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Monday, March 20, 2006

The slippery slope

Ann Althouse is discussing Charles Krauthammer's column linking the approval of homosexual marriage to the inevitable approval for polygamous marriage. She disagrees with Krauthammer, saying that "[l]egal marriage isn't just about love, it's an economic arrangement."

Having the state authorize your union is not the same thing as having your friends and neighbors approve of you and your religious leaders bless you. It affects taxes and employee benefits -- huge amounts of money. A gay person with a pension and a health insurance plan is incapable of extending those benefits to his (or her) partner. He (or she) can't file a joint tax return. That's not fair. A polygamous marriage, however, puts a group of persons in a position to claim more economic benefits than the traditional heterosexual couple. That doesn't appeal to our sense of fairness.

Even if she's correct, the arguments in favor of gay marriage can be used to argue for marriage between adult relatives, another slippery slope argument often discussed. And Eugene Volokh has the logical polygamist response.

I don't have a horse in the race, so I don't have strong opinions about various forms of marriage-like arrangements for nontraditional groups. I can see keeping the traditional definition of marriage, for the not-so-strong reason that "it's tradition," or stated more strongly, "thousands of years of human civilization have created the institution of marriage, because it works, and surely there's evidence it continues to work." Alternately, I can see granting the benefits of marriage to any combination of consenting adults. I can't see a logical position anywhere in between, though.

I am willing to be convinced. Does anyone have an argument in favor of government recognition of gay marriage that 1) reflects the basic facts of government recognition of marriage (for example, children and love have nothing to do with it), and 2) cannot also be used to support government recognition of plural marriages or marriage between adult relatives?


At 11:21 AM, Blogger Joel said...

It's a good question, and one that I myself have struggled to answer. As a gay person, it's easy for me to argue that I want the government to give my monogamous, long-term relationship the same recognition it would any other such heterosexual relationship. After all, we support the traditional definition of a marriage (two people who want to unify themselves socially and economically in the eyes of the government); we just disagree that the two parties must be of the opposite sex.

How can I refute polygamy? I'm not sure honestly. I think multi-partner arrangements are wrong, as the purpose of marriage is to recognize the commitment two people have to one another, but I don't know how we as a society condemn the one but not the other. I strongly suspect many gay rights activists feel the same way. They mostly seem to argue against the "slippery slope" because polygamy is so unpopular with the average American, and we don't want the "taint" of polygamy spoiling our arguments for equality. If polygamy was more widely accepted than it is, I imagine many more such activists would shrug their shoulders about the whole thing.

At 11:40 AM, Blogger honestpartisan said...

It depends on how the argument is framed. Polygamy is actually more consistent with traditional marriage than with the modern concept of marriage (by modern I mean, that it developed in the past 200 years). Traditionally, marriage was a way to unite two families together for various economic and political purposes and the actual people getting married had little if any say in it (especially the women). Polygamy is a lot more consistent with this view of marriage, and was in fact practiced as such.

Modern marriage, however, is based on the idea that two consenting adults voluntarily choose to become spouses with each other -- more often than not because they love each other. That's partly why the age at which women are legally allowed to marry has risen steadily since the 1800s, when it was as low as ten or eleven in some states; the notion of autonomy, consent, and capacity has taken hold.

Same-sex marriage is a lot more consistent with the modern idea of marriage, because of the respect it accords the individuals making the decision and the concept of choice.

I'll grant you that this would not foreclose on the idea of legal polygamy necessarily, but it's not same-sex marriage per se that creates this "slippery slope"; it's the modern concept that consenting adults should be free to choose their own spouse and/or family arrangements.

And would finally note that where polygamy actually has been practiced -- splinter Mormon groups, the Muslim world, Africa, the imperial families of China, Japan, and Korea -- women have almost never had any say in the arrangement, and they were often married off when they were younger than eighteen. Truly consenting adults voluntarily entering into polygamous relationships are extremely rare, a lot more rare than same-sex couples.

At 11:54 AM, Blogger Dave Justus said...

While it is true that most Polygamy has been in patriarchal societies where women had little say, there is a fair amount of people who choose sexual relationships with more than one other person. Swingers are an example of this. While probably only a minority would choose a multi-partner marriage, some certainly would.

When it comes down to it, if the primary driver of what we should allow in marriage is based upon individual choice, we have to acknowledge both gay marriage and polygamy as choices that people can make and that don't hurt anyone (although just as with two person hetero marriage the individuals involved can at times be hurt.)

The other way, viewing marriage as a contract between society and two people for the purpose of promoting procreation and a certain style of family life has its inconsistancies as well of course.

At 7:35 PM, Blogger Greg said...


As a gay person, it's easy for me to argue that I want the government to give my monogamous, long-term relationship the same recognition it would any other such heterosexual relationship.

Here, the government has two standards, one for people who get married, one for people who choose to cohabit without marriage. It doesn't matter how monogamous or long-term the relationship is if no official recognition happens.

While I was in college, Carrboro, the even more liberal suburb of very liberal Chapel Hill, created a domestic partner registry. The first couple to register was actually a heterosexual couple.


Polygamy is actually more consistent with traditional marriage than with the modern concept of marriage....

Just how common was polygamy? Our view of history is no doubt influenced by the source materials we use: we hear about the Biblical rulers, not the common masons and farmers.

And nothing about polygamy prohibits all partners from making a lifetime commitment to each other. Our focus on sex probably makes us think that it's one man marrying two women, not three people entering a partnership.


Yes, the traditional definition of marriage lends itself to a societal arrangement that leads children and a stable family. It may be the most common result, but we don't as a rule prohibit infertile people or the elderly from marrying.

At 10:37 AM, Blogger honestpartisan said...

William Saletan raises a point about this issue in today's Slate: relationships with more than two people are inherently unstable because one or more of the people are going to get jealous at some point. I don't know how widespread polygamy was in traditional societies, but I think that this is why it only tends to work as a societal institution when at least some of the spouses are coerced into it.

Again, this does not mean that there's absolutely no one out there who polygamy would work for. And if there's someone out there who wants to make the case that the current state of marriage presents as compelling a case of discrimination as it presents for same-sex couples, I'll give them a hearing. But the onus is on such couples to come forward and make their case.


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