Polygamy and Principles: A Reply to George

First published, in a slightly different form, in Between the Lines, August 24, 2006

Princeton natural-law theorist Robert George wrote recently at the First Things website that

For years, critics of the idea of same-sex ‘marriage’ have made the point that accepting the proposition that two persons of the same sex can marry each other entails abandoning any principled basis for understanding marriage as the union of two and only two persons. So far as I am aware, our opponents have made no serious effort to answer or rebut this point.

I found this last claim irritating, mainly because I’m one of the people who has answered the point—not only in several columns, but also in the academic journal Ethics, with which George (a professor of jurisprudence) is surely acquainted. Indeed, when I was working on that article, I corresponded with George about it, since it discusses his work at some length.

Fellow gay-rights advocate Jonathan Rauch quickly challenged George’s absurd claim at the online Independent Gay Forum, prompting a rejoinder from George:

But the point that is most relevant here is that Rauch’s arguments [against polygamy] are about social consequences and costs, they are not about the principles that constitute marriage as such. Rauch and the authors he cites (John Corvino, Dale Carpenter, and Paul Varnell) do not make a serious effort to show that, as a matter of principle, marriage is an exclusive union of the sort that is incompatible with polygamy (much less polyamory). Corvino doesn’t even join Rauch in asserting that there is anything wrong with polygamy—much less that polygamy is incompatible in principle with true marriage. Putting it in the hypothetical, he says, “If there’s a good argument against polygamy, it’s likely to be a fairly complex public-policy argument having to do with marriage patterns, sexism, economics, and the like.”

Time for some clarification.

First, George is right that I am agnostic on the question of whether polygamy is always and everywhere a bad idea. While I find Rauch’s arguments on the typical social costs of polygamy persuasive, I remain open to the possibility that it could be structured in such a way to avoid those costs.

But the issue is not what I (or any other gay-rights advocate) happens to believe. The issue is whether being a gay-rights advocate inherently “entails abandoning any principled basis for understanding marriage as the union of two and only two persons,” as George puts it. And the answer to that question is obviously “no.” Rauch is a clear counterexample: he’s a gay-rights advocate who adduces general moral principles to oppose polygamy.

Why does George claim otherwise? The answer has to do with his confusion about what it means to have a “principled” objection to something. More specifically, he confuses having “a principled objection” with having “an objection in principle.” The difference is subtle but important. To have a principled objection is to base one’s opposition on principles (rather than simply to assert it arbitrarily). Rauch surely does this.

By contrast, to have an “objection in principle” is to object to a thing in itself, not on the basis of any extrinsic reason. Rauch doesn’t object to polygamy “in principle”; he objects to it for being harmful, and if it weren’t harmful he presumably wouldn’t object to it.

It’s worth noting that relatively few things are wrong “in principle.” Throwing knives at people isn’t wrong “in principle”: it’s wrong because it’s harmful, and if it weren’t harmful (say, because humans had metal exoskeletons), it wouldn’t be wrong. Of course, the world would have to be quite different than it is for that to be the case. Similarly, the world would have to be quite different than it is for polygamy not to have serious social costs. But public-policy arguments are quite rightly based on the actual world, not on bizarre hypotheticals.

This distinction is important, because once one moves from “no objection in principle” to “no principled objection,” it’s a short slide to “no serious objection”—and thus a bad misrepresentation of the position of mainstream gay-rights advocates.

So, to be clear: Rauch, Carpenter, Varnell, and others have a principled objection to polygamy, but not an objection in principle. But here’s the kicker: neither does George. For George’s natural-law position is based on the requirement that sex be “of the procreative kind.” And polygamy is very much of the procreative kind. Even if one accepts George’s nebulous “two-in-one-flesh union” requirement—which somehow allows permits sterile heterosexual couples to have sex but prohibits homosexual couples from doing so—nothing in that requirement precludes multiple iterations (and thus polygamy). If George wants to argue that polygamy is wrong, he’s going to have to appeal to the same sort of extrinsic principles that Rauch invokes. Either that, or he’s going to have to just baldly assert that marriage is two-person, period. If such ad hoc assertions don’t count as abandoning “principled” argument, I’m not sure what does.

George has claimed before that “the intrinsic value of (opposite sex) marriage…has to be grasped in noninferential acts of understanding.” In other words, you can’t argue for it: you either get it or you don’t. My guess is that he’d say the same thing about the two-person requirement. But two can play at that game. For there’s nothing to prevent Rauch (or Carpenter or Varnell or me) from saying, “Hey—I don’t get the opposite sex part, but I do get the two-person part. There’s my principled reason for opposing polygamy.”

Funny how it’s no more convincing when we do it than when George does.