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Do polygamy bans violate the natural rights of bisexuals? In wake of the current Supreme Court debate in the US that gay marriage bans violate due process and equal protection guarantees, I want to ask a philosopher whether these two legal concepts, due process and equal protection (which go by different names in different countries), are derived from natural philosophical rights. If so and assuming that they are similar in meaning, does that mean that at least philosophically speaking, polygamy irrespective of particular examples is NOT inherently immoral?

The main philosophical argument for gay marriage from what I've heard is that since sexual orientation is a fundamental and largely unchangeable part of a person's nature, it is immoral to deny gays a right that straight people have. But what about bisexuals? Isn't a bisexual woman or man who is in a serious relationship with both a man and a woman at the same time just as deserving? I don't think it matters whether or not the other two members of the triad are intimate with each other so long as they consent to the marriage as well. But if it does matter, is this the sole point of debate?

I ask this as a philosophical question and not a legal question, as I realize the latter must address manipulative purposes of marriage from fundamentalist religious groups, tax dodgers, swingers, et cetera.

April 11, 2013

Response from Allen Stairs on April 11, 2013
I'm not sure I have your question clearly in my sights, but I think it's something like this: As it stands the only kind of marriage many countries recognize is between one man and one woman. Advocates of same-sex marriage argue that for a variety of reasons, not least the fact that sexual orientation isn't simply a choice, we ought to recognize same-sex marriages as well. Otherwise, there's a serious issue of fairness and justice.

Your suggestion is that this leaves a particular injustice unaddressed: bisexual people who are in relationships with men and women at the same time. If same-sex marriage is the cure for discrimination against homosexual relationships, then, so the thought goes, polygamous marriage is the cure for the parallel injustice against bisexuals.

Here's why I'm not persuaded. Leave hetero- vs. homo- vs. bisexuality aside. Some people are in love with more than one person. Call people capable of such attachments polyamorous. In some cases, all concerned parties would be more than happy to from a common household and live together as spouses. Should we say that by not allowing polygamous marriage, the law discriminates unjustly against polyamorous people?

Before we get to the question itself, notice that it has nothing special to do with bisexuality. Most people are quite capable of being attracted to more than one person at once. From this point of view, someone who's in love with both a man and a woman at the same time is just another polyamorist. And there's no reason I know of to believe that the polyamorous desires of bisexuals are any stronger than anyone else's.

Now to the question. You said you wanted it understood as philosophical rather than legal, so here's the philosophical bit. It's one thing to say that the law shouldn't outlaw polyamorous relationships. It's another to say that it should broaden marriage to include n-adic relationships with n greater than 2. More generally: it's one thing to say that the law should allow certain kinds of conduct. It's another to say that it should give them special status. From "the law shouldn't interfere with polyamorous relationships" to "the law should allow polygamous marriage, with all the rights and privileges thereof" is not a mere skip and a jump. However, none of this has anything special to do with bisexuality.

We could put it this way: if people's polyamorous tendencies give us a good reason for legal polygamy, then the law shouldn't worry itself with the internal geometry of the configuration. I have no problem with the conditional itself. The "if" part, however, is where the rub comes. For while there are limits on what a legitimate legal system should allow or forbid, every remotely just legal system I know of is hip-deep in policy issues. There might be many good reasons for the law not to embrace all the tax, inheritance, child-custody, benefits, child-custody questions, and other sequlae of polygamous marriage even if it should also mostly keep its nose out of people's intimate relationships. In other words, there might be good policy reasons not to recognize polygamous marriage. But even if we agree (as I do) that the law should recognize same-sex marriage, the fact that bisexual people are amongst the polyamorous doesn't give us any special reason to recognize polygamy.


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