is it right to ask
IS INCEST WRONG?
Moosa is blogger at Big
Think, writing "Against the New Taboo."
His archived blogs and essays can be found at The
Indelible Stamp and 3quarksdaily.com.
my time teaching students about making choices, especially moral
ones, based on sound reasoning and evidence, we often range
into areas many have not thoroughly considered. After all, everything
deserves scrutiny if we are to be fairly sure an idea (or belief)
is worth pursuing, defending and so on. If this idea is worth
our support, it will pass tests of reasonable scrutiny; if it
does not, it either means we must strengthen the idea by addressing
its failings or discard it altogether. For example, there is
no good reason to justify the oppression of gay people or women
– though there are plenty of reasons people do. Thus because
there are no good arguments to support oppressing gay people,
the idea should be discarded and indeed opposed where it arises.
In an effort to battle bad ideas, we should scrutinize (or at
least be willing to scrutinize) every view, belief and idea
is sacred in my class (indeed, we’ve debated the merits
of sanctity itself). We engage with questions that focus on
real-life matters, which tend to evoke knee-jerk reactions of
dismissal and/or disgust.
this in mind, my students asked whether incest or necrophilia
is wrong. Since in many countries, both of these are automatically
crimes, I think it’s important to consider what arguments
there are for considering these as automatically wrong. However,
just because something is right or wrong does not mean that
the law follows suit. Something can be legal and be wrong by
a moral standard, and vice versa. Here we are mainly considering
the morality of these two supposedly taboo types of sexual conduct.
Are they, by definition, wrong?
Britain recently, a young lady was ‘caught’ having
sex with her brother. Both siblings have blamed the other, citing
alcohol, desperation and so, on as motivations. This is not
of concern. What is of concern is that “the pair were
convicted of committing incest under section 1(1) of the Criminal
Law (Consolidation) (Scotland) Act 1995.” The brother
is 21, while his sister is 18. Now, according to the law, they
should be convicted.
laws are not perfect. What should matter to us, firstly, is
whether they’ve done something wrong.
when people hear incest, they assume rape or paedophilia, too.
But here it’s clear that neither rape nor paedophilia
are the problem in the recent case, since both siblings are
adults and both consented – in the same way any other
drunken couple implicitly consent, since neither partner was
forced into it.
they were not brother and sister; is the sex act wrong? Given
the implicit consent and their ages, it’s not clear that
this would be any different than other sexual engagements where,
after the fact, one or both (or all three) regret the act. However,
neither one feels the other was violated in the sense of calling
it rape. So that’s not the issue.
though, that even if one of these two was violated – whether
because s/he was too young or raped – then it would be
the violation through rape or paedophilia that made it wrong,
not the fact that they’re brother and sister.
we’re clear that what makes this wrong is solely the fact
that it’s incest – that is, the fact that they’re
brother and sister. But why does this make it wrong?
seems entirely based on mere repulsion. To try articulate why
incest should be viewed as inherently wrong is difficult and
there’s no clear argument. Here are a few arguments that
my students and others have offered.
the old, tired argument that “It’s not natural.”
This argument must, like cancers and earthquakes, disappear
from our planet. Cancers and earthquakes, by the way, are also
natural. The philosopher Julian Baggini has correctly said that
something being natural tells us no more about its moral property
than if you said something was red. Good and bad things are
natural, so not everything that is natural is good (or bad).
(Considering that humans are part of the natural world, I see
no reason for the distinction in most instances anyway. ‘Natural’
is not part of my vocabulary, since it seems largely useless).
people claim that incest creates ‘deformed’ children.
This is not entirely true. There is a greater risk of various
handicaps, true, due to a closer sharing of genetics. But there
is a danger in every form of child creation that the child might
be handicapped. There might be a difference in degree of risk
in incestuous sex acts but certainly not in kind. And, similarly,
if we continued with this logic, it seems that any person who
has an increased risk of having children with disabilities ought
not to reproduce (or should be condemned). The fact that we
don’t condemn or restrict people with a verified increased
risk of producing disabled children indicates that even this
reason isn’t solid.
this view doesn’t work either. Furthermore, this assumes
sex acts are solely for having children, whereas this is nonsense,
since we have effective contraceptives and other measures to
and oddly, people exclaim it’s just repugnant. We will
examine this more closer later. Nonetheless, why should the
sexual activities of two consenting adults concern us? This
is the same question we can ask those who are ‘against’
homosexuality (which is like being against having blue eyes).
It is none of our business what two consenting adults wish to
do (as long as no one else is harmed/involved without consent).
helped many things we now consider wrong to continue in the
past, such racial and sexual inequality. We can’t rely
on repugnance to justify our social policies, since our repugnance
is simply that: our own. Besides which, people are repulsed
by different things – and we cannot leave it up to the
whims of our emotions to implement policies and laws which could,
unnecessarily, cause suffering to other people, as is the case
with gay people, women, and indeed the current brother-and-sister
these arguments fail. But if these arguments are sound, then
this has a further implication.
makes the case unfortunate is the young lady in question has
been attacked and threatened by members of the public. Because
of her ‘disgusting’ acts, she has been forced to
flee her home. This seems to me unjustified. Violence is almost
never the right response. Furthermore, as the arguments above
have indicated, it’s not entirely clear what makes incest
wrong when we are dealing with consenting adults. If we agree
that consenting adults are allowed to have sex, then what makes
these two people different, besides sharing parents? Why should
sharing genetics make it a crime – or rather, something
so monstrous that this young lady deserves to be treated like
a diseased monster?
considering this case, we are not encouraging incest, nor do
we have to say we ‘like’ it. We don’t even
have to say it is good or right. However, incestuous acts certainly
need not be worth condemning a young lady over, nor does she
deserve to be treated like someone requiring therapy. There
is little justification for thinking she’s done something
occurring here is inflating outrage – I don’t think
there is such a thing as moral outrage – and personal
disgust at an act, which has not harmed anybody else, to the
point of having a lady’s life threatened for no good reason.
Whatever the political situation, if we respect an adult’s
right to engage freely in sexual acts with other consenting
adults, it’s not clear why we draw a line based on genetics.