The Country of Brotherly Love

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2014 print issue of the Swarthmore Independent.

In a statement released this September, the German Ethics Council recommended that parliament repeal its laws criminalizing sibling incest. Only one or two generations ago, such a suggestion would have been considered unworthy of serious consideration. Now, however, in the context of the widespread erosion of traditional conceptions of marriage and sexuality, the Council’s pronouncement has raised the issue of sibling incest in a way it would be irresponsible to ignore. It will no longer do to dismiss discussions of incest with appeals to deep-seated feelings of moral repugnance. What is anathema to one generation has a way of becoming, after all, the next generation’s basic human right. It is a search for reasons therefore, not rhetoric or repugnance, that must drive the discussion forward.

What reasons, then, does the German Ethics Council present? In no uncertain terms, the Council states: “The fundamental right of adult siblings to sexual self-determination has more weight in [cases of consensual incest amongst adult siblings] than the abstract protection of the family.” Such an assertion indicates, I would suggest, that the Council’s controversial determination draws upon a characteristically liberal-modern conception of human freedom and sexuality. Liberals uncomfortable with the legalization of incest, then, will inevitably find, to their even greater discomfort, that they lack the philosophical resources to produce a consistent refutation of the Council’s position. A more conservative position on sexuality and the family is needed to provide compelling reasons for the principled continuation of a prohibition on sibling incest.

The sort of liberal-modern outlook that I will be addressing here (referred to hereafter simply as “liberalism”) has its beginnings in the Sexual Revolution and is most commonly associated today with terms like “sexual liberation” and “sex-positivity”. It largely rejects the traditional conception of human sexuality as intrinsically oriented toward a procreative union of persons within marriage. But what has it established in place of this traditional understanding?

If anything may be said, it is that liberalism advocates for a vast expansion in the range of permitted and valued sexual activity. The value of conjugal love within marriage is still affirmed, but it is no longer morally privileged. It stands alongside any sort of sexual act meant to express intimacy or affection outside of marriage, and even alongside casual sex between relative strangers. This shift has occurred because reasoning about sexual value no longer seeks its anchor in the objective realities of the human person and the good of the family but rather in the subjective preferences and desires of individuals. Hence, the only salient moral and legal feature is an honest, uncoerced alignment of desires – in other words, consent.

The recommendation of the German Ethics Council (GEC) is merely the fair extension of this liberal understanding to a group formerly outside its scope: incestuous siblings. The GEC admits that such relationships are uncommon, but also acknowledges that such relationships can be filled with the same intense emotional and sexual desires as non-incestuous relationships. “[Incestuous couples] describe how difficult their situation is in the light of the threat of punishment,” the GEC explains, “they feel their fundamental freedoms have been violated and are forced into secrecy or to deny their love…[these laws] put couples in a tragic situation.”

If such a description is accurate, as it almost certainly is, then what moral or legal reason could remain to systematically deny siblings the right to express their love and intimacy through sexual acts mutually agreeable to both parties? If two, though here one might easily imagine more than two, siblings consent, then the fair-minded liberal must concede that no such reasons exist. And finding such reasons absent, the GEC identifies laws upholding the prohibition against sibling incest as the groundless enforcement of an outworn taboo.

A liberal seeking to resist this conclusion has few arguments at her disposal. Appeals to feelings of disgust or repugnance are merely prejudicial. Claims regarding the health risks to children born of incestuous union are, as the GEC notes, similarly non-starters. The risk of genetic defect in the offspring of incestuous couples is not much greater than the risk in offspring of couples thirty-five years or older. Besides, there are a number of ways in which the liberal might enjoy the pleasures of sex while avoiding conception, in the case that conception might somehow be deemed irresponsible. Because the liberal has also more or less annexed serious questions surrounding family structure, like those surrounding sex, into the domain of consenting individuals, there is little she can say about the effects of incest without begging the question against those that have integrated their lives around an incestuous relationship.

The GEC writes, therefore, that “the fundamental right of adult siblings to sexual self-determination has more weight in such cases than the abstract protection of the family.” Contemporary liberalism, it would appear, is the natural home for the embrace of consensual incest amongst siblings. They are like long-lost brother and sister, finally reunited under the affirming eye of the GEC.

Unfortunately for those liberals still unsettled by the GEC’s recommendation, only the traditional conservative perspective is capable of presenting a consistent, rationally compelling case against incest. This case begins by breaking down a few assumptions typically made, either explicitly or implicitly, by mainline liberalism. These assumptions are as follows:

(1) The subjective feelings and preferences of consenting individuals, especially when joined together by a close friendship, are the final arbiters of the value of a sexual act.

