What’s wrong with incest?
Just the thought of having a sexual encounter with a close relative is sufficient to induce most people into paroxysms of disgust and outrage. It wouldn’t be a surprise to me if many people feel shocked, outraged, and appalled that I even consider the topic of incest worthy of discussion.
Well, they better be prepared to be even more outraged. I am going to propose that not only is incest perfectly a worthy topic of discussion, but that not a single person can articulate a single coherent reason why incest, in and of itself, should be regarded as immoral.
First of all, it is necessary to specify exactly what I mean by incest. By incest, I mean any sexual activity between closely related people. This is not specific to parent-child instances or activity between adults and children, and thus is distinct from pedophilia. After all, two adult first cousins may have a sexual relationship, and this would certainly qualify as incest. Second, I am not referring to instances that necessarily require sexual exploitation. While it is undoubtedly the case that many instances of incest also include sexual exploitation, it is certainly also the case that there are many instances of sexual exploitation of minors that do not involve incest and instances of incestuous relationships that don’t involve sexual exploitation; indeed, on occasion people have had grown up, met someone, fell in love, and gotten engaged, only to discover that they are, in fact, siblings or close cousins. It would be absurd to insist that every single one of these situations involved sexual exploitation. Incest and sexual exploitation are thus mutually exclusive.
There are five principle reasons people oppose incest. The rest of this discussion will be geared towards showing how each of these reasons, in turn, utterly fails to demonstrate that incest is immoral.
1. Incest is wrong because it is illegal.
2. Incest is wrong because God/my religion say so.
3. Incest is wrong because it is unnatural, violates natural order, etc.
4. Incest is wrong because it is disgusting, or obviously wrong.
5. Incest is wrong because it leads to exploitation, emotional problems; i.e., incest is not wrong in and of itself but because it tends to lead towards consequences which are deleterious to the participants.
6. Incest is wrong because of the increased risk of birth defects and the increased social stigma on the progeny of incestuous relationships.
1. The claim that incest is wrong because it is illegal is so stupid I almost considered t not worth mentioning. But let me dispense with it and move on to arguments that aren’t quite as ridiculous: the mere fact that something is legal or illegal in a particular place or time has no bearing whatsoever on whether or not that thing is moral. None. At many points in time and in many places, it was legal to rape, murder, torture, and do all manner of horrid and abominable things. I doubt anyone would incest that in 1830 slavery was moral simply because it was legal, nor would they have maintain that interracial marriage was immoral because it was illegal.
2. Many people argue that the immorality of incest is a divine revelation from their god, that, in fact, all morals ultimately stem from god. There are dozens of problems with this, problems such as how this person knows there’s a god, and, if there is one, what it is they approve or disapprove of and why any of us should care. Religion is, to put it simply, unverified baloney that has no place serving as a moral foundation for anyone. But all that aside, even if we give religions like Christianity the benefit of the doubt and let them make their case, just what is their case? When God declares something immoral, is that thing immoral because god says it is, or does god simply inform us of which things are immoral independent of his personal whims?
This problem was recognized centuries ago, and articulated in one of Plato’s dialogues:
“Is what is moral commanded by God because it is moral, or is it moral because it is commanded by God?”
This problem is absolutely fatal for the religious. If it is the former, if what is moral is moral simply because it is the command of God, than the theist must concede that morality is in fact relative – relative to whatever God’s whims are; furthermore, it is entirely arbitrary, as God could, being omnipotent and all, have decided and may in the future decide on any set of morals, regardless of what the current set may be. Such people would be forced to concede that had God dictated that rape, murder, or genocide were good, that they would be, and that if kindness and compassion were sins, they would be.
A simple way to test whether or not a theist accepts this is to ask them whether or not they would commit an act of rape or murder – even murder of their own son or daughter - if God commanded it. Such people cannot easily weasel out of this question. They may try to insist that God would never command this; it is easy enough to point out to Judeo-Christian theists, though, that God did in fact command this of Abraham, to which they may reply that God never would have made Abraham go through with it. There are several problems with this. First of all, if they insist God would never accept a human sacrifice, they would be wrong. In Judges 11, God accepts the sacrifice of a human child. Second, if it is obvious Christian doctrine that God wouldn’t accept a child sacrifice, then this couldn’t possibly have been a legitimate test of Abraham’s faith: clearly, Abraham would know God wouldn’t make him do it, and if that were so, what would be the point of the whole charade, if it was obviously something God wouldn’t carry through?
