Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The Inevitability of Polyamory

Last fall I commented on VP (see here and here) that I thought the strongest argument against legalizing gay marriage was that if society decides that the gender of those entering into marriage no longer matters there'll be no logical barrier to concluding that neither should the number of people forming a marriage matter.

At that point marriage will be defined as a union of any combination of people who wish to legally unify their lives and if marriage were to mean pretty much anything it'll no longer have much meaning at all.

There were doubters. Respondents, many of whom support gay marriage, were nevertheless incredulous that I'd think that anyone would want to be in a group marriage (polyamorous relationship). That would be sick, some said. The courts would never allow it, said others. I, for my part, thought the skeptics were being naive about what people would do if the legal barriers to doing it were dismantled.

I cited in that original post a couple of articles which advocated the legalization of polyamorous marriages, and claimed that pressure would begin to mount in the social mainstream for the recognition of such unions.

Now comes yet another article, at CNN this time, to further bolster my prediction.

Janet Hardy argues from the existence of a number of polyamorous relationships among her acquaintances to the conclusion that polyamorous marriage should be legal. Her argument is that traditional families are becoming increasingly scarce and that they're in any case often problematic for the people in them. Thus, we should allow people to form whatever arrangements they feel comfortable with.

I'm not sure how that conclusion follows from those premises, however. She seems to be concluding that because there are these alternative arrangements therefore there ought to be these arrangements, but this commits the fallacy of deriving an ought from an is. She also seems to argue that because traditional marriage has difficulties that we should therefore allow other arrangements, but, of course, these would have difficulties as well.

But set aside these criticisms of Ms Hardy's logic. You may agree with her in thinking this would be a fine development. I'm not arguing the merits of either polyamory or gay marriage in this post. Nor do I want anyone to think or say that to oppose gay marriage is somehow "gay-bashing" or reflects hatred toward gays. That'd be both simple-minded and false.

I'm merely pointing out that if we change the laws governing marriage - which has traditionally been seen as a union of one man and one woman - so that the gender of the participants is no longer relevant we'll have no good reason to resist changing the laws so that the number of participants is no longer relevant as well. At that point marriage, family, and society will have a much different aspect than what it has been throughout most of our history. I leave it to the reader to decide whether that will be progress or not.

After describing some of the arrangements of her friends and a brief mention of some hazards of polyamory Hardy closes with this:
More problematic, of course, are issues such as child custody, inheritance, hospital visitation, etc., when more than two parties are involved. It is clear that the current legal structure of marriage cannot readily accommodate this problem....

One solution for the future, though, might be to designate "marriage" as a social institution with no legal standing and to create "civil union" as a legally recognized subtype of business partnership, available to anyone who is willing to make the appropriate commitments.

These civil unions could range from an Ozzie and Harriet nuclear pairing to a multipartner, multigenerational line marriage out of a Robert Heinlein science fiction novel. They would be required to make agreements about how they would handle the basic functions of family -- caring for children and the elderly, sharing property, ensuring succession, and so on -- and to sign contracts, just as business partners would. If they also felt the need for the social or religious status of marriage, they could seek out an institution willing to support them in that goal.

I am sure that many marriage equality opponents reading this are shouting "I told you so!" as their predictions that plural marriage would follow same-sex marriage come nightmarishly true. Many grew up as I did, in a time and place where the single-wage-earner nuclear family was the unquestioned norm and would like to see their country conform to that unrealistic standard for the rest of history.

But even then, the nuclear family was an uncomfortable fit for many, and an impossible dream for others. The America in which I want my children and grandchildren to live will make room for all kinds of families, and it will offer the same support and benefits -- legally, financially and socially -- to any family that is based on a core of love, consent and mutual responsibility. That's what "family values" should really be about.
Well, I'm not "shouting."