(2) In protecting the freedom of individuals, the vitality of individual-building communities and institutions is likewise protected.

There are strong reasons, I will argue, to reject both of these assumptions.

A little reflection will show that a mere alignment of subjective preferences is not sufficient for a sexual act to be valuable in either its relational or self-reflexive aspects. Human acts, we want to say, ought to express respect for others in the fullness of their being as rational, embodied persons. Whatever stronger claims might be made, it is at least certain that sex aimed primarily at pleasure, even consensual sex between or amongst close friends, is incapable of meeting this standard. For sex aimed primarily at pleasure treats one’s own body and the body of one’s partner(s) as extrinsic instruments for the gratification of the conscious, desiring aspect of the self. In other words, it treats the body, an essential, constitutive aspect of the personal reality of the individual, as a sub-personal vehicle, geared up solely for the satisfaction of the will. The relational message communicated by such an act, then, is not one of friendship, which naturally embraces the full person, but one of instrumentalization. In this way, it expresses a lack of concern for the integrity, the mind-body unity, of oneself and of one’s sexual partner(s).

The self-reflexive impact of such actions is likewise undesirable, as it disposes the partners to understand themselves and others as fundamentally dis-integrated persons, open in certain circumstances to instrumental use for the sake of personal gratification. It disposes the partners against the idea that friendship and fundamental respect for persons must embrace others in their totality, as necessarily embodied bearers of a rational nature. Sex aimed primarily at pleasure, then, erodes the capacity of individuals to incorporate sex and sexual desire into a well-ordered framework for living.

So much for (1). Decisive counterexamples to (2) are easy to find. Consider, for example, the decline of the Christian religion in Western Europe. Whatever one believes about the ultimate truth of the Christian religion, it is difficult to deny that Christian communities and institutions have served as a source of life-shaping values for the countless individuals that grew up, lived, and worked under their influence. Nevertheless, at a time in Western European history marked by a relatively robust protection for the freedom of individuals, the influence of these communities and institutions, their ability to build up individuals in the way they once did, has significantly declined. Whether one believes this shift is for good or for ill, it demonstrates that the continued strength of character-shaping communities and institutions is not guaranteed solely by protecting the freedom of the individuals that constitute them. Rather, their strength within a given society is influenced by a complex of legal and extra-legal factors.

But what do these points have to do with incest? Relaxing liberal assumptions (1) and (2) allows us to look critically at the effect of incest on the family. The family is the first, and arguably the most important, of human communities. A strong, loving family provides for the socialization of children and contributes, often more so than any subsequent education, to the development of their character and to the inculcation of moral values. It can be a sanctuary from the world, a cohesive network of support that helps children to flourish, even and especially during times of moral or psychological vulnerability. If (1) is false, then the family is of the utmost importance in passing on a well-integrated, fully human understanding of sexuality to its children. To persevere in this effort is especially important during adolescence and young adulthood, an important time in character formation but also a time not especially known for chastity or restraint.

Now, allow sibling incest into the family. The temptation to act on and reinforce sexual desires that undermine the integrity of the person, temptation almost ubiquitous in the world outside the family, comes to infect the family as well. Because the goal of the family is not merely to teach theoretical or technical knowledge but also, and more importantly, to teach a way of acting and relating to others, it is paramount that the family remain, as much as possible, a sanctuary from such temptation. To attempt to convey to adolescents and young adults an approach to sexuality that urges moderation and restraint, both of which are necessary if sexual desire is to be integrated successfully into a well-ordered life, is challenging enough; to do so in a family environment that is itself already sexually charged would be like trying to keep dry in a rainforest.

The sexual openness of a family would be especially difficult on teenage girls who, too often viewed as sexual objects in the outside world, would find no relief at home, having to endure similar treatment and pressure from their male siblings. Allowing incest into the home would compromise one of the primary functions of the family, to lead its children to live flourishing lives sensitive to the dignity and the integrity of the human person.

If (2) is false, then it is of no avail to retreat behind the easy assumption that the family will always function the way it has in the past. As alluded to earlier, the law is not just a policeman; across generations, it can act as a teacher. Force the law to abandon its teaching on incest, and there is no guarantee that the family, the first and most important community in personal and civic life, will remain unchanged. In fact, if developments in marriage and, less recently, divorce, are any guide, there is strong reason to believe that it will not. In its inability to provide a consistent refutation of the GEC’s recommendation, liberalism shows itself caught in a paradox. In its blind commitment to protecting the choices of the individual, liberalism destabilizes the moral environment necessary for the individual’s moral formation, the foundation of authentic human freedom. The liberal’s implicit position on incest would compromise not just society’s families, and therefore its children, but also anything resembling a living culture of respect for human sexuality and for the human person.

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