The Argument for Polygamy


Russell Nieli, who has a PhD in politics from Princeton, writes in the Public Discourse about "learning from a religious skeptic's rejection of polygamy and easy divorce":

While often hostile to the Calvinist Christianity in which he was reared, David Hume’s essay “Of Polygamy and Divorces” offers a vigorous and well-argued defense of marriage arrangements as they existed in England and many other parts of Europe from the early Middle Ages through most of the 18th century. His arguments have great relevance for us today as we struggle to cope with unprecedented rates of divorce and unprecedented ease of both entering into and exiting marriages and other intimate procreative relationships. His arguments against polygamy are also important as that practice seems to be undergoing something of a resurgence in parts of the southwest, with renewed interest in the popular culture.

Maggie Gallagher comments on David Hume's claim that both polygamy and liberal divorce laws make marriages less happy over at NRO's The Corner:

Interesting stuff, but I became somewhat more transfixed by the argument for polygamy to which Hume is in part responding:

Having multiple wives, says the polygamy defender, is “the only effectual remedy for the disorder of love and the only expedient for freeing men from that slavery to the females which the natural violence of our passion has imposed upon us.” It is by multiple partners alone — partners who can be used at will and played off one against the other — that “[we men] regain our right of sovereignty, and sating our appetite, reestablish the authority of reason in our minds, and, of consequence, our own authority in our families.”

Essentially, The tyranny of lust disorders men’s reason and gives women too much power over men: that’s polygamy as misogyny.

But who today seeks to limit the power of lust to disorder reason? That 3,000-year-old tradition of thought — from the Roman stoics to the Christian fathers to the polygamy defenders in Hume’s day — appears to have been replaced by a desire to experience the sweet disorder of lust as often as possible. Strange.


  1. Gothelittle
    Posted April 30, 2011 at 11:07 am | Permalink

    Misogynist feminism at its finest. Denying the power of women and trying to ape the power of men.

  2. Little Man
    Posted April 30, 2011 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

    Okay - obviously polygamy is not going to become a civil "right" amongst educated women who can fend for themselves. But polygamy works both ways: wealthy women can have more than one husband, "until death do us part". I define serial polygamy as a common malady, today - where the many wives may not be at one time, but one after the other (and perhaps with a little overlap now and then.) When civil marriage is thought as simply a contract in which a wealthy person "protects and provides" for the spouses, polygamy works for those purposes. Unofficially, it exists in USA society. Polygamy is not prohibited in Judeo-Christian, but the optimum marital relationship is one to one, permanent - not a contract, but a "covenant". Marriage in the New Testament is a heroic decision. Unfortunately, many enter it, unawares of its meaning, and therefore divorce soon.

  3. equal2you
    Posted May 1, 2011 at 4:43 am | Permalink

    I don't believe in divorce. When my partner and I get married, it will be forever. We've already made that commitment, with nearly 11 years as a good start. We just lack the same rights as others in their lifelong relationships. That is changing though, as the United States slowly moves itself along the moral curve towards equality.

    I don't really care about polygamy. It is not something I want, and It is not legal in the USA. Marriage for gay people is legal here, and is something I very dearly want. I just choose to wait until the courts uphold our right to marry. I shouldn't have to go to a different state, so I won't. Alaska was one of the first states to put discrimination into their constitutions. It is fitting that it be one of the first states freed by the prop 8 trial when Mr. Walkers ruling is upheld.

    Anyone who claims SSM is about polygamy or incest or pedophilia or communism(hi Don!) is flat out lying. They know better, they just choose not to BE better.

  4. Gothelittle
    Posted May 1, 2011 at 7:09 am | Permalink

    equal, either they "know better and just choose not to BE better", or they know how to learn from experience and read trends in other countries.

    Traditional marriage is yet another retaining wall of society. You could remove a retaining wall in hopes that the hill behind it will advance only five inches, but you'd be foolish to think that it will stop there when there is nothing built in that wall's place.

