Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Legalizing Incestuous and Polygamous Marriage

In this post, I am continuing to look at the fifth policy objective in Sean Faircloth's new atheist strategy - marriage equality.

One of the arguments we hear against gay marriage goes like this:

If we accept these arguments in favor of gay marriage as valid, we must also permit incestuous and polygamous marriages that involve consenting adults. Obviously, legalized incestuous and polygamous marriage is unacceptable, so gay marriage must also be unacceptable. You must vote against gay marriage or find yourself surrounded by incestuous and polygamous marriage.

Now, I can interpret thus argument in one of two ways.

Interpretation 1: So, you are telling me that you believe legalized incestuous and polygamous marriage will significantly improve the quality of some lives and do no harm to anybody. Yet, we must prohibit it nonetheless and eagerly do violence to those who would practice it.

Why? This sounds like a policy of harming others simply because one has a gotten into the habit of or developed a fondness for that which harms others.

Interpretation 2: If we legalize gay marriage, we must legalize incestuous and polygamous marriage. However, these others come with all sorts if harms we must avoid. Therefore, we must not legalize gay marriage.

Against this, the question is: Why not use these harms as reasons to keep incestuous and polygamous marriages illegal? Nobody claims that the fact that homosexual marriage involves consenting adults is a sufficient reason to permit such marriage, only that it provides a relevant difference between gay marriage and marriage between adults and children or adults and animals.

On the issue of polygamous marriage, perhaps this should be legal. They have one significant advantage over the "traditional family."

With a traditional family - one breadwinner, one caregiver, and children (or elderly parents, or those for whom care is needed) - if anything happens to either the breadwinner or the caregiver the results are likely to be catastrophic - for the family. If we increase the number of breadwinners and caregivers, we can reduce the chance of a catastrophic result. There is always a "backup" caretaker or breadwinner to fall back on.

On the other hand, managing so many personalities may well be impossible. It may require an unhealthy level of submission to a ruling patriarch that robs the other members of their personality and autonomy, or it may disintegrate into factions. I will have to leave it up to experts to answer those questions.

On the issue of incestuous marriage, I would argue that we do have good reason for a prohibition - a reason that does not apply to gay marriage.

Before I go into this objection, I want to discuss two objections to incestuous marriage between consenting adults that fail.

The first is the genetic argument. This argument claims that a prohibition against incest is justified because it reduces the chance of genetically deformed or defective children. Incestuous reproduction increases the possibility if realizing recessive genetic traits. These are most often harmful. This is because it is more likely that a sibling shares a recessive trait with another sibling than a member of the population at large.

The problem is that we no longer need to rely on a prohibition on incest to reach this objective or reducing genetic defects. We now have much more effective ways to determine if couples risk producing offspring with genetic defects. If this is a valid argument, we should now give up the crude "incest" test and use more scientific genetic tests. We can require that couples undergo genetic screening, and prohibit sex between those who are judged genetically incompatible. Where these genetic tests determine that siblings share no recessive traits, then they can be allowed to marry. Whereas non-siblings that share recessive traits can be prohibited from marriage (or sex).

Furthermore, the genetic argument provides no objection to incestuous gay marriage or incestuous marriage among sterile family members.

The other failed argument against incestuous marriage says that evolution has given us a disposition to avoid incest that manifests itself culturally as an incest taboo - a set of social and legal prohibitions on incest.

However, an evolved disposition to avoid something is not an evolved disposition to do violence to those who do not avoid it. And an evolved disposition to do violence to those who do not avoid something is not a justification for doing violence to them.

The inference from, "I have evolved a disposition to do violence to people like you," to "You deserve to be treated violently" is wholly invalid - even if the first part happens to be true. In the case of an incest taboo, the first part itself has not been demonstrated, even if we have a natural aversion to incest.

So, these common objections to incest do not work.

However, there is an argument that does work.

Promoting a society-wide aversion to incest is almost certainly an effective tool for preventing the sexual abuse of children.

People act so as to fulfill the most and strongest of their desires, given their beliefs. We know that manifestations of human desires cause a certain amount of childhood sexual abuse - we have observed physical evidence that this is the case.

Now, take our current set of human desires and remove from it the aversion to incest - holding all other desires constant.

A very likely result - in fact, I would say a certain result - of this would be an increase in incidents of child sexual abuse. Given our current manifestation of desires, the aversion to incest is preventing some incidents of child sexual abuse that would otherwise take place in its absence. A great deal of sexual abuse is perpetrated by family members, and a great deal of sexual abuse that does not occur may be attributed to an aversion to incest.

Our interest in preventing childhood sexual abuse gives us reason to promote an aversion to incest. In this respect, evolution may have given us the raw tools to work with, but evolution does not justify its use. Nor does eugenics. It is the prevention of childhood sexual abuse that justifies its use.

