From the journal Ethics: 'Is polygamy inherently unequal?'

May 3, 2012

Recent raids of religious compounds in Texas and British Columbia make clear that polygamy is, to say the least, frowned upon by western governments. But legal questions aside, can polygamy ever be morally permissible?

An article in the latest issue of the journal makes the case that traditional forms of are inherently unequal and therefore morally objectionable.

"In traditional polygamy, only one person may marry multiple . This central spouse divides him or herself among multiple spouses, but each peripheral spouse remains exclusively devoted to the central spouse," writes Gregg Strauss, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana. "With this hub-and-spoke structure, even a perfectly virtuous central spouse has more rights and fewer obligations than each peripheral spouse. Moreover, a central spouse has more control over the family than each peripheral spouse."

Significant modifications to traditional polygamy would be necessary, Strauss argues, to alleviate these inherent inequalities.

One potentially equalizing variation is polyfidelity, an arrangement in which each spouse marries every other spouse. This is unlike traditional polygamy, in which the peripheral spouses aren't married to each other, only to the central spouse. Polyfidelity eliminates the central spouse and allows equal sharing of the rights, responsibilities, and benefits of marriage by each spouse.

Another equalizer would be what Strauss terms "molecular marriage." In this arrangement, peripheral spouses are able to enter additional marriages. This permits any peripheral spouse to become a central spouse of another polygamous family, which again, breaks down the unequal hub-and-spoke structure.

There would of course be practical difficulties in these arrangements, and they would "significantly revise the traditional conception of polygamy and challenge our understanding of marriage," Strauss writes. However they would "at least eliminate the inequalities that will otherwise pervade polygamous marriages."

Explore further: Spouse may 'drive you to drink' but also can protect you from alcohol

More information: DOI: 10.1086/664754

Related Stories

Spouses often mirror each other's health habits

October 3, 2007

If one spouse exercises, quits smoking, stops drinking alcohol, receives a flu shot, or undergoes a cholesterol screening, the other spouse is more likely to do the same, according to a new study in Health Services Research.

Can U.S. law handle polygamy?

June 21, 2011

HBO's Big Love and TLC's reality-TV offering Sister Wives have thrust polygamy into popular culture in the United States. Estimates are that somewhere between 50,000-100,000 families in this country are currently risking ...

Recommended for you

The culinary habits of the Stonehenge builders

October 13, 2015

A team of archaeologists at the University of York have revealed new insights into cuisine choices and eating habits at Durrington Walls – a Late Neolithic monument and settlement site thought to be the residence for the ...

Ancient genome from Africa sequenced for the first time

October 8, 2015

The first ancient human genome from Africa to be sequenced has revealed that a wave of migration back into Africa from Western Eurasia around 3,000 years ago was up to twice as significant as previously thought, and affected ...

Mexican site yields new details of sacrifice of Spaniards

October 9, 2015

It was one of the worst defeats in one of history's most dramatic conquests: Only a year after Hernan Cortes landed in Mexico, hundreds of people in a Spanish-led convey were captured, sacrificed and apparently eaten.

From a very old skeleton, new insights on ancient migrations

October 9, 2015

Three years ago, a group of researchers found a cave in Ethiopia with a secret: it held the 4,500-year-old remains of a man, with his head resting on a rock pillow, his hands folded under his face, and stone flake tools surrounding ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

3 / 5 (4) May 03, 2012
Some historical perspective is needed on this. Until recently in human history, the primary victims of war were men. Since there is a more or less one to one ratio of men to women at birth, this caused an over abundance of women. This was historically solve by either polygamy, slavery or female celibacy (usually within a religious structure). Todays wars are much more egalitarian and murder men and women on an equal basis (more or less) so the rational for polygamy is not as strong. Nevertheless it can still serve an important role in social stability and should not be dismissed out of hand due to cultural bias masquerading as universal ethics. A progressive and democratic society must guarantee the human and civil rights of men and women but at the same time not overly regulate consensual relationships.
2.3 / 5 (3) May 03, 2012
Since 'marriage' is in the eye of the beholder, not society, who cares?

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.