Incest – A Rational Look

DISCLAIMER: This is a long post, and it is a serious discussion of a serious moral topic. If you do not have the time or the demeanour to read the entire thing with at least some semblance of an open mind I highly recommend you do not read any further. Incest is a topic which can be very divisive and it seemingly turns rational people into irrational jerks rather quickly, so again, if you are not interested in the ethical implications of incest I recommend you do not read any further.

There has been a lot of discussion and controversy over the recent case of David Epstein being charged with incest for his sexual relationship with his 24-year old daughter.

This article from Slate talks about the issue of incest viewed through the lens of moral progress in regards to homosexuality. It makes a lot of good points but again it falls into the trap of nearly every discussion I have ever seen of this topic; it says “but incest is wrong.” Even if I agreed with every single argument (and I agree with most of them) in the article it is highly illogical (based on the arguments put forth in the article) and just plain incorrect to say that incest is wrong. It may be inadvisable, it may be off-putting, it may be detrimental to a lot of relationships but this by no means implies that it is wrong.

The author says that they wouldn’t prosecute David Epstein and they also say that they wouldn’t want police poking around in other people’s sex lives (even in the case of consensual, of-age incest) so by all meaningful tokens of “wrong” incest is merely subjectively repugnant to the author, but the claim that it is objectively wrong, like murder or theft etc… is patently false and I’m frankly surprised given the rational arguments put forth by the author throughout the article.

The common complaints with incest are that it results in genetic flaws and that it is a ‘corruption’ of the typical familial relationship. First of all regarding genetic issues, the primary reason that incest can result in higher rates of genetic deformity etc… is due to the recessive genes in one’s gene pool potentially finding their mates in a related person’s genes and thereby becoming active in resulting offspring. Now if you inbreed up to a certain point you actually move past a point where genetic issues crop up, having selected them out, and this is no longer an issue, so it’s not a permanent impediment to successful breeding. Now from a strictly Darwinian point of view, while there may be genetic flaws in the next, let’s say, 10 generations, after the 11th generation, you could end up with a ‘superior’ stock (and by superior we are talking strictly in the Darwinian sense of superior survival ability) which would mean that it could potentially be a successful evolutionary strategy (albeit a mindless and random one determined only by normal selection factors). With this point of view one can say that incest, given the right circumstances could in fact be quite a good way to procreate in order to survive most effectively.

Moving away from strictly Darwinian interpretations of this issue, it must be pointed out that there are lots of other factors which increase the risk of genetic flaws in offspring such as age and a common risk for Down syndrome is prevalent in women nearing the age of menopause, would it therefore be reasonable to suggest that these women engaging in procreative intercourse would be wrong…? I think you would not only have a hard case to make to try to persuade anyone of that, but you would also walking down a rather dark corridor from the point of view of logic and morality. Basing the morality of an action based on the probability of it resulting in a potentially detrimental situation is wishy-washy at best and downright intellectually dishonest at worst. Furthermore, as the author in the article mentions, should one of the partners involved be either of the same sex or be sterile, the issue of genetic flaws goes away and there is no issue. Yet the author still claims later on that “incest is wrong.”

There are, for somewhat obviously evolutionary reasons, natural instincts in humans that incest is something to be avoided and it’s clear genetic flaws may have played a part in this instinct becoming engrained in the human mind but since we are, after all, human we can rise above our evolutionary programming and base our morality and social interactions on reason, not knee-jerk reactions. This knee-jerk reaction is generally what leads even intelligent, refined thinkers to jump on the “it’s just wrong” bandwagon, and it’s a common complaint I have when discussing the issue.

So, as a final comment on the issue of genetics, even if an increased risk is a factor in pairs looking to actively procreate, which will not be every case, genetic screening and modern medical advances mean that any committed pair looking to bring a healthy child into the world could do so safely with little risk to the child or its potential wellbeing. At least with no risk greater than that which every single human birth is subject to in this barely hospitable world of ours.

Now the other primary concern with incest is that of familial relationships. In the case of the David Epstein matter, many people would like to draw the proverbial line in the sand by saying that a parent never stops being a parent and as such for this relationship to turn romantic would either be an abuse of this relationship or a corruption of it. First of all, from the eyes of the law, a parent ceases to be a parent, except in cases of power of attorney and other similar matters, when the dependent in question reaches the age of maturity, whether that’s 18 or 21 in the given jurisdiction. Now whether this is proper or not, the point is once both parties are at a point where they can independently and with full autonomy make decisions for themselves and are accountable unto themselves, the interactions they decide to engage in, once consensual and causing no harm to either parties or anyone else, are totally their own matter. It is not for society or for the courts to decide what they are allowed to do (based on that very narrow set of criteria to which everyone is held)

It may well be the case that the overwhelming majority of cases of of-age, consensual incest may, as mentioned in the article, result in a “crossing of the line” akin to that experienced by a lot of people with opposite sex friendships where attraction is not necessarily mutual or advisable. However, it is not the case that we can say, even if it could be conclusively proven that 99.9999999% of these will, without doubt, result in such a situation, that this would be grounds for judging such interactions wrong or illegal or immoral. Something being inadvisable is wholly distinct from it being immoral and destructive to the cohesion of society as a whole. As the author says the incest taboo is strong enough to withstand the odd “reckless fool” so why are we condemning it as wrong, something which is cohesively used throughout our modern societies to signify that which, if it were to become common practice, would result in the destabilisation of our social order and create widespread discontent?

