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The short answer: none—that is, if all that’s required for a morally permissible sexual relationship is that it involve: (1) adult partners; (2) who are mentally competent; and (3) who fully consent to the relationship (for good measure, we could even add that the partners have a sufficient emotional bond and that their sexual acts serve to express that bond).

This is increasingly becoming the standard, of course, for society’s determination of whether a sexual relationship is permissible. It’s for this reason that the lawyer representing the Columbia University Professor, David Epstein, accused of a three-year incestuous relationship with his adult daughter, can sincerely ask, “It’s OK for homosexuals to do whatever they want in their own home—how is this so different?” As such, we should not be surprise that Switzerland is considering legalizing consensual incest between siblings as well as parents and their adult children.  Switzerland is not blazing any trails, however, for, according to one study, incest is already legal in China, France, Israel, the Ivory Coast, the Netherlands, Russia, Spain and Turkey (the article citing this study did not clarify, however, whether it’s legal because there’s never been a law against it, or whether an existing law forbidding incest was overturned).

Unfortunately, many who oppose incest, morally, legally or both, reveal that they too accept the fundamental premise that a sexual relationship need only be a consensual relationship between two competent adults. For they object to incest not by denying this premise, but by arguing that such relationships are inherently coercive. Thus, instead of objecting to incest by saying more is required for a morally legitimate sexual relationship, they merely argue that such relationships cannot be fully consensual. Given that it’s not immediately obvious that incest between competent, consenting adults is inherently coercive, absent an admission by one of the persons to that effect, this argument doesn’t appear to have much promise in preventing the legalization of incest.

Of course, some may add that there is also the social taboo and “ick factor,” which points to the fact that incest is something we just know is wrong deep down in our gut. Assuming our sensibilities are right, and I think along with most of our society that they are, that means we must reject the assumption that sex is ok so long as it’s between competent, consenting adults. For, even a mediocre student of logic knows that this assumption can’t be right if it leads to the absurd result that incest is permissible. But note: if we reject this assumption homosexual sex can’t be moral either, not to mention pre-marital heterosexual sex.

While I’d be glad to end the argument here, the problem is we can’t rely on social taboo or the “ick factor” regarding incest any more than we might have with respect to homosexual sex. As we’ve seen with the change in social attitudes toward homosexual unions, our sensibilities can be easily eroded through social pressures toward tolerance, acceptance and understanding, not to mention steady media bombardment. Perhaps it won’t be long before NPR’s daily dose of stories about the suffering and heroism of homosexuals will turn to similar stories about the suffering that a father and his daughter, a mother and her son, or a brother and his sister are experiencing because society refuses to accept that their erotic love for each other is legitimate, if not perhaps even beautiful. Thus, unless we’re ready to embrace what awaits us at the end of the road, a road down which we are already heading with increasing speed, we need to articulate and hold fast to the moral foundation that explains the social taboo against incest and justifies our gut reaction that it’s repugnant (an effort I will make in a second post).

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13 replies to this post
  1. And finally we arrive at the crux of the matter.

    Your argument is, of course, the irreducible truth regarding the "liberation" of the culture. When all things are permitted, nothing matters. Nothing.

    If you've not already read it, may I recommend J. Budziszewski's The Revenge of Conscience, wherein your point is expanded unarguably.

    Thank you for this piece.

  2. If marriage is a utility for the convenience of adults, there is no argument against homosexual marriage, incest, polygamy, polyandry, or what have you. But then, neither is there a state interest in the subject; consenting adults can contract to do whatever they wish. But if marriage is the means by which we propagate the race of men and socialize our children, then society does have an interest, one that may be, and should be, expressed in law.

    The odd thing is that since we have dropped all laws against homosexual acts, there is really no bar to homosexuals living in whatever relations they like. But they want to call it marriage. Part of this is because certain benefits are no distributed on the assumption of spousal relations (insurance, survivor's benefits, etc.) However, all of these things were put in place assuming a "traditional" marriage that is no longer the standard, even among heterosexual couples.

  3. Unfortunately, this article misses a key distinction, on which the state may regulate and forbid incest and not homosexual relationships: children.

    Incestuous relationships between people of different sexes can produce children, who will be deformed and thus a burden upon society. It is within the interest of the state to regulate such activity.

    Homosexual relationships, by definition, do not create children. This distinction does leave the door open to incest between brothers or between sisters, but it seems to me that the societal objection to such relationships would be enough to ensure they would not happen very often. At times, it is acceptable to rely of social pressure.

  4. Thanks, Anonymous, for the remarks. You have anticipated what my forthcoming second post on this issue will address. My limited point in this post was simply to point out that if you accept that sex is moral so long as it's between competent, consenting adults (the view that justifies homosexual sex), there's no reason on that basis alone why incest shouldn't also be moral. That's why it's not surprising that the individuals/countries referenced in the post are not seeing any difference between the two.

    As a preview to my next post, however, I'll go ahead and point out that the current state of our reproductive technology may very well make the possibility of deformed children irrelevant. Further, I agree that children are important to the issue, but, as I'll explain in my second post, children also provide the state with an interest in regulating homosexual relationships (see, "What is Marriage?" on this blog). Also, I was not addressing the legal question in this post, only the moral one. Finally, regarding social pressure, I hope it's sufficient, but it did not prove so for homosexuality. As such, I don't think its unreasonable to articulate the reasons why incest is wrong.

  5. Incest indeed, good Mister Creech! But why stop there when bestiality is truly going (pardon the phrase) whole hog? Considering that most popular art is puerile, sensational stuff chiefly designed to shock, and that we are commanded by our political masters to regard all consensual sex as equal, I have long waited for the logical next step down – a heavy-metal rock band promoting bestiality. Gary and the Goats. Paul and the Ponies. The Barnyard Boys. The bass-player can thrum away with a sheep's hind-legs stuffed into his tall boots to keep it (sorry, her) from wandering away to graze on the speaker-cables. I even have a rock classic off which they could record a cover version – "Only Ewe." O tempora, o mores!

