I’m often surprised by people who see gay rights as an entirely one-sided, good and evil issue – and then turn around and condemn incest, even consensual adult brother-sister incest, as sick, disgusting and therefore wrong. (The “therefore” is the most intriguing part.) I’ve always enjoyed Dan Savage‘s sex columns, but after his continued attacks on those who condemn gay sex as disgusting (such as ensuring that this (NSFW) is the first Google hit for Senator Rick Santorum‘s name), I lost a lot of respect for him when he repeatedly proclaimed incest to be wrong.
Savage’s arguments are startlingly poor. Abuse of power, a clear justification for opposing parent-child incest or incest between underage siblings, is hardly an issue between adult brothers and sisters. He says “older or more domineering siblings can hold enormous power over their brothers and sisters” – but so can older or more domineering spouses. And when he adds that the incest taboo “is not an attempt to deny a group of people any and all access to love and intimacy, but an attempt to direct sexual feelings toward healthier, more appropriate targets” – well, that’s exactly what anti-gay people say about their own position. Savage tries to add that people attracted to siblings can be attracted to others in a way that gays can’t; but while that might mean the homosexuality taboo’s effects are more unjust than the incest taboo’s, it still doesn’t give us any reason to believe the taboo against incest is healthy or valid in a way that the taboo against homosexuality is not. (Savage at least doesn’t try to bring up the really lame argument that incest leads to birth defects – on those grounds, we would need to prohibit people from having vaginal sex if they have heritable genetic disorders themselves!)
Now why does all this stuff about incest matter, philosophically? Because the incest taboo tends to be among our strongest preexisting moral beliefs (“moral intuitions”) – so much so that people like Savage will go to bizarre lengths to defend it in the face of all logic. Jonathan Haidt has done some great work exploring this phenomenon, noting how people will keep trying to come up with sillier and sillier reasons for opposing incest even when the obvious holes are pointed out.
Haidt shows us that there is one way to oppose consensual adult brother-sister incest consistently – and that’s to be the kind of conservative who also opposes homosexuality. Leon Kass, for example, likes to speak of the “wisdom of repugnance,” arguing that our disgust reactions are a good guide to ethical truth and we should be ready to follow them. But the same argument, of course, applies to homosexuality. This is what he calls a “conservative” view – one that admits all of our moral “intuitions,” including those based on disgust, rather than trying to reduce our moral views to harm, benefit and fairness.
By contrast, most defences of homosexuality require, as far as I can tell, that disgust reactions be ruled out of court as guides to ethical truth. I’m happy to say that; Martha Nussbaum has made similar points. But once you go to that point, you’re going to have a very hard time opposing incest. I don’t have a problem with this; I accept (as Haidt does) that there’s nothing wrong with consensual adult brother-sister incest. But it remains a problem for those who do want to hold on to “intuitions.”
Again no Sunday entry this week, as I’ll be out of town and away from the Internet.