Monday, February 26, 2007

Should Incest Be Legal?

I'm aware that the anti-gay crowd is fond of using the slippery slope argument to claim that if we let gays marry (or have sex, before that argument was rendered moot by the courts) then there's nothing stopping us from legalizing bestiality, incest, and polygamy.* Part of me therefore wants to keep quiet about my feelings on incest and polygamy for fear of giving ammunition to the opposition's (false) argument. The part of me that's in control, though, prefers to speak his mind.

In Germany, there are brother and sister who are fighting for the right to continue having sex with each other. The story goes that the brother was given up for adoption and didn't meet his sister until he was 18. They soon fell in love. (Strangely, this is pretty common for siblings who meet for the first time.)

After the couple met and began a sexual relationship, they had four kids, with tragic results:
All but one of them have been placed in care and two are mentally damaged as a result of inbreeding. In 2002, Mr Stübing was given a one-year suspended sentence after being found guilty on 16 counts of "illegal coitus" with his sister.

My personal morality stems from the idea of "your right to extend your fist ends at the tip of my nose," or, if you're not hurting anybody, what you do is your own business. So masturbating while thinking of a child sodomizing a sheep might reveal that you have some mental problems, but I wouldn't consider it immoral. Stealing, murdering, abusing, etc. are immoral because they cause harm to others.**

It's clear to me that having kids through incest should be illegal because of the grievous and unnecessary harm to the children. Although this belief has some troubling implications, not least the very slippery slope towards criminalizing having children with people with low IQs, minor genetic disorders, etc., I think that in instances where the harm is grievous and predictable, like brother-sister incest that leads to children, we can safely make that ruling.

What of siblings who have no chance of having children?
Mr Stübing, an unemployed mechanic, was released from jail last year and is still living with his sister. Although he has had himself sterilised to avoid fathering more children, he could be sent back to jail at any time for persistently reoffending.

By what justification may the government prevent them from having sex today? That most people find sibling sex repulsive? Repulsion is no basis for law -- we allow neo-Nazis to speak, after all. (Actually, Germany doesn't, but even though I disagree with that stance, there's at least conceivable grievous harm that stems from allowing hate speech.) If religion is a suitable basis for secular law, then the case is clear, but as you might imagine, I don't think religion is a good basis for law. The only other arguments I can imagine are similar to those used against gay couples -- that they set a bad example, or otherwise pose some threat to "traditional" families or children. I do not find such arguments convincing.

I therefore believe that consensual, adult incest should be legal and is not immoral, provided there is no chance for children to result from the union. Where to draw the line on infertility is another troubling and complex question, of course. Simply using condoms or the pill is not sufficient to rule out the possibility of children, but having the government mandate surgical sterilization is distasteful, to say the least. While I'd encourage siblings who get pregnant to have abortions, government-mandated abortions would be deeply disturbing as well.

I think the only coherent policy is that brother-sister incest that may result in children is disallowed as reckless endangerment. The government should not mandate sterilization, but simply recognize that the problem is the reckless endangerment of offspring rather than the act itself.


* For the record, I believe adult, consensual polygamy should be legal, although not necessarily institutionalized by the state as marriage, and am unsure about bestiality because of the question of the animal's consent. Bestiality should be treated as a subcategory of animal cruelty .

** Things get complicated when all choices are harmful and you must pick the least harmful one, like killing in self-defense or putting violent criminals in jail. There are also some gray areas in which people can reasonable agree like whether a aborting a fetus is a significant harm or whether it's okay to harm non-human animals or other organisms. (I eat meat, but even most vegans are happy to eat plants, fungi, and bacteria.)

23 comments:

Laura said...

It is interesting to note that most societies throughout history have had some regulations regarding incest (except maybe the Royal families). Many cultures allow (and encourage) cousin marriage, but immediate family incest is almost universally shunned regardless of religion, culture, time, or place. The same cannot be said about homosexuality.

skcorefil said...

