The Ethics of Polygamy


Many people assume that polygamy ought to be illegal. Even the United States Supreme Court (in a notorious nineteenth-century case involving Mormons, who fled populated areas to practice their religious beliefs in their frontier community) has upheld the constitutionality of laws prohibiting polygamy. Paul Gross notes in his article that true libertarians oppose antipolygamy laws, just as they do other nonvictim "crimes."

Of course, merely to advocate that consensual adult conduct (e.g., gambling, prostitution, etc.) should not be subject to criminal-law sanctions is not to be confused with either the advocacy of engaging in such conduct, or support for the moral propriety of such conduct.

Utilizing in his discussion well-known characters from Ayn Rand's magnum opus, ATLAS SHRUGGED, Gross offers a provocative analysis of the morality, and practical problems, of the polygamous marriage.

In many libertarian circles the novels of Roberts Heinlein and Rimmer have gained considerable popularity—partly because both authors take rationalist-libertarian ideas seriously, and partly because both are literary Romanticists who use solid plots and themes and portray life "as it might be and ought to be." And, just possibly, because some libertarians are intrigued by the idea that monogamy may not be the only morally proper system of marriage.

In PROPOSITION 31 [1] Robert Rimmer eloquently makes the point that antipolygamy laws create "crimes" without victims. This goes over very well with all true libertarians, who philosophically are in favor of legalizing polygamous marriages. Their reasoning is: just as people should be free to mess up their own lives with liquor or gambling or drugs, so they should be free to mess them up with polygamy.

Whether or not a person can rationally and morally choose to practice polygamy is another question, to date unanswered. To answer it is the purpose of this article.

POLYGAMY FEELS RIGHT Strangely enough, the principle which gives a moral and rational basis to polygamy was perhaps best stated by a staunch monogamist, Ayn Rand. In ATLAS SHRUGGED, she wrote:

"Francisco, I did love you—" [Dagny] said, and caught her breath, shocked, realizing that…this was not the tense she had wanted to use.

"But you do," [Francisco] said calmly, smiling. "You still love me—…I'm still what I was, and you'll always see it, and you'll always grant me the same response, even if there's a greater one that you grant to another man. No matter what you feel for him, it will not change what you feel for me, and it won't be treason to either, because it comes from the same root, it's the same payment in answer to the same values." [2]

Consider the implications of this: Emotions, including love and sexual desire, are the result of each man's basic value-premises. They are the automatic response he makes to particular values on the basis of their perceived position in his hierarchy of basic values. [3] (I distinguish between basic and particular values thusly: basic values are abstractions—qualities such as rationality, independence, self-esteem, etc. Particular values are the actual people or entities one values.)

But if one's responses to particular values are derived exclusively from abstract, basic values, then one will necessarily respond in the same way to all the particular values that one perceives to equally meet the terms of the abstraction, the basic value.

Thus there is no interference between what a man feels for one person and what he feels for another, because he responds to the same values of character in both of them. In short, it is psychologically possible for one person to be deeply and romantically in love with two others (or more) at the same time.

BUT… Once his basic values are chosen, a man's emotions are set. He has no further choice of which particular values he will emotionally respond to. From then on, his only alternative to responding to all particular examples of his basic values is repression, or some other mental sleight-of-hand, which will usually give him such a host of new problems that he may no longer notice the original one. [4] But assuming that a man is bright enough to face his desires openly, his real problem is to decide whether or not the desire he feels is worthy of achievement.

Emotions and desires are not in themselves reasons for engaging in the behavior that satisfies them, nor are they proof that it is in one's actual self-interest that they be satisfied. Emotions motivate behavior, but they are not tools of thought with which to judge the wisdom of the behavior they motivate. Only the faculty of reason can judge that.

Thus to determine whether or not polygamy is morally proper, it is necessary to look beyond the natural desire for it, to see if it is in fact desirable.

POLYGAMY, PRO AND CON Polygamy does have certain obvious advantages: In the event of the death of one spouse, it offers increased financial and emotional security—which is particularly advantageous for the elderly and for children. It offers opportunities for increased division of labor within the family and per capita reduction of expenses like homes, cars and home appliances. Best of all, polygamy offers a variety of intellectual, emotional and physical contacts, through which needs left unsatisfied by one spouse may be met by another.

