← Return to search results
Back to Prindle Institute

On Polygamy

photograph of three paper cutout figures holding hands

When gay marriage was legalized by in 2015, conservative lawyer John O. Hayward lamented in the wake of the Supreme Court’s landmark decision that “the only remaining marital frontier—at least for the Judeo-Christian nations of the West—is polygamy.” It’s difficult to determine how many practice plural marriage in the United States; one oft-repeated but sourceless estimate says somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 people, and the Pew Research Center puts the number at less than 0.5 percent of Americans. Though polygamists only make up a tiny sliver of the population, a 2020 poll conducted by Gallup showed that the practice is increasingly viewed as morally acceptable in the United States, jumping from around a 7% approval rating in the early 2000s to around 20% in 2020. This change could be the result of the widespread erosion of “traditional marriage,” or the proliferation of reality shows like Sister Wives, which normalize plural marriage. Then again, a more recent reality show called Escaping Polygamy, which follows three sister-wives who leave their Mormon community, suggests that for many, polygamy is still viewed as a a primitive and restrictive form of social organization rather than a viable alternative to monogamy. Is polygamy just one of many ways to organize a household, as Sister Wives suggests, or a trap for vulnerable women?

Polygamy, as practiced in most cultures, tends to involve one man with two or more wives, who share the burdens of domestic labor and child-rearing. There are tangible benefits to polygamy; housework is shared, which reduces burnout, and both children and spouses have access to a vast social support network. David Barash, a professor of psychology at the University of Washington, proposes in his book Out of Eden: The Surprising Consequences of Polygamy that monogamy is infrequent in the natural world, and therefore too restrictive for human beings. At the same time, the argument that polygamy is “natural” is a complicated one. Even if a form of behavior is common in the natural world, we shouldn’t necessarily feel compelled to take it up. 18th-century philosopher Montesquieu further demonstrates the problem with the “nature is destiny” argument. Asian women, he wrote in The Spirit of Laws, reach sexual maturity at eight years old, before their sense of reason developed, so they need to be in “a state of dependency” on (presumably reasonable and sexually mature) men in a plural marriage. In cooler climates, reason and sexual maturity arrived at the same time, which led to monogamy and equal relations between the sexes. Of course, his hypothesis was mired in racist pseudo-science, but he illustrates the problem with attributing any social arrangement to “nature”: not only is it difficult to pin down what exactly we mean by “natural” (any concept of nature will itself be a social construct, in other words), but it leads us to paint our practices or institutions as inevitable and not subject to change. Like any social arrangement, polygamy has benefits and drawbacks, and raising it up as a utopian solution isn’t any more productive than disparaging it wholesale.

Criticism of the practice can come from both ends of the political spectrum, and disdain for polygamy usually makes a point about some larger ill plaguing society. As historian Sarah Pearsall explains in her book Polygamy: An Early American History, polygamy is as much a political metaphor as it is a form of domestic organization. She points out that polygamy was considered to be “the supremely unenlightened form of marriage” by Europeans, who encountered the practice both in North America and Africa. The frequency with which indigenous peoples practiced plural marriage demonstrated their unbridled sexual appetites, and therefore justified imperialism. Western thinkers in the age of Enlightenment also believed that plural marriage was insidious to good government. Wealthy men would inevitably have many wives while poor men could only afford to support a few, breeding jealousy and distrust that would ultimately undermine the stability of the state. In contemporary Western Europe, polygamy is inextricably linked to immigration and cultural assimilation. Traditional sects of Islam allow for a man to take multiple wives, but in countries like Germany and France, which have a large population of Muslim migrants, the practice is against the law. This isn’t to say that banning polygamy is necessarily Islamaphobic; it’s been well-documented that in many cases, plural marriages lead to abuse and exploitation of underage brides. But when France passed a bill in February of this year that increases the power of the state over mosques and schools with the ostensible aim of curbing the practice, it’s clear that a government’s stance on polygamy is very rarely just about polygamy.

Polygamists, much like same-sex couples, have historically struggled for recognition from the state and society at large. As Andrew Solomon explains in an article for The New Yorker, “polygamists face innumerable legal obstacles, affecting such matters as inheritance, hospital visits, and parentage rights. If wives apply for benefits as single parents, they are lying, and may be committing welfare fraud; but if they file joint tax returns they are breaking the law.” Though polygamy is criminalized in most places, that may not always be the case. In March of 2020, the state of Utah, which famously has a large Mormon population, effectively legalized plural marriage, though supporters of the bill argue that they’re trying to liberate those who have been forced into plural marriage by allowing them to seek help without fear of legal retribution. Criminalizing the practice makes those who wish to leave their situation less likely to come forward, in other words.

