Front Page Titles (by Subject) Chapter 6: Polygamy - The Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy
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Chapter 6: Polygamy - William Paley, The Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy 
The Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy, Foreword by D.L. Le Mahieu (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2002).
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The equality* in the number of males and females born into the world, intimates the intention of God, that one woman should be assigned to one man: for if to one man be allowed an exclusive right to five or more women, four or more men must be deprived of the exclusive possession of any; which could never be the order intended.
It seems also a significant indication of the divine will, that he at first created only one woman to one man. Had God intended polygamy for the species, it is probable he would have begun with it; especially as, by giving to Adam more wives than one, the multiplication of the human race would have proceeded with a quicker progress.
Polygamy not only violates the constitution of nature, and the apparent design of the Deity, but produces to the parties themselves, and to the public, the following bad effects: contests and jealousies amongst the wives of the same husband; distracted affections, or the loss of all affection, in the husband himself; a voluptuousness in the rich, which dissolves the vigour of their intellectual as well as active faculties, producing that indolence and imbecility both of mind and body, which have long characterised the nations of the East; the abasement of one half of the human species, who, in countries where polygamy obtains, are degraded into mere instruments of physical pleasure to the other half; neglect of children; and the manifold, and sometimes unnatural mischiefs, which arise from a scarcity of women. To compensate for these evils, polygamy does not offer a single advantage. In the article of population, which it has been thought to promote, the community gain nothing:* for the question is not, whether one man will have more children by five or more wives than by one; but whether these five wives would not bear the same or a greater number of children to five separate husbands. And as to the care of the children, when produced, and the sending of them into the world in situations in which they may be likely to form and bring up families of their own, upon which the increase and succession of the human species in a great degree depend; this is less provided for, and less practicable, where twenty or thirty children are to be supported by the attention and fortunes of one father, than if they were divided into five or six families, to each of which were assigned the industry and inheritance of two parents.
Whether simultaneous polygamy was permitted by the law of Moses, seems doubtful:* but whether permitted or not, it was certainly practised by the Jewish patriarchs, both before that law, and under it. The permission, if there were any, might be like that of divorce, “for the hardness of their heart,” in condescension to their established indulgences, rather than from the general rectitude or propriety of the thing itself. The state of manners in Judea had probably undergone a reformation in this respect before the time of Christ, for in the New Testament we meet with no trace or mention of any such practice being tolerated.
For which reason, and because it was likewise forbidden amongst the Greeks and Romans, we cannot expect to find any express law upon the subject in the Christian code. The words of Christ† (Matt. xix. 9.) may be construed by an easy implication to prohibit polygamy: for, if “whoever putteth away his wife, and marrieth another, committeth adultery,” he who marrieth another without putting away the first, is no less guilty of adultery: because the adultery does not consist in the repudiation of the first wife (for, however unjust or cruel that may be, it is not adultery), but in entering into a second marriage during the legal existence and obligation of the first. The several passages in Saint Paul’s writings, which speak of marriage, always suppose it to signify the union of one man with one woman. Upon this supposition he argues, Rom. vii. 1, 2, 3: “Know ye not, brethren (for I speak to them that know the law), how that the law hath dominion over a man, as long as he liveth? For the woman which hath an husband, is bound by the law to her husband so long as he liveth; but if the husband be dead, she is loosed from the law of her husband: so then, if while her husband liveth she be married to another man, she shall be called an adulteress.” When the same apostle permits marriage to his Corinthian converts (which, “for the present distress,” he judges to be inconvenient), he restrains the permission to the marriage of one husband with one wife: “It is good for a man not to touch a woman; nevertheless, to avoid fornication, let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband.”
The manners of different countries have varied in nothing more than in their domestic constitutions. Less polished and more luxurious nations have either not perceived the bad effects of polygamy, or, if they did perceive them, they who in such countries possessed the power of reforming the laws have been unwilling to resign their own gratifications. Polygamy is retained at this day among the Turks, and throughout every part of Asia, in which Christianity is not professed. In Christian countries, it is universally prohibited. In Sweden, it is punished with death. In England, besides the nullity of the second marriage, it subjects the offender to transportation, or imprisonment and branding, for the first offence, and to capital punishment for the second. And whatever may be said in behalf of polygamy when it is authorised by the law of the land, the marriage of a second wife during the life-time of the first, in countries where such a second marriage is void, must be ranked with the most dangerous and cruel of those frauds, by which a woman is cheated out of her fortune, her person, and her happiness.
The ancient Medes compelled their citizens, in one canton, to take seven wives; in another, each woman to receive five husbands: according as war had made, in one quarter of their country, an extraordinary havoc among the men, or the women had been carried away by an enemy from another. This regulation, so far as it was adapted to the proportion which subsisted between the number of males and females, was founded in the reason upon which the most approved nations of Europe proceed at present.
Caesar found amongst the inhabitants of this island a species of polygamy, if it may be so called, which was perfectly singular. Uxores, says he, habent deni duodenique inter se communes; et maxime fratres cum fratribus, parentesque cum liberis: sed si qui sint ex his nati, eorum habentur liberi, quo primum virgo quaeque deducta est.
[* ]This equality is not exact. The number of male infants exceeds that of females in the proportion of nineteen to eighteen, or thereabouts: which excess provides for the greater consumption of males by war, seafaring, and other dangerous or unhealthy occupations.
[* ]Nothing, I mean, compared with a state in which marriage is nearly universal. Where marriages are less general, and many women unfruitful from the want of husbands, polygamy might at first add a little to population; and but a little: for, as a variety of wives would be sought chiefly from temptations of voluptuousness, it would rather increase the demand for female beauty, than for the sex at large. And this little would soon be made less by many deductions. For, first, as none but the opulent can maintain a plurality of wives, where polygamy obtains, the rich indulge in it, while the rest take up with a vague and barren incontinency. And, secondly, women would grow less jealous of their virtue, when they had nothing for which to reserve it, but a chamber in the haram; when their chastity was no longer to be rewarded with the rights and happiness of a wife, as enjoyed under the marriage of one woman to one man. These considerations may be added to what is mentioned in the text, concerning the easy and early settlement of children in the world.
[* ]See Deut. xvii. 17; xxi. 15.
[† ]“I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery.”