Why Polygamy Is Wrong Essay

To find out, watch this exchange between US Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum, and a New Hampshire college student.  Here’s an edit to give the gist:

Student: How about the ideas that all men are created equal, and the rights to happiness and liberty? [Applause.]

Santorum: Ok, so — Are we saying that everyone should have the right to marry?

Audience: Yes! Yes!

Santorum: Everyone? Ok, so, anybody can marry anybody else.

Audience: Yes, yes!

Santorum: So anyone can marry several people? …

Audience: No … !

Santorum: I’m just positing some things you need to think about. So if everybody has a right to be happy — so if you’re not happy unless you’re married to five other people is that OK?

Audience member: That’s not what we’re asking!

Santorum: I’m asking the question. If what you said was, every person has a right to their own happiness —

Audience member: That’s irrelevant …

Santorum: No, it’s not irrelevant.

Student: [We’re talking about] the right for two men to have the same rights as a man and a woman.

Santorum: Well, what about three men?

Audience: We’re not talking about that!

This exchange is fascinating. Let’s see why. Santorum’s view is that endorsing gay marriage automatically commits one to polygamy-acceptance as well. His logic—which amounts to a reductio ad absurdum—can be spelled out in the following way:

(1) Gay marriage proponents (like those in the audience in the above exchange) hold that individuals are entitled to marry whomsoever they wish, via mutual consent, in pursuit of their own happiness. In fact, they seem to argue, this is at base the very the principle that heterosexuals implicitly enact in their own marriage arrangements. For the sake of fair treatment, then, gay individuals should be able to marry whomsoever they wish, via mutual consent, in pursuit of their own happiness, as well.

(2) But if you endorse that principle, Santorum rebuts, you are automatically committed to the position that polygamy is OK. This is because someone who wants to marry two, or three, or four, or five individuals, for the sake of their personal happiness, should also be entitled to do so — on the “marriage-in-pursuit-of-happiness” principle above — so long as each individual consents to the plan.

(3) But obviously polygamy is unacceptable and immoral and bad.

(4) So the conception of marriage that is being employed to establish a right for gay individuals to wed is too broad: it would confer a right to polygamists as well. Therefore one cannot endorse that conception of marriage; and hence the “marriage is between one man and one woman” definition stands tall, undefeated by all known challengers.

There are a number of ways to respond to Santorum. One way would be to challenge the idea that polygamy-acceptance automatically ensues from the marriage-happiness principle set out in premise (1). Another would be to deny that the principle behind gay marriage really is as simple as “everybody can marry whoever they want.” But let’s assume for now — for the sake of argument — that the principle really is that simple, and that acceptance of polygamy really is a consequence of endorsing it. Now then, I want to pursue a different line of response. I want to question premise (3).

My question is this. Why do we automatically assume that polygamy is unacceptable and immoral and bad? Why should the argumentative “buck” stop there? In the exchange above, you’ll notice that the audience keeps trying to avoid the question, stating that it’s “irrelevant” or that polygamy isn’t what they were “talking about.” Maybe they think that (2) doesn’t actually follow from (1), or they just aren’t prepared to conjure up an argument on the fly. But why shouldn’t they be “talking about” polygamy?

Let me step back. I’ve noticed that in discussions of gay marriage, some people, usually religious conservatives, try to make an argument like this. “Marriage—meaning a union between one man and one woman—is a centuries-long tradition that has to be preserved for the sake of civilization. If you try to re-define so sacred an institution in a way that would allow gay people to marry, you’ll find yourself on a slippery slope … for, then, what is to stop you from allowing polygamy??”

In these debates generally — as in the one here with Santorum — the “liberal” or “progressive” commentator will very often take issue with the first few steps in the argument. They’ll point out that the “traditional” conception of marriage is actually a recent invention—only about 200 years old—or they’ll bring up a number of fallacies in the line about “defending civilization.” They might even get so far as urging that you don’t really risk getting yourself onto a slippery slope, since “no one is trying to advocate a right for polygamists, so it’s irrelevant” — largely the tack taken by the college students in the video above. But why isn’t anyone challenging the implicit final step — the one suggesting that to permit polygamy would be anathema to all things decent and civilized?

I’m not sure I see how it is. Polygamy has long been a part our species’ history, and it’s still practiced in some parts of the world where tradition and economic considerations allow. If three people wanted to get married – or four, or five – and each individual was an adult capable of giving full consent, what exactly is the problem?

Let me be clear about what I’m suggesting. By ‘polygamy’ I mean a marriage involving more than two partners; so perhaps “group marriage” would be a clearer term. Sub-categories of polygamy include polygyny, which is the marriage of a man to multiple wives; and polyandry, which is the marriage of a female to multiple husbands. Other gender match-ups are possible too; and any combination would count on my proposal. Crucially, I’m talking about a marriage agreement to which all parties consent from the get-go.

Now, then: Where is the ethical problem? Why does premise (3) automatically give the “absurdum” in the reductio above? In other words, can someone tell me, please, what’s so bad about polygamy?

