As I mentioned in my previous essay, although we still think incest is wrong, we appear to be reaching the point where we can’t explain why its wrong. We’re in this predicament because, at some point, we began to that think that extra-marital heterosexual sex is morally permissible, and, more recently, that homosexual sex is as well. And whatever our motivations for this change in belief, its rational justification is based on the assumption that sex is morally legitimate so long as it occurs between two competent, consenting adults for whom it is an expression of their emotional bond (henceforth, the “consensual view of sex”). The problem is that the consensual view makes it impossible to defend rationally our belief that incest (and I mean here incest between two consenting adults) is wrong. Of course, some would argue that we can, in fact, explain why incest is wrong without impugning our acceptance of homosexual sex and the consensual view of sex on which it relies. But this is merely wishful thinking for two reasons: (1) at least one of the explanations for why incest is wrong also applies to homosexual sex, which, by the way, gives the state a legitimate interest in regulating it; and (2) even apart from its consequences, both principle and logic require that we reject the consensual view of sex, as well as homosexual sex and incest along with it.

Why Homosexual Unions and Incest are the Same

It’s easy enough to see that if sex is moral so long as it occurs between competent, consenting adults, incest along with homosexual sex is also moral. Both homosexual sex and incest satisfy all the elements of this understanding of sex because both involve two competent, consenting adults who have an emotional bond or commitment to which they give expression through sexual acts. This is perhaps especially true in the case of incest because the emotional bonds would likely be very strong, having developed over many years through a shared family life.

There are, nevertheless, those who maintain that incest is immoral, but homosexual sex is permissible. To maintain this position, one would have to be able to explain why homosexual sex is acceptable, but not incest, without abandoning the consensual view of sex. One might first point to the greater chance of physical and mental handicaps born of an incestuous union where there’s too close a degree of consanguinity. This is a possible consequence of incest, but not for homosexuals who cannot have children of their own. Thus, one might argue that: (1) this is what makes incest wrong, and because it doesn’t apply to homosexuals, homosexual sex remains morally permissible; and (2) due to the potential burden to society posed by physically and mentally handicapped children, the state has an interest in prohibiting incest, but not homosexual unions.

There are problems with this argument, however. Due to the current state of our reproductive technology, which would allow incestuous couples to avoid having handicapped children, this argument doesn’t have the force it would have had a century ago; and, further, it wouldn’t explain our intuition that sex between a parent and a step-child is also wrong. Additionally, if we say there’s a state interest in prohibiting incest due to the potential of having handicapped children, what’s to prevent the state from regulating reproduction among heterosexual married couples to ensure they too do not burden society with handicapped children? Might this open the door to requiring prenatal testing for potential handicaps, such as spina bifida and down syndrome and, if so, to requiring high-risk couples to avoid children, or even worse, to terminate their pregnancies?

A recent article attempting to prevent homosexual sex from being lumped into the same category as incest agrees that arguing on the basis of the potential for handicapped children is not all that persuasive, and that courts are moving away from this as a reason for criminalizing incest. This article argues instead that incest, unlike homosexual relationships, is immoral and should be regulated by the state primarily because it confuses family relationships and erodes trust among family members. This destroys the family structure and, as a consequence, harms family stability. By contrast, so the article contends, homosexuals do not destroy families, and, if they were allowed to marry, they would even form stable ones. The article thus concludes that due to the state’s interest in having stable families, the state has a basis for criminalizing incest but not homosexual unions.

While the impact on families is certainly an adequate basis for concluding that incest is wrong and should be illegal, the consequences for families doesn’t prove to be a defining moral difference between incest and homosexual sex. It’s simply erroneous to think that homosexual sex is any less wrong than incest due to its allegedly neutral, if not positive impact on the family and children. As argued elsewhere (see “What is Marriage?” and the article it discusses), homosexual unions lack the inherent structure and stability necessary for children to thrive, and they undermine society’s understanding of the true nature of marriage, which studies show is the best context for raising children. So, while incest may be all the worse for family gatherings at Thanksgiving and Christmas, homosexual unions prove no better for the overall health of society’s families and children.

