What’s Wrong With Incest?

Incest evokes feelings of repulsion in most of us, although it may be hard to argue precisely why.

There are plenty of moral issues in the modern world that are sure to divide us for decades to come. For every person who feels ethically okay about abortion, capital punishment and drone warfare, there’s another who considers all three abominable moral crimes. But amidst all this disagreement, there is one issue sure to unite vast sections of society: incest, it is generally agreed, must be banned.

It is worth pausing, however, to consider what justifies this stance. For whilst there is an undeniably widespread, deeply ingrained sense of disgust pervading almost all humans that ponder it, the fact it still happens goes to show that the feeling is not universal. And if, ultimately, all we can say about incest is that it induces awkward feelings – well, that’s precisely the sort of impoverished gut-philosophy that inspired, and still inspires, homophobia. It’s quite clear that it doesn’t really constitute an argument at all.

So if we want to justify current stigma, we need to do better than this. The only problem is that every argument given in support of a ban on incest has been a catastrophic failure.

Take, for instance, those that try to rationalise incest’s prosecution on the grounds that any potential offspring will most probably be deformed and suffer terribly. We can respond by noting two things. First, this makes incest’s illegality contingent on the couple’s fertility. So if the man is prepared to have the snip, or the woman has gone through the menopause, should we be willing leave them alone? This shows that such considerations could only motivate a partial ban. But secondly, Paul Troop has noted our staggering hypocrisy here, for ‘[t]his consideration doesn’t lead to criminalisation in comparable circumstances’:

“For example, Huntingdon’s disease is debilitating and absent medical intervention, there is a significant risk of passing it to children. It also seems that those with the disease are more fecund than those without. However, there is no suggestion of criminalising those who take this risk.”

There’s also a tendency to group incest alongside evidently abhorrent acts like rape. This mainly happens when politicians discuss exceptions to any potential ban on abortion, but we also see the conflation of rape and incest in the reporting of many cases of child abuse. But that phrase – ‘rape and incest’ – is unfortunate and unjustified. Sure, incestuous acts can also be instances of rape. But incest isn’t, like rape, necessarily without consent. And if it is, then what’s bad about it is the fact that it’s rape. If the reason rape is wrong is that it is coercive, then what is wrong about incest when it’s consensual?

And this leads us to a general liberal principle which normally guides our government in most areas of policy. Most people believe that the government should be impartial between ideas of what the good way to live is. The government should provide protection to ensure our security, but it should not, for instance, be in the business of saying this or that lifestyle is more likely to lead to happiness. It shouldn’t encourage a certain religion, or deter us from drinking because it is ‘bad’ for us. As long as we don’t violate the rights of others, those decisions are to be left up to the individual.

We are led to wonder, then, why incest is treated so differently. So long as it occurs between consenting adults, on what grounds can we, as a society, storm the bedroom and insist that intimacy is to be impeded? Feelings of disgust are irrelevant, concerns for offspring ad hoc, and invoking the individual’s ‘greater good’ is just downright paternalistic. There is no reason not to legalise incest now.

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