Is there a right to polygamy and incest? Should a liberal state replace "marriage" with "registered domestic partnerships"?
If a state with liberal political and justificatory commitments extends benefits of various kinds to persons forming families, what qualifications may such a state place on the right to access to those benefits? I will make two assumptions for the purposes of this paper. The first is the political and justificatory terrain of some form of political or otherwise non-perfectionist liberalism. The assumption is that we are considering the resources and limitations of a community of persons who accept moral pluralism (if not a specific doctrine like the "burdens of judgment"), some priority for individual freedom, and the obligation to justify public coercion and exclusion in terms accessible and fair to all members of morally and culturally diverse society. The second is that it is justified for a liberal state to recognize some forms of domestic partnerships or families in the first place and extend further benefits to them such as tax credits or laws extending (or facilitating the extension of) medical or social insurance. It is, of course, possible to imagine the argument that the liberal state gets out of the marriage business by getting out of it entirely - by extending no recognition or positive rights to families whatsoever beyond negative non-interference rights. I am interested in the dilemma of a society broadly like existing liberal ones which is committed both to subsidizing families and also to justificatory neutrality (expressed in American constitutional legal terms as the requirement of providing a "rational basis" for unequal treatment). Given these assumptions, I believe that the most justifiable policy on liberal grounds is not the institution of "marriage" increasingly open to new constituent relationships but rather a status of "registered domestic partnership" which fulfills the social and moral aims behind subsidizing the family but is entirely neutral not only to the gender or even to the numbers of the partners, but also to the affective and emotional content of domestic life and the purposes behind contracting domestic partnerships. So is there a right to polygamy and incestuous marriage? There is not a specific right to either and thus there is no a priori reason why some restrictions or even prohibitions on them might not be justified, but the same is true for every specific act where a general right to the freedom exists. I argue in this paper, however, that the arguments compatible with public reason for prohibiting them outright, or even for excluding them from the permissible types of legally registered partnerships, are quite weak. I argue that objections to polygamy from (1) female autonomy, (2) damage to children, (3) fairness in the marital market, and (4) the unfair burdening of society are serious and worth refuting, but do not establish a victorious case against multi-member relationships. As to incest, there are two separate questions. The first is whether the new institution of "registered domestic partnerships" should be open to them. The answer to that, given the state's lack of interest in citizens' reasons for forming partnerships and in what they do whilst being registered in one, is clearly "yes." The second is whether, entirely separate from the issue of legal recognition of domestic partnership, the state has a legitimate rational interest in deterring, preventing or punishing consanguineous sexual relations between close blood relations (first-degree incest). Here, the objections to allowing such relations are those from (1) child abuse; (2) unfair burdening of society; and (3) the creation of bad lives. I argue that while rape and other forms of child abuse would be no more legal or tolerated than they are now, the concern about any form of weakening a society's legal and political resources to combat such abuses does indeed register on the justificatory scale, but does not prove that such first-degree incestuous sexual relations are inherently bad enough to warrant intervention. I then argue that the concern about unfairly burdening society with unhealthy persons is not as dangerously totalitarian as we might initially fear, but nor is it strong enough to justify an outright prohibition. Finally, I argue that a concern to dissuade persons from creating certain kinds of lives (children with extreme birth defects) is also not as dangerously totalitarian as we might initially fear, and in fact goes further towards explaining why we might have a legitimate interest in intervening. Nonetheless, I argue that the criminalization of such acts only make sense when they are indicators of other offenses, namely negligence or abuse, and it thus seems that the act of consanguineous reproduction is itself insufficient.
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