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The professor who (might have) loved his daughter (in the wrong way)

A prominent prof at Columbia is accused of incest.


 

Recently, Slate published an interesting piece about Professor David Epstein of Columbia University who has been charged with incest over an alleged affair with his own 24-year-old daughter. William Saletan, quite bravely in my view, raises the right question: if consenting adults are free to do whatever they like in the bedroom, why is incest wrong? After all, most people now acknowledge that it is not for the state or even society in general to make judgements about  people’s sexual preferences and choices. If you’re an adult, and it works for you, go for it. Right?

Still, for most people, incest raises an immediate, visceral loathing. The response may be an evolved revulsion. But that same revulsion may be felt by some who hate homosexuality and was likely felt at one time by racists looking at inter-racial couples. And even if there is a natural revulsion to incest, clearly that revulsion is not universal or we wouldn’t be having this argument. And even still, if doing disgusting things turns you on, why is that my business?

In any case, as one committed to reason, I have to look beyond whatever ick factor there is and ask what the rational argument would be against incest. In short, if Professor Epstein and his daughter want to get it on, who are we to say no? Even if it’s distasteful, does that make it immoral? And should it really be a felony? Remember, the issue here is sex among family members who are consenting adults; child abuse, for instance, is another matter entirely. Similarly, media reports indicate that Epstein is married (or was married) during the affair, but the matter of marital infidelity is not relevant to the philosophical discussion here, either.

As Saletan points out, the argument from genetics — that incestuous unions may produce children with genetic deformities — is weak since most people still object to incest even when reproduction is not an issue (as with a man who had had a vasectomy, for instance). But even if reproduction were a factor, we generally do not insist that people have a moral obligation to find mates that are genetically optimum or even genetically desirable. For instance, parents with Huntington’s disease have a very high chance of passing the illness on to their children. Does that mean that a person with Huntington’s has a moral obligation to abstain from sex? Would a married couple be immoral if they chose to have kids knowing that the kids are at a high risk for the disease? Would we send such parents to jail?

Saletan’s fall-back position is to say that incest is wrong because it does harm to families:

When a young man falls in love with another man, no family is destroyed. [… but] incest spectacularly flunks this test. By definition, it occurs within an already existing family. So it offers no benefit in terms of family formation. On the contrary, it injects a notoriously incendiary dynamic—sexual tension—into the mix.

The whole tone of this argument sounds suspicious, because critics of sexuality of all kinds like to argue that it ruins families and destroys lives. Indeed, some claim, contra Saletan, that homosexuality is bad for families, and the same assertion has been made about pornography. But even if that were true about incest, it may follow that it is a bad idea, but it doesn’t make it necessarily immoral or worthy of prosecution. After all, money is a “notoriously incendiary dynamic,” but while family members doing business may be unwise, it is not immoral or illegal.

As for Professor Epstein, I don’t know him or his daughter or the course of events that led to their supposed sexual union. The whole affair is probably more complex than media reports indicate — how could it not be?  But assuming that no one was forced or otherwise mistreated (which would constitute crimes in other ways), I can’t, at least for the moment,  find a rational way to condemn them.

No matter how icky it may be.


 

The professor who (might have) loved his daughter (in the wrong way)

  1. I agree wholeheartedly with the commentator. I think is a clear example of government overreach. There is no reason to criminalize incest. There is no need to deter people from doing it, since most people are naturally repulsed by it.

  2. If an emotionally and physically mature 14 year old wants to have sex with an adult, what’s the harm? Who are they hurting? If I want to slap someone in the face, not hard enough to bruise but a slap, what’s the harm? Why should it be illegal? Who’s to say it really hurt the person? Why should they have redress under the law if I didn’t physically damage them—no one can feel another’s pain, so how can the law deem or judge “hurt”? Why can’t we just settle it between ourselves? If I steal something from someone who stole the object from someone else, how can the law deem it theft? If I want to pray aloud in school, prefacing the prayer with the remark that I am not proselytizing, why can’t I? Why is killing another person really wrong? If the law can’t decide that sex between a father and daughter is repugnant, how can it really declare that taking a human life is wrong? Why? We’ve all got to die sometime—why don’t we just practice Darwinism—the strong should survive to perpetuate the best of the species, shouldn’t they? Going back to sex, why is having sex in public illegal? People don’t have to look, do they? These are obviously satirical questions but if societies don’t have a law declaring theft illegal, some people will steal because they can. Laws declare what a society deems valuable and what should be protected—and they are set in place because violaters of laws must be punished. If human beings could regulate themselves without help, no society would need any law. Decency is a value. If people are too stupid to understand that incest is wrong, they need to be told. If they do it anyway, they need to be prosecuted. An educated Ivy League professor who lectures others’ on moral decisions (politics involves morality!!!! or the lack thereof)and chooses to have sex with a young (albeit adult) daughter, deserves to be prosecuted—because, as much as others want to deny it, law is based on morality—what is right and what is wrong.

