Is Polygamy Immoral?

Each week for Philosophy class we are required to do a "reflection paper" on a specific question... This is mine for this week:

(let me note: This is philosophy class. The object is not to be "right", it's to earn an "A")

Summarize Hume's critique of rationalistic ethics. Then construct a Humean analysis of some contemporary moral issue. What are the advantages of Hume's approach? The disadvantages?

Hume believed that the ethics/morals are largely rooted in personal passions and experience and that many of what we call “morals” is sentiment based on sympathy for those who are affected by a trait or action.

My “contemporary moral issue” is polygamy.

Reasons that people believe polygamy is morally wrong Objective reasoning to support (or not)
Relationships do not scale arithmetically but exponentially. This is a “human issue”, not a moral one.
Mathematically polygamy ends up producing a 'surplus male' problem There would be a surplus of males, but is this necessarily a problem? It certainly is not a moral problem.
The Bible says that marriage is “one man and one woman”. But the Bible never says that polygamy is morally wrong.
Since the social benefits do not seem to exceed the social negatives I think the burden is on pro-polygamists to make their case for expanding the law. This seems to be more of a math problem than a moral one.
There are numerous possible versions of polygamy and if we decided to have it there's no clear 'default' There would not need to be a “default”

1) Relationships do not scale arithmetically, but exponentially. This is true. With a plural marriage with two wives you have two relationship with the husband and each wife, as well as the relationship between the two women AND the relationship that includes all three.

For example, what happens in a three person marriage if one wants out? Are the two left married or does the whole thing dissolve and the two people have to choose to marry as a couple? What happens if the family cannot agree on some major decision? Suppose a man is sick and cannot make his own medical decisions. What happens if the wives do not agree? Are women allowed to marry multiple men or just men marry multiple women?

However, just because there are different ways for people in the relationship to interact, does not mean the act is morally wrong.

2) Mathematically polygamy ends up producing a 'surplus male' problem. If 1 out of 10 men marry 3 women then that means for the 9 remaining men there are only 7 women. Needless to say the remaining 9 men probably aspire to not one but three wives so there's going to be a core of men who are not able to marry.

Again, this is true. With polygamy, there will be fewer women available for the unmarried men. Although this could cause rioting and other distress, it could also have the effect of forcing young men to be productive in order to compete for the women that are “available”.

3) The Bible says that marriage is “one man and one woman”. Actually, the Bible says that “in the beginning” there was one man and one woman. But very early on, there were polygamous marriage and the Bible (or the Law) never condemned them. The Bible has always been read with one eye on the text and another on tradition. For example, there is no text in the Bible that specifically says Jesus never married. Yet the understanding has been that Jesus never took a wife despite this lack of actual text. We cannot use the Bible (or tradition based on the Bible) to say that polygamy is morally wrong.

4) Since the social benefits do not seem to exceed the social negatives I think the burden is on pro-polygamists to make their case for expanding the law.

Social benefits vs. social negatives may be practical (human) issues, but they are not moral questions.

5) There are numerous possible versions of polygamy and if we decided to have it there's no clear 'default'.

This argument mainly comes from people who fear that allowing homosexual marriage would lead to other formed of marriage that are “outside the norm”. To these people, other versions of polygamy (legal marriage) include “one woman, multiple men”, “multiple same sex partners”, “multiple men, multiple women”, all of unspecified numbers.

Yet again, this argument falls into “human issues” and not moral issues.

To wrap it up, I actually solicited these “arguments” from a variety of people. There are a wide variety of reasons that polygamy would be impractical, unwise, weird or otherwise undesirable, but not objectively immoral.

The benefit to this type of system would be that logic, not passion rules. The disadvantage is that it leaves out one vital component of decision making – God.

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13 thoughts on “Is Polygamy Immoral?

  1. A good article. A tough assignment I'm sure, to put yourself in the shoes of a thinker who does not think like yourself, and arrive rationally at the "wrong" answer. Of course, I love your last sentence. 😉

    Thanks for stopping by my place today. I look forward to reading your blog.

  2. What's the most interesting is that even using the Bible, I can't prove polygamy is wrong. I know that in other countries where it is legal, protestant churches are taking the stand that polygamy is not a sin.

  3. But is this something like the practice of slavery, prevalent throughout the Bible, not specifically condemned, but also not condoned? And yet, we probably agree that slavery is wrong if we agree that God created all men in His image.

    I've never researched this question like you have (read, I'm just talking out of the side of my mouth, so ignore half of what I say ;-), but I've always interpreted polygamy to be a form of adultery which is condemned. But then, that assumes that God does command marriage is between one man and one woman, beyond just "in the beginning." Maybe that's what I'm missing.

