Traditional marriage already paves the way to Polygamy


11:27 am - February 7th 2013

by Robert Sharp    


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Adam and Steve

It was great news that MPs voted for marriage equality on Tuesday. We should remember that the debate yesterday was only one of several stages in the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill.

There will be other votes on this issue, and the arguments for and against the reforms will persist for a little while yet.

The anti-family campaigners’ main argument is this: If we re-define marriage to include same-sex marriage, what is to stop a future parliament from re-defining the concept again, to allow polygamy, or inter-species marriage, &ct?

The usual rebuttal to this is that marriage has often been redefined – The Liberal Democrat campaigner Mark Pack’s recent post on this topic is a great example of this argument.

But there is another argument worth an airing. It is this: If we acquiesce to the traditional, religious conception of marriage, what is to stop future parliaments making further reversions in the future?

The religious books are pretty clear that the male has primacy in a marriage, and a religiously motivated politicians might seek to restore that inequality by redefining marriage. Likewise, the Bible has passages that warn against inter-faith marriage, such as 2 Corinthians 6:14:

Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness?

Stern stuff.

The Old Testament also endorses polygamy.

So giving credence to anything proposed by the religious or social conservatives risks a similar if different ‘slippery slope’ argument. “Traditional Marriage Paves The Way For A Return To Polygamy”.

This is a reminder that it is in the very nature of our political system that laws may be changed, and that any change to any law means that it could be further reformed in the future. This is not a bad thing (although those who see their values falling out of fashion tend to see it as such).

Are there any immutable laws that are not open to revision by future parliaments? In times past, God’s Law performed this function. But this was a flawed system, not least because religious authorities seem happy to re-legislate the Word of God when it is convenient. Countries with a written constitution seek to encode some underlying laws that frame what legislators can and cannot do… but constitutions are open to amendment and repeal.

In Britain, the European Convention on Human Rights can trump domestic law. Its incarnation in British law, the Human Rights Act, has a certain meta-status, governing what other laws can or cannot say. But even these laws are open to repeal or withdrawal by law-makers.

There is no final arbiter that can prevent the slippery slope towards mad laws, dangerous and unethical laws, if a parliament wishes such things to be so. This is why the vigilance of the people is so important – to ensure that the law keeps pace with, but does not go beyond, our values. This seems to be happening in the case of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill, which reflects the new public consensus that marriage should be available to all.


Photo by Dave Schumaker on Flickr, Creative Commons Licence

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About the author
Robert Sharp designed the Liberal Conspiracy site. He is Head of Campaigns at English PEN, a blogger, and a founder of digital design company Fifty Nine Productions. For more of this sort of thing, visit Rob's eponymous blog or follow him on Twitter @robertsharp59. All posts here are written in a personal capacity, obviously.
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Reader comments


I would be rather more enthusiastic about same-sex marriage if I thought it was paving the way to group marriage. Group marriages would be great. Everyone saying SSM leads to poly marriage seems to assume that poly marriage is obviously bad, but why on Earth should I suppose that to be the case?

I too often wonder why polygamy is held up as some horrific, avoid-at-all-costs step on the way to dystopia. The arguments that gay marriage will lead to people marrying animals, children, etc are obviously nonsense as one of the parties can’t consent, but if three or more adults of sound mind want to marry each other, I don’t see what the problem is.

2 – what about consenting adult brothers and sisters?

“if three or more adults of sound mind want to marry each other, I don’t see what the problem is.”

Neither do I. But the caveat is the “if” here: in reality, where you have polygamy, you also have arranged marriages (within the extended family, often to cousins) and cases where one of the parties in marriage is a) not adult and b) not really consenting.

“This seems to be happening in the case of the Marriage …, which reflects the new public consensus that marriage should be available to all.”

Not from my perspective it isn’t. The public are keen on gays having a legally recognised union the same as straights. This is already in place. A civil partnership is exactly the same as a civil marriage in everything but name. A religious marriage is something connected to civil marriage due to the closeness of the state and the church in the UK, but it doesn’t mean that churchs have to do the same thing as civil marriages.