Therefore, if incest is wrong because of its impact on the family and children, homosexuality is no different. Rejecting incest because of its undesirable consequences requires that we reject homosexual sex for the same reason. Unfortunately, except for the dissenting justices, this reasoning was lost upon the Supreme Court in, Lawrence v. Texas, which held Texas’ sodomy laws unconstitutional. And, as a consequence, we are now left to combat the issue on a strictly moral basis at the cultural level, and are further left to contend with the absurd consequence of having to prevent the acceptance of incest as a logical consequence. To that end, I’ll offer a few additional observations as to why incest is wrong and should continue to be illegal. But it should be emphasized that unless we reject the consensual view of sex and the sexual acts it justifies, we will not have a truly principled basis upon which to reject incest either morally or legally.

Additional Reasons Why Incest is Wrong and Should be Illegal

The social disapproval of incest currently appears strong enough to prevent the clamoring for legal recognition we’ve seen with homosexual unions. In the hope of contributing at least a little to preventing the social taboo against incest from dissipating as it has against homosexual unions, it may, nevertheless, be worthwhile to articulate additional reasons why incest is wrong and should continue to be illegal, besides those mentioned above that apply to homosexual unions and incest equally.

For instance, regardless of the child’s age, incest undermines the basic nature of the parent-child relationship. Unlike romantic relationships and friendships, the parent-child relationship involves a certain inequality that derives from the loving authority parents should exercise over their children, and the obedient respect children owe their parents. This authority and respect characterize the nature of the love between parents and their children, and while it becomes tempered with elements of friendship as children enter adulthood, parents should (and most often do), on the basis of their wisdom, experience, and selfless love for the child, continue to be source of support and guidance. Likewise, while, as adults, children become more capable of returning their parents’ selfless love, the proper form of that love should include a certain respect and gratitude, which prevents the parent-child relationship from possessing the equality found in romantic love and friendship. Incest, however, assumes an equality that is contrary to the authority and respect that should characterize the parent-child relationship. Thus, as indicated St. Thomas Aquinas’ argument that “it is unfitting for one to be conjugally united with persons to whom one should naturally be subject,” incest is wrong precisely because it violates the natural order of love between parents and their children.

But incest is also wrong because it thwarts the very reason the love between parents and children is so ordered. The natural orientation of parents’ love is to enable their children to develop into mature, self-reliant adults, who can, so to speak, “leave the nest” and “strike out on their own.” Due to the intense intimacy that characterizes erotic love, however, incest turns the child’s love principally toward the parent instead of outward toward the world, and thus, impedes the independence of the child to which the the parents’ love should be oriented.

Furthermore, as Aquinas states, “in human society it is most necessary that there be friendship among many people…[which]…is increased among men when unrelated persons are bound together by matrimony.” Insofar as incest prevents the child from marrying an unrelated person, it retards the growth in associations between and among different families. The social order benefits from the additional allegiances and loyalties forged through otherwise unrelated families uniting as one. Consequently, incest deprives society of the “social glue” that marriage outside of the family provides.

While these reasons speak to the immorality of incest, there is also a number of reasons why the state has an interest in criminalizing incest. As mentioned above, homosexual unions and incest both undermine the stability of the family and deprive children of the context in which they are most likely to thrive. Insofar as the state has an interest in the well-being of its citizenry as well as properly ordered families on which a healthy citizenry depends, it has an interest in preventing incest as well as homosexual union which threaten family stability. The fact that incest violates the proper ordering of love between parent and child and thus thwarts the purpose of this love explains why incest harms those involved, particularly children, who without the proper formation in and experience of a proper parent-child relationship, may further perpetuate a disordered understanding of the love between parent and child as well as its attendant consequences. Additionally, the state also has an interest in promoting a well-ordered society, which benefits, if not requires, a certain cohesiveness. Incest limits society’s cohesion because it limits the association of different families. Finally, given the affections that exist among family members and the intimacy of living together, the temptation for incest may be greater, especially as cultural mores against it weaken. Therefore, laws prohibiting incest may serve as important deterrent.