I agree. I think that if gays get the right to have legal marriages, then family members should too for the legal benefits if nothing else. And it isn't the government's business if they are having sex. I'm not really convinced that incest of brothers and sisters who themselves were not products of inbreeding would be very detrimental to the children (other than slight immunology stuff not being ideal) in most cases. I kinda would like lo look up studies on this but now I have other things to do.

Skcorefil said...

http://abclocal.go.com/kgo/story?section=bizarre&id=5050489
A link about another brother sister couple.

asher said...

JA,
What kind of half-assed position is this? You think all children of incest will be insane or crazy? What kind of eugenics idea is this? I'm sure there are plenty of examples of father-daughter, sister-brother and mother-son unions which produced pretty normal kids.

To be more graphics, why not homosexual incest? What's wrong with brother-brother unions or sister-sister union? Father-son marriage and Daughter-Mother marriage.

Why do you feel we can justify one limitation with another?

Note: this is not a slippery slope arguement...it's called logic.

Jewish Atheist said...

asher:

You think all children of incest will be insane or crazy?

No, but my understanding is that it's very likely. If I'm wrong about that and there's little chance of severely damaged children, then I'd say incest should be legal even if they are fertile.

What's wrong with brother-brother unions or sister-sister union? Father-son marriage and Daughter-Mother marriage.

Nothing, as long as all parties are consenting adults and they aren't being willfully negligent about having damaged children.

Scott said...

What's wrong with .... Father-son marriage and Daughter-Mother marriage.

Nothing, as long as all parties are consenting adults and they aren't being willfully negligent about having damaged children.


I tend to disagree with this JA, even for "consenting" adults. Parent-child relationships are authoritarian in nature. As such, I believe it is easy to make a case that there can be no consent from the child to enter in a mutually consenting relationship with a parent. Child predators tend to groom a child for consent. There's no reason this can't be done over a long period of time, say the time a child grows up. The effects a parent's authority last long after the child moves out and on their own. If that wasn't true, American's could save millions of dollars a year on therapy bills. :)

Jewish Atheist said...

scott,

I considered what you argue when I was writing that response, but I decided it wasn't a good enough reason to make something illegal. There are all sorts of unhealthy authoritarian relationships which are legal, like Rabbi-congregant, therapist-patient (although they may lose their practice), president-intern, etc.

"Grooming" a child as you describe is deeply disturbing, but it's not something the legal system is equipped to handle unless it falls under the category of abuse.

Scott said...

Yeah, that's a good point and one that I don't really have an answer for, which leads me to believe that my tendency to oppose is based more on knee-jerk reaction than logic. Which is odd given my more natural tendency to deny government's involvement in almost anything. Hmmmm.

I'd imagine the societal pariah factor would be enough to discourage most cases from occurring.

Sadie Lou said...

"Grooming" a child as you describe is deeply disturbing, but it's not something the legal system is equipped to handle unless it falls under the category of abuse.

Why wouldn't it be abuse?
It clearly is.

Orthoprax said...

JA,

Have you ever read any of Heinlein's books? He had quite a bit of incest going on with his characters.

Logically there really isn't any immediate reason why primary relatives shouldn't have safe consensual sex except that it grosses people out.

But I do believe there are probably some inherent socially damaging effects by allowing the act, though I don't think making it illegal is the answer.

I also happen to think that promiscuity - and adultery for that matter - are socially damaging, but likewise, I wouldn't make them illegal.

Jewish Atheist said...

Sadie:

Why wouldn't it be abuse?
It clearly is.


I guess I have no idea what "grooming" means in this context.


orthoprax:

I've read some Heinlein -- I find his social and economic theories too ridiculous to really enjoy though.

I agree that some things are damaging but shouldn't be illegal. That's something far too many Americans have forgotten.

foothillsfarm said...

Most atheists would agree that morality is something which evolved through natural selection, and is ingrained in the human psyche. All our societal laws arose from this natural morality. I think we have a responsibility to pay attention to human societal instincts and respond with "rules" such as incest laws. Most other mammals who are not crazy from being in captivity know instinctually that close-kin incest is "wrong", so why shouldn't we accept it as such? Also, sterility is no guarantee against pregnancy; there is a .4 % chance that a pregnancy will result after vasectomy.

