Wednesday, April 9, 2014

If casual sex is permissible, so is polygamy

If casual sex is permissible, so is premarital sex. Now, on a view on which premarital sex is permissible, marriage is a complex normative institution that removes the right to have sex with others and confers on the spouses various duties—such as of loving, cherishing, honoring and caring for—to the other, as well as makes for at least a ceteris paribus commitment that the couple will strive to have a sexual relationship. (If premarital sex is impermissible, then marriage has one more normative component: it confers a permission for sex.)

But there need not be anything morally wrong with x's promising y that she will not have sex with anyone other than y and z. Promises of loving, cherishing, honoring and caring for another are a great thing when taken really seriously, and are simply a higher and deeper form of the commitment that we all have anyway to our friends, and there seems nothing wrong with making such promises to multiple people, as long as there are implicit or explicit rules on how apparent conflicts of love and care are to be resolved (a problem that is already anyway present in the case of a monogamous marriage, since it can come up with respect to duties to spouse and to children, since these can be in tension). The only component possibly problematic in the normative complex is the ceteris paribus commitment to a sexual relationship with multiple people. But it is hard to see what is wrong with that if casual sex is permissible. If it would be permissible for Jane to have sex with Sid and Roman on alternate days, why would it not be permissible for her to make a ceteris paribus promise to do so? This is particularly unproblematic if one thinks of marriage as permissibly dissoluble, as most people who think casual sex is permissible do.

So it seems that if casual sex is permissible, then the normative complex of commitments that constitutes marriage can be permissibly modified to a plural form. One may ask whether the modified version would still count as a marriage. If not, then polygamy is misnamed: it's not a plural marriage (poly-gamy) but a plural marriage-like relationship. But either way, we get the conclusion: If casual sex is permissible, so is polygamy.

An interesting question is whether we can prove the stronger claim that if premarital sex is permissible, so is polygamy. Probably not, since someone could think that premarital sex is permissible only in the context of a relationship with an exclusive commitment to one person. But if one thinks that something weaker than an exclusive commitment is sufficient for permissibility, maybe love, or maybe mutual respect (Martha Nussbaum), then one may still get the conclusion that polygamy is permissible.

Of course, the right conclusion to draw is that casual sex is impermissible.

12 comments:

Tyler Adkins said...

What do you see as the problem with polygamy?

Joe Carter said...

"If causal sex is permissible, so is premarital sex"

Should that be ". . . so is polygamy"?

Alexander R Pruss said...

Tyler:

The usual problems: it doesn't do justice to the drive for totality at the heart of romantic love. That said, my closing sentence should be amended: It is more reasonable to conclude that casual sex is impermissible on the basis of the impermissibility of polygamy than to conclude to the permissibility of polygamy from the permissibility of casual sex.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Joe:

That's the conclusion, but at the outset I just wanted "so is premarital sex".

John Moore said...

It seems obvious that the definition of marriage is not fixed or universal. Every couple makes up their own rules to a certain extent. But the key element in every marriage is mutual consent by responsible adults.

I think the reason polygamy was outlawed in the U.S. is because we couldn't say with confidence that all the participants were doing it freely and with informed consent. In other words, a lot of the wives may have been forced into it by their families.

Gorod said...

I like the concept of "causal sex" on your first line... after all, I am an effect of precisely that cause.

But still, I think it's probably a typo and you meant "casual sex".

Alexander R Pruss said...

Gorod:

:-) Fixed

Mr Moore:

How about this simple definition of marriage: Marriage is that relationship which renders sexual relations permissible?

John Moore said...

Well, a lot of marriages have nothing to do with sex at all. It's really beautiful to see elderly couples who depend on each other and fit together so well. But even among younger couples here in Japan, half have sexless marriages.

Surely there's more to love than just sex. And I think marriage should be about love.

Alexander R Pruss said...

It's not that sex has to occur for there to be a marriage, but marriage is the sort of relationship that makes sex permissible. And of course a relationship that makes sex permissible has to be a relationship that makes the right kind of love obligatory.

Unknown said...

Quick question on the moral side of polygamy. Do you see polygamy as essentially a form of adultery? My reason for asking is that in Matthew 19 Jesus condemns remarriage after an illegitimate divorce as adultery, presumably on the grounds that the first marriage is still binding in the eyes of God. But if that's the case, the implication would seem to be that to marry another while married to one woman (I.e. To engage in polygamy) is adulterous. Would you agree?

Alexander R Pruss said...

I don't know what exactly to say about polygamy. In some cultures where it is practiced, the marriage contract can specify whether further marriages are allowed. If this is so specified, then further attempts at marriage are very much like adultery.
I don't know what to say in the case where the contract specifies no such objection.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I don't know what exactly to say about polygamy. In some cultures where it is practiced, the marriage contract can specify whether further marriages are allowed. If this is so specified, then further attempts at marriage are very much like adultery.
I don't know what to say in the case where the contract specifies no such objection.