Toward Abolishing the Consensual View of Sex

As mentioned, in order to have a principled, philosophically firm foundation for our intuition that incest is immoral and should be illegal, we must ultimately reject the consensual view of sex and the sexual acts of incest, homosexual sex and even extramarital heterosexual sex that it justifies. The arguments above, however, deal primarily with the social consequences of homosexual sex and incest without demonstrating the error of the basic assumptions on which the acceptance of these sexual acts depend. I’ll therefore conclude by briefly sketching a framework for arguments against the assumptions underlying the consensual view of sex. Although it would take another article to flesh out these arguments, this should illustrate the direction one could take in exposing the error of these assumptions.

First, while the consensual view of sex rightly recognizes the importance of personal autonomy, it ultimately fails to acknowledge the truth of the human person whose autonomy it aims to protect. Because the consensual view sees the person only as a subject of free choices, the only moral limit to sex is that a person not be forced to have sex against his/her will. Thus, all sex that isn’t rape is permissible. The obvious problem with this understanding of the person, however, is that it fails to recognize human persons as integrated wholes, not just of mind, will, emotions, but also body (hence, in the law, we don’t say the body is vandalized as we would an external item of personal property, but rather that it’s battered or assaulted). Consequently, because the consensual view relies on an incomplete, and therefore, false view of the human person, there are reasons intrinsic to this understanding of sex that prevent it from serving as the basis for a proper understanding of sexual morality.

Second, because the consensual view of sex denies the integrity of the person, it permits sexual acts that violate personal autonomy. Ironically, this is true despite the fact that the force behind acceptance of the consensual view of sex is that it purports to protect personal autonomy. Although the consensual view has an erroneously limited view of the human person, it rightly assumes that persons, precisely as persons, have the capacity to freely choose their own actions and goals. For this reason, sexual acts, such as rape, that violate personal autonomy by failing to recognize a person’s capacity for making free choices are immoral. This dimension of the person, however, also implies, in the words of John Paul II, that a person is not only entitled to “decide for himself the ends of his activity,” but should “not be a blind tool of someone else’s ends.” In other words, genuine respect for a person’s freedom also requires what John Paul II calls the personalistic norm: that the person must be treated as an end in him/herself and never merely as a means. The types of sexual acts, such as extramarital heterosexual sex, homosexual sex and incest, that are morally permissible under the consensual view ultimately fail to conform to this personalistic norm, and, do so, in fact, because they ultimately ignore the full integration of the bodily and personal dimensions of the human person discussed above. Unfortunately, providing a full demonstration of the truth of this point would require another article, but for a thorough articulation of arguments to this effect, see Dr. Robert George’s Defense of Natural Law, “What Sex Can Be: Self-Alienation, Illusion, or One-Flesh Union” (Oxford Press 1999).

Again, while there are good reasons for our gut reaction that incest is wrong and should be illegal, we must come to terms with the fact that if we think this of incest, we should think the same of homosexual unions. Both have undesirable social consequences that justify state regulation of these behaviors and both rely on an understanding of sex that implies a false understanding of personal autonomy and a false view of the human person. Consequently, we must preserve, if not regain, our basic sense that incest and the view of sexuality on which it is based is wrong, and return to a traditional understanding of human sexuality.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative BookstoreThe Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.

All comments are moderated and must be civil, concise, and constructive to the conversation. Comments that are critical of an essay may be approved, but comments containing ad hominem criticism of the author will not be published. Also, comments containing web links or block quotations are unlikely to be approved. Keep in mind that essays represent the opinions of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Imaginative Conservative or its editor or publisher.

Leave a Comment
Print Friendly, PDF & Email