    So once you've divorced marriage from childbearing and childrearing and turned it into something you should be allowed to do as long as you have sexual desire for each other, how *do* you justify not adding polygamy to the mix, other than by saying, "We're valid and they're not!" just like the people whom you are accusing of lying here?

  5. edgwaterprog
    Posted May 1, 2011 at 8:08 am | Permalink

    Gothelittle - so marriage is about childbearing and childrearing? So the overbearing state will now have to go in and give fertility tests to all married couples and couples applying for marriage licenses. If they are incapable of childbearing, they their marriages must be terminated or denied.

    If childrearing is the key, many states that prohibit same-sex marriage permit gay couples to adopt or at least act as foster parents for children.

  6. Equal2you
    Posted May 1, 2011 at 6:54 pm | Permalink

    Marriage isn't about childbearing or childrearing. At no time in the history of the country has either been required to get married. No state that has voted to ban SSM has included language requiring procreation. If they did attempt to use children as the wedge issue they would be in a pickle. Since many gay families can and do have and raise children.

    It's almost like SSM bans target only gay people. Hrmm. Strange don't you think?

  7. Gothelittle
    Posted May 1, 2011 at 7:48 pm | Permalink

    And every child who goes to a gay couple (or a single person) is bereft of either a mother or a father.

    It's better than an orphanage, but not as good as having one mother and one father.

  8. John Noe
    Posted May 1, 2011 at 10:11 pm | Permalink

    Equal2you is back and totally contradicts herself in post #3. She does not get it. SSM will lead to polygamy. If SSM is granted where homosexuals now claim that the state must recognize their marriages then you cannot deny the polygamists. They simply will want the same equal rights as the homosexuals. They can claim if the homosexuals have it then we demand it also. Remember the motto "Eqaulity for all".

  9. John Noe
    Posted May 1, 2011 at 10:22 pm | Permalink

    Gothelittle is right and if you read the brillant blog by Thoas Sowell you will get it. Traditional marriage leads to childbearing whereas SSM does not.
    Although the state does not require procreation when you have man/woman marriage, they promote it as an incentive. This is plainly obvious to fiqure out. Without the capacity of childbearing then there is no need for the marriage license or for the government to be in the marriage business.
    The state and government justifies giving these benefits to married people and not singles on this basis. The state even admitted that is why they created the marriage license in the first place.
    In the Prop1 marriage debate in Maine, the advocate for traditional marriage researched into why the state grants marriage licenses.It was to create an incentive for people to marry and procreate. Otherwise there was no need for a marriage license.

    Do all one man/ one woman marriages lead to procreation. Of course not, it was an incentive granted by the state and not a requirement.

  10. Andrew D
    Posted May 2, 2011 at 12:23 am | Permalink

    Gothelittle, why do you oppose polygamy in the first place? (I don't support it either, just wondering.) Can you articulate what exactly is bad about it?

  11. Gothelittle
    Posted May 2, 2011 at 8:30 am | Permalink

    Andrew, in a normal traditional man-woman marriage, you have a dynamic of the sort that you cannot find in any other situation. The man draws femininity out of the woman and the woman draws masculinity out of the man. The intimacy that a woman gives a man is compatible but subtly different than the intimacy that a man gives a woman. The hormones involved are even different... but work in similar ways.

    Read that argument for polygamy above. It states that a man with multiple women is freed from the "slavery" of trying to make his wife happy in order to ensure that she provides him with the best sexual intimacy.

    The one-to-one male-female sexual system provides incentive for both of them to make each other happy. The exclusivity of marriage means that neither of them have elsewhere to turn for satisfaction. And multiple studies show that a child is safer and healthier with his birth mother and birth father than among the boyfriends/girlfriends of either birth parent.

