Reply to George: IX. Polygamy and Incest

[This post is part of a series analyzing Robert George’s widely-read article, “What is Marriage“, which appeared on pages 245-286 of the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy. You can view all posts in the series here.]

Page 259 (and also 250): In which Robert George doesn’t realize he’s made a case for recognizing incestuous and polygamous (and polygamously incestuous) marriages.

Polygamy and the revisionist/common view

Opponents of marriage equality love polygamy. They make a scarecrow out of it, wave him from their rooftop, and roll him down that shingled slippery slope to take out anyone on the ground who’s thinking, Perhaps equality under the law is a good thing after all.

George seems to think his conjugal/procreative view is the only thing holding back polygamy. In fact, however, the revisionist/common view can argue powerfully against it, too. Here’s George’s own description of this view, which he so dislikes:

Marriage is the union of two people (whether of the same sex or of opposite sexes) who commit to romantically loving and caring for each other and to sharing the burdens and benefits of domestic life. It is essentially a union of hearts and minds, enhanced by whatever forms of sexual intimacy both partners find agreeable.

How does this relate to polygamy? Scholar Jonathan Rauch offers this:

If marriage has any meaning at all, it is that when you collapse from a stroke, there will be another person whose “job” is to drop everything and come to your aid. Or that when you come home after being fired, there will be someone to talk you out of committing a massacre or killing yourself. To be married is to know there is someone out there for whom you are always first in line.

No group could make such a commitment in quite the same way, because of a free-rider problem. If I were to marry three or four people, the pool of potential caregivers would be larger, but the situation would, perversely; make all of them less reliable: each could expect one of the others to take care of me (and each may be reluctant to do more than any of the others are willing to do — a common source of conflict among siblings who need to look after an aging parent). The pair bond, one to one, is the only kind which is inescapably reciprocal, perfectly mutual. Because neither of us has anyone else, we are there for each other.

A few weeks ago, crippling abdominal pain sent me to the emergency room late at night. My partner and I live together, so he was there when it hit me so suddenly. He drove me to the hospital, spoke with the doctor, asked and answered questions, and drove me home. Most of all, after they hopped me up on Dilaudid, he sat in a chair next to my bed, reading a book with his hand on my arm. The happiest part was knowing he would be there for whatever I needed, because he puts no one in his life prior to me.

Polygamy, of course, means you cannot “know there is someone out there for whom you are always first in line.” Well, that’s not exactly true. In many traditions, polygamy means the husband will have several “someones” who automatically put him first, but the wives will have none. This imbalance might explain why polygamy so often turns into exploitation.

I’ve seen a few objections to Rauch’s view of marriage:

We can here leave aside how odd this [idea of marriage] will sound to any married couple with young children, partners whose first responsibility is not obviously spousal. The point to note is Mr Rauch’s telling claim that marriage, as he understands it, is primarily directed towards relieving adult anxiety about facing catastrophe alone — an “elemental fear of abandonment” (i.e., that no one will be “there for me”) that may well express deeply felt human needs and longings, but has little or nothing to do with parenthood as such, the main conjugal concern of historically liberal thinkers like Locke.

First, of course, let’s remember that not even all opposite-sex couples have children. Thus anyone who acknowledges those marriages as “real” absolutely must some non-parental justification for marriage.

Yet Rauch sounds right even if we accept that once you have children, your chief responsibility is to ensure their safety, health, and development.

Follow me on this. In its idealized form:

  • Marriage means that when your health fails, you have a partner who is devoted to your care.
  • Marriage means that when you are in dire emotional straits, you have a partner who will support and protect you.
  • Marriage means that when you celebrate an achievement, you have a partner who feels that joy as if it’s their own.


  • Marriage means that in your life’s chief responsibility, you have a partner who will work with you and give their all.

This has all been said more famously in the Bible:

Two are better than one; because they have a good reward for their labour.

For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow: but woe to him that is alone when he falleth; for he hath not another to help him up.

Again, if two lie together, then they have heat: but how can one be warm alone?

And if one prevail against him, two shall withstand him; and a threefold cord is not quickly broken.