    Stephen Masty

  6. Mr. Masty — thanks for the tremendously good laugh!!!! It has provided me with many a chuckled throughout the day — especially, the "sheep's leg in the boot" image, which I can't get out of my head and I'm sure crosses some forbidden line or other — but is absolutely hilarious. Thanks for the comment!

  7. The current state of our reproductive technology is of benefit? No? Or are you suggesting that we should limit such technology, as it "goes against nature"?

    I think that in vitro fertilization is an answer for those that cannot have children naturally. I think scientific research is something to further, not deter. It seems that traditionalists want to hold the reigns in on different approaches to birth, birth control and life. This was the outcry against stem cell research, though it seemed promising.

    Tribal cultures share wives, as well as "marry" their children. Such cultures are prone toward tribal attitudes about such relationships, which are about power and hierarchal structuring. Our society believes in the equality of individuals before the law. Therefore, consent is a big part of how our society defines and understands relationships.

    Incest should be banned by society because of the consequences that Anon points out. Most healthy people in the West do not choose their children as partners nor do brothers and sisters marry. Many religious sects and various cults have approved of such relationships. Just as in tribal societies, such behavior is a show of power and control.

  8. I think there is a distinction still not made here. Homosexuality is a sexual orientation; as far as current official knowledge goes, it's a born trait in most homossexuals — more or less like being left-handed. And it's also a relatively small minority characteristic in the general human pool. If one is homosexual, if his brain is "wired" this way, he will not change (despite some "cures" cherished by evangelicals, so far it's quack science).

    Incest, on the other hand, is a practice, not a trait. It's not inherent. In culture that forbid it, it's rare and clandestine (and usually practiced in a unequal power context: father/child daughter, e.g.), and, if there is a pregnancy, very risky. In most known cases, traumatizing too. It's more like rape (and often it *is* rape) — a crime.

    I understand that you are worried about the moral barriers, not in criminology, but I think it's important to verify the empirical results here. So far, clandestinity has probably done more for the enduring of a libertine lifestyle in the gay community than several other factors. Gays are still rejected, mistreated and delegitimized in their very being in several social instances, including some churches. It's hard to imagine how the maintenance of such discrimination, even in the State level by the "marriage"/civil union,
    could help them to better integrate in society or to better the current sexual mores. After all, the will not disappear just because some straight people, even if it's a majority (and it seems that's not the case), don't know what to do about them.

    Instead of incest, maybe interracial marriage could offer a better comparison. It was a taboo, too, and words like "degenerescence", "unnatural" etc. were used by its opposers, too. Well, it was legalithe USA survived (and, by the way, as a Brazilian, I can tell you we didn't have half the philosophical/ideological dilemmas Americans had with the matter — and that was a very good thing).

    Of course, I think in secular terms. It seems to me that most of the cosiderations on gay marriage are forms of rationalizing *religious* positions, not exactly the kind of discussion where pragmatic positions are easily accepted. But even this kind of standpoint change with time — see the long way women rights activists had to walk till effective civil equality, despite apocalyptic aprehensions about the "end of family". Of course, there were costs we as a society have not completely gotten over — but I doubt most of women today are jealous of their grandmothers' status.

    I apologize in advance for some error, it's rare for me to write in English. But I like this blog and would like to dare some comments now and then.

    Best regards,
    Rio de Janeiro.

  9. You're right that the distinction (between homosexuality as a born trait v other sexual acts) is not made here, but that's intentional because I think it's irrelevant. Your mention of the distinction implies that any activity that derives from a born trait is morally permissible. On those grounds incest, adultery, fornication, etc. (all between people of different genders) are morally permissible because such behavior is traceable to one's heterosexual desires. Thus, if there are any moral limitations on sexual behavior at all, the fact that the behavior in question is traceable to a born trait must be irrelevant.

    Besides, the assumption that a born trait makes the behavior based on that trait permissible assumes a determinism that makes morality irrelevant. If it's moral to act on one's homosexual impulses merely because one has the impulses — i.e. they can't help it — you've effectively eliminated the capacity for a free, moral choice. Morality as a whole would, as a consequence, be out the window. If that's what your suggesting, then that's another argument altogether. My argument assumes there is a moral order and that we can know it.

    Regarding the idea that "considerations of gay marriage are forms of rationalizing "religious" positions, fails to account for the fact that my arguments here or in my post "What is Marriage?" do not rely on religious assumptions. The fact that rational arguments can be made that lead to the same conclusion held by various religions would seems to demonstrate the truth of the positions held by these religions. Unless, of course, one starts from the the unexamined premise that if a religion thinks it's true it must, ipso facto, be false.

  10. Most of the comments are not based on personal experience. I however have been in a loving and creative “marriage” with a half sibling for almost 20 years. We did not grow up together, met in later life and I find it distressing that so many people make black and white judgements about a phenomenon that is rare but not necessarily “depraved” and “immoral”. It’s the sexual relationship that freaks people out but in a solidly good marriage there are many other aspects of life together that matter-love, devotion, companionship, sharing work interests and hobbies, building a home and travel. If there are no children nor harm involved why should there be such a hue and cry. As I see it there’s not enough love in the world.

  11. Social taboos exist for a reason – to organize civil societies – to communicate what is acceptable and what isn’t. Morality of religion has never prevented cannibalism, or beastiality because it already solved that problem, it thought. Child molestation, abuse, and pedophia were once solved also for civil society. That is why it is hidden crime, and why government has little tolerance for those crimes, once discovered, as they should.

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