I think over-intellectualizing things which are a natural part of humanity, such as theorizing that incest between siblings is okay, hurts the position of atheists as a whole by possibly making it seem to religious folks that our morality is somehow less than theirs, and that we need "god" to tell us what is right and wrong.

beepbeepitsme said...

What an interesting question. My first reaction is to say no, based on the knowledge that breeding within a shallow gene pool is evidenced as potentially harmful to the children.

Diversity in the gene pool, whether it is human diversity or plant diversity, is advantageous to survival. Even so called "primitive african tribes" know this. Tribes which live isolated lives gather each year with other tribes in order to do a bit of mate selection.

I think that mankind recognized pretty early on that a shallow gene pool wasn't condusive to survival of the tribe.

However, homosexual acts between consenting adults of the same family, may, theoretically be a different thing. Difficult for me to even contemplate such a thing, as there is such a strong cultural taboo against incest. In reality, this cultural taboo has to do with breeding, not sex as an expression of love or pleasure.

Even so, I must be a product of my environment, as I find it difficult to condone the notion of homosexual, incestuous sex.

Orthoprax said...

FHF,

"Most atheists would agree that morality is something which evolved through natural selection, and is ingrained in the human psyche. All our societal laws arose from this natural morality. I think we have a responsibility to pay attention to human societal instincts and respond with "rules" such as incest laws. Most other mammals who are not crazy from being in captivity know instinctually that close-kin incest is "wrong", so why shouldn't we accept it as such?"

What? That's an awful argument. Natural selection operates by what 'works' not by what is right and to follow the amoral dictates of natural selection would literally be following the law of the jungle.

'Natural morality' is extremely limited and allowed stuff like genocide and slavery for thousands of years. It was through the forces of reason and social development which shaped primitive morality to the more civilized form that we have today.

Juggling Mother said...

"Grooming" is specifically legislated against in England & Wales. As far as my sketchy knowledge of it goes, I believe the law rests on the inequality between the two (or more) parties, and requires and ongong participation. A number of prosecutions have taken place for physical & internet grooming, both peadephilia & homosexual related.

The issue of incest has the same concerns - the inequality between the parties. parent/child relationships are rarely goign to be between two fully informed & equal parties. Brother sister could be, depending on the circumstances, but on the whole I think the law is right to ban it - with a little flexibility in sentancing & prosecuting in some cases.

Homosexuality isn't on the same category at all. Nor is polygamy. Which is why both have been the norm in various societies throughout history.

Orthoprax said...

On a related note, if a person knows that he or she carries a horrible trait which if successfully passed onto progeny has a good likelihood of giving them some terrible genetic disease - should having unprotected sex be illegal?

Say, in an extreme case, the person has Huntington's disease - the odds of him passing this terrible disease on is much higher than any possible problem through inbreeding - should he be allowed to have sex at all?

foothillsfarm said...

"Natural selection operates by what 'works' not by what is right and to follow the amoral dictates of natural selection would literally be following the law of the jungle.
'Natural morality' is extremely limited and allowed stuff like genocide and slavery for thousands of years. It was through the forces of reason and social development which shaped primitive morality to the more civilized form that we have today."

First of all, where do you think the ability to reason came from? Reason evolved because it "works". All the "civilized" things you are referring to, which I will call "goodness", evolved also. Pure reason does not solve social problems. I would argue that the Holocaust and slavery are as much a product of reason as anything else. You refer to "natural morality", but is there any other kind of morality? And by the way, genocides still occur, and our "civilized" society still commits atrocities.

As far as incest goes, if you take the natural aversion people have for it and combine it with our scientific knowledge that it can cause birth defects, you can use reason to confirm your aversion.
That sets it apart from taboos like food restrictions and superstitions which have no basis in fact.

Orthoprax said...

