In my first post on marriage, I delineated the most common components of the institution (legal, personal, and religious), and I posed some questions about morality and legality.
Here, I’m going to consider whether there are any gender or number combinations that are overwhelmingly harmful if allowed to occur.
The obvious examples are gay marriage and polygamy.
I’m going to state, from the very beginning, that I see no reason why, in principle, gay marriage (and polygamy) should be considered inherently harmful. The more difficult issue to tackle is whether these forms of marriage are, in practice, harmful.
Gay marriage makes a very good case for itself. Numerous gay couples live perfectly good married lives that benefit each partner in the same ways that heterosexual marriages do. Children of gay marriages have not turned out to be the broken, emotionally scarred young people that anti-gay marriage proponents predicted they would be.
By all accounts, then, gay marriages have no more chance of inflicting harm on their participants (and their participants’ children) as straight marriages.
Polygamy is a different matter. There is evidence that where polygamy is practiced, several problems usually arise (see the case against polygamy presented to the Canadian government, which covers pertinent research):
1. The father (in the case of polygyny) or the mother (in the case of polyandry), must divide his (or her) attention among multiple partners and, inevitably, multiple children.
2. Social strife, including crime, can increase due to the gender imbalance that arises in the single population. This is usually an issue with polygyny, which leaves young men unable to find wives.
3. The age gap between partners is often very high. In particular, older men often decide to take new wives who are usually very young, sometimes illegally so. This reduces the chances of good, stable relationships.
4. As mentioned in the previous points, polygyny often involves the sexual exploitation of minors.
5. In polygyny, men tend to adopt a highly controlling role in the marriage, to the detriment of their spouses.
6. Polyamous societies tend to have weaker economies than monogamous societies, for a variety of reasons.
My overall impression from these arguments, and from the rather poor track record polygamy has produced, is that the practice is generally harmful.
Marriage among relatives
Finally, let’s look at the moral ramifications of another marriage taboo: the marriage of relatives. Most countries actually permit the marriage of first cousins, but are less permissive when it comes to siblings or parents and children.
From a reproductive point of view, marriages among close relatives are surely harmful: the chances of producing offspring with serious birth defects are very high.
But is any harm caused by these marriages if no offspring are produced? Most people, myself included, have a very strong instinctual aversion to the idea of marriage among close relatives. But this aversion is probably an evolutionary adaptation designed to avoid precisely the issue of birth defects already mentioned.
One possible reason for discouraging such relationships is that they may cause emotional harm to other family members, who are likely to strongly disapprove. This might be the deciding factor in many cases.
Apart from this objection, and the one concerning children, though, I see no reason why such marriages should be rejected outright.
As it turns out, of course, this is a highly marginal issue: there are very few people indeed who are interested in such relationships. Perhaps that is for the best!
In my third and final post in this series, I’ll look at the legality of different forms of marriage.