M.A.D. Philosophy: Consensual Incest (Updated)

M.A.D. Philosophy is a new occasional series here at Daily Nous that highlights philosophical work that Makes A Difference to what is going on in the so-called “real world.” If you have a suggestion for this series (self-nominations are welcome), please send it along to [email protected] for a later installment.

First in the series is “The Ethics of Incest” by Jeff Sebo, which appeared in Philosophy in the Contemporary World 12(3) in 2005. The article argues that a general prohibition on consensual incest is unjustified. Dr. Sebo, who is now a Bioethics Fellow at the National Institutes of Health, was an undergraduate at Texas Christian University when he wrote it.

Just recently, the German Ethics Council, an advisory body created by the German government, came out in favor of lifting the ban on incest between adult siblings. In their 91-page report they cite Sebo’s article several times. It is written in German, but Jonathan Simon (Tulane) translated a few of the relevant passages in which he is cited. Here’s one:

“A critical and rational perspective on the [incest] taboo, especially on its absoluteness, is necessary in a society of pluralistic values, as is the overcoming of the usual resistance to discussing it. The discussion must be over the many values and evaluations that stand behind the taboo. Here a distinction should be drawn between, on the one hand, uncontested values such as the protection of minors from sexual assault and the exploitation of dependence, and, on the other hand, contested values such as the criminality of consensual sexual activity between blood relatives. And, as critics have pointed out, the preservation, through the general taboo, of the criminality of consensual incest between self-determined persons is inconsistent with society’s stance on sexual freedom and self-determination. In no other circumstance is the entry into a consensual sexual relationship between self-determined persons regulated through governmental regulations or bans.” (119 Cf. Sebo 2006)

The German Ethics Council took up the question because of a recent case involving two siblings from Leipzig. “The brother and sister in question, Patrick and Susan… were not brought up together and first met at the age of 24 and 16, respectively. After becoming a couple, they went on to have four children” according to an article about the Council’s decision, here. It is not clear that any legal changes will immediately result from the Council’s report.

UPDATE (10/16/14): Peter Singer comments on the German Ethics Council report here.

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