Secular Arguments on Polygamy

Two recent weblog articles discuss polygamy from a purely secular scientific and legal perspective. First, Polygamy, the Naturalistic Fallacy, and Gay Marriage at jonrowe argues that even a cursory review of human cultures shows that polygamy is quite natural, but to argue that it is thereby established as good is an example of the naturalistic fallacy. He sees monogamy as socially preferable for reasons detailed in the post. He is interested, I think, in distinguishing secular arguments supporting polygamy from other secular arguments supporting gay marriage.

In response, Sex and Nature at Freespace argues that one shouldn’t dismiss an argument from nature as a “naturalistic fallacy” without properly understanding what the term “nature” refers to in ethical discussions about human behavior. Given the roughly equal proportion of males and females in human populations, he sees “patriarchal polygamy” as an unlikely outcome if women are given a fair say in choosing forms of marriage, and everyone having a fair choice rather than being subject to coercion by the state or social institutions is his concept of “human nature.” Briefly, he thinks most women would choose one husband over, say, 1/10th of a husband, so if women are unconstrained polygamy will not persist.

Since neither of those two weblogs offers comments, this seems like a nice forum for discussing the ideas they raised in these posts. And polygamy does come up here from time to time, doesn’t it?


  1. D. Fletcher says:


    I understood this little fact to be true, although I could be wrong… it’s happened once or twice before.

    I was just pointing out that polygamy definitely had practical advantages — quickly populating the group (strength in numbers), providing support for single women (Brigham Young had children by 16 of his wives, but he had many other wives in addition), and equalizing the economy.

    In almost all the “pioneer” societies, the men died at a more frequent rate than the women. Men went to war, men did harder physical labor, or were killed in violent encounters, etc. Men’s life expectancy has always been less than women.

    For example, many more women survived the Donner disaster than the men.

    I have a funny drawing dating from the 1850s, and titled “The Mormon Ball,” and it shows all these hoop-skirted women and 2 men.

    This thread was titled Secular Arguments on Polygamy, so I provided one.


  2. D — so according to Wright, polygamy is a social mechanism for a kind of Darwinistic selection?

  3. D. Fletcher,

    By invoking your “truism,” you’re not suggesting that there actually is any substance to the “skewed sex-ratio” claim regarding 19th Century Mormons, are you? Notwithstanding claims by the youth speaker in Sunday’s stake conference to the contrary, I understand that this is bunk.

    Aaron B

  4. Dave says: “in regard to polygamy because Mormons can never quite figure out whether they are for it or against it”

    I don’t think this is quite right.
    Mainstream mormons are firmly against polygamy, because the church forbids it. In the past, we were firmly for polygamy because the church was for it. The question of whether polygamy is a good system in the abstract doesn’t usually even come up. (Not that I don’t think it’s an interesting question.) It’s all about obedience. (I think your statement would have been correct in the 1890s, though.)

  5. Dave,

    I’m curious why you brought this topic up. Do you think that our church relied on naturalistic arguments to justify its polygamist doctrines? I wouldn’t be surprised if there’d been the odd pamphlet or two, but I never considered this line of reasoning to be a major consideration for mormons.

    Or are you suggesting that these naturalistic ideas are at the foundation of what really motivated polygamy?

  6. ed, in the Bloggernacle, we’re ALL weird. Maybe I’ve just been hanging out with “intellectual” mormons too long!

  7. ed: “The question of whether polygamy is a good system in the abstract doesn’t usually even come up.”

    Ed, it comes up all the time! Every time the D&C is taught, every time we talk about the persecution of early polygamists, we return again and again to the question of what we are to think of polygamy. True, we can hide behind the church’s current policy regarding polygamy, but that doesn’t help us come to grips with the practice as a whole.

  8. First (since I made the post) I want to defend the relevance of a secular critique or defense of polygamy or any other doctrine. By secular I mean well reasoned with reference to real-world facts. It’s more than just a PR exercise–this kind of thinking helps us clarify what we believe and why we believe it.

    I think the Church uses secular justifications to good effect in promoting its positive views of the family in the public forum (citing data and research) and in defending the Word of Wisdom as a health code (with reference to medical research into alcohol and tobacco use). On the other hand, I think it does a poorer job or articulating such arguments in its discussions of homosexuality, SSM, and polygamy (and historically, the priesthood ban).

    The problem is most glaring in regard to polygamy because Mormons can never quite figure out whether they are for it or against it, thanks to modern revelation. Perhaps more careful consideration of secular arguments would help clarify that position.

    One reading of the 1978 revelation is that once leaders finally figured out there was no reasoned justification for the ban, it was dropped. Then there’s the mixed-heritage Brazilian LDS membership story. Then there’s the divine revelation story. Nothing says these are mutually exclusive or inconsistent readings. Careful examination of the justification for the policy a la Mauss likely contributed to the change. Bravo. We need more of this.

  9. Here’s an interesting article about how the biggest victims of polygamy are the men that don’t get a spouse:

    I wonder how this worked during the mormon practice of polygamy: were there extra men? Did they complain?