Christians see the threefold cord as the presence of Christ in a loving marriage. For non-Christians, it’s a poetic desrcription of the idea that when two come together in marriage — not shacking up, not dating, not hanging out — their union becomes a living thing in itself, a third presence, something they must nurture, with needs that can override those of either person alone.

Either way, there’s nothing revisionist about this ancient text and its vision of marriage as two people working, helping, protecting, and keeping one another warm. Christian opposite-sexers often use it in their wedding vows and no one accuses them of trying to destroy marriage or perverting its nature.

Polygamy and Robert George

George’s anti-polygamy argument is much weaker than the “revisionist” one. Actually, for me, it’s so abstract as to be incomprehensible. Here it is (I’ve bolded the relevant bit). It’s based on George’s appealing but ill-defined conception of marriage as a “comprehensive union”:

That is, the comprehensiveness of the union across the dimensions of each spouse’s being calls for a temporal comprehensiveness, too: through time (hence permanence) and at each time (hence exclusivity).

What does “at each time” mean? It has to be more than “each time you have sex you have sex with your spouse.” That would only argue against a man having a threeway with his wife and another woman (in terms of George’s organic bodily union, there aren’t enough P’s to handle all V’s for a man to have PIV with two women at once). But it doesn’t rule out having two men and one woman, or one spouse stepping out when the other is too sick or tired for PIV.

Could he mean “at every moment”? Such a thing isn’t even possible. You can’t have organic bodily union every moment of your life. Nor can you be in emotional or intellectual union with your partner at every moment.

I have to admit I simply don’t understand what he means.

I’ll go further. I’ll say George’s view justifies polygamy. Imagine a man with two wives. They share a home, pool their resources, and make decisions together. The man achieves organic bodily union with each wife a couple times a week — as often as the women like (perhaps more than they like).

I don’t see how this stereotype of polygamy fall short of George’s criteria for a “real” marriage. It looks to me like the revisionist/common view of marriage offers a stronger bulwark against polygamy than George’s conjugal/procreative view.

Why only sexual exclusivity?

Here’s an odd bit. Sex is only one type of union in a comprehensive union; why then, does George only care about exclusivity when it comes to sex? Nothing in his reasoning above is unique to sex. If he’s made a principled case for exclusivity, shouldn’t it apply all around? If you can’t have sex with a third party, why are you allowed to have an intellectual discussion? Or a financial contract? How about an emotional tie? Or a spiritual bond, as a woman might have with her priest?

If George offers a principled reason for limiting exclusivity just to sex, I’ve missed it. If he’s explained why you can have multiple intellectual, emotional, or spiritual relationships, I’ve missed that, too. His exclusivity reasoning would seem to force a “real” married couple to isolate themselves from the rest of the world.

What about just messin’ around?

Forget polygamy. What about plain old infidelity and open relationships? You can create a revisionist/common argument against that, too. Sex is powerful. It can cement an emotional bond. It can create an emotional bond. It can even fool you into thinking a bond exists when it’s just novelty and infatuation. In fact, novelty and infatuation are themselves so powerful they can derail a committed long-term relationship.

Actually, any sort of intimacy with a third party — be it sexual, emotional, intellectual, or spiritual — can threaten a marriage. Husbands and wives, straight or gay, sometimes leave a spouse for a colleague, for a teammate, for a priest, advisor, or mentor, or just for a prettier model. You can be impervious to physical infatuation yet find yourself vulnerable to the charms of an intoxicating mind.

Still, out of all that, sexual passion can be uniquely overwhelming. And its consequences, intended or not, often last a lifetime. Sexual exclusivity, in this light, just seems prudent.

What about principles?

Robert George could easily argue that this is a pragmatic argument for exclusivity, not a principled one. Sex is different for everyone. Two married people, straight or gay, could read what I just wrote and say, Hmm. Doesn’t describe us. And go on to have an honest, non-exclusive marriage. Of course, that’s what many married opposite-sexers have done over the centuries and around the world.

George, naturally, would prefer an air-tight, logical case built from a few simple, self-evident truths. But he’s failed to create such an argument himself, as we saw above. In other words, when it comes to monogamy, George’s conjugal/procreative view offers no advantage at all.