Critics of polygamy have raised up polyamory as a less hierarchical alternative. As Solomon explains,

“Unlike polygamy, which is usually religiously motivated and typically involves a man with multiple wives who do not have an erotic relationship to one another, polyamory tends to be based on utopian ideas of sexual liberty and may involve a broad range of configurations . . . In the popular imagination, polygamists are presumed to be right-wing misogynists and polyamorists to be decadent left-wingers, but the two groups share goals and, often, ways of life.”

The choice to enter a plural marriage is rarely political, but polyamory is consciously revolutionary, and both groups remain on the fringes of society at large. Polyamory, like any social arrangement, is never perfect, but it does prevent many of the abuses common in plural marriages, and presents an interesting challenge to monogamy as an institution. This isn’t to say that we should all abandon monogamy, but at the very least, criminalizing polygamy in all its forms is hardly the way to save those who want to leave their situation. As social mores change and these non-conventional relationships become increasingly visible, legislators and citizens alike will have to confront both the good and bad of plural marriage.

Why Would Anyone Marry?

black and white photograph of "Just Married" in back window of vintage car

“Marriage is wonderful when it lasts forever, and I envy the old couples in When Harry Met Sally who reminisce tearfully about the day they met 50 years before. I no longer believe, however, that a marriage is a failure if it doesn’t last forever. It may be a tragedy, but it is not necessarily a failure. And when a marriage does last forever with love alive, it is a miracle.”

                                                                           —Peggy O’Mara, Mothering

On May 3rd, Bill and Melinda Gates announced their divorce, stating that after lots of “thought and a lot of work on our relationship, we have made the decision to end our marriage,” ending their twenty-seven year union. Whatever their reasons for divorce — the announcement being understandably vague — we should pause here to think about an important philosophical question, namely: why would anyone marry? Choosing to enter into a marriage is among the most consequential decisions one can make, affecting potential future children, well-being and happiness, and so on. A good marriage can be a major blessing, but a bad marriage can be hell.

Here’s a rough argument against marriage: no one wants a loveless marriage; it is something that, if we knew it would happen, would likely encourage us not to wed to begin with — to be stuck in a loveless marriage is a potential horror show. Often enough, the love couples feel for each other, entering a marriage, will fade and sometimes cease. To avoid this fate, we should be reticent prior to taking the vows. As the philosopher, Dan Moller, explains:

“Reduced to a crude sketch, the argument [against marriage] is simply that, (a) most of us view the prospect of being married in the absence of mutual love with something like horror or at least great antipathy; (b) the mutual love between us and our spouse existing at the inception of our marriage may very well fail to persist; and hence (c) when we marry we are putting ourselves in the position of quite possibly ending up in a loveless marriage of the sort we acknowledge to be undesirable.”

What’s partly hard about marrying is that emotions — an essential aspect of romantic love — have an autonomous element, not wholly governed by the will, even with the best of intentions. If romantic love is an essential aspect of marriage, how can marriage vows bind? When you cannot control something, you cannot be culpable for it — we don’t think people culpable for the ocean waves, by example.

Someone may object that marriage vows specify actions, not emotional states, and are thus under our control. As the philosopher, Justin McBrayer, argues:

“Notice how heavily [many generic marriage vows focus] on actions compared to emotions: support one’s partner, honor one’s partner, respect one’s partner, and so on. Even the emotional content is easily understood in a behavioral sense: to be a faithful partner in sickness and health clearly has a behavioral component. To see this, imagine the following thought-experiment. Suppose Landon makes the aforementioned promise to Hannah. Suppose next that he feels all the right things toward her (for example, he is in love with her), but that his behavior is wildly erratic – he sleeps around, is verbally abusive to Hannah, abandons her when she is ill, etc. Would anyone be willing to say that Landon has fulfilled his wedding vow? Surely not.”