  10. D. Fletcher says:

    If I may add, the relations between human reasoning, revealed truth, and evolutionary compulsion are fascinating but hugely ambiguous and mysterious.

  11. D. Fletcher says:

    One of the truisms of the polygamy practiced by the Saints in the last century was that it was useful because there weren’t enough men. Many of the men had died in the various military factions organized by the Church.

    I’ve stated before, The Moral Animal, by Robert Wright, reveals a paradigm of polygamy which makes perfect naturalistic sense, to me. He suggests that women, if given a chance at a better economic life and smarter children, will opt for a “portion” of a good husband, over a less-capable husband who belongs only to her. Polygamy also relieves a lot of the stress of potential adultery — you know where your husband is sleeping tonight.

    In Wright’s paradigm, it’s men who deplored polygamy, and as the world came to universally adopt democracy, as in, one man one vote, they also considered the “rights” of marriage to be democratic, i.e., that all men have the right to a spouse.

    Basically, if polygamy were allowed, the top 25 percent of men (rated in terms of economic security and intelligence, an “attractiveness” quotient) would take all the women (in a polygamous society) and the rest of the men would be left without. Some of these may be homosexual and would find partners on their own. But many men would have no one, and these men would typically be at the very bottom of the ladder, the least intelligent and well-off. Hence, Wright argues, these men would probably become violent, sex-offenders, rapists, and kidnappers.

    Since men governed the world at the time of the rise of democracy, it was men who chose to dismiss polygamy.

  12. Steve,

    I think Mormons rely on naturalistic or scientific arguments when they support Mormon doctrines, and shy away from them when they cut against Mormon beliefs. So with the Word of Wisdom, we talk at length about how medicine now confirms the bad health effects of tobacco, but gloss over studies showing the health benefits of a daily glass of wine.

    With polygamy, early leaders spun out a variety of similar arguments supporting the “reasonableness” and beneficial effect of polygamy. So sure, we can engage in the same sort of reasoning to determine whether, in fact, the effects are beneficial or the practice is “natural” (a term subject to so much abuse I hate to use it).

    The relation between human reasoning and revealed truth is, of course, an entirely different discussion.

  13. Steve, your experience may be different from mine. I can NEVER remember having any sort of discussion about whether polygamy is a good system with any mormon. I have had discussions about whether it was inspired, how it was practiced, how it ended, whether it will practiced again on earth or in heaven, and how uncomfortable we might feel if it was. But I’ve just never run accross mormons discussing whether it was/is a good system. Maybe I’m weird.

  14. Anonymous says:

    The experience of my family is quite dissimilar. I think we are secretly for polygamy, but outwardly shun it to retain our similarity to the conservatives, i.e., religious right.

    My mother was good friends with S. Dilworth Young, one of the GAs in the mid-20th century (he married my parents). Elder Young often stayed at my home when he was visiting the East Coast.

    On one of those occasions, I asked him about polygamy, and he said (I’m not kidding)… “polygamy has not gone away, it is part of the divine plan. The Lord used it temporarily (in the 19th century) to expedite some solutions to the problems of the Saints, and almost as quickly, he removed it from the earth, but never from the eternities. My first wife died some years ago, and I’m sealed to her and to my second wife. The righteous will all know polygamy in the next life.”

    Perhaps times have changed since this conversation happened in the 70s. But I have a sense that the Church is NOT embarrassed about our polygamy, only those currently practicing it outside God’s blessing (those blasphemers!)

    So, I guess I’m saying that polygamy in the abstract does come up all the time, and I agree that we ought to know specifically how we feel about it.

  15. D. Fletcher says:

    Yes, Wright is an Evolutionary Psychologist (also a liberal who wrote for The New Republic).

    The Moral Animal is a fascinating read; I can’t recommend it enough.

    He says the humans are “slightly” polygamous, and will fall into this social order every few hundred years, in an evolutionary cycle. We are more monogamous than bonabos, obviously, but less than orangatans or field mice.

    If I may be so presumptious, here’s his paradigm:

    Imagine a society of 200 people, 100 men and 100 women. Each are given an attractiveness quotient, based on looks, health, intelligence, and economic data. The government has a rule saying that one may only marry one’s counterpart with the exact same quotient. Hence, #4 man, lawfirm partner can only marry #4 women, cosmetic firm CEO, and #40, shoe salesman, can only marry #40, secretary.

    Now the law is changed, allowing polygamy, but no divorce. Once married, always married.

    First off, no women will seek multiple partners (because it isn’t natural to do that — women look for quality, and men look for quantity).

    #4 Man offers #40 Woman a proposal of marriage as his second wife. She’ll have a better, easier life in a lovely home, and her children will have a leg up, being smarter and more attractive. All she has to do is “share” this husband with another woman.

    So #40 agrees, and all the women below her move “up” one degree on the ladder, marrying someone above their AQ.

    Leaving one man at the bottom without a spouse — and this man is the very least capable and well-off.

    This man probably decides to make war on the government, or at least, steal some children or rape some women.