It is not correct to say that since some incestuous relationships are based on a corruption of the power dynamic of a traditional parent-child relationship (to use specifically the current example) that therefore all are such and are therefore tantamount to sexual and psychological abuse. Many commentators have said that while they are liberal enough to say “okay what you consenting adults do in your own homes is entirely your business” they worry that it could be the case that an element of ‘grooming’ would occur whereby a parent would not be overtly romantic or sexual with their child during maturation but such interactions would likewise not be discouraged and so by manipulation and abuse of their power as parent they would get to a stage where they could engage in of-age consenting sex with their child. While this is a legitimate concern, this does not speak to the moral position of incest, for it is the abuse of one’s position as a parent and the psychological effects upon the child that are at issue. This is clear if you look at a case of sibling incest, brother/sister etc… as compared with parent/child, the key factor that everyone will agree on is the fact that as a parent one has an inherent power over their child and with that an inherent responsibility to be, well, responsible with that power. Controlling for the incest factor (as is reasonable in the case of logical and mathematical determinations) we find that the primary issue is that of the power dynamic and as with all parent/child interactions (nevermind specifically sexual ones) the prohibition against abuse of that power dynamic is clear and unremitting.

However, once one moves above the age of dependent status and becomes an autonomous adult, that dynamic changes and is not a parent/child power dynamic but a person/person dynamic. Yes, they may be your parent but you now have specific rights that allow you to disagree with them and not allow them to force their opinions upon you, just like everyone else. In the case of adults, sexual and psychological abuse is still abuse whether it comes from a stranger or a family member and the only reason family based abuse may be more harshly punished and/or scrutinised would be because of the inherent power dynamics that could potentially still be in play.

I think, maybe, the best way to illustrate just how meaningless the actual sexual intercourse part is to this discussion, let’s take a few examples and isolate just where the issue(s) might arise. A) A brother and a sister get drunk at a party and after everyone leaves they somehow end up in bed together B) A father gets his 18 year old daughter drunk and convinces her to have sex with him (while remaining sober himself) C) A brother and a sister separated at birth meet randomly many, many years later at a club and have a sexual encounter unaware of their relatedness D) A father and his 24 year old daughter have an intimate romantic relationship over a year E) A father and a daughter who never knew the other existed meet up years later at a club and have a sexual encounter unaware of their relatedness.

Now, ignoring the improbability of some of these situations (for they are far from impossible in todays modern world) let’s examine the potential issues.

In A) we see a somewhat accidental encounter between siblings, no abuse of power, no psychological coercion etc… so we could brush it off as a drunken indiscretion. They don’t intend on having offspring so there’s no issue of genetic flaws, all in all a standard case of two consenting adults enjoying consensual interactions. (In the case of drunken encounters one can claim that there may have been coercion or inhibitions were lowered or consent is an issue, since this is my example I will say straight out, this should be considered a genuine case of sexual curiosity and did not result in a breakdown of the relationship the next morning merely a “let’s not mention this” event that was quickly forgotten)

In B) we see a someone taking advantage both of their position as the parent and taking advantage of lowered inhibitions and possible involuntary consent of the other party. It’s clear that the breach here is of the position of power and responsibility as a parent. It’s made worse by the fact that that power is abused so as to sexually abuse the other party, but it must be made plain that is not because they are related that is reprehensible, it is the parent’s position as parent/guardian/etc… Were it be a father-in-law the breach would be just as grave, highlighting the fact that genetic relation is not the overriding factor.

In C) we again see consenting adults (for the purposes of this discussion and clarity of the facts, let’s assume that neither party became intoxicated at said club) engaging in safe, consenting fun. Neither is intending on bringing a child into the world with potential genetic issues and neither is abusing any kind of pre-existing relationship or power dynamic. A reasonable person would conclude that this is not wrong or reprehensible or disgusting, simply an accident of circumstances.

In D) we see the case (or at least a similar situation) to that of David Epstein and his daughter. In this case the parties are both adult and consenting before the relationship started and so we have to do a little more investigation to see where there may be some possible issues. Did they only begin a romantic relationship after they were both of-age? If not, then the father is guilty of an abuse of his position as parent, even if the daughter was the one who initiated any advances – and that is an important point because below the age of consent the parent is truly responsible and to be held accountable for that position.
If things only became romantic after both were of-age then the only potential issue we could foresee would be if they were both fertile and potentially wanted to procreate. However, as mentioned before they could quite easily mitigate any potential risk to the resulting child by taking advantage of modern medicine and genetics.

Finally, in E) we see the same situation as with C) since there is no recognition of the parent/child states this kind of power dynamic is not applicable and both can be considered simply as consenting adults. If they went ahead to have a relationship and even got pregnant then due diligence on the part of prospective parents would suffice to isolate and potentially prevent any potential genetic defects. These steps would invariably reveal the true relatedness of the pair, but that’s merely an interesting coincidence.

As a final point, everyone who chimes in on the discussion seems to converge on the claim that a parent and a child can never have an okay romantic/sexual relationship because of the dynamic, but it’s worth noting that replacing a blood parent with a legal parent does not diminish the role of responsibility and this highlights the crucial flaw in the argument that incest is “just wrong.” If you are consenting adults and you are harming no one, your actions are your own, whether sexual in nature or not. If your parent has coerced you into these actions, or if your partner has coerced you into these actions or if your sibling has coerced you into these actions or if a stranger has coerced you into these actions then you are not consenting of your own free will and as such it is immaterial (for the purposes of the moral position of incest) whether the one doing the coercing is related to you or not, the transgression is itself the act of coercion.

So, I hope from this discussion and the arguments presented that, even if you happen to disagree with my assessment of the moral implications of incest, you can approach the topic from a standpoint of honest and rational inquiry as opposed to knee-jerk social solidarity. If you do happen to dissent, I look forward to your arguments!



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