Recently, I was engaged in a discussion about marriage laws and the slippery slope argument. A fair number of points were brought up in an attempt to hold fast to the prohibitions on consanguineous (incestuous) marriages and polygamous marriages while allowing same-sex marriages. I don’t think that any of these points constitute a workable legal standard, and by and large I see them as ad hoc rationalizations for avoiding the quick slide down a slippery slope. As a disclaimer, I’ll note that I favor legalizing all three types of secular marriage contracts and am not a conservative or a progressive/modern liberal.
Progressives have long accused conservatives of making a slippery slope argument with regard to the sorts of relationships which are recognized via secular marriage contracts, and some of them do in fact make a slippery slope argument. The fact that it’s a slippery slope argument does not invalidate the claim by itself. Slippery slope arguments are correctly evaluated by looking at the available evidence to see if the slope is indeed slippery.
In order to keep from sliding down that slippery slope, we need a coherent and consistently applicable legal standard for allowing some marriages and not others. I will examine some of the proposed standards for what constitutes a valid marriage and see if we can construct such a standard out of them.
As a disclaimer, I think that there are principled arguments to be made for legalizing same-sex marriage but not polygamous marriage. I just don’t think those are usually the arguments being made. I also don’t think those arguments are compelling for the same reason that I don’t find the arguments against same-sex marriage compelling.
Speaking of which, let’s take a look at some of those standards.
1. Mutuality – This argument is in essence that a valid marriage requires mutuality.
Fair enough. There is nothing inherent to polygamy which makes it not mutually beneficial to all parties involved. And even if you wanted to make the case that it was not traditionally mutually beneficial to all parties involved and you could provide compelling evidence for that claim, it doesn’t provide a justification for outlawing it unless you also outlaw heterosexual monogamous marriage for the same reason that it has traditionally not been mutually beneficial to all parties in much the same ways.
2. Sexual orientation – This argument is in essence that polyamory is not a sexual orientation.
It’s true that the urge to have multiple partners is not a sexual orientation. It is, however, a perfectly normal expression of our reproductive instinct just as in the case of heterosexual monogamy. You can’t turn people from having a perfectly natural reproductive instinct any more than you can alter their sexual orientation by praying it away.
3. Monogamy – This argument is in essence that monogamy is a solid legal standard because it can be rightly expected of everyone.
Monogamy can be expected of everyone? That’s just as silly as the argument against same-sex marriage in which it is asserted that we don’t need to redefine marriage to include homosexual relationships because they can already get married and they just need to marry someone of the opposite sex. Not only that, but there’s actually lots of good evidence that human beings are really not very monogamous.
4. Benefits & Taxation – This argument is in essence that the legal implications of allowing polygamy would be be too complicated.
It’s true that legalizing polyamorous relationships would require some revision of our laws regarding spousal benefits and the tax code. But why are progressives so willing to go to the trouble of changing the law to allow same-sex marriage and then start balking now? The tax code is already obscenely complicated due to its progressive nature and all the exemptions available for the poor and vulnerable. Since when have modern progressives been afraid of complicating the tax code or giving more people benefits?
5. Children – This argument is in essence that incestuous relationships create problems for the children in the marriage.
If we are to be consistent in outlawing the high degrees of consanguinity in incestuous relationships because of the negative genetic consequences for children, we would also need to consider seriously a general policy of eugenics with regard to heterosexual couples. We would need to outlaw any marriage which carried a high risk of producing children with deformities or disorders. And let’s not even bother making the argument that it damages them emotionally. We have all heard that one before from people opposing same-sex marriage contracts.
6. Family Dynamics – This argument is in essence that incestuous unions would lead to unhealthy family dynamics.
Given the progressive view of family as a malleable social construct which can adapt to new conceptions of marriage and their view that many of the negative consequences of same-sex relationships are due to the social stigma attached to those relationships, why would we not also say that the family will be able to adapt to incestuous relationships as their social stigma wears off? The social stigma around homosexuality was immense and seemingly intractable, but now that’s changing. Why would this not also be the case with incestuous relationships? The “damage to family units” line is just the same thing that gets thrown out against same-sex marriage.
In the end, if our standard for who can get a secular marriage contract is “consenting adults,” then we really don’t have compelling grounds on which to outlaw them unless we’re willing to also outlaw heterosexual marriage, stop supporting a complicated tax code and extending government benefits to lots of vulnerable groups, or advocate a policy reminiscent of eugenics. There are principled stands to be taken here, but the progressive who wants to save us from polygamous or incestuous marriage is probably not going to like any of them.