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Families – Beyond the Nuclear Ideal

Liberal Feminism and the Ethics of Polygamy

by Simon May

My aim in this chapter is to use the example of polygamous marriage to distinguish two different senses in which a cultural practice could be thought inherently or essentially objectionable. I argue that polygamy is not inherently vicious, where this concerns the impact it has on people. However, there is good reason to think that it is inherently bankrupt, where this turns on the normative presuppositions of the polygamous ideal. Since the bankruptcy of a practice is an important dimension of moral evaluation, there is a sense in which liberal feminist social criticism should target polygamous traditions as such, and not just their various contingent defects.

I set aside whether the state should restrict the institution of civil marriage to monogamy or whether there ought to be any such public institution at all. Instead, my concern is with the appropriate critical attitudes to adopt towards a society's diverse range of domestic practices once the supposed universality of the nuclear family ideal is rejected; an enthusiastic acceptance of pluralism should not foster indifference towards the persistence of gender inequality under the guise of cultural diversity. Identifying the sense in which a cultural tradition is inherently objectionable can be useful for liberal feminist social ethics, even if no immediate political or legal implications are drawn.

In section I, I define monogamy and polygamy as cultural practices and discuss why some liberal feminists have argued that polygamy as such is no worse than monogamy. In section II, I reject the argument that polygamy is inherently vicious because asymmetric marriages are inevitably inegalitarian in practice. In section III, I defend the conjecture that polygamous traditions are inherently bankrupt insofar as an ideal of asymmetric marriage presupposes stereotypical gender roles. Since monogamy does not share these presuppositions, it is not subject to the same criticism. In section IV, I conclude by discussing the relationship between the bankruptcy of polygamy and its impact.


The monogamous marital form is symmetric: two people are married to each other and no one else. In contrast, the polygamous marital form is asymmetric: one spouse alone has more than one partner and is therefore in some sense the central partner in the overall marriage. There are more complex marital forms, such as symmetric group marriages between three or more people, where each spouse is married to every other spouse, and overlapping structures of polygyny and polyandry (Zeitzen 2008). In addition, polygamy is distinct from polyamory, which I take to involve informal clusters of (primarily non-marital) relationships, especially those characterized by strong opposition to norms of sexual and romantic exclusivity (see Strassberg in this volume). Although these other kinds of relationships present interesting alternatives to the nuclear family, my focus in this chapter is on the critical evaluation of polygamous traditions as just one element in a broader range of domestic arrangements.

Considered as cultural practices, monogamy and polygamy both involve more than several instantiations of their symmetric and asymmetric forms. People inhabit a social world shaped by an array of legal, political, and ethical norms. Social practices include not only patterns of similar behaviour, but conformity to rules and ideals. These norms might be constitutive of the relationship itself – part of what it means to be married – or background values that specify how it is to be desired, promoted, and respected. No critical assessment of monogamy and polygamy can focus exclusively on their abstract structures, since this would ignore how these relationships reflect morally significant social expectations. Thus, very little about whether the cultural practice of polygamy is inherently objectionable can be learned from some imaginative example of countercultural hipsters who enter an asymmetric marriage as an ironic gesture or a playful exemplification of the contradictions of post-modernity. Such examples say little more about the ethics of polygamy as a cultural tradition than masked balls say about the ethics of veiling.

A polygamous culture, then, differs from a social environment in which some people happen to enter asymmetric marriages for reasons peculiar to their individual circumstances. The culture does not simply tolerate polygamy as the idiosyncratic preference of a few eccentrics or as an ad hoc response to shortages in the number of men or women, as may occur after a war or on some sparsely-populated frontier. Instead, polygamous marriage as such is presented as an ideal, either on par with monogamy or as a higher kind of union. Parents typically regard polygamy as a respectable prospect for their children, and the relationship between sister-wives or brother-husbands may be celebrated as a distinctly valuable kind of friendship. Moreover, many members of the tradition may regard the practice as constitutive of their collective identity – a part of who they are or what defines the unity of their group – even if most marriages in the culture happen to be monogamous. When individuals enter polygamous marriages, they see themselves as participating in a historical tradition and as continuing its way of life. A polygamous culture therefore differs from a monogamous culture in terms of the asymmetric nature of its marital ideal, but the two practices cannot simply be reduced to the several instantiations of their respective abstract forms.

