Homosexuality, Incest and Morality

This is my response to thabbithinks's post To incest or not to incest:

There are two aspects of this question that we must distinguish here. One is the question of whether two consenting adults have the right to do as they please. This is an issue of individual liberty, regarding the morality of limits of social interference, which we have established using the criteria of ‘adulthood’ and ‘consent’. This in itself says nothing about the positive or negative moral value of what those two consenting individuals choose to do.

The sexual relationship in which a couple chooses to indulge in dehumanizing and degrading forms of sex, but within privacy and with mutual consent, are well within their ‘rights’ to do so (i.e. society is not justified in interfering with what goes on between them) but that relationship cannot be ascribed the quality of being ‘moral’, because it possesses no positive moral value as such. Sadism and Masochism as character traits only have negative moral connotations. (I'm speaking from a broadly virtue ethical perspective. Utilitarian and Deontological notions of morality are too narrow to distinguish the moral richness of such scenarios.)

Most people while defending homosexuality rely exclusively on the ‘rights’ principle so much so that they totally ignore the fact that a positive moral case can be built for homosexuality as well. American Psychological Association, for instance, states:

“Same-sex sexual attractions, behavior, and orientations per se are normal and positive variants of human sexuality—in other words, they do not indicate either mental or developmental disorders.”
“Gay men, lesbians, and bisexual individuals form stable, committed relationships and families that are equivalent to heterosexual relationships and families in essential respects.”

This can be used to argue effectively that homosexual relationships can have the same positive moral attributes that any heterosexual relationship can have.

When it comes to incest, definitely it comes under the protection of rights principle, but its moral value per se is difficult to judge. As you have identified yourself, sanctioning incest robs the home and family of its safety. For a society which morally values the institution of family, this is one very pertinent reason to disapprove of incest. Secondly, even if safe rearing of children is somehow guaranteed, the possibilities of emotional exploitation in a romantic relationship with family members are far greater than in a relationship with non-family. Responsible societies disapprove of relationships between psychotherapists & patients, and teachers & students, because they can recognize how the role asymmetry can lead one to exploit the other, even in a sincere, consensual relationship. If we are justified in disapproving of a relationship between psychotherapist & a patient for this reason, we have far greater justification for disapproving of a relationship between a parent and a child, even with consent. In specific situations these factors may or may not come to play (siblings who grew up apart, etc) and hence some specific cases may not be subject to disapproval, but generally I believe we justified in disapproving of incest, yet I do not think it is reason enough to criminalize consensual, adult relationships.


Urooj Zia said…
For a sexual activity to be consensual, both / all parties involved need to be able to provide informed consent -- something that a child cannot provide. Even if a child says 'yes', that is not *informed* consent. Statutory rape laws exist for a reason.

Moreover, children who have been sexually abused can also seek to replicate / re-enact that abuse, often with other children in the family closer to their ages. That's a child consciously or subconsciously crying for help by re-enacting the abuse meted out to them; not a horny individual 'getting some'.

As such, there is no such thing as 'consensual incest'; there is only childhood sexual abuse, whether it is between an adult and a child or between children who are from the same age group.
Bolshevik said…
Also, TabbiThinks mentions Frued's theory of attraction towards parents. This theory was debunked a long long time ago. Important point to note: Freud was a survivor of incestuous childhood sexual abuse; it is not unusual at all for children who have been victimised sexually within the family to have latent sexual attraction towards the abuser.
Urooj Zia said…
Both comments above were made by me. Google signed in automatically and caused username confusion, sorry. :-)
Urooj Zia said…
PS: I understand that you're discussing adult relationships, but there's a reason I've mentioned children. The dynamics of childhood sexual abuse are frighteningly complex; many child victims are later groomed / conditioned into continuing an adult 'affair' with the abuser.

As to why homosexuality is fine and incest is not (for adults), one needs to look at the effects of each on the parties involved. A healthy relationship between same-sex adults is the same as its heterosexual counterpart. An incestuous 'relationship', on the other hand, is inherently abusive (even among adults; for the reason that I've specified in the previous para) and leaves horrific mental and emotional scars on the survivor.

PSS: Apologies for the flood. I will stop now.
Awais Aftab said…
@ Urooj Zia

Thank you for your comments :) I do not believe we are at a disagreement here.

Sexual activity with children and it's prolongation into adulthood are undoubtedly immoral and criminal acts and there is no dispute with regards to that.
Komal said…
This is a great post. I take basically the same position: incest is not necessarily immoral, but is more likely to be so due to the emotional entanglements and power dynamics that often exist within families. If siblings are raised apart and then fall in love, do not produce children, and have a healthy relationship then it is not immoral as far as I can see.

Homosexuality can have positive moral worth not only because the relationship can be healthy, but also because of the unique advantages and experiences that come with being gay. It's easier to avoid gender roles, the relationships are often more equal and it's easier to be androgynous. Also the new-ness and unconventionality of it make it more exciting, which was one of the reasons I chose to be gay.
Alec Lindsay said…
'Utilitarian ... notions of morality are too narrow to distinguish the moral richness of such scenarios'? That made me smile. By all mean let's cut the utilitarians off before they have a chance to spooil our mystic debates. Not wanting to hear the argument that morality is a delusion, one of many harboured by theologians and flat earthers, then? It seems there are still people longing to examine pin heads to see how many angels are dancing there :)
Uzair said…
You need to explain what your definition of incest is.
Awais Aftab said…
@ Alec

Ha, I probably earned that jab, but there is nothing mystical in the post above, my friend :) I do not dismiss Utilitarian considerations, though I may consider them limited. If Utilitarian ethics contradicts my conclusions, I'd love to know.
Awais Aftab said…
@ Uzair

Incest: sexual relations between people of immediate consanguinity (blood relations), namely parents, children, siblings, grandparents and grandchildren.

This is what I consider to be incest, though the exact limits of blood relations seem to be a matter of cultural and historical dispute.
Komal said…
"I'm speaking from a broadly virtue ethical perspective. Utilitarian and Deontological notions of morality are too narrow to distinguish the moral richness of such scenarios."

You win forever.