In a recent article in Slate, William Saletan tries to develop a modern secular rationalization against incest. I am not sure what is more concerning about this piece; the fact that he even has to make the argument, or the fact that a number of commenter’s on his column dispute that any such rationale exists.
Saletan is responding to a recent incident where a Professor of Political Science at Columbia David Epstein was recently arrested for having an incestuous relationship with his adult daughter. He is trying to respond to the argument that if we as a society accept homosexual relationships, why wouldn’t we also accept sexual relations between grown siblings and between parents and their grown progeny? As he rightly points out, biology is no longer a barrier (apologies ahead of time for Saletan’s crude descriptions):
Many incest laws in the United States invoke this concept. In patently eugenic language, they forbid sex between “consanguineous” (blood-related) partners. But this rationale won’t withstand close scrutiny or the march of technology. If genetics is the issue, just get a vasectomy. Then you can bang your sister all you want. Or skip the vasectomy and bang your brother. Gay sex can’t make a baby, so the problem is solved. As the German court noted, Stuebing could have dodged Germany’s incest law in precisely this way.
Indeed, the advocates for gay marriage use the fact that technology now allows homosexuals to have children just like heterosexual couples – so biology should be no barrier to marriage and parenthood.
The next tack Saletan considers is the argument against incest on the grounds that it is exploitative. As he notes in the case of Prof. Epstein, he was involved with his adult daughter. He also cites other cases where prosecution of individuals involved adults and their adult children or step-children. Again this corresponds to the argument by the gay movement that their behavior is between consenting adults and thus should be a freedom allowed by the state.
So he is left with one argument against incest – that of natural family order, an argument he acknowledges is the one invoked by moral conservatives:
The conservative view is that all sexual deviance—homosexuality, polyamory, adultery, bestiality, incest—violates the natural order. Families depend on moral structure: Mom, Dad, kids. When you confound that structure—when Dad sleeps with a man, Dad sleeps with another woman, or Mom sleeps with Grandpa—the family falls apart. Kids need clear roles and relationships. Without this, they get disoriented. Mess with the family, and you mess up the kids.
Despite the fact that he dislikes this argument, William Saletan realizes it is the only rational one against adult consensual incestuous incest:
Morally, the family-structure argument captures our central intuition about incest: It confuses relationships. Constitutionally, this argument provides a rational basis for laws against incest.
But he then weakly tries to defend against the obvious implications of this argument against gay marriage:
When a young man falls in love with another man, no family is destroyed. Homosexuality is largely immutable, as the chronic failure of “ex-gay” ministries attests. So if you forbid sex between these two men, neither of them is likely to form a happy, faithful heterosexual family. The best way to help them form a stable family is to encourage them to marry each other.
I have to admit it is almost laughable to see the someone go through such rhetorical contortions to defend gay marriage against its obvious implications. There is no little irony in seeing someone accept one of the primary arguments against gay marriage, and then claim conclude that gay marriage is perfectly acceptable! Saletan does so by making a single huge evidentiary leap when by claiming that by merely having marriage available to them homosexuals will themselves form ‘stable families’ despite the fact that there is absolutely no evidence to indicate this is true. One of the primary and most powerful anchors of heterosexual families for stability is the natural bond that occurs between men and women for the purposes of procreation, and homosexuals don’t have this at all. On top of that there is the impetus of moral, traditional and historical obligation on heterosexual couples to maintain a stable family unit – again, there is no such basis for homosexual couples. So his argument is wholly without basis here.
So where does that leave us? Quite frankly it leaves where many who argue against gay marriage have claimed it leaves us – with a wide open door to a variety of other human sexual degradations. Given the ability of technology to overcome genetic concerns, there is simply no merely rational argument against incest. In fact, there is no purely secular or rational argument against polygamy either. This is because absent a moral compass, a sense of human purpose and design, humans can ‘rationalize’ any behavior they want.
What is often overlooked by this crowd is that the world they imagine has already existed. It was not uncommon in pagan times for there to exist openly homosexual relationships. Incest among royals and polygamy were common place in the pre-Christian world. These sexual arrangements are in fact ‘natural’ if by natural one means societies that exist outside of Judeo-Christian frameworks. So the rejection of that morality for the purposes of advancing a particular agenda will not end with the acceptance of gay marriage, but inevitably ‘progress’ to ever more diverse relationships of the sort Prof. Epstein engaged in. And there will be no secular bulwark against it. It was only with the advent of Christianity that respect for the human family as it was designed to exist became inculcated into Western human culture.
I have often heard complaints by the secular left that the moral conservatives engage in the fallacy of the slippery slope argument when it comes to gay marriage vis-à-vis the claim that allowing gay marriage will lead to the breakdown of natural human relationships. While this may not be the direct effect of allowing gay marriage, what is in fact true as exemplified by this article is that if we accept the arguments and reasoning that allow for gay marriage, we must therefore allow for other consensual adult relationships of the sort David Epstein and others want to have. If we dismiss moral, traditional, and historical prohibitions then there is no reason legally or biologically to disallow wither incestuous or polygamous relationships.
What is clear is that we are not heading toward a slippery slope but a moral and societal abyss. The question we now have to ask is, where’s the bottom?