If anything the law should be changed to not make it illegal for gays to marry. This is slightly different to a law that forces religious groups (except the CoE) to marry gays if they ask for it.

The law should allow religious groups to perform whatever marriage ceremony they want to, and even not perform those they disagree with. Just as long as they realise that it will not be recognised by the state.

If the people in the union want to take advantage of the state’s laws about inheritance, children, tax, etc. then they will have to have the civil ceremony as well.

Because the civil ceremony is state controlled and a monopoly it must be equal to all gays, straights, trans, etc. But religious marriage is more of a club thing. You belong to a club and follow it’s rules. It could be the scouts or it could be the WI. They do not need be equal to all because those excluded can set up their own club.

So if gays want a religious marriage they can set up their own branch of Christianity. There’s already many branches so another one won’t make much difference. Do not force your sexuality onto the religious rights of others just because a few gays aren’t happy with what they have already got.

If you asked gay people 20 years ago if they would like gay marriage and told them that a civil ceremony would be available they would be more than happy.

This asking for a religious marriage when a civil marriage in all but name is already available just comes across as a tiny minority saying “I’m not happy. I want more. It’s not fair.” just like a spoiled kid who sees their neighbour with better toys.

Gallbladder,

in reality, where you have polygamy, you also have arranged marriages (within the extended family, often to cousins) and cases where one of the parties in marriage is a) not adult and b) not really consenting.

This problem already exists today, in the UK and elsewhere.

Gay marriage has nothing to do with it. Gay marriage does not automatically lead to polygamy. Neither gay marriage nor polygamy automatically leads to non-consensual marriage. We already have non-consensual marriages.

@5 That’s an interesting interpretation of the phrase ‘opt in’, I have to say.

A civil partnership is exactly the same as a civil marriage in everything but name.

No, it isn’t, see page 4 Same-sex marriage and civil partnerships, House of Commons Library.

If anything the law should be changed to not make it illegal for gays to marry. This is slightly different to a law that forces religious groups (except the CoE) to marry gays if they ask for it.

The bill under discussion does not force religious groups to marry gays. It frees them to do so.

The rest of your post is nonsense, particularly the bit about gays should be grateful because they have received a concession in the past century.

9. the a&e charge nurse

The question is not so much that gay marriage leads to polygamy but the fact there is no reason for ANY capacitated person not to get married if this is what people want to do.

As Richard asks @3 – why not bro & sister?

We can’t use law as an insurmountable argument as the decriminalisation of gay sex demonstrates – all it takes is the will to change things, or should this only happen if there is a big enough lobby?

By the way when the OP refers to ‘our values’ how is it any different from the sort of line taken in t’fail, and other ghastly newspapers?

10. Gallbladder

@6 ukliberty: “This problem already exists today, in the UK and elsewhere.”

Indeed it does. But when the specific meaning “marriage is a contract between one man and one woman” is changed to “a contract between two consenting adults”, it will be easier to change it further to “contract between any number of consenting adults”.

Of course, the practical implication of this on polygamy may not be very significant, given that those involved generally don’t respect the secular law and societal norms so much. And particularly because the current benefits system in most Western countries favour an approach where the secondary spouses (usually wives) are nominally

But, even if we don’t consider believers, I’ve seen comments from secular polyamorists who hope that this change in marriage law will be a step towards a further change which they propose. I think they are quite serious.

It’s difficult, because like others, I see no problem with consensual polyamorous relationships. They might not work for everyone, and some people might find them repulsive or immoral, but so what? However, there would be two major difficulties in extending the notion of marriage to partnerships of three or more. The first one has already been alluded to. In some cultures polygamy is traditional and is specifically found in the form of polygyny: a man having multiple wives. We need to be cautious about anything that might encourage that practice in its traditional male-dominant form. Secondly, marriage comes with certain legal ramifications (default rules of inheritance, inheritance tax threshold sharing, the right to refuse to testify against one’s spouse, and probably many more). As a society do we really want a situation where each individual can extend these special exemptions to multiple other individuals instead of just one?