How about incest?

As long as we’re talking marital norms, let me go back a few pages. George challenges revisionists to explain why we shouldn’t recognize some incestuous couplings:

Incest, for example, can produce children with health problems and may involve child abuse. But then, assuming for the moment that the state’s interest in avoiding such bad outcomes trumps what revisionists tend to describe as a fundamental right, why not allow incestuous marriages between adult infertile or same-sex couples?

That’s actually a pretty tough question. And it’s not just theoretical. Some states have grappled with it by permitting first-cousin marriage (incestuous by some people’s standards) only if the couple can prove they cannot procreate.

What about closer relations? I have to tell you I’ve got no good answer for this. Mostly I react with the same ick factor response shared by most people (an aversion that may be biologically hard-wired). But ick isn’t a rational policy justification against incest any more than against same-sex marriage. We ought to point one thing, though:

Robert George doesn’t have an answer to this question, either.

Consider a brother-sister couple in love. Let’s say the woman has had a hysterectomy, so they can’t reproduce. Could their relationship pass George’s criteria for a “real” marriage?

  • Comprehensive union?
  • Orientation to children (which, to George, means nothing more than PIV)?
  • Permanence?
  • Exclusivity?

All of these are possible for our brother and sister living as man and wife. By George’s standard, they have a “real” marriage.

You might call this a draw: I don’t have a principled argument against infertile incestuous marriages and neither does George. But a draw means George loses. One of his key arguments against us is that his view can account for norms that we cannot. So, when he fails to make good on that promise, he fails to make his bigger case against marriage equality.

On incest, polygamy, and the Judeo-Christian tradition

Robert George, as a Catholic natural law professor, believes Judeo-Christian morality can be justified entirely through reason (though even many devout theologians disagree). He‘s written:

I challenge liberal secularist ideologies that have established themselves as orthodoxy on college campuses and in the elite sector of the culture generally.

My complaint is not that these ideologies are out of line with faith — though plainly they are — but rather that they fail the test of reason. My argument is that Judeo-Christian morality is rationally superior to the secularist orthodoxy.

Surely, then, it’s fair to point out that the Judeo-Christian faith was literally born in polygamy and incest. Abraham, the father of the faith, married his half-sister. And the twelve tribes of Israel are the descendants of the twelve sons that Jacob (grandson of Abraham, and the man whose name God changed to Israel) had with his various simultaneous wives — two of whom, Rachel and Leah, were sisters.

George has chosen not to offer a “rational” defense of those traditions. When it comes to the Bible, he picks and chooses quite carefully. In fact, it would seem that this opposition to incest and polygamy is the original “revisionist” attitude.

Robert George’s failure

I think it’s clear by now that Robert George has failed to present a coherent philosophy of marriage. Nearly every paragraph had its flaws. It’s tough to sum them up in just a few lines, but I’ll try.

  • George starts off by ignoring most empirical fact about marriage, and does so in the name of “principle.”
  • He creates a spurious distinction between two badly-named views (the “conjugal” and the “revisionist”) and falsely sets them up as competitors.
  • His view of marriage as a “comprehensive union” is too vague and ill-defined to support the reasoning that follows.
  • His definition of “organic bodily union” is arbitrary, is based on a false distinction between body and mind, and takes an oddly fractured view of what it means to be human.
  • He jumps with little justification from many people see some conceptual connection between marriage and children to “real” marriage must have an essential orientation to children. Without ever defining “essential” or “orientation.”
  • He fails to establish that his conjugal/procreative view is better at explaining marital norms than the so-called revisionist view.
  • He offers no clear argument against polygamous and incestuous marriage and actually makes a case for recognizing them.
  • He reasons consistently in circles, repeatedly sneaking his conclusion into the arguments he makes to support it.

But he sure gets an A for effort.

Next: Everybody wants to talk about why infertile couples can or cannot have a “real marriage” (as George defines it), so I’m going to skip ahead a bit and take you on that wild ride.

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5 comments to Reply to George: IX. Polygamy and Incest

  • 1
    Scot Colford says:

    Rob, you are my hero. I wish I could reason as well as you do.