On the less rosy side of the picture, polygamy entails increased opportunity for personality conflicts: all the squabbles, major and minor, that beset monogamous marriages will be multiplied. Social ostracism or hostility from monogamist parents, friends, employers—and Big Brother—will be a special handicap to pioneer polygamists. Even their own children may put pressure on the marriage, when taunted for the way their parents live. Polygamists who have been raised by monogamous parents are likely to find sharing their spouse uncomfortable: the biases learned in childhood are strong and pervasive. Polygamy also raises questions to which there are no ready-made, culturally tested answers: Who has the right to discipline which children? Who sleeps with whom? Who is responsible for those bills? Who takes out the garbage? (Oh my God!) These questions are hardly insoluble—but they must be solved. And solving them without experience or guidance won't be easy. [5]

But at worst all the problems mentioned above present only contextual obstacles to polygamy—not inherent moral problems. That is; for specific people in a specific social situation, one or more such problems may make polygamy unworkable—but the obstacles may be eliminated by such measures as moving to a more permissive neighborhood, or learning to recognize—and eliminate—one's psychological hang-ups. Such problems do not affect the basic morality—or immorality—of polygamy.

INHERENT PROBLEMS? The one essential quality that differentiates monogamy and polygamy is the exclusive intimacy granted to one's partner in monogamy. A polygamist may have the highest moral standards in his choice of marital partners—but his love is not the exclusive property of anyone.

Thus the one basic moral question which must be answered to determine the ethical standing of polygamy, per se, is this: Does one person's sharing of intellectual, emotional and sexual intimacy with two or more other people logically entail any conflict of interests among them?

I have heard two different arguments used to answer this question "yes," asserting that a conflict of interests is the necessary result of nonexclusive intimacy. And if polygamy does require a sacrifice of the interests of even one of the partners to it, then it must be considered immoral and unworthy of practice by any but altruists. For as George Bernard Shaw put it, "If you begin by sacrificing yourself to those you love, you will end by hating those to whom you have sacrificed yourself." [6]

THE PROBLEM OF POSSESSIVENESS While most libertarians realize that people do not belong to other people, even if they happen to be married, it is frighteningly easy to forget that in a society where most marriages are bound with a contract which contains an exclusive-love, exclusive- sex clause ("love, honor and cherish, forsaking all others…"). If we are legally and morally obliged to love and have sex with only one other person, the notion of the other as our personal property follows almost naturally.

There may be good reason for the exclusivity clauses, however; it may be that love is devalued and spoiled if one finds that one's spouse loves someone else more than oneself. Seeing that one's partner is capable of a greater response than one is able to arouse might easily have an ego-deflating effect leading to resentment and jealousy.

It might. But as far as I know, this has never been proven. And personally. I'm inclined to doubt it, though my only evidence is introspective: I can see in myself a need to be well-loved. This is a need to be perceived and valued—loved—for what I am. It is not a need to be "truly best-loved," nor is it a contest I need to win; it is a personal achievement that is not affected at all by what others may achieve. Even from the same woman.

I submit that the need to compete for emotions and to "win" love is an indication of personal insecurity, not an inherent need of all men. Only a neurotically insecure person needs to prove to himself and to others that he is worthy of his mate by beating away rivals and keeping them away. A man confident of his own value does not need or want to be "better" than anyone. He is content with the best he is capable of achieving, and does not resent other men who may be capable of greater achievements. And if he finds that there are other men to whom his spouse awards a greater response than he receives—he knows it does not detract from his own moral stature or from the response he has earned from her. And the value of the response he does receive from her will be no less to him.

But even though possessiveness and jealousy may not be inherent in romantic love, they will be barriers to polygamy for people low in self-esteem. If a person needs the ego-support of "winning" and "holding" a mate against all comers (neurotically hoping to achieve a sense of value by showing himself "better" than other men), then polygamy is clearly incompatible with his psychological needs. Polygamy is no life style for emotional second-handers who derive their self-esteem from comparisons and contests with others. Nor should one enter into a polygamous marriage with the idea that by so doing he will prove that he does have the self-esteem required to make it work. Self-esteem is the prerequisite—not the result—of polygamy.

THE PROBLEM OF SHARED INTIMACY[7] One of the most basic characteristics of a romantic relationship is intimacy between the partners—a reciprocal sharing of and identification with each other's thoughts and desires. This intimacy is the unique quality of romantic love—perceiving each other and knowing that one is perceived, and more: perceived as an embodiment of the other's greatest values. [8]

This mutual understanding does not come from magic (or "magnetism" or "chemistry"). There is no knowledge without learning—and attaining the mutual understanding of romantic intimacy takes time and effort. It requires that one wish to learn all that is most important to the other—to learn the basic qualities of their "soul." To achieve the desired sense of mutual psychological visibility and sanction, each partner must come to understand deeply the other's greatest values, and to identify with his achievement of them.

The problem such intimacy requirements pose for polygamy is: if one person deeply loves two others and both of them reciprocate this love, then each of the two peripheral partners will come to identify with the central partner's love for the other. The love the peripheral partners have for the central partner will cause them to become intimate with each other, so that each may fully understand the crucial value the other represents to the one they love.

