Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Ethical Chaos

This was intended to be a column, but was unpublished for some reason, so I'll post it here.

“Deprive the taboo rules of their original context and they at once are apt to appear as a set of arbitrary prohibitions, as indeed they characteristically do appear when the initial context is lost, when those background beliefs in the light of which the taboo rules had originally been understood have not only been abandoned but forgotten.” - Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue

The slippery slope is a well known logical fallacy. Utilizing it anyway, opponents of gay “marriage” insist that this is a step toward bestiality. Proponents claim that this is ridiculous; the extension of the institution of marriage to homosexuals can be undertaken in isolation. Logically, this seems correct, but it misfires for two reasons. First, while it is true that homosexual relationships had a positive connotation in many western societies—most obviously in ancient Greece—the western conception of marriage confines the covenant to one man and one woman. Gay marriage thus requires a radical reinterpretation of the institution. The second point follows from the first. The moral edifice which made gay marriage unthinkable has crumbled; in MacIntyre's terminology, the initial context has been lost—though not completely—and homosexual relations remain, if anything, a taboo. The implications of this deserve our careful consideration.

Economic issues continue to dominate our politics, so it might seem unusual to devote any time to the issue of gay marriage. Yet there is value in trying to calmly examine an issue before the talking heads have spun it to suit their political biases. Moreover, a high profile incest case has offered us an insight into what may occur when taboos prove insufficient. Columbia University professor and Huffington Post blogger David Epstein has been caught having sex with his daughter. The charge is one felony incest account; if convicted, he will spend four years in prison. Since his daughter was not a minor while the incidents occurred, there is speculation as to whether the charge will stick. As Tracy Clark-Flory points out in a Salon column: “It isn't a clear-cut case of child abuse, and there are no allegations that the three-year-long relationship carried on without the daughter's consent.”

A commenter at the Huffington Post, channeling the Zeitgeist, writes: “I don’t understand how it is a crime.” That it is possible to not understand why communities would wish to prohibit incestuous relations, consensual or otherwise, reveals that, for many in our culture, incest remains merely taboo. The reasons society condemned this behavior cannot be conceived. This is astounding.

Briefly, I think it incumbent on me to explain the libertarian position: consensual relations—sexual or otherwise—between adults should be legal. There are times when the implications of libertarianism can be quite shocking, and this is certainly one of those times. Yet even if incest were not prohibited by law, there would be a very simple way for the community to restrain this type of activity without resorting to government force. To wit, those who have committed incest could be restricted from taking part in the community: shopkeepers could ban them from their stores, neighbors could refuse to associate with them, employers could refuse to hire them, and so on and so forth. That this would be deemed discriminatory reveals the inconsistency of our application of libertarian principles. Deviancy becomes acceptable since the law prohibits intolerance.

If the community were sufficiently sickened by the behavior in question, shunning would produce the intended effects. Like Cain, Epstein would be condemned to be wander restlessly. That this will assuredly not happen does not invalidate the point; it is precisely to build up voluntary associations that the libertarian insists that the State should be rolled back, even in areas, such as this, where it is difficult to see downsides to prohibition.
The Epstein case will be fascinating to follow because it will allow corroboration of my suspicions that the Judeo-Christian ethical edifice has crumbled, leaving us to reap the whirlwind. In the meantime, it's worthwhile to point out, for our lost contemporaries, why the prohibition against incest exists.

In the Summa Theologica (II-II, Q. 154, A. 9), Thomas Aquinas gives four reasons why incest is contrary to reason. First, “because man naturally owes a certain respect to his parents and therefore to his other blood relations”; this respect can no longer exist once the relationship becomes incestuous. Second, since blood relations “live in close touch with one another... opportunities of venereal intercourse would be very frequent and thus men's minds would be enervated by lust.” Third, by marrying someone to whom one is not related, one thereby gains friendships with one's wife's kin; this would be frustrated if one did not marry outside one's family. And fourth, courtesy of Aristotle, a man will have a liking for his kinswoman; it is not good for this affection to become too ardent, which would occur if he had sexual relations with her. It is worth pointing out that, for Thomas, prohibiting incest does not require biblical quotation.

The family is the fundamental social unit upon which all civilization is based. The bonds it inculcates are unlike any others formed in society. Moreover the bond between a husband and wife is substantially different from that formed between mother and son or father and daughter. Incest irrevocably distorts this bond, to the detriment of the family, and, by extension, society. Recall that Oedipus is horrified when he finds out that he has committed incest, even though he had no awareness that he was doing wrong. We've come a long way when one of the most important western texts is becoming incomprehensible to those of us living today. Unless we find and restore the Judeo-Christian context, the taboos will fail. If we have not yet reached it, at this point, we shall find ourselves confronted by complete chaos in sexual relations.

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