One of the social tools for promoting this aversion - as well as one of its effects - is a social intolerance of incestuous marriage. Permitting these marriages would require reducing the social aversion to incest - telling community members that it is okay and nothing to feel bad about. Whereas a prohibition communicates to society at large that it is something to feel bad about, which promotes this aversion, and reduces incidents of childhood sexual abuse.

This objection does not apply to gay marriage because the relationship between gay sex and the sexual abuse of children is exactly the same as the relationship between heterosexual sex and the sexual abuse of children. There is no relevant difference between the two - and, thus, no moral difference stemming from this objection to incestuous relationships.


Austin Nedved said...

However, there is an argument [against incestuous marriage] that does work. Promoting a society-wide aversion to incest is almost certainly an effective tool for preventing the sexual abuse of children.

No, it isn't. Promoting an aversion to consensual sex between family members does nothing to deter people from molesting their children. Why would it?

Now, take our current set of human desires and remove from it the aversion to incest - holding all other desires constant. A very likely result - in fact, I would say a certain result - of this would be an increase in incidents of child sexual abuse. Given our current manifestation of desires, the aversion to incest is preventing some incidents of child sexual abuse that would otherwise take place in its absence.

If we wanted to stop child sexual abuse, wouldn't promoting an aversion to nonconsensual incest (i.e. rape) without trying to deter consensual incest make more sense? Why try to stigmatize all incest, consensual as well as nonconsensual, when we can just try to deter the latter?

I agree that completely removing any sort of aversion to all incest without respect to whether it is consensual or not, would definitely result in an increase of the amount of child molestation. But removing the stigma on consensual incest without removing the stigma on incestuous rape would seem to make the most sense in terms of stopping people from molesting family members.

And it is certainly possible to promote an aversion to rape without also promoting an aversion to consensual sex. Just as we can celebrate homosexuality and still condemn pederasty, we could celebrate consensual incest while condemning rape.

By your logic, then, the best way to eliminate child sexual abuse entirely is to promote a society-wide aversion to any and all sexual activity that takes place outside of marriage. If we were to take the current set of human desires and remove from it any desire for sexual contact with individuals to whom one is not married, the amount of child sexual abuse would plummet. But of course, there is something seriously wrong with your logic. What we should do is promote an aversion to nonconsensual sexual activity - and there is no reason to believe that we cannot do this while permitting and even celebrating sexual activity that is consensual.

Before I end this comment, I want to make it clear that I do not support incestuous marriage. The purpose of what I am saying here is to establish that the child rape objection to the analogy between incestuous marriage and gay marriage is unsuccessful.

Full Marriage Equality said...

I agree with Austin. And what's more, an adult should be free to share love, sex, residence, and marriage with any consenting adults, without prosecution, persecution, or discrimination.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Austin Nedved

Why not both? Why take this as an "either-or" question as if we cannot put both aversions to work for us to protect children?

We are not talking about removing an aversion to incest and replacing it with an aversion to nonconsentual sex. We are talking about removing an aversion to incest in a context where society is already employing an aversion to nonconsentual sex that is not wholly effective.

In order for your argument to work, you would have to argue that, in the current situation where an aversion to nonconsentual sex is already in play, the aversion to incest currently has no effect on behavior - that it does not modify behavior in any way.

Furthermore, not all abusive incest is adult-child. There is the case of the 16 year old male with his 14 year old sister. We see how effective a prohibitioin on nonconsentual sex is in regulating this behavior among teenagers who are strangers to one another. What about a situation in which sex between teenage family members is as common as sex between teenage strangers?

We need a prohibition to incest - not to prevent genetic deformities, but to protect children from harm within the family. It modifies behavior in ways that provide children with a safer and healthier environment.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Marriage Equality

first, it seems that you do not agree with Austin, who does not support incestuous marriage.

Second, would you continue to support your ckaim where further empirical reasearch supports my oroposition that promoting a society-wide aversion towards incest provides for a significant reduction in child sexual abuse - or diesn't that matter. Or do you already have perfect knowledge to the effect that I might be wrong in spite of the arguments privided (to the degree that you do not feel the need to even address those arguments)?

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Marriage Equality

i also have to ask, where dies that principle you state come from? Did God carve it into a stone tablet somewhere? Is it somehow written into the very fabric of nature? Can you give any defense if it other than, "I like it - and that which I like must not only be true but should dictate the attitudes if everybody else."?

Can you defend it?

Pngwn said...


I thought I might mention an observation of mine.

Your post was very calm, collected, and reasonable. However, your responses to other's on the comment section here, seems to be disorganized, and emotional. This can easily be shown when one looks at the spelling mistakes.

On a computer, when we get emotional, we start typing faster. When we start typing faster, we make more mistakes.

Perhaps a more subjective view (and feel free to disagree) would be the general tone of your comments. It comes off as an accusation, (complete with a strawman) with a series of rhetorical questions that seem high in pathos and low in logos.

I just hope that you were in a particularly bad mood when you wrote those comments, because the alternative is that you are always in a bad mood, and that would be a shame.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

I thank you for your concern.

The speed with which I write my comments has more to do with a need to catch a bus than my mood.

