Monday, March 25, 2013

Preventing Harm vs. Freedom

On Saturday I talked about changes to Canadian marriage law.  Initially I talked about more mainstream effects but the comments went lots of interesting places, particularly when we got to talking about polygamy. Some important definitions:

1.  Polygamy.  One person married to multiple other people.  Often confused with the following:

2.  Polygyny.  One man married to multiple women.

3.  Polyandry.  One woman married to multiple men.  Relatively rare.

I read the Canadian law against Polygamy and it is completely nuts.  In short if you are present (not even participating!) at a commitment ceremony for three people you are guilty of polygamy and subject to up to five years in jail.  Five years in jail for *witnessing* three people committing love to one another.  You can get the same for just having a sexual relationship with several people concurrently - singles who are playing the field beware!  It is abundantly clear that this law is completely idiotic, especially because it explicitly states that the prosecution does not have to prove you had sex, intended to have sex, or even how you intended to commit to one another.  All they have to do is disapprove of your life and toss you in jail.  Obviously the government doesn't go around actually doing any of this crap.  They don't even usually prosecute serious religious polygamists so normal people doing reasonable things are in no danger but having this sort of crazy garbage on the books is dangerous because somebody will eventually try to use it.

The law is nuts but is there an actual argument against polygamy?  The difficult part of this question revolves around the fact that if polygamy is allowed it isn't equally split into polygyny and polyandry.  There are no societal issues if a few people of comparable ages and social status decide to form some permanent MMF and FFM triads.  Nothing bad happens.  The problem is that when you allow polygamy in general you get tiny communities like Bountiful where powerful old men marry multiple teenage girls who are under extreme social pressure to accept.  In such situations there is much greater abuse, child suffering, and the giant swath of problems that crop up when young men realize their mating opportunities are nil.  You want to wreck your society?  Convince all the 16-30 year old males that they have no good way to improve their lives and constructively build a home and family.

I don't see any good way to prevent the kind of terrible problems that crop up in religious backwaters that promote these sorts of destructive social constructs.  What Canada does not need is an archaic, overly broad law that criminalizes all kinds of perfectly reasonable things.  We can vigorously enforce existing laws against child trafficking, kidnapping, and coercive marriages but small religious communities are often insular and difficult to police.  You can't even fix the problem by making it illegal for old folks to marry 16 year olds because their marriages aren't legal in the first place.  Basically we are stuck cleaning up the mess that the nutters and abusers create because we don't want to deny other people their freedom of religion.


  1. I'm not sure if this is an actual argument against polygamy, but consider the combinatorial complexity of the situation. Suppose A and B are married, and then A also marries C. Are B and C married, or related at all? If A dies without a will, who is their inheritor: B? C? Some convex combination?

    Or suppose A, B, C are all jointly married. What does divorce look like? Could B separate themself from A but continue to be married to C? Would B have custody rights to children of the marriage, regardless of the biology of those children?

    If you assume that marriage is always between men and women then that gives you one set of answers to these kinds of questions. But bipartite graphs are usually easy; it's when you go to the general case that things get complicated.

  2. Oh, polygamy is going to create all kinds of crazy situations for the family courts to figure out. But there are already a lot of crazy situations for family courts to figure out. Our current "relatively simple" situation is still chock full of crazy.

    But that's because the problems that family courts deal with are not caused by complexity, but by poor communication and a lack of strategies to constructively deal with emotions on the part of the people who end up in family court. People don't seem to understand that you never, never want to end up in a family court for any reason. Once you are there your fate is determined by a judge who *is* going to have biases against one or all parties.