This hasn’t been a good week for Huffington Post writers. Even as Michael Shaw made an utter fool of himself by slamming Sarah Palin for getting help with her hair in Haiti, without pausing to note the helper in question was her own daughter, outspoken Palin critic and Obama donor David Epstein was getting arrested for incest. Emergency revisions to the HuffPo job application forms are already under way, adding the questions “Can you pay attention to important details, and think rationally about them?” and “Have you been enjoying sexual relations with blood relatives?” Just kidding – they’d never add that first question.
Believe it or not, the incest bust is somewhat controversial among HuffPo readers, as well as Epstein’s political science students at Columbia. (Sorry, parents – no refunds!) Some say his arrest is “kind of extreme,” because the relationship with his 24-year-old daughter was “consensual.” There are HuffPo readers who “don’t understand how it is a crime,” or “stop at the point of saying law enforcement should get involved in cases where both parties were legal adults at the time,” while professing to find Epstein’s actions personally repugnant. These responses are not typical of the readership – far from it – but there are enough of them to be profoundly disturbing. “Take Your Daughter To Work Day” is going to be super awkward at Columbia next year.
Meanwhile, the U.K. Telegraph reports the upper house of the Swiss parliament “has drafted a law decriminalizing sex between consenting family members.” Daniel Vischer, a Green Party member of parliament, said “incest is a difficult moral question, but not one that is answered by penal law.” The Telegraph also says Vischer sees “nothing wrong with two consenting adults having sex, even if they were related,” which suggests it’s not really all that difficult of a moral question for him.
Is this really the new frontier of moral relativism? “Hey, come on, man, chill out. The dude and his daughter were, like, consenting adults. It’s none of our business what they do in the bedroom. Loosen up, social cons!”
This line of reasoning would lead inevitably to the government sanction of incestuous marriage, would it not? We’ve already established that artificial limitations on who can get married are invalid. If it doesn’t have to be a man and a woman, why should it matter if they’re father and daughter, once incest is decriminalized?
Endlessly questioning the bedrock assumptions of civilized society always leads to this kind of absurdity. If nothing is absolutely wrong, then everything is, at least potentially, a little bit right. The taboo against incest is one of the oldest and most fundamental building blocks of civilization. It has sound biological roots, as primitive man cannot help but have noticed the genetic deficiencies of children born through incestuous relationships. It has social utility as well, encouraging families to bond with each other, and expand first into clans, then into larger and more advanced societies. It generates moral currency by establishing the responsibility of parents to their children, and provides the first sparks of what expands to become the enduring flame of Man’s greatest moral achievement: the principle of selfless and unconditional love.
Most of these points could be addressed with modern technology. What if incestuous couples agreed to be sterilized when their marriages are licensed? Artificial insemination could provide children from healthy sperm donors, or they could acquire children through adoption. As for the social need of different families coming together through marriage, well, we’ve got Facebook for that.
It shouldn’t be necessary to point out that the concept of a “consensual” incestuous relationship is absurd, because there can never be an equal relationship between a father and his daughter, no matter how old she was when they consummated the affair. There is also the moral horror of parents who would prey upon their own children in this manner. Society instinctively, and correctly, recoils from such people. No sane person would be comfortable letting David Epstein get anywhere near their children, or trusting him with anything at all. If he’s okay with violating the deep contract between parents and children for his own gratification, what other shred of honor could he be assumed to possess?
A functioning society requires a certain degree of restraint from its participants, and the absolute refusal to sexually abuse one’s own children is pretty close to the minimum. We imprison such people because they have no place among us, and everyone tempted to follow David Epstein’s path needs to understand that implicitly. To do otherwise is to abandon the defense of every child whose predatory father, or mother, thinks they only need to extract a little “consent” to indulge unspeakable urges.
I’ve always been an advocate of traditional marriage because I recognize and venerate its unique value, not because I hold monogamous same-sex relationships to be without value. You can praise one thing without insulting another, or celebrate an ideal without denigrating those who prefer not to join in the celebration. I loathe incest because I’m a sane human being with a functional gag reflex, and doubt the continued survival of any society that would fail to punish it without hesitation. Veneration, tolerance, and repugnance… we live in a time when the difference between the first two must be explained, and tremble on the edge of a “brave new world,” in which some of us have talked themselves out of understanding the third.