They may also insist that god simply wouldn’t ask them to do such a thing anymore, regardless of what he did in the Bible. This is bogus for two reasons. First, they have no way of knowing this, regardless of what they may say, and if they insist they do, then simply point out to them that they are presuming to know the future will of God and presuming to speak on his behalf without justification. Second, if God *could not in principle ask them to do it*, then their god is not, in fact, omnipotent, since there is something he can’t actually do. If they argue that he could, in principle, but never would because he is perfectly good, then they are essentially maintaining that he is in fact bound by his own rules. Can he change them? If not, he’s not omnipotent and/or he must abide by those rules for some reason independent of his whim, or he can in fact change them in which case they can’t claim that it’s impossible. At any rate, all such responses really are are maneuvers to avoid answering the question; it is certainly conceivable, in principle, that the universe could have a being who had all the properties of god and chose a different set of morals than the ones we have now; if they deny this, they are, of course, denying god’s omnipotence because they are maintaining that he couldn’t have been any other way.
Now, if they say that it is not good simply because god says so, then this no longer stands as a sufficient reason for opposing incest because now god saying so is simply an intermediary point to the actual reason – whatever that reason may be, and thus this isn’t in itself the reason why incest is wrong. For instance, it may be the case that God says incest is wrong, but if it’s not because it’s his whim, it’s for some other reason, such as that the objective moral law of the universe states such, or it would violate the Categorical Imperative, etc.; if this is so, then the burden is on the person insisting incest is immoral to explain what that reason is, and not simply point out that God agrees with it.
3. That something could be wrong because it is unnatural or violates natural order is almost as ridiculous as the first reason. First of all, if by “natural order” one means the way we’re “supposed” to act, this whole argument falls flat on its face. We are evolved organisms that tend to exhibit behaviors adaptive to our environments. There is no moral imperative behind the way we happen, biologically, to be inclined. For instance, we are “naturally omnivorous”; this doesn’t mean we have a moral imperative to eat both plants and meat. Anyone who went around saying it violates natural order to be a vegetarian – after all, we are adapted to digest meat - would rightly be regarded as ridiculous. In any case, numerous things people do would “violate” the way we’re “supposed” to act, anyway.
Second, the notion that what is natural is good is patently absurd, anyway. Cyanide, cancer, and parasites are all natural, and nobody insists we let them ravage our bodies because to stop them would be to go against natural order. Earthquakes, hurricanes, viruses, and all manner of terrible things are natural. People don’t demand we refuse blood transmissions or not wear shoes because we’re violating our biological imperatives, nor do people typically insist that birth control is a terrible violation of our natural “drive to reproduce”. Furthermore, it’s simply nonsense to insist incest is somehow “unnatural” anyway. Many animals frequently engage in incest, in fact, it’s fairly common.
What exactly would it mean to say that it’s not “natural” for people to engage in incest? It’s certainly natural for other organisms, and last time I checked there wasn’t a rulebook for declaring which animals incest counts as “natural” or “not natural”. And another thing – what specifies what an organism’s characteristics will be are its genes; one could even claim that an organism is simply a manifestation of a particular set of genetic code – we are our DNA. Well, suppose in the vast majority of people, we are genetically hardwired to regard close family members as being sexually off limits. But suppose for a small group of people they either have a different gene, or lack this gene that does incline, or at least removes their inhibitions, against incest. Since an organisms’ behavioral proclivities are based on its genes, it simply would not make sense to insist that incest is “unnatural” for such people; the whole basis of what we use to claim something is natural, or part of an animal’s nature, is based on their genes and the resultant phenotypic expressions they manifest on the basis of them – and if incestuous people had incest-inducing genes, then, to put it simply, incest would be “natural” to them. That would have, of course, no bearing on whether or not it were moral or not. If the majority of people had genes that inclined them towards aggressive or sexually coercive behavior, that wouldn’t make it a bit more morally acceptable, and if you think it would, you are seriously morally imbalanced.
