In an equal society, why not let three or more people marry each other?

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A couple of weeks ago David Quinn blogged in response to news that three lesbians in the US have ‘married’ one another. He issued a challenge – asking if the essence of marriage is consent, then why shouldn’t this ‘throuple’ be allowed to get legally hitched?

A couple of people took up the challenge, including Colette Browne in the Irish Independent and blogger Peter Ferguson, also known as ‘Humanisticus’.

Both of them made more or less the same argument, and Mr Ferguson’s argument is the more detailed one so I’ll concentrate on it here. Besides, a man who blogs about Iona as often as he does – of the nine posts he's put up this year, six have been about us to some extent – will hopefully appreciate the response.

Mr Ferguson's whole thesis – that bringing up polygamy in the context of a discussion about same-sex marriage is a red herring, as the two are entirely separate arguments – is a classic case of what the writer, blogger and entrepeneur Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry calls “The Law of the Impossible-Necessary Slope”. Gobry:

when a (social) conservative warns that reform A will lead via slippery slope to reform B, the progressive response will be that such a suggestion is outlandish and impossible; when reform B happens, the progressive line will be that not only is it necessary and just, but it is only the logical consequence of now-accepted reform A.

This isn't the slippery slope fallacy – Gobry is not arguing that all ‘Reform As’ must lead to ‘Reform Bs’. He's merely describing a phenomenon that occurs very, very often (and, incidentally, makes being a social conservative and arguing with social liberals rather a frustrating pursuit – our cries of “I told you this would happen!” are usually met with shrugs of “Yeah, but so what?”).

And it's occurring again here.

A slippery slope. If you look closely you can see a labrador on it.











A slippery slope.
If you look closely you can see a labrador trying to avoid moving from the impossible to the necessary.

Mr Ferguson argues that in a society as sexist as ours, polygamy could not but lead to misogyny and oppression. Now, I'm quite sympathetic to this line of argument - but he immediately and quite impressively undermines it as a case against polygamy per se.

It is therefore necessary to ensure that gender equality is achieved before any thoughts about legalising polygamy can be entertained.


However, these negative aspects only exist in patriarchal societies and may not apply in a fully egalitarian society. As sexism is still an issue in society it could easily be argued that the problems that present themselves when polygamy is lawful in a patriarchal society are enough to warrant its prohibition.

The rest of Mr Ferguson's arguments are based on studies that show increased conflict in polygamous relationships (as the wise man once said: “Duh”), higher rates of depression for women and worse outcomes for children.

The fact that Ferguson – and, for that mattter, Collete Browne – implicitly acknowledge we can’t talk about marriage without talking about children is genuinely welcome, because so often in debates about same-sex marriage we’re told marriage is not about children. The arguments made by Browne and Ferguson on this point are worth going into in more detail, so I'll return to them in another post.

But these arguments – similar enough to those made in a very good piece from Chris Connolly in the Irish Times earlier this year – absolutely depend upon the recognition that civil marriage is a social instituion with a purpose very different from “validating the love of two people in a consensual sexual relationship.”

But this view of marriage doesn't seem to be Humanisticus' vision. From his post “Equal marriage and same-sex parenting are not synonymous!”:

The focus must be on why two people in love are treated differently in society and law because of their sexual orientation. This is the issue marriage equality opponents have been trying to avoid, and we must not let them.

But if love and consent between adults justifies marriage, there seems little logical reason not to extend it to allow for polygamy in an equal soceity. There is of course an obvious differnce between an opposite-sex marriage and a same-sex one (the hint is in the names), and it's not immediately clear why the number of partners is a more significant difference than their sex. If the argument runs “why should people who are in consensual loving relationships be treated differently under the law” then we are not talking about a slippery slope so much as a sheer cliff. Where is the limiting principle?

We end up relying as Ferguson does on the claim that true consent to a polygamous marriage cannot really exist in an unequal society. But what if we succeed in making society less sexist and patriarchal – why not legislate for polygamy then?

Is Mr Ferguson prepared to argue that every polygamous relationship is unfit to raise children? That polygamy leads inevitably to low self-esteem and depression for women? And if not, on what grounds can he justify denying legal recognition to “the good polygamists” the nice, non-abusive people who are genuinely in love?

I suspect that, in the long run, Mr Ferguson will find no reason whatsoever. Indeed, after his commenters accused him of “throwing one group oppressed by he   teronormativity under the bus in order to save another” Humanisticus made the following addendum to his post:

Edit: Just a clarification, I am not arguing for or against polygamy. The purpose of this article is to show that the arguments for and against polygamy are entirely independent of the equal marriage debate. Polygamy has no more of a relationship to equal marriage than it does to man/woman marriage. It should be argued on its own merits divorced from the equal marriage debate. For rather excellent and thought-provoking defences of polygamy please read the comments made below.

I'm a bit of a romantic at heart, and generally believe that when it comes to people’s love lives the State should be as latitudinarian as is possible – within reason. But I simply don't believe that the State's interest in actually endorsing marriage and giving it special status is about recognition of a loving, consensual relationship as such. That's why I agree with the New York Times' Ross Douthat:

As a matter of public policy, I’m skeptical of same-sex marriage because I think it instantiates (or ratifies, since obviously we’ve been headed down this road for a while) a public meaning of marriage that’s too formless and open-ended to do the very specific job that the institution evolved to do: To bind and channel heterosexual desire in ways that are specific to the nature of procreation, and that aim to offer as many children as possible the opportunity to grow up in an intimate community with their mother and their father.

But if that isn't one's view of civil marriage – if one sees it as being based merely on love and consent – then I just don't see how one coherently stays opposed to polygamous relationships being included within it once society is sufficiently gender-egalitarian. And – to make a prediction – I don't think Humanisticus will. 

Now, perhaps Mr Ferguson will prove me wrong, and in the decades to come we will find ourselves allied, strange bedfellows in our opposition to state-recognised polygamy. But I suspect that when that battle comes, Humanisticus will fall into line and declare, (perhaps in the course of a blog post denouncing the Iona Institute) that my backward, heteropatriarchal, monogamy-normative view of marriage was rejected by the Irish people long ago when we legalised same-sex marriage. That the principle I am trying to defend was in fact conceded long ago.

And if that is the way things end up going, he will in an important sense be right.

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