FHF,

"First of all, where do you think the ability to reason came from? Reason evolved because it "works"."

Ok, but it isn't limited to the Darwinian scale as is the natural morality you support. It clearly can and has been used in ways which have little to do with survival or propagation. We can out-think natural evolution.

"All the "civilized" things you are referring to, which I will call "goodness", evolved also."

But not through natural selection. Human society - culture - transforms, evolves if you will, far faster than the random regrouping of genetic alleles does.

"Pure reason does not solve social problems."

Ok, who are you arguing with? I didn't say it did.

"You refer to "natural morality", but is there any other kind of morality?"

Yes! The kind figured out by humans beings. The kind that arose through reason and culture and not through the forces of natural selection.

"As far as incest goes, if you take the natural aversion people have for it and combine it with our scientific knowledge that it can cause birth defects, you can use reason to confirm your aversion."

That confirms nothing. The bad thing here is the creation of people with birth defects when they can be avoided. But there are all sorts of ways to have safe incestruous sex so that doesn't happen. But you would defer to the unreasonable aversion even in the case of all these safe circumstances based on Darwinian senses of grossness.

foothillsfarm said...

Orthoprax,

I agree with you on one point: "The bad thing here is the creation of people with birth defects when they can be avoided".

From your other comments I surmise that you think human culture is the source of a more refined sense of morality than that which is natural to human beings as animals apart from cultural influence. I think this is highly variable, depending on the particularities of the culture in question. One could argue that we have become much more efficient killing machines now that cilvilization has brought the industrial revolution. Within our culture we are mainly benevolent to anyone we see as "us" (our tribe), but woe be to you if you fall outside of the tribe. Bonobos and chimps behave the same way; those within are safe and those who are seen as "other" are fair game.

I think we have common ground on one point at least: Hope that through reason we can overcome fatal errors which have caused other cultures to fall, and which could destroy the world as we know it. I am talking about both environmental problems and social problems.

By observing people and how they react to their world, by seeing ourselves as animals with an ingrained sense of morality, and by seeing the potential that we could all be part of the same "tribe", important transcendental changes could be made. I admit my hope is extremely slim to nonexistent, but the idea still exites and inspires me.

Of course this is completely off the topic of incest.

Orthoprax said...

FHF,

"Within our culture we are mainly benevolent to anyone we see as "us" (our tribe), but woe be to you if you fall outside of the tribe."

Indeed, which is why applying reason is key. The truth is that all human beings are basically alike and therefore deserve to be treated similarly. Genocide and slavery, for examples, are only possible when you see the 'other' as somehow less than human.

Natural selection's morality might favor my group at the expense of other groups and therefore would promote warfare or otherwise exploitation, but reason, as it is dispensed and widely recognized through cultural progress, can undermine that kind of thinking.

The point is that while natural selection would supply some inherent moral ideas which made it possible for social communities to exist in the first place - it ought not be the standard of morality and it would be wrong to defer to it.

foothillsfarm said...

I think we have similar sentiments but are going at it from different directions. While you would say that natural selection supplies "some inherent moral ideas which made it possible for social communities to exist in the first place", I would emphasize that society, culture, and reason itself are products of natural selection. We are not blank slates, and we would not behave as reptiles do without culture; we are primates who form intimate bonds. I just came accross this article which you may be interested in:

http://biology.plosjournals.org/perlserv/?request=get-document&doi=10.1371%2Fjournal.pbio.0020101

Thanks for the interesting exchange. I am in the middle of a graduate midterm (online) and this provides a welcome diversion.

Anonymous said...

my supposed-biological-grandparents are ultra-orthodox jews, and they're first cousins. it is kinda sickening though. never mind unhealthy.

Anonymous said...

You're an idiot, so it's no wonder you cling onto Judaism. You justify homosexuality, yet you think incest or polygamy is wrong. Incest only increases the likelihood the children have problems, but that percentage is small and is comparable to the risks that older women or people with genetic diseases have when they give birth. Why aren't you against those groups? Be impartial as you claim, moron.