Many familiar liberal feminist criticisms of polygamy make sense only once it is characterized as a norm-governed cultural tradition. For instance, traditional expectations about male authority and female subservience can be enforced through a variety of coercive social sanctions. Women who resist or desert polygamous marriages can often be shunned or otherwise penalized for their deviance or self-assertion. Nevertheless, these threats to autonomy are not unique to the practice; polygamy is no more essentially involuntary than monogamy. Since individuals can value aspects of a cultural tradition just because it defines their sense of collective identity, they can freely choose to participate in practices that outsiders might regard as repressive. Cultural norms do not simply push people around against their will or manipulate their preferences like marionettes (Levey 2005). Instead, they are to some extent presupposed in any rational process of reflection about plans of life; individuals can only understand their goals against some background of normal social aspirations, even if they choose to strike out on their own path. Thus, the cultural nature of polygamy is something of a double-edged sword: it helps explain why the practice can be voluntary, just as it explains why it is very often coercive.

If polygamy can be compatible with women's autonomy, then it is reasonable to conjecture that it can be reformed in other respects too. This suggests that it is unwise to object to polygamy as such. If the purely contingent faults of the practice could be removed, then all that would remain fixed about polygamy is its asymmetric form. But treating one particular marital structure as inherently objectionable seems to be a kind of arbitrary form-fetishism. There is good reason to endorse pluralism about domestic relationships; the nuclear family model is not a script built into human nature and marriage itself is only one form of the good life. Alongside these commitments, the complete rejection of asymmetric marriage in particular seems a peculiar fixation, one that may simply betray a residual prejudice against purportedly backward traditions outside the mainstream of contemporary Western society1. A number of feminist scholars have accordingly advocated a qualified acceptance of polygamy, arguing that gender inequality is a purely contingent feature of the practice, just as it is a purely contingent feature of monogamy (Brake 2012: 197–200; Calhoun 2005: 1039; Emens 2004: 77; Nussbaum 2000: 229, and 2008: 197; Song 2007: 160).

The quick dismissal of polygamy on grounds that it, unlike monogamy, is distinctively gender-inegalitarian is the result of smuggling in a set of unstated assumptions about the background social conditions for women, the social practice of polygamy, and its likely legal form that would render it inegalitarian, but that are implausible about plural marriage in a liberal egalitarian democracy. (Calhoun 2005: 1040)

Recent philosophical literature on polygamy has primarily concerned its appropriate legal status. The claim that the state has no good reason to exclude polygamy from the public institution of civil marriage does not imply that the practice is morally unobjectionable in itself; not every illiberal or inegalitarian cultural practice should be prohibited in a liberal egalitarian democracy (Brettschneider 2007: 93; Deveaux 2006: 209; March 2011). Nevertheless, the form-fetishism challenge can be raised within social ethics: why should liberal feminists have any moral objection to polygamy as such, when they oppose moral objections to other unusual cultural practices? No appeal to the constraints of liberal state neutrality is relevant within an ethical conception of valuable social and cultural diversity. Either polygamy is not inherently sexist or liberal feminists must advance some reason why it should not be accepted on par with other kinds of domestic relationships.

We can approach the form-fetishism challenge by assessing the relative merits of opposite-sex monogamy and polygamy between heterosexuals. Neither form of marriage necessarily involves only opposite-sex relationships – just as same-sex marriage is now recognized as a possibility, a polygamist could in principle have any combination of wives and husbands. Nevertheless, it is useful to focus on marriages comprising only direct marital ties between people of different sexes. If the two kinds of marriage are, in essence, morally equivalent, then there should be no morally significant difference between their predominant opposite-sex forms. Thus, we can bracket aside consideration of same-sex marriage between gays and lesbians, and other kinds of family life. If an argument against opposite-sex polygamy is successful, then its extension to same-sex and mixed cases could be considered separately2.


What does it mean to claim that a social practice is inherently or essentially objectionable? It can't simply mean that there are deontological, principled, or non-instrumental moral reasons to reject certain aspects of the practice, since then almost any human activity could be inherently objectionable. Instead, any such claim must pick out some essential feature of the practice and explain why the practice should be criticized in virtue of this particular feature. The objection to the practice should track at least one of its intrinsic characteristics. I have claimed, however, that a tradition of polygamy has at least two essential features: several instances of asymmetric domestic relationships, and a normative element comprising various expectations and aspirations regarding those relationships. In this section, I discuss an argument that polygamy is inherently objectionable in virtue of the first feature. In the next section, I set out an argument grounded in the second feature.