  3. “we’re talking about consenting adults, child abuse, for instance, is another matter entirely”
    Why? Seriously, if you’re going ignore the never-in-balance relationship between parent and child, why should an arbitrary age become an issue? Who determines that 18 is the “right” age to be able to sleep with a 75 year old if you choose? Why couldn’t a really mature 10 year old make that call?
    Laws are there for the protection of those who cannot, or should not, be forced to protect themselves. Having spent all of ones developing years submitting to the demands of ones parents, the father (or mother) is forevermore the ultimate authority figure in a childs life. This is one of the most ridiculous arguments (The Slates being even moreso) that I’ve ever heard.

  4. I agree with the first commentator

  5. Apologies–meant to say i agree with the author

  6. As as homosexual, and speaking on behalf of homosexuals everywhere… leave us out of your twisted breeder stories, really, seriously. Homosexuality has absolutely nothing to do with this. Other than the fact the professor and his daughter are human, there is NOTHING here that involves homosexuality, in any way shape or form.
    Claiming that they should get to have sex because gays get to have sex? REALY? WTF? You might as well be saying the space aliens are halving sex, so incest must be ok.

    So take your one eyed children and go associate yourselves with someone more appropriately incestuous (CEO’s and politicians for example).

  7. While I am in agreement with general tenants of the article and I also believe that child abuse sexual or physical is wrong. In regards to the comments that if the law doesn’t state it is illegal people will do it – I have one question: If it is legal should we particapate? Slavery was legal for centuries, does that make it right?
    I believe a 14 year old (regardless of sex: male or female) is incapable of understanding the ramifacations of their actions when having sex with an adult. In every state in the US this holds to be true, however in many states now they seeking to prosecute 14 year olds as adults for murder and in some cases 9 year olds. If all these states were suddenly to decide that 14 year olds and 9 year olds should be treated as adults, should we go out and have sex with them then?
    My understand is – this isn’t a case about sex with an underage minor being forced by her father to have sex, but a legal adult choosing to have sex with her father. As disturbing as that may be, the question, ”Is it truly illegal?” seems to be missing from your thought process.
    The questions which should be asked are: if the professor and 24 year old woman where to engage in sex would it be illegal? And would the state prosecute if it was his step-daughter or adopted daughter? The answer would be ”No”. Illmoral and unethical probably, but should he be prosecuted for it? As much as it disturbs me my answer would be ”No” as well

  8. Regards to “Behalf of Homo’s” an excellent comment and if we are to be truly honest politicans, bankers, & CEO’s and their desire to “screw” the American public is forceable rape – not a question of sexual preversion.

  9. There is no reason, other than “tradition” and bigotry, that there should be a law against consenting adults having sex, or getting married. All of the “reasons” fall apart under scrutiny and precedents.

  10. Any idiot who is screwed up enough to be boffing his 24-year-old daughter was no healthy “parent” to begin with.

    As for the daughter “consenting,” women who have been abused and neglected as children “consent” to all kinds of abusive situations as adults.

    Frankly, I think the law should allow us to forceably rescue women from men who are physically violent with them too. In fact, how ’bout a column on how we should be allowed to murder men who abuse and take advantage of vulnerable women?

    If we’re going to get into moral relativism, let’s use if for something useful.

    BTW, as a queer, I also have to agree with Behalf of the Homos. My hard-won and well-justified right to have a consenting relationship with an adult of the same sex has absolutely zero connection to the question of incest.

  11. How can incest laws (between two consenting adults) stand if sodomy laws are unconstitutional? (Lawrence vs Texas, 539 U.S. 558 (2003)) It looks like the professor has a case destined for SCOTUS if he can withstand the humiliation.

  12. Totally ignoring the parent child relationship that shaped this twisted “consensual” relationship? You think he didn’t groom her from a young age for this?

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