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.