Assuming that we (or the majority of the public) want to keep the special inheritance (etc) laws in some form, though, taking the state out of marriage altogether (however appealing in theory) isn’t an option.

The question of whether brothers and sisters should be allowed to marry is much simpler. They should be. I suspect the genetic risks of inter-sibling procreation have been greatly exaggerated (and as far as I know, people are not normally legally barred from having sex regardless of the risks of abnormality in their offspring: this would be considered eugenics). But regardless, it has been established that marriage isn’t purely for the purposes of procreation (indeed, it could be two sisters we’re talking about, or two brothers). So, whether or not some people consider sibling sex immoral or disgusting, there is absolutely no reason to prohibit such marriages.

I don’t see any reason why a man shouldn’t marry his dog, or an inanimate object, or his sister, etc, etc. None of these things harm you, so you shouldn’t really have anything to say about them.

Gallbladder,

Indeed it does. But when the specific meaning “marriage is a contract between one man and one woman” is changed to “a contract between two consenting adults”, it will be easier to change it further to “contract between any number of consenting adults”.

But that isn’t a reason for not allowing gay marriage, is what I’m saying. For non-consensual marriage is unlawful, and should be unlawful, no matter who is getting married, no matter whether we allow different-sex marriage, same-sex marriage, or polygamy.

Polygamy and polyamory are different, and it annoys me when people use the “slippery slope” argument and hold the latter up as some horrendous evil. If consenting adults want to get married – whether two of them, three or more – then I don’t see a problem. Polyamorous relationships are hard work but sometimes a good sight happier than ‘traditional’ two-person heterosexual marriages

What’s wrong with polygamy? I think it should be legalised.

@14 AM, I’d say the big difference is that “polyamory” doesn’t necessarily involve marriage (it’s simply a relationship involving multiple partners), whereas “polygamy” involves multiple people being married. But I agree that “polygamy” is often interpreted in a narrower way, to mean androcentric polygyny. Perhaps we should use the term “polyamorous marriage” or “poly marriage” (or “multimarriage”).

It strikes me that a key difference between old-style polygyny and new-style polyamorous marriage is that, under traditional polygyny, a man marries multiple women but the women don’t marry each other, whereas in a polyamorous marriage, presumably each partner would be married to each other partner and probably all of them would need to be present and explicitly consenting whenever a new individual was added to the marriage.

However, even if polyamorous marriage could be so structured as to discourage abusive (androcratic or androcentric) uses of it, you would still have the problems I mentioned earlier. Would there be any limit to the numbers of people in a marriage, and if not, how practical would it be for the state to keep track of all the partners (what if a hundred people married each other? is that possible?)? Even if there were only ever a small number, would things like inheritance tax allowance be passed around the entire group, and would society be happy with that?

The simple answer, as libertarians pointed out, is privatisation (state derecognition of marriage), but is that realistic? Would the public be happy with the abolition of the existing inheritance and intestacy rules and abolition of the right to avoid testifying against a spouse?

17. Chaise Guevara

@ RP

Oh, there’s loads of reasons that polygamy can’t be legalised with a box-tick like gsy marriage was. What if you’re on life support and one partner wants to turn it off and the other doesn’t? For that matter, how does that work when two parents make the decision?

In principle I’d favour legalising it if there’s demand. My one concern is that the resulting partnerships might include a large number of exploitative relationships.

The point is that marriage is a totally outmoded concept designed to try to keep two people together when they would otherwise part. We should have moved on from such a notion by now.

So if two, three or four people want to live under the same roof and have whatever (voluntary) relations and relationships they wish, that is fine. If they want to leave the home and end these relationships, that should be fine too.

Marriage is merely a social construct designed to stabilise society and the state at the expense of individual freedom and, as such, it is fundamentally pernicious.

I think my wife agrees with all of the above…….

News update:

“Based on marriage, divorce and death statistics for 2010, about 42% of marriages are expected to end in divorce – a drop from 45% in 2005.”
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-20794505


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