Incest and the Degradation of Our Vocabulary
by Matthew J. Franck
January 5, 2011
What’s wrong with a prominent professor’s incestuous relationship with his daughter.
The story of David Epstein, the Columbia University political scientist and Huffington Post blogger now facing criminal charges of incest, has launched a very interesting discussion. What is fascinating about it, and deeply disturbing, is the inability of some commentators to articulate what is morally wrong about the act of incest. It is almost equally disturbing that a legal argument for a “right” to engage in adult, consensual incest stands on surprisingly firm footing, thanks to precedents the United States Supreme Court has already established in other cases on the “autonomy of the person” under our Constitution.
Professor Epstein, 46, has been charged with third-degree incest for carrying on a sexual relationship over a three-year period with his daughter, now 24. From what little has emerged about the case, there are no charges that the relationship antedated the daughter’s eighteenth birthday, nor has it been alleged that the sexual relations were other than consensual. (The daughter herself has not so far been charged with a crime, however.) So powerful is the contemporary opinion that “consenting adults” may engage, in private, in any acts that commit no “harm” (narrowly understood in almost purely physical terms) to the parties in question or to others, that some observers have merely shrugged indifferently at the Epstein case, while others have striven to find grounds for condemning such incestuous acts but finally confessed their failure to find them.
After briefly describing the facts of the Epstein case, UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh asked, “Should it be illegal, and if so, exactly why?” The comments from his readers were not, in the main, terribly edifying. Volokh’s UCLA colleague Stephen Bainbridge cited the ethicist Leon Kass’s phrase “the wisdom of repugnance,” and said there was “definitely an ick factor” at work in his judgment of the case. But beyond this instinctual support for an ancient taboo, Bainbridge had little else to offer. And such an “ick factor” may be all most people can summon upon learning of this case. The taboo being so ancient, so much a part of “second nature” in people’s moral make-up, it has gone unarticulated for so long that when the need arises to articulate it, we may find ourselves speechless.
William Saletan made perhaps the most successful attempt to articulate a reason for condemning even consensual adult incest. He rejected the oft-cited risk of hereditary birth defects as a reason to prohibit incest, because such a risk is not present in some incestuous relations and is easily obviated in others. And violence and exploitation could not be said to be at work in truly consensual cases of incest between adults. Saletan finally settled, without much further elaboration, on calling incest a “cancer of the family” because it perverts already-existing relationships between family members.
It does indeed. Saletan might have consulted the analysis offered in C.S. Lewis’s 1960 book The Four Loves had he wished to develop the point. Lewis’s four forms of love are affection (the Greek storgē), friendship (philia), sexual or romantic love (eros), and charity or Christian love (agapē). Here we may stick to the first three—the “natural loves,” Lewis calls them—and observe that they are not so much variations of one thing as different species of love. Each has its own integrity, and is in an important way constitutive of human happiness. Some overlap among or progression through the various loves is possible, of course. Married couples, for instance, may begin as friends, become lovers, and finally find their relationship cemented in bonds of affection, that “humblest love” that as often as not involves a great deal of “taking for granted.”
But while such overlap is appropriate in some instances, in others it is inappropriate—indeed, it can be an outrage to mix loves or for one to intrude upon another. The relations of children to parents, and of siblings to each other, the most basic of familial ties, are intense and lifelong relations of affection, in which great variations on storgē are visible. Such close kinship, grounded in nature or even only in law and custom (as with step-siblings, for instance), is often its own justification and support. Surely many of us have been heard to say something like, “I don’t much like him, but I’m obliged to love him, because he’s my brother.” Introduce the element of eros, however, and affection is not reinforced; it is destroyed, and replaced by something unnatural to the relationship in its proper sense. The human good of parent-child love, or of sibling intimacy, is sacrificed to a misplaced passion that cannot achieve its own rightful end.