Since the Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage there have been questions raised about whether polygamy will eventually become legalized. I have found some of the arguments put forward in a Standard Editorial insisting that this would never happen rather disturbing, but not for the reasons you might expect.
At the root of these arguments is an attitude of cultural superiority – basically the same as what was previously behind manifest destiny and paternalistic colonization. There seems to be some roots in the belief that the evolution of mankind and society is an upward movement and We – our current society at our particular time in history – are at the pinnacle. Everything preceding our highly developed and enlightened state is by comparison primitive and inferior. Times and circumstances have changed greatly since the 1700’s, but the prevailing superior attitude of Western society has continued.
Eugene Volokh, a professor at UCLA School of Law has been quoted as saying: “The policy arguments against polygamous marriages are pretty strong. It has been outright rejected by Western tradition.” This “Western tradition”, being the most highly developed and civilized society ever, would naturally consider something like polygamy as associated with more primitive, barbaric societies. This was the argument against polygamy in the United States in the 1800’s. It was considered then as one of the “twin relics of barbarism.” At that time there were a number of cultures and nations actively practicing polygamy – many Muslim countries, China, African and Native American tribes – all of which were considered by the superior “western” culture of that time as primitive and inferior.
The arguments for legalizing same-sex marriage can easily be applied to polygamy. Justice John Roberts was right on in pointing out “Indeed, from a standpoint of history and tradition, a leap from opposite-sex marriage to same-sex marriage is much greater than one from a two-person union to plural unions.” I would suspect that the enlightened western societies of the 1800’s would have seen same-sex marriage as rather perverse and barbaric, even more so than polygamy – certainly not something associated with their highly developed moral standards. But somehow through decades of “progress” on that assent toward even more highly civilized society we have come to embrace practices that past culturally and morally superior societies saw as horribly barbaric.
Another disturbing element of the assessment that polygamy would not be legalized is the argument that it is not popular and would not be accepted by our society. That might be true if such changes had to come about through legislation or popular vote. But what we have seen recently is change through judicial action. My understanding is that the Supreme Court is supposed to use the Constitution of the United States as the standard by which to determine if laws are acceptable, not public opinion. But what we have really seen and what is suggested is that public opinion is a greater factor than the Constitution itself. The argument seems to be that there is no popular movement to bring the matter of polygamy to the court, so it won’t be. Does it require a large number of cases for a matter to be brought before the court? Other matters have involved just one case. Does the court decide what cases to hear based on public support? If so, the question which follows is – are court rulings themselves based more on popular opinion than on the Constitution? Cases brought before the Court today would have had a very different outcome 100 years ago – supposedly using the same Constitution as the standard. So is it really about Constitutional law or changing public opinion?
One other argument presented in the comparison between same-sex marriage and polygamy was stated by Jonathan Rauch in Politico Magazine: “By allowing high-status men to hoard wives at the expense of lower-status men, polygamy withdraws the opportunity to marry from people who now have it; same-sex marriage, by contrast, extends the opportunity to marry to people who now lack it.” This may seem reasonable if the marriage privilege is granted purely for the pleasure and benefit of individuals. It also assumes that society would discriminate and limit polygamy to only “high-status” men – which also includes the assumption that polygamy would be a preferred arrangement. But in order to benefit society as a whole, the privilege of marriage should be granted with the intent to increase the population of good citizens – to perpetuate and improve society. Same-sex marriage does not naturally result in population growth. Polygamy does. In societies where male population has been reduced due to war or disease, polygamy would be very beneficial. There are no societal benefits to same-sex marriage.
I want it understood that I am not advocating polygamy here. However I do think that the ruling for same-sex marriage does open that door and the issue can not be ignored or dismissed as absurd. The idea of same-sex marriage would have seemed similarly absurd 50 years ago.
My view is that rather than ascending toward a more highly developed society, we are actually descending – with those escalating the descent being the ones most deluded about our superior state. History provides examples of societies which were very advanced and remained strong for long periods of time (some practicing polygamy, by the way) but later declined. What happened to them? Abandoning moral standards under the guise of progress, tolerance and freedom does not move a society in an upward direction. Opening doors to legitimize things which previous societies condemned will only lead to the opening of more doors, allowing more deviant behaviors to become acceptable. For how can we justify allowing one group of people what they want without allowing others what they want, if personal desires take precedence over moral standards. There is only one direction to go on the slippery slope.