  12. edgwaterprog
    Posted May 2, 2011 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

    Gothelittle - You seem to be confusing some facts and studies in your last comment (#11). So the happiness in a "male-female sexual system" is in the fact that they are monogamous? And marriage is about the happiness of the married couple?

    You comment about children being safer in families with their natural parents then in families with cohabitating couples is not surprising. The studies you vaguely citing are about the problems of cohabiting male-female couples not about same-sex couples.

  13. Gothelittle
    Posted May 2, 2011 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

    edgwaterprog, I was responding to someone who was asking me for an overview on some of the problems I have on polygamy, not same-sex couples.

    I didn't say that "marriage was about happiness", I said that when a man has his pick of bedfellows there is less incentive for him to work with the one who doesn't agree with him.

    "cohabitating male-female couples" well, yes, what would YOU call the other husbands and/or wives in relation to the children of one particular pair in the polygamous relationship? They're cohabitating, they're having sex with the child's parents, and they are not the child's birth parents.

  14. Andrew D
    Posted May 2, 2011 at 11:07 pm | Permalink

    Gothelittle, if I understand you correctly, the reasons for which you think polygamy shouldn't be legal are (a) it's been shown that spouses (wives in polygyny, husbands in polyandry) are generally less happy than in monogamous families; and (b) it's been shown that children born in polygamous families are less safe and healthy than children born in monogamous families. Did I get that right?

    If so, and if both of those premises are factually true, why are you worried that you will no longer be able to justify opposing polygamy in the presence of same-sex marriage? Why can't you still say "it disadvantages spouses and disadvantages potential children, and here are studies that show that?"

  15. Gothelittle
    Posted May 3, 2011 at 10:38 am | Permalink

    Andrew, spouses in same-sex relationships are also less happy than in traditional families, and it's been shown that their children are less safe and happy. If we allow SSM despite having all the same problems as polygamy, how can we justify not allowing polygamy?

    In fact, spouses in same-sex relationships are even less healthy than polygamous spouses, as long as the polygamous spouses are having heterosexual sex. This isn't a simple matter of lifestyle... it is a medical and scientific fact based on the physical and chemical properties of the sex organs and other... how shall I put it... organs or orifices used for homosexual intercourse.

    Remember that nothing is prohibiting gays or polygamous groups from living together, having sex with each other, opening joint bank and utility accounts, and basically conducting themselves as a family. The extra special privileges granted to a legally-recognized married couple are put there to reward the safest, healthiest environment in which to engage in sexual intercourse and bear/raise children.

    Basically, it's like getting a lower auto insurance rate if you're an 'A' student, or getting a lower life insurance rate because you're a non-smoker. If you make it legally mandatory to lower the life insurance rate for smokers, thus divorcing the rate from your likeliness of dying early, what's to keep you from making it legally mandatory to lower it for any of a number of other life-shortening practices?

  16. Gothelittle
    Posted May 3, 2011 at 10:41 am | Permalink

    To build on my life insurance analogy... If life insurance companies can no longer adjust their rates based on the health of the individual, so that they get in the exact same amount of money and pay out disproportionately to those who die early due to unhealthy behavior, the company will go bankrupt.

    When the country pays out extra benefits to family groups that do not provide the extra benefit of health/safety, the country will wind up going bankrupt.

    "But there aren't enough gays in the country to tip the balance?" Perhaps not. But another article I saw a while back (I could find it for you, but it'll take a while) noted that in states/countries where SSM is legalized, you'll find two heterosexual women engaging in a SSM in order to raise their children from however many different 'baby daddies' without male interference. It may come to a point where there are more SSM of heterosexuals with sex partners outside the relationship than there are actual Same Sex SSM's.

    In which case, what *does* marriage mean anymore?

  17. John N.
    Posted May 3, 2011 at 7:29 pm | Permalink

    I was going to post but Gothelittle is very smart and articulate, so I can only second her post.

  18. Don
    Posted May 3, 2011 at 10:49 pm | Permalink

    Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

    Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

    But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.