  • 2
    Christopher Mongeau says:

    Thank you! Finally! I feel like I’ve been waiting all my life for polygamy and incest! (Well, not incest, I mean have you seen my brothers? Yikes!)
    Rob, I appreciate all the thought and work you are putting into this analysis. I must confess I was disheartened when I first read Mr. George’s article, but your careful dissection has been wonderful!

  • 3
    Regan DuCasse says:

    Is there some way you could have your analysis published next to George’s so that the public can make a comparison?
    It feels a lot like gay folks and their supporters do so in isolation away from the very accurate analogies or comparisons that would do the most damage to our opposition’s credibility. George’s article was widely read, your analysis should have the same access in the same place.
    These broad cast media sound bites are more and more annoying and the mediators seem to NEVER challenge the outright LIES and misdirection that people like Maggie Gallagher, Brian Brown and Tony Perkins are capable of. They are given a LOT of say, a lot of leeway and regardless that they more than ever have access in the mainstream, they complain they ARE being silenced or will be…or, are the victims if they ARE challenged in any way.
    They screw around with the truth, and are allowed to. George is very sophist, so that someone less inclined to put this much time in as you have Rob, would think he’s very smart and must know what he’s talking about.
    The purpose though, still lies in investing in the trivializing of gay lives, and deserving of discrimination because of the shortcomings of straight people or in spite of them. Either way, every hole is filled and gay folks are getting the short end of every aspect of the discussion.
    I resent this. As a straight person, I guess people like TP and MG take it for granted there is a bottomless well of needs to validate how great straight people think they are and what they think they deserve. They don’t, for a second think that perhaps straight people are tired of them too. That perhaps real dissent is needed at this point. It’s exceptionally immature that straight people need this validation SO bad, regardless of how many times they assert their dominance has gone on ‘for all time’.
    The thing about incest and polygamy is an easy one why it’s disastrous and unworkable, especially in modern society.
    1. Familial connections are infinite. We’re already a society grappling with why people would want or need to have children who are no longer a source of labor for a familie’s farms or other business. Incest would open the door to another level of motive altogether for having children or siblings living in the same home.
    2. Marriage has essentially been about identity and accounting for who is who for the extended purpose of inheritance and property. Notice how indiscriminately children are conceived and abandoned all over the place where siblings or parent and child are likely to meet as strangers and unknowingly marry each other. The state hasn’t been able to force anyone to be more careful about their progeny, but this certainly is the consequence of it.
    3. Plural spouses, as already pointed out, takes the primacy of custody out of the equation, but the matter of imbalance is a very serious one. One spouse taking on so many of whatever gender, leave NO OPTION for a spouse for someone else. Young boys, who could compete with the elders for wives in polygamous communities, have been shunned and cast from their homes and families. This is extremely unhealthy. Young males especially, who are so hopeless for having someone of their own, while being forced to either watch and be excluded from having the same, is emotionally, psychologically and economically damaging.
    4. In the law, heteros can marry another of their same sexual orientation. Therefore a gay person deserves the right to marry another person who shares their orientation as well. This equal treatment, along with equal requirements, not only meets the state’s needs and requirements, but DOESN’T fundamentally change the intents and purpose of marriage. Not at all, really.
    For the opposition to keep asserting that expanding this to gay couples will ruin and change marriage as if beyond all recognition is a lie. Indeed, debating this issue as if still a theory without results from other whole countries and the few states in this country is something that deserves to be asserted as the truth. They are already proven wrong, that they don’t like it and act out of spite in great numbers still doesn’t make them right.