We can say that a social practice is vicious to the extent that actual instances of that practice involve some morally objectionable harm or iniquity, either in themselves or through their consequences. The viciousness of a practice is determined by its impact on the interests or status of the people who participate in it or who are otherwise affected by it. An activity is vicious in virtue of the actual difference it makes in the world – what it does to or for people. A social form is inherently vicious if it is inevitably harmful or iniquitous when realized in actual practice. In this case, there will be a moral objection that tracks an intrinsic characteristic of the form. For instance, a morally repugnant relationship of domination is an essential feature of slavery. Similarly, the practice of foot-binding inevitably inflicts great pain and a crippling disfigurement on young girls. Other inherently vicious practices may be more tolerable if the harms they involve are less egregious. There can also be overriding moral reason to engage in an inherently vicious activity: war can be justifiable despite its inescapable moral costs. In contrast, a practice is only contingently vicious if some morally innocuous instances are realistically possible, keeping the general facts about human beings and societies more or less fixed. Alcohol consumption and drug use can cause great harm but do not always do so. Moral objections to these activities track extrinsic characteristics, such as incapacitation and addiction. To say that an activity is inherently vicious is to make a very general claim about the negative moral difference it makes in practice, but this does not imply that it is worse than contingently vicious activities.

Suppose, then, that a cultural practice of polygamy in a liberal society were reformed as much as realistically possible. In any just system recognizing polygamous relationships, husbands and wives would have reciprocal rights and responsibilities, and both polygyny and polyandry would be permitted (Calhoun 2005: 1039–40). Social conditions would preclude the coercive imposition of polygamy and provide effective opportunities for exit. No social norm would imply that men have the right to be obeyed by their wives or that women should be demure and submissive to their husbands. If there were still polygamous marriages in these felicitous circumstances, could liberal feminists identify any ineliminable harm or iniquity?

According to one argument, inequality is built into the asymmetric structure of polygamous marriage (Barry 2001: 369–70; Brooks 2009). On this view, although the worst forms of subordination might be eradicated, the asymmetric structure of the marriage in itself creates inequality. For instance, since the husband in a polygynous family is married to all his wives, and they are married only to him, he has the right to divorce each wife whereas they only have the right to divorce him:

Even if each wife had a right to divorce on the same terms as the husband, there would still be a structural asymmetry because no wife could ‘divorce’ another wife if she found that this other wife made the marriage intolerable … The whole idea of egalitarian polygamy is manifest nonsense. (Barry 2001: 369)

This point can be generalized across the various rights of marriage. Thus, each individual relationship between husband and wife may involve equal rights considered in itself, but the husband seems to have a disproportionate share of rights in a polygynous marriage as a whole: half the rights are held by him whereas the other half are shared between the wives, and only he can exercise rights within each of the family's constitutive marital relationships.

A somewhat different version of the structural inequality argument concerns how the form of the marriage creates a disparity in the spouses’ respective capabilities. Inequality may be built into polygynous marriage insofar as the husband's central position provides him with a strategic advantage over his wives (Eskridge 2002: 131–32). For instance, if he can choose which wife to benefit, they may be locked into a competition for his favours. This relative advantage could give him the ability to exploit his wives. Even if he were scrupulously fair, the mere fact that he occupies a uniquely privileged position is itself a morally objectionable violation of equality. Relationships of hierarchy and domination can be superficially benign, especially if they are enveloped in the pleasant sentiments of affectionate intimacy. On this view, polygyny is inherently vicious because it inevitably empowers the husband and in effect grants him a status it denies to his wives. Since the same reasoning applies to the wife in a polyandrous relationship, the conclusion holds for polygamy as such.