  4. The problem is that we may do an action in an immoral way, but that does not make the action (in and of itself) immoral.

    In one Muslim country (around 800 AD, I think) Christian were "slaves". But they could be appointed to political offices, serve in the army - at one point, most of the army that served this Muslim country consisted of Christian slaves. This was a problem - not because slavery was wrong, but because too many Muslim jobs were displaced by slaves. Is it slavery that is immoral, or the way that slaves are treated?

    As far as polygamy, God does not ever call polygamy "adultery" - in fact, many times it was by the second wife that the son was born that carried the "seed".

    Prophets and leaders were born of second wives.

    In fact, God told David in 2 Samuel 12:8
    I gave your master's house to you, and your master's wives into your arms. I gave you the house of Israel and Judah. And if all this had been too little, I would have given you even more.

    There is no condemnation of polygamy (that doesn't mean I like it, it just means I can't call it sin)

  5. > ....not specifically condemned, but also not condoned?

    No, rather, it was commmanded in cases where a husband dies with no male children. His widow had to marry the his brother to bear a son to carry on the family line of her dead husband. This was an obligation (Onan, for example, refused) even if the brother was married -- there was no loophole. This was case where family obligation superceded personal wants, needs, perceived rights, and other "me" centered concerns. Difficult, but God's command nonetheless.

    I've heard preachers say, "Well, God tolerated it, but it wasn't His will." Well, the problem there is that God was not just tolerating it, he was commanding and regulating it. Sin is never regulated, rather it is prohibited (e.g., homosexuality). If God regulates it, it cannot be called sin in all cases. Therefore, with polygamy regulated and not prohibited, it cannot be considered sin like adultery, homosexuality, etc.


  6. Good discussion. I appreciate the input. Phil, I'm assuming you are referring to polygamy rather than slavery, being commanded? I was trying to make a leap from one to the other (which I've also heard certain pastors who shall remain unnamed do with homosexuality, and that's clearly fallacy), but you have both pointed to perfect examples that I had not considered, of polygamy not being a sin. It's not something I've really looked at very carefully, but you make an interesting case.

    Back to slavery (tho I realize that's not really the point here ;-),

    Is it slavery that is immoral, or the way that slaves are treated?

    Here's where my vision blurs, because I see slavery as being defined by how people are treated. Can I answer "both?" 😉 Slavery, and all that it entails, violates the most fundamental commandment of loving your neighbor as thyself. Doesn't it? Are you saying that slavery is not a sin?

  7. Hi 😉

    As far as whether or not slavery is sin - I hesitate to call anything "sin" that the Bible does not call sin.

    Slavery (as the Hebrews understood it) was regulated by Hebrew Law, but not condemned.

    Slavery as we know and understand it is clearly sin.

  8. Interesting topic. The other day I was wasting away in my sickbed and I was forced to watch "Larry King." He was interviewing a trio of female pro-polygamists. One was a former wife, I think she's separated now, but she is still pro-polygamy. Another is one of several wives. The third is the surviving wife in a threesome. It struck me that these women really viewed this lifestyle as normal and just another choice. Another reporter interviewed a huge group of women (I'm not sure if they were all part of one family or not) and they said things like they're GLAD that they don't have to be the only one to deal with the dh. They like it that when their dh wants a little variety he isn't hanging around in bars, but is down the hall.


    Anyway, fwiw I see your point about moral law vs. human problem. I do see this lifestyle as problematic, probably because of what it has the potential to breed in individual women. There must be some degree of striving, jealousy, cattiness, manipulation, and the like in these "families." Aren't those things against the moral law? But I suppose one would argue that those things take place in offices and classrooms and churches and those institutions aren't against the moral law. Very interesting!

  9. Even the jealousy is "human" - There are all kinds of things that we (as humans) manage to mess up with pettiness.

    Even "sibling rivalry" has its roots in sin.

  10. Hey Ellen, please forgive me for going off topic but can you enlighten me on how to put a table into blogger?

    In humility, Dave.

  11. Dave - I have no clue how to put a table into blogger by myself.

    I've downloaded a blogger "add in" for MicroSoft Word that lets me write a post in Word and then publish it to blogger. Most of the Word formatting in html stays with the document.

    I like writing longer posts that way - I like the spell check better. 😉

    Get it here .

  12. Michael Kalyaano

    Why assume that polygamy is only one male and two or more females? I grant that this may be the most common form. Please let us also consider one female and two or more males?

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