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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Matt Drabek
Matt Drabek
9 years ago

I think we should also be clear that state prohibition of incest and the morality of incest are separate issues. From the abstract, it appears that Sebo is actually arguing that arguments that incest is *immoral* fail to hold up. But it seems perfectly clear that one could argue the following: even though incest is immoral, the state should not prohibit it.

Keith Pullman
9 years ago

Genetic Sexual Attraction situations, like the German couple, aren’t even incest in the sociological sense. They were not raised together.

CONSENSUAL incest is not wrong. (Abuse victims: being abused by a relative does not make it wrong for others to have consensual incest, any more than rape by a stranger makes all sex wrong. Sex and assault/molestation are two different things.) An aversion became common in humans that aided in population growth as one disease couldn’t wipe out the human race. That’s not a problem anymore.

Consensual incest is very common. You know people who have been involved, whether you know it or not. Let me say that again. Someone you know, whether a family member or neighbor or classmate or coworker, has a sexual or romantic relationship with a close relative and they are doing just fine with it, except for the discrimination against them.

There is no rational reason for keeping laws or taboos against consensual incest that is consistently applied to other relationships. “Ew!” or personal disgust or religion is only a reason why one person would not want to personally engage in what I call consanguinamory, not why someone else shouldn’t do it. An adult should be free to share love, sex, residence, and marriage with ANY consenting adults. Youthful experimentation between close relatives close in age is not uncommon, and there are more people than you’d think out there who are in lifelong healthy, happy relationships with a close relative. It isn’t for everyone, but we’re not all going to want to have each others’ love lives, now are we? If someone thinks YOUR love life is disgusting, should you be thrown in prison?

I see some people here try to justify their prejudice against consanguineous sex and marriage by being part-time eugenicists and saying that such relationships inevitably lead to “mutant” or “deformed” babies. This argument can be refuted on several fronts. 1. Some consanguineous relationships involve only people of the same gender. 2. Not all mixed-gender relationships birth biological children. 3. Most births to consanguineous parents do not produce children with significant birth defects or other genetic problems; while births to other parents do sometimes have birth defects. 4. We don’t prevent other people from marrying or deny them their reproductive rights based on increased odds of passing along a genetic problem or inherited disease. It is true that in general, children born to consanguineous parents have an increased chance of these problems than those born to nonconsanguineous parents, but the odds are still minimal. Unless someone is willing to deny reproductive rights and medical privacy to others and force everyone to take genetic tests and bar carriers and the congenitally disabled and women over 35 from having children, then equal protection principles prevent this from being a justification to bar this freedom of association and freedom to marry.

Some say “Your sibling should not be your lover.” That is not a reason. It begs the question. Many people have many relationships that have more than one aspect. Some women say their sister is their best friend. Why can’t their sister be a wife, too?

Some say “There is a power differential.” This applies least of all to siblings or cousins who are close in age, but even where the power differential exists, it is not a justification for denying this freedom to sex or to marry. There is a power differential in just about any relationship, sometimes an enormous power differential. To question if consent is truly possible in these cases is insulting and demeaning. If a national President or Prime Minister can be married, then arguing about power is absurd.

Some say “There are so many people outside of your family.” There are plenty of people within one’s own race, too, but that is no reason to ban interracial sex or marriage. So, this isn’t a good reason either. Let consenting adults love each other the way they want!

9 years ago

What I’m worried about is that if this becomes a public, accepted practice, it will change all family relationships. I try to imagine what it would have been like for me when I was a twelve year old girl and I knew other couples consisting of fathers and daughters or brothers and sisters (I’m choosing these examples on purpose). Wouldn’t that have changed my feelings about my own father and brother, and changed the nature of our relationship? What if it were this explicit: my father or older brother said to me, “Of course, you’re too young to consent now, but when you turn 18 we should think about getting into a relationship.” This is why I chose these examples: you’ve already got gender dynamics and age dynamics and parental dynamics at play; to add romance/sex to that is extremely problematic.