There’s only one problem with this: it ignores the fact that emotions, like romantic love, are also essential to marriage. Of course it is clear that marriage vows, and marriage itself, includes the vow to do certain things — many married people expect their partner to be faithful to them, by example. However, it cannot be that actions and behavior is all there is to marriage — without an appropriate emotional component, it is not clear one would be in a marriage they would find fulfilling and satisfying. Imagine a different thought experiment: John treats his wife well, cares for her when ill, never cheats on her, and so forth, but simply doesn’t feel love for her at all. He is a good husband to fulfill his marriage vows because his nagging conscience won’t let him break them. We wouldn’t think though that this is a fulfilling marriage; it likely isn’t one John would have entered into had he known the result would be the death of love for his wife. Whether marriage vows include a behavior aspect is irrelevant — emotions seem a necessary part of marriage too.

So then we must wonder why people would marry — the people who marry usually do not want to end in a loveless marriage. There must be an upside then to marriage; benefits that contribute to our well-being. Likely they partly include the positive emotions many experience, especially in the early days of the marriage. However, there must be more to explain why so many people, despite the risk a bad marriage poses to living a good life, still choose to tie the knot.

It looks like, in addition to a romantic venture, marriage is a commitment device: by imposing costs on dissolving a marriage, the institution of marriage forces individuals to comprise and grow in a manner they wouldn’t if the cost of ‘walking away’ from a relationship were relatively low. And this can do several things: incentivize individuals in a marriage to work together, to engage in personal improvement for the sake of the union and family, provide a more stable environment for rearing kids, and make relationship-specific investments. Think of it like this: often time, but not always, couples will get along if forced to. Imagine, by example, you’re permanently handcuffed to someone — your fate and theirs are bound up. It would then make sense, assuming the other person is reasonable, to make the best of the situation by doing things like getting along and compromising.

This can, of course, be a bad thing if one of the partners is unreasonable; there are downsides to nearly anything. Our point isn’t to claim that marriage is always a good thing — we began the piece by thinking about why anyone would marry — but to highlight some marital benefits; whether the benefits outweigh the costs will likely vary from couple to couple. However, there are some downsides too if the cost of abandoning commitments is too low: it may be harder in some cases to find a long-term relationship if the cost of finding a new partner, whenever one is even remotely dissatisfied, is too low. To illustrate, consider a scene from Season 5, Episode 4 of Seinfeld, where Elaine has just dumped her partner:

JERRY: You’re out of your mind you know that.


JERRY: It’s an exclamation point! It’s a line with a dot under it.

ELAINE: Well, I felt a call for one.

JERRY: A call for one, you know I thought I’ve heard everything. I’ve never heard a relationship being affected by a punctuation.

ELAINE: I found it very troubling that he didn’t use one.

We don’t want to be trapped in a loveless marriage, obviously; but we should worry too if the cost of abandoning our commitments is too low — the ramification of that would extend beyond marriage to, among other moral practices, promises more generally.

Dating and Choice in the Digital Age

Black and white photograph of a couple in an art gallery, standing in front of a picture, the woman is laughing

Technology has radically invaded every aspect of human life.  Dating and relationships in particular have been transformed in the digital age. One out of four straight couples meet online, and for gay couples, that number rises to two out of three.

Online daters who find relationships appear to move more quickly toward firm commitment. Half of couples who met online get married in the fourth year of their relationship, compared to their counterparts who met face-to-face (who tend to get wed in their tenth year). Furthermore, married couples who met online express marginally greater satisfaction in their marriages than other couples, and their unions are somewhat less likely to dissolve.

Sociologist Michael Rosenfeld suggests that the faster track to marriage via online dating reflects a more refined ability to select and discern qualities in one’s mate in advance. Online dating allows for garnering extensive knowledge about a potential partner that would take longer to acquire over a face-to-face acquaintance. Perhaps nowhere else is the ability to make a choice so valued as in seeking out a life partner. Popular writers announce their successes via developing algorithms. It seems technology enables us to put the “data” in “dating.”

Researchers have noted an increase in ”assortative mating,” or dating people who are within one’s socioeconomic class and experience. A South Korean study found that while online dating does not tend to unite people on the basis of geographical and occupational similarity, it can strengthen demographic similarities in terms of education and class.