In my view, the asymmetric form of a relationship can undermine women's status and wellbeing, but it is not inevitably inegalitarian. First, consider the right to divorce. We can assume that a just liberal society grants a legal right to no-fault divorce that each spouse can exercise unilaterally. This right comprises a cluster of Hohfeldian incidents (Hohfeld 1913). A spouse is at liberty to decide whether she wishes to remain married, and she has a claim against others that they not prevent her exit from the marriage. At its core, however, the right to divorce is a legal power: by exercising her discretion in the appropriate way, she can modify her rights and duties and the corresponding rights and duties of her husband. This means that in divorcing her husband, a woman changes his legal position. Since he also has the right to divorce, he has the corresponding legal power. If he has more than one wife, he has power over each spouse's legal position, whereas his several wives do not. So there is a clear sense in which asymmetric marriage involves some sort of difference in rights. However, this difference does not entail any inequality in rights on the whole. A spouse also holds a legal immunity within or alongside her right to divorce, where to have an immunity is to be protected from having one's legal position changed by another. No one but she and her husband can end their marital relationship. This means that each wife in a polygynous marriage possesses an immunity from having her marital status changed by any of the other wives. Consider the example of the wife who cannot divorce another wife she finds intolerable (Barry 2001: 369). Her lack of power just is an immunity held by her counterpart, and this immunity can be a very valuable thing for a spouse to have. For instance, a woman's immunity from having her live-in in-laws unilaterally terminate her marriage protects her from having to curry favour with them. She may find them intolerable, but could be far more concerned that the sentiment is reciprocated. Having a power over other people can be important for one's self-determination, but it can often be more important to have an immunity from them instead, especially if one values the status quo.

In contrast, the husband does not have a similarly extensive set of immunities. His marital status as a whole is vulnerable to the unilaterally-exercised power of each of his wives. If the legal rights and responsibilities of marriage are fully reciprocal, whenever the husband acquires a power by marrying another wife, he simultaneously loses an immunity to having his legal position changed by her. Thus, the disparity cuts both ways: the husband may have more powers than any of his wives, but they retain immunities against each other that he does not have. This does not mean that the asymmetric structure of polygamy cannot involve or exacerbate an inequality in rights. Instead, it means that one cannot simply infer inequality from asymmetry. The question whether the husband is relatively privileged by having legal powers his wives lack, or whether they are relatively privileged by having legal immunities he lacks, cannot be answered in the abstract. The answer depends on how the society's system of family and property law arranges the various legal incidents of marriage and how this arrangement is responsive to underlying social facts.

For instance, one might simply assume that if a husband marries a second wife, he can unilaterally decide that she will move into the household he shares with his existing wife. But this need not be the case at all. If a man ought to have no more authority than a woman over who is to live in their shared residence, then he will need to get her approval before someone else moves in. Similarly, one might suppose that if a husband and one of his wives divorce, she would be obliged to leave the family household and he would remain with his other wives. But one may as well imagine that the husband would be obliged to leave if any of his wives decided to divorce him. In a just society, the laws governing the distribution of property and parental rights upon the dissolution of a marriage can be designed to counteract the unfair advantage that one or other spouse might otherwise have. This means that one cannot tell who is advantaged by the asymmetric distribution of legal incidents in a polygamous marriage without knowing their specific content and the implications they have for each spouse. Since the central spouse might be disadvantaged just as easily as advantaged by these legal arrangements, asymmetric marriage is not inevitably inegalitarian one way rather than another or, indeed, in any way at all.

The same point holds for the informal capabilities of the partners. One of the core insights of feminism is its scepticism about the sufficiency of formally equal legal rights for properly egalitarian social relationships between men and women. An abstract balance of legal powers and immunities does not guarantee gender equality, since it may be impossible for the law to be fully responsive to the underlying social disparities in status and capability. The distribution of social power in a relationship may be quite different from the distribution of legal rights, so legally egalitarian polygamous marriages may still be thoroughly hierarchical. Nevertheless, it is not always a strategic advantage to be the central party in an asymmetric relationship. For instance, although the wife in a polyandrous marriage might be a powerful matriarch who exercises authority over her husbands, this is by no means inevitable (Zeitzen 2008: 138–44). In a society that traditionally subordinates women, it may be a cultural practice for two men to share a wife, much as they might share a housekeeper or a prostitute. Far from being in a position to exploit them, she would instead be a servant to two masters. Here, the asymmetric marital relationship only serves to compound her subordination. But this very realistic possibility undermines the structural inequality argument: if both polygyny and polyandry can oppress women, then neither form is inevitably beneficial to the central spouse in the relationship. Whether that spouse's capabilities are promoted by the asymmetry depends on how it reflects the division of power between men and women within that culture and society.

