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Is There a Right to Polygamy? Marriage, Equality and Subsidizing Families in Liberal Public Justification

Journal of Moral Philosophy, Vol. 8, No. 2, pp. 246-272, 2011

27 Pages Posted: 20 Feb 2009 Last revised: 23 Dec 2011

Andrew F. March

Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, Harvard University

Date Written: February 20, 2009

Abstract

This paper argues that the four most plausible arguments compatible with public reason for an outright legal ban on all forms of polygamy are unvictorious. I consider the types of arguments political liberals would have to insist on, and precisely how strongly, in order for a general prohibition against polygamy to be justified, while also considering what general attitude towards “marriage” and legal recognition of the right to marry is most consistent with political liberalism. I argue that a liberal state should get out of the “marriage business” by leveling down to a universal status of “civil union” neutral as to the gender and affective purpose of domestic partnerships. I then refute what I regard as the four most plausible rational objections to offering this civil union status to multi-member domestic partnerships. The most common objection to polygamy is on grounds of gender equality, more specifically, female equality. But advancing this argument forcefully often involves neglecting the tendency of political liberalism (by whatever name it goes in contemporary, complex, multicultural societies) to tolerate a certain amount of inequality in private, within the bounds of robust and meaningful freedoms of choice and exit. Properly understood, polygamy involves no inherent statement about the essential inferiority of women, and certainly not more than many other existing practices and institutions (including many expressions of the main monotheistic religions) which political liberals regard as tolerable, even reasonable. Arguments from the welfare of children, fairness in the spousal market, and the abuse of family subsidies are also considered and found insufficient for excluding polygamy.

Keywords: polygamy, political liberalism, marriage, justification

Suggested Citation

March, Andrew F., Is There a Right to Polygamy? Marriage, Equality and Subsidizing Families in Liberal Public Justification (February 20, 2009). Journal of Moral Philosophy, Vol. 8, No. 2, pp. 246-272, 2011. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1346900

Andrew March (Contact Author)

Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, Harvard University ( email )

124 Mount Auburn Street
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

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