This ability to fine-tune one’s pool of partners to reflect one’s own background can bring about ethical concerns. Is seeking out highly similar partners a morally weighted issue? On the one hand, it suggests a robust shift in the way that people perceive life partners. In America, sociologist Andrew Cherlin and historian Stephanie Coontz note three distinct eras of relationships: institutional marriage (dating roughly from America’s founding); companionate marriage (approximately 1850-1965) and self-expressive marriage (from approximately 1965 to the present). Describing these different social expectations of marriage resembles a progression along Maslow’s hierarchy of needs as noted by Eli Finkel in the New York Times. Institutional marriage revolved significantly around physical survival in a settler-colonialist environment. In contrast, companionate marriage reflected urbanization and the luxury of seeking out a supportive, engaging partner. Self-expressive marriage places the highest expectations of all on a partner – seeing in a partner the opportunity to explore and relish the ever-changing and growing dimensions of the self and the other. Being able to choose a partner with a similar lifestyle would seem to ensure greater mutual understanding according to this latter norm of self-expression.

In light of this relatively new social conception of what a life partner can offer, it is not surprising that individuals are embracing the range and nuance of choice proffered by online dating. At the same time, there exist unfortunate side-effects of assortative dating (i.e., individuals choosing to date others from a similar socioeconomic background). While it appears to be a strategy with important payoffs for individuals, it can also reflect and repeat wider social inequalities by concentrating privilege within a particular class.

Racial bias is a still more fraught aspect of online dating. Whereas in real life, it may be easier to sidestep unconscious bias by encountering individuals of different races face-to-face in their full personalities, online dating offers increased opportunities to self-select dates of one’s own race via pressing a button or swiping left.  

A similar background would seem to be a reasonably valid criterion for choosing one’s dates, especially if one is searching for a life partner. Given the burden we now place on life partners to promote self-expression, it is not surprising that individuals seek out like-minded dates. At the same time, online dating can increase our likelihood of dating those of a similar race and class, further replicating the lack of class mobility and interracial relationships that already exist. There are several possible interpretations for this state of affairs.  

One possible interpretation is that people are simply insular – that “similar experiences” are defined in terms of outward markers of racial and class lines. Another interpretation is that such outward markers do radically determine our experiences to the point that there are little points of commonality which would be desirable in a partnership conceived in terms of mutual self-expression. Either interpretation suggests that we are a long way off from equality, in terms of how we conceive self and other, or in terms of how particular markers that should not determine our socioeconomic status continue to radically differentiate and separate us according to arbitrary lines.  

Is there an ethical obligation to embrace diversity in one’s dating life?  While there is certainly ethical value in examining one’s unconscious and conscious beliefs for bias in choosing potential mates, the issue seems to extend beyond individual choices. Equal access to experiences of self-expression, self-actualization, and leisure for all in society would likely reduce class and racial prejudice and further enable people to connect on more interesting grounds than personal privilege.

Opinion: A Moral Defense of Monogamy

The Stormy Daniels affair is growing out of control for President Trump, amidst allegations of threats, extortion and hush money. The porn star has claimed that she had a sexual relationship with Trump, and it now seems that the president used funds from his political campaign (part of which comes from contributors) in order to silence her. The origin of this money (and not the payment itself, or even the adultery) is what is truly at stake, and could have further legal complications.

Continue reading “Opinion: A Moral Defense of Monogamy”

The Ethics of Secession

A photo of a man holding a Catalan independence flag.

Secession has been a hot topic in 2017. At least two important plebiscites have been celebrated: Kurdistan and Catalonia. Predictably, both the governments of Iraq and Spain have strongly condemned them as illegal, respectively. Both governments are right: the laws of both Iraq and Spain do not allow for secession in the terms that the plebiscites propose it. But, then again, basically no country in the world (Ethiopia and Canada being notable exceptions) accepts the legality of secession. Yet, throughout history, secessions have happened multiple times. Technically, almost all of them have been illegal. Morally, some of them have been celebrated, some not. What, then, is the criterion to judge the morality of secession? What makes George Washington a hero, but Jefferson Davis a villain (if at all)?

Continue reading “The Ethics of Secession”

Competing Desires: Casual Sex in a Monogamous Society

Last week, I spoke with an elderly couple. They’re both in the sixties now, but when they married each other, he was seventeen and she was eighteen. Sounds crazy, right? Furthermore, they were both virgins when they put the rings on each other’s fingers. A situation like this is nearly unheard of today—especially for millennials. On college campuses across America, casual sex has become the norm, and long-term relationships and marriage are generally regarded as an endeavor to undertake far in the future.

Continue reading “Competing Desires: Casual Sex in a Monogamous Society”