Polygamy and Human Dignity

The Witherspoon Institute 16 June 2014
Carson Holloway is a political scientist and the author of The Way of Life: John Paul II and the Challenge of Liberal Modernity (Baylor University Press).

The normalization of polygamy would undermine our commitment to human dignity—our sense that each human being is to be valued as an end in him- or herself, and not merely as a means to others’ ends.

Conservatives have long warned that the redefinition of marriage sought by the proponents of same-sex unions will prepare the way for a further redefinition of marriage to include polygamy. Some liberals have already done their part to fulfill this prophecy by assuming that the argument over same-sex marriage is over and by beginning to argue for a normalization of plural marriages. As I have recently argued here at Public Discourse, I do not agree that the argument over same-sex marriage is or should be over. Nevertheless, because some liberals have started to defend polygamy, conservatives who want to preserve our moral inheritance need to think through what kind of arguments caution against this further step.

Defenders of conjugal marriage confront a problem here, because it seems harder to make a principled argument against polygamy than against same-sex marriage. The principled argument against same-sex marriage holds that marriage by its nature is ordered toward procreation. Since this cannot be said of same-sex unions, the argument runs, it makes no sense to recognize them as marriages. This argument is not available—or is not so easily available—in opposition to polygamous marriages. After all, to the extent that such marriages are heterosexual, they can be naturally ordered toward procreation.

Without denying the possibility of a strong principled argument against polygamy—an argument based, say, in the nature of human sexuality and its natural purposes—I would like here to venture a prudential argument against it.

A Prudential Argument Against Polygamy
The normalization of polygamy would undermine our commitment to human dignity, our sense that each human being is to be valued as an end in him- or herself, and not merely as a means to other people’s ends. This commitment to human dignity, however, is a cornerstone of our civilization. If I am correct, we cannot embrace polygamy without imperiling something that both the left and the right agree makes our civilization worthy of admiration, something that both intend to preserve, but that might be diminished or lost through a careless manipulation of fundamental institutions such as marriage and the family…..

Fatherhood and Human Dignity
Leaving aside the question of inequality, however, we must ask what such polygamous conditions will do to men’s sense of human dignity. There are, of course, many experiences that teach men to appreciate the dignity of other human beings. One of the more powerful of these is fathering children within marriage. Here a man encounters other beings that he is absolutely obligated to care for, but who are not in any sense his property and who will lead lives of their own, with their own ambitions and aims. His children are ends in themselves, not instruments of his, but are nevertheless entitled to his care and attention…..

Polygamy Will Increase Economic and Gender Inequality
Nor would polygamy do much to foster the wealthy polygamist man’s appreciation for the dignity of women. The partnership here would be an inherently unequal one, the man participating in several unions, but each woman participating only in one. Consenting to such an unequal arrangement—one in which, say, four women are exclusively dedicated to the man, but the man is not exclusively dedicated to each of the women—could not help but diminish the man’s sense that the women are his equal.