In The Armchair


Posted in Armchair Ruminations by Armchair Guy on June 15, 2009


The issue of the legality of polygyny has some political overtones in India, with parties like the BJP calling for a uniform civil code and other parties like the Congress saying that Muslims should be allowed to marry multiple women.  I had a pretty interesting discussion recently with a friend.

The idealized question was: what’s fundamentally wrong with polygyny?  Can we give a rational (not religious) reason why it should be outlawed?  If both the men and the women are willing, why should the government (or indeed any religion) impose a ban on it?  Here’s the answer I came up with.

To try to give a reason, we fixed on some assumptions.  We have to clarify what we are trying to achieve and also what kind of society we are referring to.  We assume that:

  1. men and women have complete freedom to accept or refuse polygynous or any other marriage arrangements (though this is patently untrue in many societies)
  2. polyandry is not permitted
  3. in the population, the number of women is not greater than the number of men
  4. we measure individual satisfaction solely by the ability to find at least one partner (a person is satisfied if (s)he has a partner and unsatisfied if (s)he doesn’t have a partner)
    1. You could say that this is unrealistic because a man will be more satisfied if he has more wives.  I think the outcome of my arguments isn’t affected if, instead of a zero-one satisfaction based on having a single partner, we have a law of diminishing returns based on the number of partners.  That is, each additional wife adds less satisfaction than the previous one.  But for simplicity, I will argue based on the zero-one satisfaction function
    2. This is also unrealistic because satisfaction might be based on religious reasons rather than the ability to find a partner.  Simply declaring polygyny legal might give satisfaction to the entire population (or a large section of it) for religious reasons.  We assume that this type of satisfaction can be ignored, though it may be important in reality.
  5. the wealth of a man is the most important factor in determining how many wives he has
  6. the goal of any legislation is to increase the average satisfaction for the people

Under these assumptions, if polygyny is allowed, what will happen is that the wealthiest men will have a larger number of wives and the poorest men will be unable to find wives.  At a macro level, we might guess that the wealthiest 10% of the men might marry 40-50% of the women.  The poorest 10% of the men might only be able to marry maybe 1% of the women.  Since there are fewer women than men, all women will find a husband.

Countries where polygamy is legal

Countries where polygamy is legal

Since there are many more poor men than rich men, this means that there are many men without partners.  This leads to a low level of satisfaction in the population.

On the other hand, if polygyny is banned, there is a much larger pool of women available to the poorest 10% of the men, and a correspondingly larger number of men with wives.  So the level of satisfaction is much higher.


4 Responses

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  1. Mayuresh Gaikwad said, on July 15, 2009 at 2:27 pm

    The problem with this arguement is that one is sacrificing individual freedom for the goal of providing “satisfaction” to a larger pool of the society. Only larger satisfaction of the society cannot be a rational criterion for stating that polygyny is wrong. Zakir Naik argued in exactly the same fashion and said that polygyny should be legalized. (the arguement is that women live longer than men, men also are killed in wars, while doing hazardous jobs, etc, so women form a higher percentage of the population and should, therefore be allowed to marry a man who is already married!)

    The next step is to appropriate wealth from the rich and distribute it to the poor. By the law of marginal utility, every rupee taken away from the rich and given to the poor shall create more satisfaction in the society!

    In my opinion, both polygyny and polyandry should be allowed, there is absolutely no problem with that as long as all stakeholders in it provide their consent

    • Armchair Guy said, on July 15, 2009 at 3:26 pm

      Hi Mayuresh,

      I agree with the principle that collective needs are not always superior to individual freedoms. But sometimes they are. You have to decide on a case-by-case basis.

      Zakir Naik’s argument is the classical Islamic argument. It was valid in Mohammed’s time, when war was common and women were much more easily available than men. It doesn’t apply today in India; it is well known that there are far fewer women than men in almost all Indian states now.

      The example of redistribution of wealth also bears further examination. One might argue that national wealth is very far from being a zero-sum game, while the number of females per male doesn’t change. In other words, a rich industrialist deserves to have more money because he creates more wealth for the nation. He is not simply taking money from others; he is also making a positive contribution to the market.

      But it’s different in the case of wives. Having more wives doesn’t mean a person has proportionately more daughters ie. he’s not improving the female to male ratio. The male polygynist is simply taking women from others and making no positive contribution to the marriage “market”.

      A similar question might be asked of land distribution. Land reform (giving more rights over the land to tenants) is suggested so often precisely because it is a zero-sum game. If the big zamindars were somehow increasing the per-capita land holdings, there would be no reason to take land away from them.

      You may still be right — the “average satisfaction” criterion may not be a good one. But if so, I don’t think it’s because of an individual freedoms argument.

  2. Bekaar BokBok said, on July 21, 2009 at 5:15 pm

    I think polygamy is fine — if combined with polyandry and easy divorce laws.

    To make it better throw in gay marriage and some occasional sex changing, and we’ll have a far more interesting society than today’s boring singles-and-couples model 🙂

    • Armchair Guy said, on July 27, 2009 at 7:50 pm

      If polyandry is also allowed polygyny might be fine unless there are differential polygamy rates among men and women. It would be interesting to do a simulation to see what would actually happen. I tried looking up ways of simulating marriage graphs; it seems quite complicated and I have no way of knowing that my simulated marriage graph is in any way representative! Still, I’ll give it a shot if I get the time.

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