So What is Wrong with Plural Marriage / Polyamory?

Polyamory is a modern word (1992) to describe a loving sexual relationship involving more than two people. Plural marriage is where a spouse, usually a husband, takes more than one wife. Religion is often linked to views that marriage should be a committed relationship between two people, usually of the opposite sex but there are some notable deviations from this. In the Hebrew scriptures, Abraham and Sarah think they are too old to have the children that the Lord God says they will have and they think Sarah is barren, in any case. So the younger servant girl Hagar is the surrogate wife and Abraham sires Ishmael with her. But Hagar is not Abraham’s wife and when Sarah miraculously falls pregnant with the son who is to be Isaac, the result is that Hagar leaves the household, though the Lord looks after her. The story does not suggest that this situation is God’s will and in fact the insecure status of Hagar may well have been the experience of many serving girls who found themselves pregnant with their master’s children.

Islam has within it a tradition that more than one wife may be taken but that each wife must be treated equally by the husband. This is a significant improvement for the women, compared with Hagar’s experience and it is interesting to note that traditionally the people of Ishmael are thought to be the forefathers of the first people of Islam. Such a precondition is not an easy one to fulfill as the full implications of equality mean different bedrooms, sometimes different houses, an equal sharing of time and absolutely no preferences on the part of the husband. While Muslims are not compelled to take more than one wife, and many Muslims would feel that it is only an exceptional possibility, it is permitted in some Muslim countries and takes place even in countries which outlaw the practice. An ethical argument in favour of the historical use of this practice is that in ancient Arabia many women were widowed and therefore were vulnerable if they did not marry again and so such plural marriages enabled them to be cared for in a socially accepted way that secured them. Muslim feminists oppose such practices today.

Taking more than one wife has continued in some other modern religious traditions. In the 19th century Mormonism approved of polygamy, and while contemporary Mormonism rejects this, some sects continue its practice. A number of ethical issues arise about the continued practice. The religious traditions that practice this form of marriage come under criticism from feminists who point to the male-dominated patriarchal nature of most religious traditions and the inequality of allowing a man to take more than one wife while not allowing a wife, more than one husband. One response to this is that such marriages should not be forced or arranged but entered into freely. If they are freely entered into, then surely that consent should make such arrangements morally acceptable. The consent ethic is a powerful one in sexual ethics. Sexual crimes involve a lack of consent, and in a more permissive modern liberal age, consent is often identified as the key ethical principle in any sexual relationship. So if two or three people consent to such a relationship, and assuming no-one else is harmed, what is the problem? However, this calculation gives no account for the prevailing social and political climate and needs to scrutinize the idea of a free choice. How can we be sure that the power relationship, which often benefits the man in religious and cultural traditions, will enable a woman to choose freely? If a husband asks his first wife about wanting to take an additional wife, will she not feel pressured to allow it if their religion permits it. She may fear losing her husband if she says no, or indeed fear that he will commit adultery. So in what sense is she truly free to choose? The risk of this occurring is enough for many feminists to oppose it on principle in any setting, religious or secular.

There is also a question of the ethics of equality and the fact that religious traditions that practice plural marriage tend to allow the man to take many wives but not the other way round. Perhaps the practice of women taking many husbands is uncommon because only the woman can give birth and possibly, somewhere in the religious traditions of plural marriage, having large families is a key social or indeed economic advantage. Of course it also smacks of double standards and a world in which men are happy to have many wives but not happy to share their wives with other men.

However, if two people genuinely felt they loved the same third person, if that person loved the other two and all agreed to live in such a relationship, setting aside religious arguments, is there a non-religious ethical argument against? One possible objection could be made if it was shown that human beings are pairing creatures, from the perspective of human evolution and psychology. It could be argued that in the case of a life-long paring, the relationship works in part because of the complete trust and total commitment that each party gives the other. This total commitment is often expressed for better and worse for richer and poorer, acknowledging that life may be difficult at times and one may come to depend utterly on the other, for example if faced with serious illness. It is a trust allowing long term plans, including the raising of children, the development of a working life and the building of a home. It can be argued that this kind of total giving is simply not possible in a polygamous relationship, where space must be made for a third person. In the Hebrew scriptures, Genesis presents a picture of the relationship in terms of the two becoming one. It uses the phrase ‘cleaving together’ to describe the union that is established in the committed, loving relationship. There is a powerful sense of that union in the physical life of the couple. This includes not simply the sexual life but also the wider life of physical affection and the experience of drawing together two life-lines so that they intertwine with each other with the associated friendship, intimacy and partnership that this brings. Perhaps Genesis offers a wise reflection on the human condition and the nature of human love and life.

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