On the Morality of: Polyamory

The comments in a recent thread on same-sex marriage have been heading in this direction, so I thought I’d offer some thoughts about polyamorous relationships and how we can view them from a humanist standpoint.

The reason I (and others) advocate full marriage equality for same-sex couples is straightforward. Marriage is a civil ceremony which confers many legal rights on both partners, rights which are either extremely burdensome or impossible to obtain any other way. At present, the law in many states denies certain couples the right to enter into marriage because of the gender of the participants. This is wrong for precisely the same reason as anti-miscegenation laws, which denied certain couples the right to enter into marriage because of the race of the participants. Both of these are discriminatory policies which deny people the equal protection of the laws by treating them differently based on which group they belong to (black/white, heterosexual/homosexual).

However, laws which restrict marriage to two partners are not discriminatory in the same sense, because those laws apply equally to everyone. Unlike with same-sex marriage, therefore, I conclude that there is no straightforward anti-discrimination argument for extending marriage rights to polyamorous partnerships. This is not a case of legal benefits being offered to certain partnerships but denied to others based solely on morally irrelevant characteristics of the partners, like race or gender. Instead, the law is consistent: no one can enter into a legal marriage with more than one partner. One can certainly argue whether this is the most rational policy for society to follow, but it’s not a self-evident violation of anyone’s human rights.

So far, so good. But now the further question: even if it’s not discrimination, is it the most rational policy for society to forbid multiple-partner marriages?

The first thing to recognize, in my opinion, is that once we decide to allow polyamorous marriages, there’s no rational cutoff point at which we can limit their size. Any argument which would permit a polyamorous relationship of N partners would equally well permit a relationship of N+1 partners. (In software engineering, my chosen field, a similar principle is called the zero-one-infinity rule: “When processing input, allow none of X, one of X, or infinity of X.”)

But this presents us with some problems, because there are numerous rights and responsibilities that come with a two-person marriage that simply can’t be extended in a straightforward manner to a multiple-partner marriage. Take the right not to testify against your partner in court, for example, or the death benefits paid to partners of federal employees, or the right to gain residency or citizenship by marrying someone who is already a citizen. Allowing such rights to be extended to an arbitrarily large group of partners could lead to chaos – but having permitted them for two-person marriages, how could we fairly forbid them to larger arrangements?

And then there are the legal issues, which would be orders of magnitude more complex than the already difficult dilemmas that arise in family law. How do you take a new person into a polyamorous relationship – must it be by unanimous consent of all current partners, or a mere majority vote? If such a partnership dissolves, how do we fairly divide up property, or settle on child custody or visitation rights? If you’re married to two or more people and become incapacitated, who would have the deciding vote in matters of care? These problems aren’t insoluble – but they would be extraordinarily difficult to grapple with. (This, again, contrasts to same-sex marriage, where the nature, rights and responsibilities of the relationship don’t change just because we’ve removed one limitation on who can participate. Polyamorous marriage, on the other hand, would truly be a brand-new kind of relationship requiring its own set of rules.)

All these factors would seem to indicate that our current policy is rationally justified. And yet, the libertarian in me rebels against the idea that the state has any business butting into people’s private relationships. Mutually consenting adults should be able to enter into any kind of arrangement they please. I have to admit that I find considerable justice in this argument. If three people rather than two want to share household responsibilities, by what right can we deny them that? A larger family structure might even, arguably, be superior to pair marriages in terms of sharing childcare duties and other responsibilities, and more resilient against tragedies like the death of one partner.

On the other hand, these lofty principles, so clear and simple-seeming in the abstract, inevitably get snarled in the complications of the real world. And here’s one whopping big complication that atheists and freethinkers should be especially sensitive to: in the real world, one of the most common manifestations of plural partnerships is in religious cults that use polygamy as a way to keep women subjugated.

Escapees like Carolyn Jessop and Elissa Wall have written grippingly of their virtual imprisonment in isolated sects like the FLDS (Fundamentalist Church of Latter-Day Saints – an extremist offshoot of the Mormons), which force girls into harem-like polygamous marriages with older males whom they’re expected to obey absolutely. (See also this article, or my older posts on Warren Jeffs.)

This is an evil that no society should tolerate – but if we legally permit polyamory, how can we prevent it? Better enforcement of age-of-consent laws would help, but even so, this would not prevent women who feel they have no place else to turn from being coerced into these relationships of subjugation.

With all this in mind, my qualified conclusion is that society should not legally recognize polyamorous relationships. I certainly don’t think consenting adults should be prohibited from doing whatever they want in their private lives, but the full range of legal benefits that come with marriage should be limited to two-person partnerships, at least for now. However, I’m open to counterarguments. Is there a way to treat all kinds of committed relationships evenhandedly without encouraging women’s subjugation or opening the door to legal absurdities?

Other posts in this series:

Atlas Shrugged: The Wealth of Nations
Atlas Shrugged: The Great Chain of Being
Atlas Shrugged: The Almighty Dollar
I Get Religious Mail: That's Not What "Miracle" Means
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.