In very different circumstances, instances of both forms of polygamy might oppress the male spouses. This means that there is a continuum of realistically possible social environments in which polygyny is strategically advantageous to the husband at one end and strategically advantageous to the wives at the other. The actual world is, of course, far closer to the former than the latter. Nevertheless, in some possible environments near to the middle of the continuum, there is a balance of power between the spouses. There is no obvious reason why these social worlds could not be ones in which men and women more generally enjoyed the kind of egalitarian social relationships that liberal feminists value. I conclude that the hierarchical characteristics of actual polygamous marriages depend on the underlying distribution of power between men and women, and are not intrinsic to the asymmetric form itself; polygamy is not inherently vicious in virtue of an inevitably inegalitarian structure. This means that there is, as yet, no essential moral difference between polygamy and monogamy.


In this section, I turn to a quite different way in which a social practice might be inherently objectionable. Even if polygamy is only contingently vicious, it can still be appropriate to reject the asymmetric marital ideal as such. This is because the impact of a practice on the interests and status of individuals is not the only dimension along which it can be evaluated. In addition, a practice has a social meaning, where this is a function of how its various norms should be understood to fit together in a more or less coherent way. For instance, Ralph Wedgwood (1999: 229) claims that, in Western societies at least, marriage has an essential social meaning that includes various expectations about domestic cooperation and sexual intimacy. Spouses would not be properly married if they had no contact or cooperation with each other – their marriage would simply be a sham or in a state of collapse. Since the coherence of a normative system depends on how its elements can be justified, the social meaning of a practice includes anything that its norms presuppose. For instance, some people believe that what justifies the institution of marriage is a commitment to having and raising children and that the meaning of marriage is therefore exclusively heterosexual. On this view, what marriage is ‘all about’ is a man and a woman building a family together. This interpretation can obviously be contested, since it seems strange to think that domestic and sexual intimacy needs to be justified by procreative goals. If there is no such need, there is no reason to think marriage itself presupposes that spouses ought to have children.

Although the meaning of a social practice may be contested or partially indeterminate, some interpretations are still better than others. The possibility of implausible or disingenuous interpretations of a practice does not imply that social meaning is illusory. However nebulous it may seem, we rely on the idea when we explain our cultural practices to outsiders or try to understand their practices. Different traditions of marriage may have rich variations in social meaning, but they cannot be entirely different if we are to make sense of them as analogous practices. Moreover, we often presuppose facts about social meaning when we assess social institutions – consider whether it is plausible to interpret historical examples of racial segregation without assuming an implicit commitment to racial supremacy (Black 1960: 427).

The impact and meaning of a social practice are interdependent in complex ways, but to see how social meaning can be a conceptually distinct dimension of evaluation, consider two examples. First, the practice of female genital mutilation is inherently vicious, inter alia, because it deprives women of the ability to experience sexual pleasure (Nussbaum 1999: 118–29). Moreover, this effect seems to be its fundamental aim. If so, the best way to interpret traditional clitoridectomy is to see it as expressing a hostile attitude towards female sexuality and a conception of women's subservient role in life (Okin 1999: 14–15, 124–25). So both the impact and meaning of the practice are morally objectionable. Suppose, however, that the practitioners of clitoridectomy become increasingly concerned about its various health risks, preferring that a small symbolic incision be made instead. In this case, the impact of the tradition is substantially altered; what it does is now significantly less dreadful. But the meaning of the tradition remains relatively stable. The symbolic incision arguably presupposes much the same conception of female sexuality as before. If this is the right interpretation, then the tradition is now quite different in one morally important respect – what it does to women – but disturbingly similar in another – what it says about them.

Second, consider cultural practices premised on an ideology of caste or feudal hierarchy. Such ideologies usually involve harmful effects or iniquitous relationships in some form or another, but this is not essential to them. For instance, suppose the tradition directs high-caste individuals to conduct private cleansing rituals after contact with members of certain lower castes. This practice may go largely unnoticed in the broader society if it is followed by only a few traditionalists, who might themselves accept the propriety of democratic egalitarian norms for public interactions. Thus, the tradition need not be vicious in any obvious way. Nevertheless, it remains morally objectionable insofar as it incorporates a conception of some human beings as essentially unclean or degraded, where this conception is inconsistent with any plausible notion of human dignity. We can say that a practice is inherently bankrupt, then, if its essential social meaning includes morally objectionable normative presuppositions. Female circumcision and caste rituals are inherently bankrupt whether or not they are invariably harmful or iniquitous in practice.