This pressure for intimacy between co-spouses may be so great that the mere intellectual and emotional closeness of friendship cannot satisfy it; the intimacy possible in friendship is at best an order of magnitude less than that of a romantic sexual relationship. To achieve a satisfying degree of intimacy, then, the two peripheral partners may feel the need for sexual intimacy with each other. In other words, psychological pressure for bisexuality may be inherent in all romantic polygamous relationships.

I know of no evidence either to confirm or deny this thesis—but then, I don't know any polygamists, either. I mention this idea simply because it strikes me as logically plausible and worthy of study. In passing, I note that it does raise one further question: Even if bisexuality does result from polygamy—what's wrong with that?

Human sex roles and preferences are learned, not psychologically inherent. And while the complementarity of male and female sex organs probably makes heterosexuality most rewarding, I can think of no reason to consider homosexual relations intrinsically either immoral or neurotic. Is heterosexuality really so sacred?

IDEAL POLYGAMY Like many admirers of Ayn Rand, I sometimes amuse myself by speculating about the characters in her novels just as if they were real people. It's a lazy man's way to attack philosophical questions-but it's just more fun to think of "Dagny Taggart" than it is to think of "a rational woman of high ability, self-esteem and intelligence." Miss Rand's characters are so self-consistent and their motives so transparent that one can use and manipulate them without losing sight of the principles actually involved.

So to show the way polygamy might work for rational people in a rational society (discounting the possibly insurmountable problems discussed above), I present one of my favorite speculations: using the major characters of ATLAS SHRUGGED in the context of the society of Galt's Gulch, just suppose that Dagny Taggart chose to marry not only John Galt, but also Francisco d'Anconia and Hank Rearden—at the same time.

From the information Miss Rand has given us, we know that all four characters are intransigent rational egoists. And we know that Dagny loves Galt the most, but she does also love and sexually desire both other men. And all three men are deeply in love with her. So if Dagny marries the whole pack of them, who is hurt, whose interests are sacrificed—and/or who gains what?

It does make fun speculating. What I think would happen runs this away: Basically, all three men would receive the benefits of intellectual, sexual and emotional companionship from Dagny (and vice versa). However, the men would not receive these benefits equally. Since Dagny does love Galt the most, she would naturally—and properly—choose to spend most of her time with him. The key to making the marriage work is that no one is ever obliged to spend time with anyone else—there must be no "duty" to anyone but oneself.

This is probably a good rule for all marriages, but in polygamy nothing else will work: if one spouse may be coerced against his own preference by reminding him of "duties" or "obligations" to another—and if a spouse can think of himself as wronged when he doesn't get all the attention he wants—then resentment and jealousy will make short work of the marriage.

Robert Rimmer's notion of polygamy is that spouses should take equal turns with each other. I find this unrealistic unless all spouses are loved equally. Case in point, if Dagny were to be deprived of Galt's attentions two-thirds of the time, no matter how she felt about it, she would opt for monogamy again, fast.

Ayn Rand named the proper principle to follow in marriage when she wrote (in ANTHEM): "I shall love and cherish, but neither command nor obey. And we shall join hands when we wish, or walk alone when we so desire. For in the temple of the spirit each man is alone. Let each man keep his temple untouched and undefiled."[9]

So given that Dagny will prefer Galt most of the time, would she ever choose the company of one of the others? Yes. For two reasons: 1) She does love them-she wouldn't want to ignore them indefinitely. The time required to maintain an intimate relationship, once it has been solidly established, is not prohibitive. 2) Galt won't always be available or disposed to be with her. Even apart from time spent alone at work, people do need some time to themselves, for thought and rest.

And when Dagny does choose Hank or Francisco for sex or companionship, is Galt getting robbed? Not really. Because Dagny is not his property. And he knows it. He might feel a momentary, out-of-context disappointment when a desire of his is thwarted—but only momentarily, because he knows his desire is not in itself a claim on reality—or on Dagny. Further, he knows it is not in his own self-interest to try to monopolize her, for at least three reasons: (a) Because her right to choose to be with him (when he also wants her) entails her right to choose not to be with him—for any time, any reason she chooses. Allowing this state of affairs is to his interest because only when she has such freedom of choice is her choice of him meaningful, and the tribute he wants from her. (b) Her independent judgment and her right to act on it are precious to him—they are integral parts of what he values in her. It is not in his interest to try to destroy them, (c) He knows that she does love him. And he knows this love is not threatened or diminished by what she feels—or does—with another man. And knowing that she responds to the same values in the others that she responds to in him, he cannot wish for her to stop loving them, because she could not do so without ceasing to love him too. He sanctions the romantic relationship between her and the other men—sex and all—because it is no more than an honest expression of love it is proper for her to feel. And it costs him nothing. If he were to tell Dagny to break off with the others, for no better reason than his displeasure—she would resent it, and him.

