Gay Marriage, Polygamy, And Individual Liberty
There are several pieces out today on the issue of whether the arguments being advanced in favor of gay marriage will, over time, be used by those who practice polygamy as support for the argument that their relationships should be legalized.
First, Charles Krauthammer writes on the issue and argues that the answer is emphatically yes.
In an essay 10 years ago, I pointed out that it is utterly logical for polygamy rights to follow gay rights. After all, if traditional marriage is defined as the union of (1) two people of (2) opposite gender, and if, as advocates of gay marriage insist, the gender requirement is nothing but prejudice, exclusion and an arbitrary denial of one’s autonomous choices in love, then the first requirement — the number restriction (two and only two) — is a similarly arbitrary, discriminatory and indefensible denial of individual choice.
This line of argument makes gay activists furious. I can understand why they do not want to be in the same room as polygamists. But I’m not the one who put them there. Their argument does. Blogger and author Andrew Sullivan, who had the courage to advocate gay marriage at a time when it was considered pretty crazy, has called this the “polygamy diversion,” arguing that homosexuality and polygamy are categorically different because polygamy is a mere “activity” while homosexuality is an intrinsic state that “occupies a deeper level of human consciousness.”
But this distinction between higher and lower orders of love is precisely what gay rights activists so vigorously protest when the general culture “privileges” (as they say in the English departments) heterosexual unions over homosexual ones. Was “Jules et Jim” (and Jeanne Moreau), the classic Truffaut film involving two dear friends in love with the same woman, about an “activity” or about the most intrinsic of human emotions?
To simplify the logic, take out the complicating factor of gender mixing. Posit a union of, say, three gay women all deeply devoted to each other. On what grounds would gay activists dismiss their union as mere activity rather than authentic love and self-expression? On what grounds do they insist upon the traditional, arbitrary and exclusionary number of two?
One of the strongest arguments in favor of gay marriage that I’ve encountered is the one that says that the government has no right to intrude into the personal relationships of consenting adults and forbid them from entering into a legal status, in this case marriage, that they wish to enter into freely. This doesn’t mean that government is endorsing the relationship, any more than it endorses a producer of pornographic films who forms a corporation to run his busines. It merely means that the government is allowing people to engage in consenual activities that affect nobody but themselves. The logic, if you accept it, seems to me to be unassailable and its hard for me to find an argument that says that polygamy is per se different.
Andrew Sullivan responds to Krauthammer on his blog:
I respect Charles Krauthammer too much not to offer a small rejoinder to his thoughtful column today. He fairly represents my side of a debate we already had a few years’ back. I stick with my position. I believe that someone’s sexual orientation is a deeper issue than the number of people they want to express that orientation with. Polygamy is a choice, in other words; homosexuality isn’t. The proof of this can be seen in the fact that straight people and gay people can equally choose polyandry or polygamy or polyamory, or whatever you want to call it. But no polygamist or heterosexual can choose to be gay. If you’re not, you’re not.
Exactly, and if people want to choose to live in a polygamous relatiohship, why should the government tell them they can’t ?
I think legalizing such arrangements is a bad idea for a society in general for all the usual reasons (abuse of women, the dangers of leaving a pool of unmarried straight men in the population at large, etc.).
Aren’t these the same type of sociologically-based arguments that people use agianst gay marriage ? What about the argument that gay marriage shouldn’t be recognized because it doesn’t promote procreation ?
Ann Althouse also writes about Krauthammer’s column and comes up with her own distinction between gay marriage and polygamy
Legal marriage isn’t just about love, it’s an economic arrangement. Having the state authorize your union is not the same thing as having your friends and neighbors approve of you and your religious leaders bless you. It affects taxes and employee benefits — huge amounts of money. A gay person with a pension and a health insurance plan is incapable of extending those benefits to his (or her) partner. He (or she) can’t file a joint tax return. That’s not fair. A polygamous marriage, however, puts a group of persons in a position to claim more economic benefits than the traditional heterosexual couple. That doesn’t appeal to our sense of fairness.
So now its a fairness argument ? Since when are individual rights subject to the consideration of whether or not their implementation is “fair”, and who decides exactly what fair is ?
Finally, Kathleen Kersten has a column in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune similar to Krauthammer’s:
Redefining marriage to include people of the same sex will open a Pandora’s box. As a New Jersey appellate court judge wrote recently, if “marriage [is] … couched only in terms of privacy, intimacy, and autonomy, then what non-arbitrary ground is there for denying the benefit to polygamous … unions whose members claim the arrangement is necessary for their self-fulfillment?”
Kersten is obviously opposed to gay marriage and is using the polygamy argument as an argument against gay marriage itself, but her doomsday prediction of what marriage might turn into if society keeps going in the direction it has been doesn’t really sound that bad:
What’s the likely endpoint? Marriage may be redefined out of existence, and replaced by a flexible, contract-based system of government-registered relationships
In other words, people would live their private lives in the way that they wanted. What’s so wrong with that ?