I have claimed that polygamous traditions include a general ideal of asymmetric marriage, perhaps alongside a co-equal ideal of monogamous marriage. Polygamy is not simply an ad hoc response to special circumstances or the idiosyncratic preference of a few individuals. Instead, the culture presents polygamy as an appropriate marital form in general; the asymmetric structure is one of the features of marriage that the cultural norm specifically picks out as valuable. The important question to ask about the social meaning of polygamy is not: what impact does this form inevitably have on people? Instead, the question concerns how an asymmetric marital ideal could be rationalized: why should there be a different number of men and women in a marriage? One of the normative presuppositions of opposite-sex polygamy is that there is some basic and enduring difference between men and women such that asymmetric marriage makes good sense as a way of life. Accounting for this difference is the key step in determining whether polygamy is inherently bankrupt. This turns the charge of form-fetishism on its head. The onus is not on liberal feminists to explain why criticism of polygamy is not mere cultural bias. Instead, the onus is on proponents of polygamy to explain why their marital ideal is something more than an arbitrary and senseless prescription.

No boot-strapping appeal to the value of tradition for individuals can explicate its social meaning. The particular intentions of individuals who participate in a cultural practice do not determine what its constitutive norms presuppose, nor do these presuppositions necessarily determine the implicit commitments of individual participants. The simple desire to follow one's tradition may explain why individual members of the practice choose to enter polygamous marriages, but it does not justify why a culture should have that practice in the first place, why it should be constitutive of the group's identity, or why it should continue as a tradition. Thus, one cannot determine the social meaning of polygamy simply by asking why individuals participate in the practice or what their marriages mean to them.

The most plausible interpretation of the gender asymmetry in polygamy is that a cultural ideal of asymmetric marriage implicitly assumes some or other stereotype about men and women's fundamentally different social roles. Some proponents of polygyny argue that it liberates women from domestic drudgery, since it allows the multiple wives to balance careers with their family responsibilities (Emens 2004: 77). But if the ability of small groups of adults to pool their labour and resources were the issue, then the norm should simply advocate communal family forms, with no particular need for an asymmetry between the number of men and women. The polygyny-as-liberation argument implicitly assumes that it is women who should bear primary responsibility for domestic work and child-rearing, since it sees no need for the husband to strike a similar balance. A different justification of polygyny grounds the asymmetry in biological differences between the sexual desires and reproductive capacities of men and women. But this approach relies on some quite dubious background assumptions about the fundamental significance of sex and reproduction in governing human life. There is good reason to object to social practices that define women in terms of a reproductive function or as a means for male sexual gratification.

Different traditions of polygyny and polyandry contain different rationalizations of their marital ideal. The specific assumptions about men and women that make best sense of these norms will accordingly differ from context to context. It is therefore impossible to offer a conclusive argument that all polygamous traditions are inherently bankrupt. Nevertheless, the conjecture may be well-founded. The impossibility of a conclusive argument does not demonstrate that there can be nothing more to the essential social meaning of polygamy than its asymmetric marital ideal. If familiar justifications of polygamy invariably presuppose basic gender stereotypes, then there is good reason to believe that this social meaning tracks the polygamous marital ideal itself. If so, then polygamy is inextricably tied to a sexist conception of men and women, and is to that extent inherently objectionable.