4. That incest is immoral because it is disgusting, or that it’s “just plain obvious” that it is is probably the most common reaction to incest, but is nonetheless one of the weaker ones. To insist that something is wrong simply because it is obvious that it is merely begs the question. Truth, or, as the case may be with morality, reasonable and justified opinions based on some sane set of moral guidelines or another, are not determined by bald assertion. To simply insist something is true because it is is not an argument; it is a concession that one has no reasons and, even worse, is not interested in providing reasons but merely in asserting their infallibility.
Disgust is also not a legitimate reason to label something immoral, in and of itself. Firstly, much of what we find disgusting is subjective enough that anyone could label anything they dislike or disapprove of disgusting, and if we were to declare anything anyone found disgusting immoral, we’d quickly find everything to be immoral. No, we must have some guidelines. Horrible scars or extreme obesity are disgusting to most people, yet we do not require people to hide their blubber or scars merely because we find them disgusting; we also don’t typically regard farting, the consumption of nasty-tasting food, etc. as immoral.
The mere fact that something is gross to you is not a legitimate reason to make it immoral. Nonetheless, there are instances where something might justly be called immoral because it is disgusting, but certain other criteria must also be met. If someone were to engage in disgusting sexual acts in the privacy of their home, it doesn’t seem reasonable that we should be able to tell that person they aren’t allowed to do it. If, however, they insisted on engaging in these acts publicly, we might legitimately prohibit them from doing so. That something be prohibited on the grounds that it be disgusting should require that it be pushed upon others without their consent in a manner they cannot reasonably avoid and that the grounds for it being regarded as disgust can be shown to be legitimate. If a single person insists that geckos are so disgusting that they cannot stand to drive their car down the road where a local Geico billboard is up, we may sympathize, but it would be unreasonable to insist that large portions of other people’s rights be denied on behalf of a single individual; the loss to others must be weighed against the benefit attained by the person offended by certain material.
Second, if the object of disgust is something that can be readily avoided or that one would have to make special effort to experience, a person does not have legitimate grounds for demanding that it be prohibited. Many people find certain forms of art or certain films disgusting, but they are not obligated to go to the art galleries or theaters where such images are displayed. It would be unreasonable for a person to demand that others be prohibited from experiencing something they personally find disgusting when they aren’t the ones who want to experience it.
This is just the case with incest. Nobody is obligated to engage in incestuous activity, and unless they know a couple is closely related, they wouldn’t even be able to tell if a couple were engaging in public incestuous activity. Furthermore, many, many people still regard affectionate activity between interracial couples, gay couples, senior couples, etc. as disgusting; consider trying to ban shows of affection among these groups and it becomes readily apparent why doing so is entirely unreasonable.
5. Some people argue that incest is wrong because it leads to other things which are wrong. It may turn out to be the case that incest usually arises in situations that involve sexual exploitation or some other unethical activities. Even if this were the case, all it would mean is that many unethical activities happen to also be cases of incest, not that incest itself is wrong. Something isn’t wrong simply because it normally occurs in the presence of other things which are immoral; after all, it doesn’t mean that it causes those things. Rape and sexual exploitation are wrong regardless of whether or not family members are the victims; family members are often simply easy targets since they are readily available, and thus cases of sexual exploitation victimizing family members shouldn’t be particularly surprising; but it is not the component of incest in them that makes them wrong, it’s everything else.
Something isn’t wrong simply because it is associated with other things that are; guilt-by-association is not a legitimate argument against the ethicality of something. Consider a case where a father molests his daughter. Is this wrong because it is a case of incest, or is it wrong because it is a case of rape?
Well, it is certainly wrong for being a case of rape, and it being incest may exacerbate the harm caused to the daughter, but this would only show that cases of rape that involve especially close relatives can be especially psychologically harmful to the victim, not that incest is wrong. How would such a claim have any bearing on cases of incest between consenting adults? Even if something often results in harmful outcomes, that doesn’t mean all instances of it are not immoral nor does it necessarily justify its prohibition. One might maintain that many cases of incest end badly largely due to the taboo over it. It would be patent bullshit for someone to insist that interracial relationships are wrong because they end badly, when they reason they usually end badly is because people oppose them; such a vicious, and ridiculous circle, is the very cause of the problem it cites.
