Why We Need an Incest Taboo
Albert Mohler weighs in on the incest controversy that we have already discussed on this blog. I want to add one point that I haven’t seen anyone raise. People seem to think that the “ick” factor is not significant because it cannot be entirely explained on rational grounds. (Mohler’s quote from Wm. Saletan is to this effect.)
But we should not entirely dismiss the “ick” factor. To say that incest is “icky” is to say that it is unthinkable. That is what taboos are supposed to do: take a given behavior off the table, to make that behavior completely unworthy of consideration by any decent person.
Why? Because if people start asking themselves, “gee, would sex with my father really be so harmful in this particular case?” or “could I get away with sex with my daughter in this particular case?” they will find cases where they could convince themselves that it isn’t really harmful and they could get away with it. (And just because an individual has convinced himself that “it isn’t really too harmful” in his case, that doesn’t at all prove that an objective observer would agree. People have a universal tendency to let themselves off the hook. Every sensible person knows this.) Then, without an “ick” factor, and with no reason not to do it, with low probability of getting caught, they will go ahead and do it.
A social order is built upon people restraining themselves from taking advantage of every situation for anti-social behavior where they might get away with it. That is the job that a functioning conscience performs in a properly socialized person. And that element of self-restraint means that people can live together with lower probability of being harmed by others, because the Others who have the opportunity to harm them, don’t even think about it. It doesn’t even cross their minds.
Incest is precisely the kind of crime that is extremely difficult to detect inside the home. All the freedoms that allow a family to operate in private work against detecting predatory behavior of the strong against the weak, by the adult generation against the younger generation. The privacy of the home presents many opportunities for undetected sexual exploitation. Any protective system the government might try to establish would almost certainly be inadequate. The primary deterrent against exploitation has to be the “ick” factor: the thought of having sex with a child or a parent is so revolting that it doesn’t even occur to the vast, vast majority of adults.
I know that some people believe the family is inherently exploitive. Well, if that is your view, all I have to say is that you ain’t seen nothing yet! Try living in a society without a functioning incest taboo. Then, you’ll see exploitation that will make your head swim.
I made the general argument about conscience development in my book Love and Economics (which BTW, didn’t have a single word about same sex marriage or incest or polyamory or all the other things we are obsessed with these days.) A free society depends on the vast majority of people having well-functioning consciences. Conscience development depends on children having a good first year. Hence, a free society depends on mothers and fathers taking personal loving care of their children.
Hence, my interest in the family and in marriage.
PS you can get Love and economics at the Ruth Store!