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 months 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 offers his own anti-polygamy argument, and it’s 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. I wrote about George’s “comprehensive” union earlier. It was ill-defined then and he doesn’t improve it here:

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).

George never defined comprehensiveness except when it came to the physical dimension of each spouse’s being, where he defined it as penis-in-vagina intercourse. What, then, does he mean by “at each time”? 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?
  • 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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12 Responses to Reply to George: IX. Polygamy and Incest

  1. 1
    Clarissa says:

    I’ve been truly enjoying this well-argued, incisive and logically unassailable series of posts. This one is really powerful and takes away one of the most cherished arguments of those who defend traditional marriage at the expense of common sense.

    Great job!

  2. 2
    aproustian says:

    The reason I learned in my (101 level) sociology course for outlawing incest even in the case of infertility is to prevent overly insular communities. That is, people are more likely to mate with/marry people close to them, and who’s closer than your family? By denying a person their family as a romantic pool, they’re forced to search farther afield. This argument of course says nothing about whether you are gay or straight or bi.

  3. 3
    Stentor says:

    I don’t see the relevance of the Bible quote in this post (though your point that they match the revisionist/common view better than George’s is good). The verses you cite describe the advantages of having a partner versus not having a partner. But they say nothing about the issue you’re trying to address, which is the advantages of having just one partner versus having more than one. The verses are written so generally that they could apply, quite wisely, to just about any cooperative activity, from moving furniture to co-authoring an article. But would anyone argue that articles should be limited to two co-authors?

  4. 4
    lovepeaceohana says:

    I gotta say, this –

    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

    – is a pretty fucked-up, pessimistic view of relationships. :\

  5. 5
    hf says:

    @lovepeaceohana: The quote seems poorly phrased, but if we want to know whether or not the bystander effect applies here we should try to see if it applies in closely analogous situations (or actual poly-amorous groups). We won’t learn anything by looking at different relationships where we would not expect this effect to apply.

  6. 6
    mythago says:

    There is no such thing as “the Judeo-Christian faith”. And Judaism looks at marriage rather differently than Christians such as George do.

  7. 7
    Squirrel says:

    The example of a group marriage where no one cares to help you out doesn’t argue against group marriage to me, it argues against marrying those particular people. For anyone interested in serious theorizing about non-monogamy, I’d recommend pepomint’s work:

  8. 8
    Bear says:

    Squirrel, I think you’re mischaracterizing Rob’s argument. He’s talking about the assumption of responsibility within group dynamics. That’s a different issue than whether the people you’ve married care enough about you to help you out.

  9. 9
    lauren says:

    But he is assuming that those dynamics- which I think have been studied mostly in case of bystanders- would apply to people in a polyamorus relationship in the same way as it does to a random group of people with no relationship to the person needing help. That seems questionable, to say the least.

  10. 10
    Bear says:

    I don’t think Rob does that at all; he doesn’t explicitly say that group dynamics between strangers are different than between family members, but that doesn’t automatically mean that he’s conflating the two. Further, group dynamics between family members are certainly relevant. One has only to observe the way group dynamics play out among siblings when a parent becomes sick or dies to see that people of like position within a family act according to where they fit within that dynamism. I think that is quite relevant when thinking about the way it also plays out within polyamorous relationships.

  11. 11
    Sebastian H says:

    I’m not sure which way this goes in the argument, but it seems to me that a very common complaint among women is that the husband doesn’t do a “fair” amount of the chores. So the dynamic shows up in regular marraiges all the time. Is this a woman/man thing (in our culture) or a status thing? Or both? It could be a status thing that gets reflected in a gender thing. If it is a status thing, the lowest status person in the polyamorus relationship is likely to get dumped on. Whether or not this applies in times of extreme need, I would think it would apply in the regular times.

  12. 12
    Susan says:

    I can only argue from my own experience.

    I am 66 years old. What we used to call “triads” are of very ancient history in this culture. One (two women, one man) lived next door to us in Los Angeles in 1950. They had no children.

    I am personally acquainted with two triads composed of people my own age. One is two women, one man; the other, two men, one woman. Both families have children, and everyone is a grandparent now. These are arrangements of very long standing, though without legal blessing. They all worked it out. Where there is only one man, we know who the father of the children is, and we do know who is the mother. Where there are two men, I personally take everyone’s word for this. I don’t remember any outsiders who worried about this, or who had any legitimate reason to do so.

    I went to an Ivy League school with one of the women in the two-women-one-man group, and the last time we had a class reunion she told me sadly that her grown son, in his 30’s, was dying of bone cancer. Such a sad story. It tears your heart out – such a young man. I believe, however, that the young man in question was actually the biological son of the other woman, but that’s not how they sorted it out. He’s my classmate’s son too. The one man in this marriage, as it happens, has died; the two women are still living together, and caring for their children and grandchildren.

    From what I can tell Mr. George has a very constricted idea of who loves who, how families work, and who you can rely on. I don’t know the man. His experience seems to be very narrow, poor fellow.