Thursday, July 09, 2015

Coming soon: polygamy

Stained glass at the All Saints Convent, Oxford
After reading this article by Fredrik deBoer arguing, from a liberal perspective, for the legalisation of polygamy, I've been wondering if there are any arguments against polygamy which could be used by someone ideologically committed to Same Sex Marriage. I must say, it is a struggle.

DeBoer does a good job of demolishing liberal arguments against polygamy, though he demonstrates how completely he, like his liberal friends, fail to grasp the arguments against Same Sex Marriage (SSM) made by conservatives. I noted back in 2012 that the attempt to wave polygamy around as a scary future consequence of SSM put the cart before the horse: polygamy is a far less scary prospect, in terms of the concept of marriage and in terms of historical experience, than SSM. To allow SSM and not polygamy would be very, very strange. Polygamy is already legal in a good number of countries, and has been for centuries, if not millennia, and it performs the function of traditional marriage: of providing a legal framework for the raising of children.

It would appear that supporters of SSM simply go selectively blind and deaf when presented with this point, but as many opponents of SSM have been pointing out for years, they have no coherent conception of what marriage is. Here is me on the subject; here are recent posts by two other Catholic philosophers, both superb, Edward Feser and Steven Long. As far as I can see the proponents of SSM believe that all that they need to say about marriage is 'You are married if the state says you are married'. They think that a conception of marriage which connects it with procreation and the family is an arbitrary limitation: but an arbitrary limitation of what? What is this 'marriage' they are talking about?

Marriage provides a set of rules and expectations which protect a married couple and their children in the context of family life. The raising of children demands enormous investment by each party, and thus the possibility of being exploited by the other party; small children are extremely vulnerable, and need a stable home with very specific kinds of emotional and material resources. The rules which characterise marriage protect each party in this situation, most obviously by making it harder for either spouse to walk out on the other. There is also the expectation of sexual exclusivity, which is equally vital to a secure relationship both from a rational choice and from an emotional/ spiritual point of view.

If a heterosexual couple incapable of having children want to apply these rules to themselves, that's fine; if people want to go through the form of marriage but not consummate it, that is a little strange but fine also (their marriage never becomes binding in the normal way); but the rules can't apply to two people of the same sex. Sure, they could agree to sexual exclusivity and commitment, but the kind of relationship they have can't be described as marriage, because it isn't the kind of relationship the concept of marriage is talking about.

In fact, Same Sex Marriage has only become conceivable because of the progressive destruction of real marriage. When marriages can be ended on demand by either party, where the connection between marriage and the bearing of children has been all but erased, and where the connection between conception and natural sex is no longer a necessary one, then it is possible to think of marriage as an arbitrary label one can put onto anything we like. It does not function to protect partners from exploitation by being deserted; it does almost nothing to provide children with protection against the selfish whims of parents. Even so, the concepts of consummation and adultery, essential to the traditional conception of marriage, still give it too much content for the purposes of SSM, so they have to be jettisoned. With them out of the way, there really is nothing left but a word emptied of content. People are married if and while the state says so, which is while they both want to be; that is all.

St Martha
From the point of view of traditional marriage, polygamy is a problem because it gives one party an unfair advantage over the other. The usual form, polygyny (multiple wives), gives the man a bargaining advantage because the two or more wives are forced to compete with each other. This is undermining of the commitment of the man to the women he marries. Polyandry (multiple husbands) would have the same result the other way round. Polyamory, if there more than one of each sex, brings into the supposedly marital relationship the competition between men and women for mates and resources, which marriage is designed to bring to an end in favour of a committed choice and a stable relationship.

Supporters of SSM can't use these arguments, because they have completely rejected marriage as an institution engineered to maintain the stability ideal for the raising of children. I don't see how they can, logically, stop people marrying their pets or property.

Maybe one good thing will come out of this. The only reasonable argument in favour Civil Partnerships was that committed friends of the same sex who have been sharing a house should be spared Inheritance Tax when one dies. This kind of thing makes Inheritance Tax one of the most unpopular taxes, despite only affecting a limited number of people. Nevertheless, the argument was immediately undermined when the Government refused to let sisters enter a Civil Partnership, for reasons which were never explained. Things have moved on now, and soon I am sure I'll be enter into a 'marriage' with all of my children - without ceasing to be married to my real wife, and without stopping them marrying the people they actually want to marry. I don't suggest I'll actually do this; the mere possibility should be enough to end Inheritance Tax once and for all, for everyone.

I'd rather have the legal recognition of marriage back, however.

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1 comment:

  1. Oh it will come, be sure of that. I mean, the Muslims will insist on it in about twenty years when, thanks to contraception and abortion amongst Catholics and non-Catholics alike, they are the biggest religion in the UK, and certainly a decade or so later when they insist on establishing the Caliphate.

    But then the Secularists might beat then to it?