I’m open to taking your view.

See the comments section below for some good arguments about why polygamy might be problematic after all. For more thoughtful discussion on this topic, see Jean Kazez’ excellent blog here. 

(See a list of all of Brian’s previous posts here.)

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Why Polygamy is Always a Bad Idea

Many Americans these days fear that gay marriage opens the door to the legalisation of polygamy. While this is a textbook example of the slippery slope fallacy (some people who advance this argument also fear the imminent legalisation of bestiality, incest and child molestation), very few pundits seem to be able or willing to refute the argument.

During the struggle for marriage equality, the argument was often advanced that the state has no business regulating the love between two consenting adults of the same sex. But while consent is an important element, it is not the only one. The state’s interest in regulating marriage is does not lie on the individual, but on the societal level. While gay marriage has no measurable adverse effects on a society, polygamy does.

Anthropologist Joseph Henrich

In November 2011, the British Columbia Supreme Court ruled against legalising polygamy. This decision was partly based on a report by anthropologist Joseph Henrich, commissioned by the B.C. Attorney General (Henrich 2010; page numbers in this article refer to this report unless otherwise noted). In this paper, Henrich describes the societal effects of polygamy on crime and social disorder, male parental investment, and gender inequality.

Crime and social disorder

Polygamy increases crime because in polygamous societies, there will always be a group of unmarried young men who have no prospect of a partner because there aren’t enough women and they do not have sufficient money or status to have a wife. It is a well-established sociological fact that unmarried men tend to commit more murders, robberies and rapes (Pinker 2011, p. 104-105).

Male parental investment

In polygamous marriages, a sizable part of the family’s means is devoted to attracting and maintaining multiple wives. These means cannot be invested in the family’s children, leading to more than ten times higher child and infant mortality rates, higher chances of malnutrition, lower growth rates (both in weight and length) and worse overall health. It is not entirely understood why this is so, but there is no question that it is so.

Gender inequality

“Polygamy is, by its very nature, a gender issue” (Zeitzen 2008, p. 125). Several asymmetries are built into polygamy, two of which are the younger age at which polygamous women first marry (ten years earlier) and the large age gap between them and their husbands (three times larger than in monogamous societies). Women in polygamous societies are less empowered, have fewer rights, lower literacy rates and run increased risks of being sexually exploited and raped.

In some polygamous societies, “significantly elevated rates of depression, obsession-compulsion, hostility, anxiety, phobia, psychoticism, and paranoid ideation” were measured in women (p. 39). These symptoms are not uniformly present in all polygamous society, though, because they “vary with the women’s co-wife ranking” and this in turn varies across cultures. In some cultures, younger wives have more status and dominate the older ones, in other cultures it’s the other way around (p. 40).

Other effects

Henrich makes several other observations which cast polygamy in a broader light. In chapter III of his report, he traces the emergence of western monogamy from its origins in ancient Greece and Rome, to its adoption in Europe through Christianity, and ties it to increased economic equality among men. This point is reinforced by his observation that polygamous countries today have a three times lower GDP than comparable non-polygamous countries (p. 31).

Mormon polygamy as a case in point

While this article leans heavily on Henrich’s report, his results are consistent with the relevant sociological and anthropological literature. Henrich’s primary focus may be on the adverse societal effects of polygamy but in all honesty, there are very few positive effects associated with polygamy from a modern point of view.

Mormon polygamy is a case in point. In Mormonism101.com’s annotated versions of the Mormon church’s essays on Utah and Nauvoo polygamy, almost all the effects mentioned above can be seen to apply:

  • Increased numbers of unmarried young men
    (note 7 to the Utah polygamy essay);
  • Decreased age of women at first marriage
    (notes 7 and 14 to the Utah polygamy essay, note 19 to the Nauvoo polygamy essay);
  • Increased age gaps between husbands and polygamous wives
    (notes 18 and 19 to the Nauvoo polygamy essay);
  • Unequal distribution of wealth
    (note 8 to the Utah polygamy essay);
  • Gender inequality
    (note 10 to the Utah polygamy essay, notes 2, 8, 19, 21, 25, 27, 28, 31 and 33 to the Kirtland essay);
  • Polygamy as a status symbol of the ruling elite
    (note 11 to the Utah polygamy essay, notes 25 and 32 to the Nauvoo essay).

However, the adverse societal effects of polygamy are not restricted to 19th-century Mormonism. To this very day, Mormon fundamentalism offers a chilling insight into the misery and squalor that are commonly associated with polygamy. It would be a dangerous mistake to consider these the exception rather than the rule.


While there may not be a moral objection to the theoretical concept of polygamous marriage between consenting adults, historical and contemporary evidence show that there is no practical application of such a concept in a modern society. Even if the adults are consenting to the marriage (which, by the way, can be ambiguous given the cultural and familial pressures often involved in marriage practices), the detrimental effects on society in general, and women and children in particular, provide the state with a compelling and moral incentive to prohibit polygamy.

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