Thursday, October 15, 2009

Incest, Again

Marlene Sokolon was a graduate student of mine who now teaches at Concordia University in Montreal. When she was my student, we had a standing joke between us whenever she would complain about how often in class I wanted to talk about incest.

And here I am bringing it up again! I do that because understanding our moral condemnation of incest touches in some way on almost all of the topics that come up on this blog.

The incest taboo is one of the clearest cases of a human universal, because every human society has some rules about prohibited incest. But there is also variation as to what counts as incest. Even within the same society, there can be great variation, as in the United States where state laws differ as to whether cousins can legally marry.

Our condemnation of incest as immoral illustrates how hard it is to rationally justify moral judgments that depend on deep moral emotions of repugnance.

The Darwinian explanation for the incest taboo--particularly as developed by Edward Westermarck--is the most fully developed example of how Darwinian ethics works. That's why Edward O. Wilson brings it up so often in his writing, and why some of the proponents of evolutionary psychology have devoted so much attention to it.

Three of my previous posts on the incest taboo can be found here, here, and here.

The 24 comments on the first post are fascinating in showing the range of responses that this provokes.


expeedee said...

Darwinian ethics is an interesting term. Ethics imply some kind of morality, but isn't the aversion to incest the result of natural selection rather than the emergence of morality?

People naturally abhor the ideal of incest but wouldn't think twice about massacring the nearby tribe. To not reciprocate a favor by another tribal member is a major transgression, but stealing the foodstuff and women of the nearby village is an admirable raid demonstrating great warrior abilities and leadership.

I still don't see the morality in Darwinism.

PatricktheRogue said...

The answer to your question is contained within it. What you describe, loyalty and honesty to tribal fellows, enmity to outsiders, is the basis of human moral behavior. The challenge for thinking human animals of the 21st century is to expand the perception of who is in the tribe versus who is not. In the 1940's, James Burnham wrote that until the earth was threatened by an alien force, humanity would remain divided. What we would need to finally recognize that we are all in this world together is a common enemy. Possibly the systemic threat of global climate change, or some other world wide threat, could be harnessed to bring about a common purpose in the same way as the (highly unlikely) alien enemy. But of course, it probably won't.

Larry Arnhart said...

Patrick the Rogue,

I assume that you're actually responding to the "Nietzsche's Challenge" post.