The same argument does not work against monogamous marriage. Although cultural practices of opposite-sex monogamy are often steeped in sexism, this is not intrinsic to them. Since monogamy does not advocate a different number of men and women in marriage, it does not have to posit any basic and enduring gender difference to justify an asymmetry. Instead, the monogamous ideal asserts that there is something distinctively valuable about two people committing to live their lives together. There is no presupposition here that, in the case of heterosexuals, a husband and wife have two quite different roles to play in the marriage. A cultural ideal of monogamy is therefore compatible, as far as it goes, with a vision of a society without ascriptive gender roles:

In its social structures and practices, one's sex would have no more relevance than one's eye color or the length of one's toes. No assumptions would be made about ‘male’ or ‘female’ roles; childbearing would be so conceptually separated from child rearing and other family responsibilities that it would be a cause for surprise, and no little concern, if men and women were not equally responsible for domestic life or if children were to spend much more time with one parent than the other. (Okin 1989: 171)

My goal here is not to defend this conception of a genderless society, nor to argue that any morally acceptable marital ideal must be compatible with it. Instead, my point is simply to illustrate that the essential meaning of monogamy does not include the presupposition that it is plausible to ascribe to polygamy. This means that there is some morally significant intrinsic difference between the two kinds of marriage. Objecting to polygamy in particular is therefore not an arbitrary form-fetishism.


Some sceptics may be entirely untroubled by the examples of symbolic genital incision and private caste rituals: the impact of a social practice on the interests and status of individuals is clearly of moral concern, but why should it also matter whether a cultural tradition is inherently bankrupt or not? One answer to this question is that the social meaning of a practice can affect its impact. There are at least two ways in which this could in principle occur. First, as legal expressivists argue, citizens’ political status is constitutively dependent on the social meaning of the law (Anderson and Pildes 2000: 1527–31). To be demeaned by the state is a kind of expressive harm in itself. The same point could hold for cultural norms. If so, the inherent bankruptcy of polygamy might make an immediate difference to the status and interests of the spouses. This is not an implausible suggestion, but there is reason to be cautious. Cultural practices are not entirely analogous to laws. Citizens are governed by the law whether they like it or not, but cultural practices usually include some measure of voluntary choice. Individual participants can have the power to define the terms of their relationships in ways that are at odds with the tradition's normative presuppositions. In particular, there is no obvious reason to think that polygamous spouses could not genuinely accept and abide by norms of gender equality alongside the cultural ideal of asymmetric marriage. If my argument is right, then there would be considerable tension between these two commitments. But this tension does not demonstrate that the wives are unwittingly demeaned by their marriage. Thus, the normative bankruptcy of polygamy does not obviously imply that it is inherently vicious.

Second, a contingently vicious practice can be vicious, when it is, precisely because it is inherently bankrupt. Social meanings often have powerful causal consequences insofar as people adapt their behaviour to their interpretations of cultural norms. If a practice presupposes objectionable gender stereotypes, then this can serve to reinforce sexist attitudes. Other things being equal, it is harder to relinquish beliefs that are needed to make sense of one's surrounding culture and existing commitments. Moreover, an inherently bankrupt practice can have vicious consequences for those who do not participate in it and who may reject its constitutive norms. Thus, participants in a monogamous culture may reject their neighbours’ polygamy as a deviation from divine law, but incidentally regard its structure as a better affirmation of gender stereotypes than their own marital form. In this society, polygamous marriages could be significantly more egalitarian than their monogamous counterparts and yet a key source of gender inequality more broadly3. Whether these causal relations hold is a contingent matter and so insufficient to warrant any further objection to polygamy as such. Nevertheless, their plausibility is sufficient to demonstrate that an investigation of the inherent bankruptcy of polygamy is not itself a peculiarly rarefied fixation.


I am grateful to Elizabeth Brake, Thom Brooks, Sarah Chan, Daniela Cutas, David Gurnham, Thomas Hartvigsson, Mihaela Miroiu, Peter Stone, and Maura Strassberg for their comments on earlier formulations of the ideas expressed here. The chapter was written during my tenure as a fellow at Tulane University's Center for Ethics and Public Affairs.


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Families – Beyond the Nuclear Ideal - Notes and Bibliography:

1. Justice Waite's infamous denunciation of Mormon polygamy in Reynolds is the paradigmatic statement of this prejudice.

2. Since any such extension would depend on how same-sex relationships are valued within the broader culture, I cannot consider it here. My sense, though, is that any cultural ideal of asymmetric same-sex marriage for gays and lesbians – should there ever be such a thing – would simply replicate the same masculine and feminine stereotypes presupposed in the culture's ideal of opposite-sex polygamy for heterosexuals. The mere possibility of same-sex polygamy does not imply that polygamous cultural traditions are free of sexist presuppositions.

3. See Song (2007) for an extended discussion of the interconnections between minority and majority cultures.

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