As for the logos versus pathos distinction, note that desirism says that the proper response to immoral conduct is through praise and condemnation, not reason. I have often illustrated this point with an analogy to changing a tire. Reason tells you how to change a tire. However, reason alone will not change the tire. That takes action.

Morality is concerned with the use of social tools such as praise and condemnation to mold desires. Reason answers the question of how to use the tools, but it does not provide a substitute for actually using the tools.

I consider some of the ways that people respond to moral issues to display attitudes that deserve a response in the area of condemnation. For example, I think that responding to the hypothesis that promoting an aversion to incest may be necessary to prevent some child sexual abuse with an unfounded platitude to display a shocking lack of concern over the potential abuse of children.

In fact, I saw the post - really nothing but a link and a slogan - as really nothing more than an attempt to use my comment section as an advertising billboard by somebody who could not care less about the moral and social considerations.

That determined the nature of my response.

Often, when I think that a commenter has sought to engage the issue and a reasoned response is warranted, I give that response as a new post, which gives me more room to make a reasoned argument. Not always, of course, but often. In fact, some of my best posts fit that mold - such as the Hateful Craig Problem. You will find those responses as new posts, not In the comments.

Pngwn said...

12 years of college and you still take a bus?

Alonzo Fyfe said...

12 years of college and I do not own a car. Though I had never had an accident, I never considered myself a very good driver. I determined that it would be irresponsible of me to drive.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Alonzo for your blog discussing ethics for atheists with a naturalistic worldview.

Do you agree that all adult-child sexual activity is harmful? If so, can you simply not imagine it never being harmful or instead is there simply no research supporting it being good for the development of children?

I agree with their being no research but since it is considered harmful to begin with, of course there isn't. But, consider, it is harmful to our own reputation to even think the thought that it may have some good value. Compare adult-child incest to adult bestiality. No one can honestly say that maybe bestiality is good for humans and animals by pointing to research. Yet research is used to promote the claim that adult-child incest is harmful (and of course it's intuitively culturally obvious it's bad).

My point is that the topic is too hot to handle objectively. Your own reputation is at stake by questioning the validity of current opinion and also, one cannot objectively question the validity of current opinion because it is immoral to find out.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


On the question of whether all adult-child sex is harmful, in morality, that is not the point.

Getting shot in the head is not always harmful. A young mand with severe obsessive-compulsive disorder was shot in the head during a convenience store robbery. Not only did he lead a full recovery, it apparently cured him of this afliction.

I would not argue from the possibility of harmless - even helpful - shots to the head argues that it should be public practice.

Desirism does not ask if an act is "always harmful" or not. It asks whether a desire will tend to fulfill desires or thwart desires - whether we can create an environment that is generally safer and healthier for children by promoting an aversion to sex with children.

There may well be some special set of circumstances where sex with a child is not harmful. However, in the real world, we would have to deal with cases in which people merely think that their actions fall within those bounds. And we would have to deal with weaking the inhibitions against adult-child sex among people who cannot keep their behavior within those bounds.

I think we have more than enough evidence to know that we have many and strong reasons to promote such an aversion.

Anonymous said...

Coincidences don't count in the normal meaning of harm. Of course I mean harm caused by agents, not "luck".

As for your argument, I agree. This is the basis of most medical practice - a tradeoff of harms and benefits.

My point is, why do you assume your intuitions are correct about pedophilia but not incest? Then at the end you jump back to promoting aversions because (although not stated I assume) it is normal.

We already promote child welfare in ways that can cause harm because in general it is worth the risk. Could evidence ever over come your belief about pedophilia and what would it look like? Until you address that in the context of desirism, I am confused how you know its wrong.

I know its wrong because its harmful but I admit there is a lot of bias and little hope of ever knowing what goes right to not make all cased of child abuse terribly traumatic. And that is my entire point, just to reduce harm - not promote harmony of desires, which is really all about power.

Anonymous said...

Thank you. This was the smartest response I have read on the internet in a long time.

Unknown said...

I must disagree. Why must marriage and sex be intertwined? It used to be that couples refrained from marriage prior to marriage and so they married as a way to have legitimate sex, and have children who were not bastardized. In fact, the common law in most states holds that a marriage which has not been consummated is considered voidable. One of the problems with gay marriage is that they are perpetually voidable. I guess we can change the definition of consummation to include anal and/or oral sex. But it seems to me that would be silly as it ignores the purpose behind the "consummation rule" which is that the law did not want to consider a marriage where a child was possible, as a voidable marriage thereby reducing the child to the status of bastardization. So why is all this important? Because there is nothing preventing siblings, or any other groups of human beings from having sexual intercourse, inside or outside of marriage. Therefore, sex is irrelevant in the context of marriage these days. If marriage can be framed as a union of individuals, and separated from the element of sex, (which it is now), then the issue of marriage between two siblings has nothing at all to do with sex. So, one can support consanguineous marriage, and have absolutely no tolerance for incest.