerges with polygamy, wherever practiced, is one man/many women, which invariably leads to large factors of the male population with no marriageable mates. The response is that that was the "old" polygamy as practiced in unfree, unequal illiberal societies. The "new" polygamy or "polyamory," premised on equality of choice, will see all sorts of group marriage and one-woman/many-men variants that things should "balance out" and there won't be such a shortage.

Well, what about that intractable thing called human nature? In today's free, equality of opportunity, inequality of results, capitalist society, what happens when Donald Trump, Bill Gates (who probably wouldn't indulge, but certainly has the power to), Bill Clinton et al. end up hoarding the entire crop of fertile females to the exclusion of the average "lesser" Joes?


Bill Ware said...


I noticed this post which reminded me of one of yours from a few months ago. It mentions the harm that having a surplus of unmarried men might cause, should polygamy become widespread, so I thought you might be interested.

Jonathan said...

Thanks Bill. Yes, I'll update this post. Rauch's post perfectly describes the problem.

DSH said...

I agree with the polygamy and gay marriage. For the latter, see comments under "Hamburger on Equal Protection."

Concerning polygamy: Robert Solomon in his extraordinary treatise on romantic love (in "Love: Emotion, Myth, and Metaphor," 1990) makes the fundamental observation that romantic love is necessarily between co-equals. Co-equals can obviously be quite elastic; one day X seems dominant and Y submissive, another day the reverse. Maybe Y is dominant in one area, but X in another. Our roles and identities can be (perhaps "should" be) quite fluid, elastic, and dynamic. That's the real point. But fundamentally, when two people (and it can only occur between two people) approach each other romantically, each must regard the significant other as equally significant. Whatever else the relationship's dynamics, tensions, dialectic, elasticity, etc., a romantic relationship must be between equals. Take away that fundamental equality, and one fundamentally strips romance out of the relationship. Of course the relationship can continue; many marriages do (for many other reasons, too) for reasons that are no longer between romantically-paired individuals. But without two equals, romance cannot coexist.

For whatever reason(s), and there are many, people in the West demand that romantic love must be the one feature that brings two people together in almost all facets of their lives, and romantic love is fundamental to a marriage. The romance may dissipate, ebb and tide, grow stronger, etc., but romantic love is the one feature that is non-negotiable beginning for a marriage contract to have meaning. Yes, people do marry for other reasons, but not often, and that "marriage" may be more of a business contract than an actual marriage; we permit that, but do not accept it a necessarily and sufficiently a "real" marriage. Indeed, we have already marginalized such marriages by mentioning them.

So whatever else one throws into the pot, two necessary features are entailed for a real marriage to exist: (1) it must be romantically-based, and (2) since romance cannot exist except between equals, the parties, at least, must regard each other a fundamentally equal at some point, almost always at the beginning.

Whether these prerequisites are a good thing or not (and I happen to think they are), they necessarily exclude more than two people. Don't misunderstand me; people do fall in and out and back in romantic love, sometimes romantic love dissipates completely but the marriage remains, and people occasionally enter marriages for reasons other than romantic love, but romantic love is at least the fundamental disposition of two co-equals at the beginning of a marriage. And a final caveat; it can, though rarely, happen for one to be romantically in love with more than one person, but that multiple romance cannot be sustained, because the tension, dynamic, dialectic, etc. of romantic love disallows it. There may be more than one significant other, but for marriage to be marriage, there is always one significant other more significant than the others.

So, if we want to abandon romantic love as between two co-equals, polygamy is definitely an option. But I daresay few of us want to abandon this cherished precondition. And Solomon and I are aware that many marriages devolve into unequal partnerships, especially with the over-dominant male and the over-submissive female, although this is hardly the only case. Plus, many marriages take on other characteristics that are different from the initial commitment, such as family-raising, careers, social-climbing, etc. But I do think we rightly insist that marriage at the beginning be a romantic love between two co-equals whatever else happens and despite some exceptions.

Polygamy, like arranged-marriages (and other social contracts), are thus at odds with our necessary initial disposition. Many reasons can be given for this precondition, but I think most of us cannot deny it is fundamentally our disposition. Moreover, because polygamy and other social-contract type of marriages violate this disposition, I believe we want to claim that these other types of relationships, whatever their merit or demerit, are at odds with Western notion of marriage. And I for one want to keep it that way.