And even if incestuous relationships often result in emotional or psychological problems, this simply makes them unfortunate situations, not necessarily immoral ones. It may be unwise to enter into an incestuous relationship because of the potential risk of a poor outcome, but, first of all, considering the poor outcome of most relationships, it seems dubious to me to insist that incestuous relationships are so much more harmful than ordinary relationships, but, secondly, most people would also acknowledge the right of adults to make informed decisions after assessing the risks for themselves; if society is so paternalistic that it starts to dictate who may have relationships with who, most people would probably object to this; why the exception for incest? No, this isn’t the real reason people oppose incest, and they know it.
6. This last argument is the best, and probably the one most consider the most powerful reason to oppose incest. The argument that incest is wrong because of the risk of genetic defects in children is one grounded in a reasonable moral position – that it is wrong to willingly engage in behavior that carries with it a higher than normal risk of resulting in offspring with genetic defects. There are several problems with this argument though. First of all, it completely fails to account for cases of incest where inbreeding is not a possibility. What about cases with infertile couples? An obvious case would be instances of incest between two men or two women. How could these possibly be wrong on the grounds that they could result in genetically defective offspring? A simple question to ask someone who says incest is wrong because of the risk of inbreeding is to ask whether or not gay incest is wrong. It couldn’t possibly be wrong.
Once again, what people who say incest is wrong because of this risk are actually saying is that intentionally having kids with a high chance of having a birth defect is wrong, and those cases of incest where this is a possibility are wrong for this reason. If this is in fact what someone is claiming, then it is a morally legitimate argument. It is wrong to intentionally induce a pregnancy knowing that there is a substantial risk that the offspring will suffer a genetic defect.
First, just a point – the actual chances of birth defects among close relatives are vastly overstated. It’s not as if birth defects are incredibly rare among unrelated couples but are almost guaranteed between cousins or siblings. They’re not. They’re relatively uncommon in ordinary pregnancies and somewhat more likely in incestuous relationships.
Be that as it may, if someone is opposed to incest for this reason, in order to be consistent, they must also oppose all other cases where someone opts for pregnancy knowing that they have a high chance of bestowing bad genes on their offspring. Consider a hypothetical scenario:
A) A pair of first cousins wants to have a child. Geneticists determine that the chance, if they have a random child, of substantial birth defects is 5%.
B) A second couple, with no known relation, opt to have a kid. Geneticists determine that the chance, if they have a random child, of substantial birth defects is 10%.
Someone cannot be rationally consistent if they maintain that incest is immoral because of an increased risk of birth defects but deny that instances that aren’t cases of incest and which carry an equal or greater chance of birth defects are immoral.
Finally, suppose in the future we design procedures to reduce or eliminate the risk of having birth defects entirely. Would incest still be wrong? Definitely not for this reason. In fact, one implication of this line of reasoning is that if we eventually become able to screen someone’s genes ahead of time and choose the best matches, that it could be possible for a brother and sister to have less of a chance of a birth defect than couples who aren’t related but don’t want to have the gene-screening procedure done; thus, it would be morally obligatory to go through gene screening if possible.
What people are actually supporting, without even knowing it, is eugenics, the science of improving the human genome through controlling human reproduction. I in fact support eugenics, and thus would agree that inbreeding, absent procedures for reducing the risks, is immoral. However, for the above stated reasons, this merely makes inbreeding immoral, not incest; they are not the same thing. I am morally consistent in that I maintain all instances of increased risk of genetic defects are wrong because children have a right to the best possible health; people who refuse to admit the implications of their opposition to incest on these grounds are simply being morally inconsistent.
Having exhausted the reasons people give to oppose incest, we are left with nothing - not a single reason to oppose incest in and of itself. The majority of the opposition to incest likely stems from social conditioning, an evolved sense of repulsion to it, and from confusing incest with inbreeding, which it is not. If someone opposes incest on the grounds that it leads to genetic defects, that person cannot apply this reason to cases of gay incest; and this fact unveils the truth: such people are actually, rightfully, in favor of eugenics, insofar as they oppose intentionally putting the health of future children at risk. But such people are, in fact, opposing unregulated conception, not incest.
Finally, just in case any reader wonders if anyone is really so thoughtless as to maintain that incest is immoral, I will provide a link demonstrating as much: