Gay Marriage and Polygamy: Why the Slippery Slope Argument Isn’t as Wrong as you Think

Brian Brown, in his recent post-dinner debate about gay marriage with Dan Savage, used one of those arguments used so commonly that it belongs on this chart: “If we legalize gay marriage, why not polygamy?” To gay marriage proponents, this point seems not only overused and offensive, but also bizarre. As Dan Savage noted in the video, it doesn’t seem like the job of the same-sex marriage activists to weigh in on the question of group or multiple marriage. “Let the polygamists deal with that one!” he says. Why is it relevant at all what will or won’t happen with polygamous marriage? The question of gay marriage is about why two consenting adults of the same gender shouldn’t be able to enter a legal pact with rights and responsibilities, just like couples of different genders. It’s a civil rights issue! Discussing polygamy in a marriage equality discussion is obviously an example of the Slippery Slope Fallacy.

But as Yvain reminds us, having a silly or low-status name for something doesn’t make it wrong. And I think the Slippery Slope “fallacy”, since it amplifies our positions in a certain direction, is an excellent tool for figuring out exactly what we’re arguing for, and on what grounds. Gay marriage proponents tend to argue that the traditional definition of marriage is inadequate. We say that marriage should be based on the loving commitment people are ready and willing to make to each other, and further, that the law ought not to discriminate between straight and gay people. Given that understanding of marriage, the traditionalists are right to ask why we don’t then approve of all marriage that fits that definition, including group marriages or polygamy. Might seem ridiculous, but bear with me.

Skeptical Jesse is skeptical of my argument.

It’s as if I told a friend, say, Jesse (who gets a major shoutout for all the help he gave me on this post), that I thought taxes should be lowered on the poor and raised on the rich, because the immense income inequality in our country isn’t fair. Based on my argument, that fairness is the goal, he would be right to ask why I wasn’t in favor of a tax code that makes everyone’s income equal. That’s because I haven’t told him that I think fairness is a goal that must be tempered with economic productivity, or the kind of fairness in which people get to keep what they make, or something else. So even though it sounds like he’s making a reductio ad absurdum/slippery slope fallacy to mess with me, he’s totally right.

Similarly, if all traditionalists know is that gay marriage proponents think that nondiscrimination and the desire to have the state recognize a life-time loving commitment are the basis of marriage equality, then there really isn’t a reason why multiple people who love each other shouldn’t be able to get married. Replacing ‘everyone can get married to the opposite sex person of their choice’ with ‘everyone can get married to one other person of their choice’ doesn’t seem like much of an improvement in some hypothetical society where polygamy is really on the table. Gay marriage activists have a political and intellectual obligation to answer the damn question.

In fact, to be really rigorous, we have to answer a few questions. (Gay marriage opponents should, ideally, be able to answer them, too).

1. What is marriage, in our current society?
2. Broadly speaking, how did it come to be that way? (Marriage as a chestertonian fence)
3. What state or societal functions does or should it serve? (What interests does it serve?)

Then, and only then, can we ask, 4. “How does polygamy factor in?”

Luckily, there are plenty of useful, reasonable answers, which will not only placate the Defenders of Marriage, but clarify your own stance and give you a rational grounding for your policy proposals. Which shall it be? (NB: I won’t always address #2 in these responses, because that takes much longer)

1. Marriage is a social recognition of lifelong bonding combined with a structure that allows for a stable environment for children. It comes with rights and benefits. There’s nothing in that that requires only two people, so I do support polygamy. That’s the next step.
Pros: consistent. Cons: Probably won’t win so many points with the traditional marriage crowd.

2. Marriage is an institution that (comes out of a patriarchal and oppressive tradition/used to be important for property issues/other) but serves no use now except to (increase government power/privilege some forms of sexual or romantic relationships) so there should be no marriage at all.
Pros: Also consistent. Cons: Really? What about kids? Also, what are you doing advocating for marriage equality at all?

2, edited. Marriage is an institution that (comes out of a patriarchal and oppressive tradition/used to be important for property issues/other) but serves no use now except to (increase government power/privilege some forms of sexual or romantic relationship) so there should be no marriage at all, but given that it exists, gay people should have it, too.
Pros: Practical. Cons: A pretty cynical way to look at politics.

3. The state has a compelling interest in producing stable family structures. The best way we know of to do that is with two people legally becoming kin, but the gender doesn’t appear to matter.
Pros: Practical, and based on state interest, which is always a plus. Cons: Depends on a piece of evidence (what the most stable structure is) that could change in either direction. That’s fine, just a little unstable.

4. Marriage is a social recognition of stable lifelong bonding combined with a structure that allows for a stable environment for children, but polygamy comes at too high a cost because we would have to totally restructure our (tax system/custody system/etc.).
Pros: Convenient for political argumentation. Cons: Pretty weak argument, if you ask me.

5. The state has a compelling interest in producing stable family structures, and polygamy isn’t one of them. It comes with the potential for a society in which high-status men have tons of wives and low-status men don’t have any. Too problematic. (There might be other similar reasons why a polygamous society would be a bad idea).
Pros: Probably the most forceful argument against polygamy. Cons: Dependent on a potentially irrelevant historical fact about polygamy, not clear at all that such a society would come to pass.

