Friday, April 05, 2013

Same-Sex Marriage and the Polygamy Objection

Proponents and opponents of SSM often clash over whether or not the view that SSM should be legal entails that polygamous marriage should be legal, with SSM proponents typically arguing that it does not and SSM opponents arguing that it does. The contested premise is:

(SSMP)  If SSM should be legal then polygamous marriage should be legal

SSM opponents think the reasoning should run like so:

(1) (SSMP) If SSM should be legal, then polygamous marriage should be legal
(2) Polygamous marriage should not be legal
(3) SSM should not be legal

Some SSM advocates are willing to accept (SSMP) and run:

(1) (SSMP) If SSM should be legal, then polygamous marriage should be legal
(2) SSM should be legal
(3) Polygamous marriage should be legal

(One man's modus tollens is, after all, another's modus ponens...)

However, most advocates don't try to run this argument, for at least one of these two reasons:

(A) Polygamous marriage currently has zero chance of social and political acceptance

(B) There are non-terrible reasons to think that polygamous marriage is morally bad and/or socially harmful

That is: PM is DOA politically, and one need not have overtly retrograde attitudes to oppose it. So PM is, currently at least, a loser on political grounds, and legitimately morally suspect--as is anything linked to it. So it's not a good idea to link same-sex marriage to polygamous marriage.

I take it that (A) is clear, but (B) less so. I won't delve too deeply into that here, though casual acquaintance with the sociological literature (which is all that I have, and that's actually being rather generous to me) indicates that there is at least some evidence that PM is bad for women, bad for younger, less well-established males, and bad for children. (Bad, that is, even on a relatively thin conception of badness.)  A few frisky triads here and there aren't going to bring down society--the important objections are not puritanical ones. But lots and lots of large families with one male and several females may very well do significant harm.

However, the moral argument comes out, the currently political landscape is clear: If the legality of SSM entails the legality of PM, then it's no SSM for the U.S.

So what about (SSMP)? Is the conditional true? Does accepting SSM require us to accept PM?

Though SSM advocates scoff at the conditional, the argument for it is fairly clear (though I deluded myself for years into thinking that it wasn't). Here's a quick way to put it:

There are two competing conceptions of marriage in play, one more traditional, and one more liberal, to wit:

(TM) Marriage is a union between two people of different sexes who love each other.

(LM) Marriage is a union between two people who love each other.

Liberals criticize the (putatively) traditional conception of marriage on the grounds that it arbitrarily restricts marriage to heterosexuals. They liken this arbitrary restriction to that against miscegenation. That is, they argue that we can all agree that TM constitutes moral and social progress over:

(RM) Marriage is a union between two people of different sexes and the same race who love each other.

LM is then represented as constituting the same kind of progress relative to TM that TM constituted relative to RM. The general idea is that the (morally and rationally) arbitrary restrictions in RM were stripped away, giving us TM, and that the proposed movement to LM is warranted by the same type of idea, i.e. the removal of morally/rationally arbitrary restrictions.

Conservatives tend to argue, of course, that the restrictions in TM are non-arbitrary, invoking premises about reproduction and so forth (which I'll also skip over here, as they're well known.*)

Now. The trajectory of the argument so far seems to leave LM open to the objection that the proper conception of marriage is really:

(M) Marriage is a union between/among people who love each other.

Advocates of M can argue that the restriction of marriage to two people is every bit as arbitrary as the restriction of marriage to two people of different sexes, or to two people of the same race. The insight that supports SSM is that it is possible for two people of the same sex to love each other. The insight that supports PM is that it is possible for more than two people to love one another. If marriage is, in fact, primarily about love (I leave that unspecific, but you see the idea), then that seems to warrant both SSM and PM.

That is to say, there is a fairly clear argument for (SSMP). And that is to say that there does seem to be a very slippery slippery slope from same-sex marriage to polygamous marriage. That's not happy news, but there it is.

There are a couple of obvious options open here, not to mention the unobvious ones:

1. Give up on SSM

2. Accept PM

3. Find some other way to distinguish between SSM and PM

Both 1 and 2 seem like bad options to me. So that seem to leave some version of 3. The most obvious version of 3 involves appealing to (B) (above). Such responses would also have to involve some premises to the effect that a legal institution mustn't be likely to do too much harm. I'm not happy with that position, but that is what I currently, tentatively accept.

But my point here isn't to try to solve this sticky problem, but, rather, just to note that I think that the old liberal line that the polygamy objection to SSM is patently invalid is, well, false. I, like other advocates of same-sex marriage, tended to dismiss the objection. Some advocates try to kill it illegitimately with purely rhetorical responses to the effect that it is "offensive" to even raise the issue. But that's BS. The problem is a real one, and it ought to be addressed squarely. Even though I'm not sure how to do so.

* Though, incidentally, if the case for TM is largely a case about reproduction, a different kind of case will have to be made against PM. (And we're not even mentioning the well-known point that a reproductive conception of marriage would rule out infertile couples and those that elect not to reproduce.)


Anonymous Bacon Attack said...

The issue of logic fooled me for a long time. J. Rauch has a couple of items reprinted in Crazy Andy’s collection on SSM. Rauch argues that polygamy is out because it leaves a population of unmarried (and hopelessly unmarried) young men rattling around that become a source of social instability. Case in point, Islamic countries. Only necessary for 10% to have 2 wives for the remaining 90% of men to have only 80% of women as possible mates.

Further, Rausch argued that in hetero marriage, the operative right is the right to marry somebody, not the right to marry anybody. SSM would only extend the “somebody” to SS partners. It would not, logically, take in incest and polygamy for reasons that Rauch gives.

All very logical. The fault in the reasoning is to suppose that reason will have anything to do with the matter once the first step is taken. The polygamy issue will be decided on the basis of emotion and sh*tty appeals to equality and fairness. Trim that last word of the “ness” and you can see what category it belongs in. Since it’s an issue of f**rn*ss, the inexpedient consequences get trumped. And we must treat others’ religious “preferences” equally (sorry, *qu*lly). And so we slide down the slippery slope into the cesspool where the corpse of conventional morality is rotting. Somehow, I’m just not having a good time living in the new order of moral do’s and don’t’s supplied by the multiculti-PC-diversity enlightenment where feelings rule and all values are in the process of being revalued. I just can’t see that sixth finger. Unredeamable! At least I can count on you to be understanding, Mr. Smith.

5:24 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...


7:23 AM  
Blogger The Mystic said...

It looks like the issue of logic may still fool you yet, Mr. Attack...

10:53 AM  

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