In short, Galt could never want more from Dagny than she is willing to grant him. Anything more would be given him for his sake, not hers, and would be an act of altruism which he could not accept, being the man he is. It is not his nature or hers to make or accept sacrifices.

The same principles apply to Hank and Francisco: they might briefly feel out-of-context disappointment when Dagny chooses to be with Galt—but they recognize and approve her right to make that choice. They still love her and are confident of her love for them—as they should be. Since she is never under obligation to come to them, her uncoerced choice to do so is proof of her love beyond doubting.

However, as most of Dagny's free time will be wrapped up with Galt, if Hank or Francisco still feels lonely or sexually unsatisfied—either one of them is perfectly free to start a relationship with another woman, if he can find one who meets his standards. At worst, if they find no other women comparable to Dagny, and if their relationship with her does leave them partly unsatisfied—they are still better off with the polygamous marriage. Because in a strictly monogamous society under those conditions, they would have to be absolutely celibate and would have far less companionship of any sort with Dagny.

As for Dagny…In a monogamous marriage, she would be limited to one other adult with whom to satisfy her needs for sexual satisfaction, intimate communication and understanding. That's a lot even for a John Galt to give a woman of such depth and intelligence, all by himself. In polygamy, on the other hand, Dagny has three different men to communicate with, to care for and be cared for by. Interests one husband does not share with her may be shared with another. Needs not fulfilled by one man may be met by another. In short, polygamy provides her with greater opportunity to be more completely understood, appreciated and loved than she could hope for from any monogamous marriage.

BUT IN CONTEXT… This system of polygamy does have its attractive points—for uninhibited, scrupulously rational people—in a rational, libertarian civilization. Unfortunately, few people are really that free of insecurity or of the monogamous biases of their upbringing. Few real people have the rational selfishness not to make sacrifices for those they love—and not to accept them. Few real people have the undeviating respect for their spouse's freedom of choice and freedom of action which is absolutely necessary if polygamous marriages are to be kept from dissolving in jealousy and resentment.

And we are far indeed from having a rational, libertarian society. Friends and neighbors, parents and children, employers and fellow employees—not to mention the press and police—can and do exert a tremendous amount of pressure to break up polygamous marriages. It is just not possible for many people to even consider polygamy—it would simply destroy their lives: cost them their jobs, their prized friendships, their community standing—make their children and parents miserable, and maybe land them in jail.

Further, the psychological side-effects of polygamy are still largely unknown. Jealousy may be inevitable after all. Or the need for intimacy with one's co-spouse might drive one into a homosexual relationship. We may doubt the likelihood of such inherent problems—but we don't know.

After weighing the potential advantages of polygamy against the real disadvantages of trying to achieve it, my own conclusion is that a successful polygamous marriage—here and now—would require the same quality of soul as it takes to reach the fabled goals of Valhalla, Atlantis or Galt's Gulch. Sheer heroism. Or sheer damn-foolishness: the damn-foolishness with which Prometheus stole the fire of the gods. The heroism that laughs at costs and chances and goes straight ahead to achieve what is right and beautiful.

Paul L. Gross aspires to a career as a professional novelist. He is currently pursuing graduate studies in journalism at the University of Oregon in Eugene.


[1] Robert H. Rimmer, PROPOSITION 31 (1968).
[2] Ayn Rand, ATLAS SHRUGGED 713-14 (1957).
[3] Cf. Nathaniel Branden, THE PSYCHOLOGY OF SELF ESTEEM Chapter V, Section I "Emotions and Values" (1969).
[4] Cf. Branden, ibid.. Chapter V, Section III "Emotions and repression: the repression of negatives" and Section IV "Emotions and repression: the repression of positives."
[5] For a good discussion of the practical pros and cons of polygamy, see a paper by H. J. Levy "What About Group Marriage?"-available from FAMILY SYNERGY magazine for $1.00. (FAMILY SYNERGY, P.O. Box 30103, Terminal Annex, Los Angeles, CA 90030). [6] George Bernard Shaw, MAN AND SUPERMAN 244 (maxims for Revolutionists) (1903).
[7] This problem was suggested to me by Ronald E. Merrill (author of various articles in past issues of REASON), to whom. I acknowledge my intellectual debt-and offer my apologies for the butchery he will undoubtedly consider my presentation of his idea. [8] Cf. Branden, supra, Chapter XI "Self-Esteem and Romantic Love."
[9] Ayn Rand, ANTHEM 111 (1946).