  • 4
    Bonefish says:

    Also, it’s as I said before: if there is a need to ban incest and polygamy, this does not create a need to ban gay marriage. If incest and polygamy are each harmful (for instance, the fact that incest often involves abuse and can cause health problems in resulting children), then this alone stands as a reason to keep incest, and only incest, illegal.
    Gay marriage is therefore irrelevant to incest, because it doesn’t have these same connections to abuse or congenital health problems.  George’s problem is that he insists that we need to explain what positive things gay marriage has that incest lacks.  But this is a moot point because we don’t ban things for “lacking something good,” we ban things for “containing something harmful.”  So we really have no burden to come up with reasons that our marriage definition doesn’t include polygamy; we’ve already done so: we do not recognize relationships that cause real harm.  If incest does so, then we don’t recognize it as valid.
    The fact that incest can be harmful is a reason to ban incest, not a reason to ban gay marriage.  The notion that we have to allow all forms of marriage in order to have any is wrong for two reasons:
    1) It would mean that straight marriage has to be banned also.  It is, after all, a form of marriage, and so if we allow it, we must then allow gay and incestuous and polygamous and bestial and human-tree marriages!
    2) Since we’re already drawing lines, let’s draw them where they make sense.  Draw the line between “harmless marriages” and “harmful marriages.”  Gay marriage creates no more harm than straight marriage, thus it is perfectly logical to have both types be legal.  The hypothetical existence of other, separate forms of marriage that are harmful is no reason to ban gay marriage alongside them.   Banning GAY marriage because INCESTUOUS marriage is harmful makes no sense at all.  This is akin to selling aspirin over-the-counter, but banning cough syrup and pepto-bismol alongside methamphetamine because all three are “non-aspirin drugs.”
    The only thing that this redefinition creats is a real, non-arbitrary standard for what marriages are and aren’t legal.  It takes away our ability to ban things arbitrarily, based on our personal tastes.  Instead, we make the decision to ban something or not based on the merits, or harms, of that specific thing.  This is how our view allows for gay marriage and not for incest.
    George, despite his best efforts, isn’t arguing that gay marriage legalization means that we can no longer ban incest.  He’s arguing that our reason for banning incest can no longer be “Because I Say So.”   This is a pathetically weak position for someone who so arrogantly declared that he’d prove his view to be “rationally superior to secular orthodoxy.”  All he’s done is added a few more vocab words to his priest’s homily.  It’s still illogical, it’s still inconsistent with non-theocratic law, and it’s still completely unjustified.

  • 5
    Mario says:

    I don’t think you need to argue that sexual exclusivity is a requirement of marriage. Although I suppose it is good to point out that if you think it needs to be argued for, you don’t need to accept George’s definition of marriage in order to do so.
    Likewise, I don’t think you need to argue against polygamy. I don’t particularly care whether it is legal or not – the issues of child abuse and domination that are often found with polygamy can be addressed in and of themselves, without banning polygamous marriages for those consenting adults who wish to engage in them. It certainly would make contracts more complicated, and so there would need to be a lot of thought put into how those contractual arrangements would be organized, but I don’t think that in and of itself is an argument against polygamy.
    Likewise, I don’t really have a problem with incestuous marriages, if they are not abusive. Child abuse is illegal, child marriage is illegal. Incestuous marriages between consenting adults aren’t really my business. The supposed horrible effects of incestuous procreation are greatly exaggerated. Over multiple generations, yes, it will often lead to harmful genetic conditions. However two healthy siblings are not more likely to have a child with a birth defect than someone who has any of a number of genetic health conditions procreating with anyone whatsoever. Yet it is not illegal for those with Huntington’s disease or achondroplasia dwarfism (who have a 50% chance of passing it to any children, if procreating with someone who doesn’t have the condition) to marry or reproduce.
    However, it is absolutely true that if there is a good reason to prohibit polygamy and incest, then those reasons will stand on their own. The fact that gay marriage is legal only makes their legalization more likely *if you admit that the current prohibition on polygamy and incest is irrational*. Because if it is only rooted in tradition, and not on a rational argument, then yes, the fact that we are breaking with tradition on gay marriage makes the argument for legalizing polygamy and incest stronger. But if it is based on any strong rational reason, then that reason is enough. The fact that the arguments against incest and polygamy aren’t especially strong is evidenced by the fact that you will sometimes see the same slippery slope arguments being made against them as against gay marriage.
    Basically all arguments on those basis are basically… We would like to say that gay marriage should be illegal because it’s ICKY! But people are starting to feel, due to changes in culture, that gay marriage ISN’T ICKY! But people DO still think that polygamy and incest are ICKY! So we will use a slippery slope argument to make the point that something ICKY will come of all this!

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