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Mill on Polygamy

April 2, 2011

I find Mill and his theories on opinions and acting on opinions to be extremely thought-provoking. As I learned more about him during lecture and his beliefs on free speech, a controversial TV show popped into my head: Sister Wives. Sister Wives is a show that was first broadcasted last year on TLC that documents a not-so-average family. The show follows a family in Utah that consists of one husband, four wives, and sixteen children. The parents consider themselves polygamists. Technically there is a law preventing polygamy from occurring in the United States and nationally declaring it a felony—the Edmunds Act. Brown, the husband on Sister Wives, claims his polygamist arrangement is legal because he is married to only one woman and the other three marriages are simply “spiritual unions.” Regardless, many say that the series could cause the family to be vulnerable to criminal charges in the future. I then began to think—would Mill agree with the Edmunds Act and prosecuting polygamists? Many say America’s constitution is based loosely around many of Mill’s ideals, therefore would Mill see eye-to-eye with our decision to pass this law prohibiting multiple marriages?


It is important to first take a closer look of some of Mills arguments and see if there is any parallel between the issues brought up in the show Sister Wives. In chapter 3 of On Liberty, Mill states, “it is not by wearing down into uniformity all that is individual in themselves, but by cultivating it and calling it forth…that humans become a noble and beautiful object of contemplation.” Mill encourages diversity and individuality because he believes it cultivates society and lets us see positive traits in other people that we can then learn from. Forced conformity hinders our ability to learn from each other and therefore encourages mediocrity. Polygamists are unique and go against the typical status quo of society. Mill would argue that maybe we could learn a thing or two by observing the positive effects of polygamy on an individual and on society as a whole. Maybe, by observing these great effects, we can help others to turn into the “noble and beautiful object of contemplation” that Mill ultimately wants us to achieve through diversity.

Mill also believes that one can act on their opinions if it does not cause harm to others. “Harm” is hard to define because it is such a broad and general concept, but Mill tries to aid is in explaining this phenomenon. The way I take it, harm is any unwanted physical or emotional damage to others. It is lasting and the multiple definitions of harm don’t change depending on taste—it should be the same for everyone. Polygamy doesn’t harm anyone. Yes, some people may strongly disagree with the idea, but it is definitely not causing any long-lasting emotional harm. Whether one disagrees with polygamy or not, they are not being “harmed” in Mill’s mind.

In chapter 4 of On Liberty, Mills states, “when, by conduct of this sort, a person is led to violate a distinct and assignable obligation to any other person or persons, the case is taken out of the self-regarding class, and becomes amenable to moral disapprobation.” Mill believes that one of the only limits on free speech is that it should not break any prior obligation. Similar to harm, the word obligation can have many interpretations. In terms of polygamy, I believe obligation refers to a family obligation of supporting one’s family and ensuring the children have a normal, equal-opportunity upbringing. This ideal is upheld when watching the short clip of Sister Wives. The kids appear that they love the lifestyle they are leading—one full of half sisters and four mothers. They are given a roof above their head, healthy food, and loving support from their family. One mother quotes, “I hope that our kids do what they want to do in their life, whether it’s our lifestyle, or to have no religion at all. As long as they are strong and firm in what they want to do, and what they want to believe.” This illustrates that the parents are extremely supportive of their children and uphold the obligation of letting them grow and prosper into who they want to be. A separate mom also says, “if we raise productive, contributing members of society who are moral and ethical, that’s our final goal.” This demonstrates that the parents are concerned with maintaining their obligation of raising children who will ultimately benefit society and make it better as a whole.

By taking a look at Mill’s take on opinions in relation to polygamy, it is easy to say he would support the lifestyle. Polygamy not only goes hand in hand with what he believes actions should do for the community, it also does not break any of the limits Mill has for specific rights. Although Mill would say that people have the right to voice their opinions against polygamy because there is potential truth in all opinions and there is something to be learned from every last one, he would ultimately agree that no government intervention should be taken concerning polygamists.

  1. jasonkraman permalink
    April 3, 2011 12:58 PM

    I agree that in this case Mill would allow polygamy. This family, as you pointed out, seems to be healthy and functional, no “harm” seems to be being done. Therefore, in no way would Mill support government intervention into the practice. However, I believe this look at polygamy is too narrow and one must survey the bigger picture.

    There have been numerous instances of abuse by polygamist sects. As in the case of Warren Jeffries, there have been reports of rape and forced marriage. See Link-—-

    So, due to this evidence I believe Mill would support the government intervention due to the extensive harm suffered by young women in relation to polygamy. Obviously there are many cases of healthy and caring polygamist families but we can not look past the ones that are abusive and unhealthy.

  2. Anna Gwiazdowski permalink
    April 3, 2011 3:11 PM

    I also agree with Jason. Although this instant of polygamy appears to not be harmful, there are many more instances which render the law, and Mill would support the polygamist ban because of these situations. As Jason mentioned, there is the incident with Warren Jeffs, who was accused of raping young girls and marrying many underage brides to significantly older men. Instances like those not only invoke emotional harm, but physical harm to. In regards to that, I believe Mill would favor the law banning polygamist marriages.

  3. Bri Kovan permalink
    April 3, 2011 6:35 PM

    I disagree with the two posts above. I think MIll would allow polygamy for all of the points mentioned in the original post, but would most definitely not be in favor of the cruel extent of it (as shown in the Warren Jeffs case). In this sense, the situations need to be evaluated separately. There are many cases of abuse in “normal” marriages, yet we don’t all want to make those illegal.

  4. Zack Orsini permalink
    April 3, 2011 8:45 PM


    In your above post, you state the following:

    “By taking a look at Mill’s take on opinions in relation to polygamy, it is easy to say he would support the lifestyle.”

    Really? What about the time Mill says, “No one has a deeper disapprobation than I have of this Mormon institution [polygamy] . . . . [F]ar from being in any way countenanced by the principle of liberty, it is a direct infraction of that principle, being a mere rivetting of the chains of one half of the community [women], and an emancipation of the other from reciprocity of obligation towards them”? (Wootton 639) In what way is he “supporting the lifestyle”?

    If you meant to say that Mill would want to allow polygamists (under the law) to continue their practice (as long as “the women concerned in it” participate in it voluntarily [Wootton 639]), I have no quarrel with you there. He clearly says on page 639 that he was “not aware that any community has a right to force another to be civilized.”

    Works Cited:

    Wootton, David, ed. Modern Political Thought: Readings from Machiavelli to Nietzsche. 2nd ed. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2008.

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