There are likely many more potential responses, and these have plenty of problems, but they are a start. They help us understand, not just what we do or don’t like about polygamy, but why we believe what we believe about the legalization of same-sex marriage.

So next time gay marriage opponents trot out the ‘polygamy’ card, what are we going to do?  Are we going to sputter unconvincingly that it’s not the issue?  Or are we going to face it head-on and show why marriage equality should be the policy on its own merits?

Note: This applies to tons and tons of other issues, from abortion to foreign intervention. Slide down that slippery slope and let me know in comments where you end up!

10 thoughts on “Gay Marriage and Polygamy: Why the Slippery Slope Argument Isn’t as Wrong as you Think

  1. Jen R says:

    “So next time gay marriage opponents trot out the ‘polygamy’ card, what are we going to do?”

    I usually answer, “Well, if there are good reasons not to recognize polygamous marriages other than ‘it’s not one and man and one woman,’ those reasons will still be true when same-sex marriage is legal. And if there aren’t, I don’t see a good reason to be against it.”

    I’m not completely sure how I feel about polygamous marriage. The potential for abuse is SO high, but I have also known marriages with three partners that I wish could be officially recognized families. But we don’t have to get all that that hashed out before supporting same-sex marriage.

    • Chana says:

      I think saying, “same-sex marriage has obvious arguments in favor of it, whereas the question of polygamous marriage is less clear, since the potential for abuse is high. As such, while it’s true that polygamy should be up for discussion once we’re already ok with questioning traditional marriage, I’m comfortable supporting one and waiting to question the other” is reasonable. It definitely hits important points and doesn’t ignore the challenge of where to draw lines around marriage, but it doesn’t answer that challenge either, and still doesn’t answer the question of what the point of marriage is, which I think weakens the argument.

  2. Underdog says:

    Americans should know that pro-polygamy groups in Canada challenged the constitutionality of S.293 CC, proscribing polygamy. They were challenged by women’s groups and others who saw polygamy as detrimental to women. As a result, a public enquiry was held, headed by Chief Justice Robert Bauman of British Columbia Supreme Court. He took 4 months to examine many Briefs and on November 23, 2011, ruled that evidence showed that polygamy was an anti-social practice harmful to ALL society, therefore S.293 CC was constitutional. Mainly, the practice contravenes women’s equality rights as guaranteed by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, as well as impoverishing and harming their children psychologically. As well, it would harm younger, poorer men since rich men would garner as many women as they could, and install them as concubines in their harems, leaving poorer men unable to have a wife and family of their own. Nature, after all, has not provided even two women for every one man, so rich men would be robbing their poorer brothers. Millions of Canadians were delighted with his ruling. The year, after all, is 2012 AD, not 2011 BC, and women are entitled to have equal status with men.

    • Chana says:

      To be clear, when I said polygamy, I meant the potential to marry more than one person. That right would certainly not be reserved for men. I imagined the possibility of long strings of married people, or group marriages, or all kinds of other constructions irrespective of gender. Sorry for the confusion.

      Also, remember, how does your response here answer the fundamental questions I laid out?

  3. Number is a different factor than gender. However, I see no reason to deny an adult the right to marry any consenting adults. If a woman wants to marry two women, and they all agree, they should have that right. All of the standard arguments against polygamy (note… polygamy is more than just polygyny) don’t stand up, as long as we’re talking a place where there is gender equality under the law. It is ridiculous to point tp Arabian countries and say polygamy is oppressing women. It is GENDER INEQUALITY that is oppressing women.

  4. […] An Example of Steelmanning: The Issue of Gay Marriage and Polygamy by Chana Messinger […]

  5. B says:

    Interesting and thoughtful discussion. My response is pretty close to Chana’s position that same-sex marriage clearly has a lot to recommend it, but the question of polygamy needs a lot more study, and we’d need to see a lot better evidence before we’d want to legalize it. I’ve found through my own experience, as well as reading and talking to people, that having a single partner in a tight, unique, reciprocal bond has tremendous benefits. We, as a society, now believe that these bonds should not be inherently unequal (the men shouldn’t be assumed to be dominant, neither partner should be underage or without the ability to consent, etc.). (Note — I have problems with May/December relationships, and relationships between individuals and their supervisors, but I don’t think those can be banned — just advised against.) Though experience with same-sex unions has demonstrated that the partners don’t have to be of different genders for this kind of union to be stable and highly beneficial. Situations with multiple partners, though, are a very different question: I don’t think there’s good evidence at this time that these relationships can be both stable and inherently equal. I think the evidence is clear that polygyny tends to be highly unequal. Polyandry is harder to pin down, being rare and all, but if it involves heterosexuals, it too is inherently unequal: one member has multiple partners, and the rest have only one. Triads etc. of men or women could, theoretically, be equal, but I suspect that in practice there’s always going to be one primary relationship and some lower-status or less-connected hangers-on. Now that polyamorous relationships are more visible, it’s possible that enough evidence in their favor could accumulate — but that point certainly hasn’t come. I’d be interested to hear if the rest of you know of long-term unions of more than two people that seem both stable and roughly equal.

  6. Barry Galef says:

    Sorry, “B” was supposed to be “Barry Galef” but my post was entered before I could finish typing my name.

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