What is wrong with incest?

Olly Neville October 29, 2012 19

Incest is a bread and butter issue for libertarians and those who love freedom and oppose authoritarianism.

Recently I came across this article ‘Incest – a favoured cause for old lefties’

‘Decriminalising incest was one of the pet causes of the brothers and sisters of the extreme Left represented by the NCCL,’ it states. The article itself doesn’t offer a specific rebuttal to the idea of legalising incest; it simply operates on the ‘ew-it’s-disgusting factor.’ It also relies on a big picture of Josef Fritzl, attempting to tie incest to rape, child abuse and enforced imprisonment. What Fritzl did wasn’t wrong because it was incestuous, it was wrong because it was non-consensual, because it lead to the death of a child and because it was a form of slavery. But what is wrong with incest itself?

Incest, like many unsavoury sexual practices, is in the eyes of the majority pretty disgusting. This is the main case against it. People find it repulsive, they know they would never do it themselves and they find the prospect of doing it sickening. But the same is true of many other legal sexual practices. BDSM is sick in the eyes of many, but its legal, and rightly should be. What happens in the bedroom of two consenting adults is no place for the state, or indeed for anyone other than those two adults.

So let’s look at actual arguments against incest. The main one seems to be genetic disease. (I was surprised to find how many generations of incest it took to actually produce children with serious genetic disabilities, I will however in this article assume that all incest ever produces horrific inheritable genetic defaults). The argument goes that incestuous sex is more likely to produce children with serious inheritable genetic faults. The problem with this argument is two-fold; firstly this is only an argument against family members reproducing and not just having sex, but secondly and more importantly, if you wish to ban incest on the grounds of inheritable genetic defaults you also have to ban everyone that has a genetically inheritable disease from reproducing, akin to the Nazis forced sterilisation of the mentally and physically disabled. If incest must be banned for genetic reasons so too much all those who can pass on as serious or more serious genetic defects. Either the opponent of incest supports this (in which case there are serious problems with the totalitarian state that they are advocating) or they are simply being incredibly inconsistent. http://www.logicallyfallacious.com/index.php/logical-fallacies/113-inconsistency

Other arguments seems to be based on blurring the line between incest and child abuse. If a parent like Fritzl forces a child to have sex with them the problem is not incest, it is rape. Arguments such as those who do it are psychologically damaged individuals again leads to the conclusion that all those who are psychologically damaged should be controlled by the state. If people argue that incest damages you psychologically then we have to ask why do we not ban a whole multitude of other legal practices that are psychologically damaging.

So why is incest a bread and butter issue for libertarians, liberty lovers and those who believe in freedom? Well simply put, what happens between two consenting adults is no business of the state. J.S Mill said that ‘The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.’ When a brother and sister consent to have sex they are not harming anyone other than – potentially – themselves. If we take genetic harm as discussed above this leads to a whole host of other issues.

The very basis of libertarianism, of valuing freedom, is that people should be left to live their own lives and make their own decisions and mistakes, so long as they do not harm others. So long as incest is consensual there is no good basis for banning it. Many things other people do I find disgusting and would never want to do myself but that does not mean I have any right or any legitimacy to ban those activities. Similarly society has no right to impose its morality upon others.

As this is such a divisive issue I welcome comments. Please tell me other arguments against incest and I will do what I can to rebut them, or maybe you will change my mind. If your arguments are that good my sister might stop looking quite so attractive.*

*(I do not actually have a sister.)


UPDATE:  For more information on incest, some of the discredited arguments about abuse, and mutated offspring please see this great site’s Incest FAQ


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  • http://twitter.com/chrstinadarling/status/262943278431887360/ @chrstinadarling

    Well @backbencher being purposefully controversial again (but they’re right) http://t.co/4FdDTs5P

  • http://www.libertarianview.co.uk Murray Rothbard

    Your analysis is spot on. Just because we find something disgusting does not give us the right to prevent consenting adults from doing it.

    Brave to tackle such an obviously controversial implication of libertarian views.

  • Scott Hughes

    Aren’t you supposed to be dead!??!!? HOW ARE YOU DOING THIS!

  • http://twitter.com/Backbencher/status/262941722479300609/ @Backbencher

    Our #Blogs section is buzzing right now after our controversial piece on why incest should be allowed: http://t.co/XsRobA4Z

  • http://www.thebackbencher.co.uk Lee Jenkins

    Well argued piece.
    I’ve yet to hear an argument against it other than the ‘Ew it’s icky’

    …by that reasoning, I want bare feet at beaches to be made illegal, for I find them icky too.

  • http://twitter.com/ArnieEtc/status/262989965305188352/ @ArnieEtc

    One for @tommartin89 & @tj_arnold http://t.co/ZowZZfQj

  • http://twitter.com/_cybermat/status/263037722871070721/ @_cybermat

    @GarethAlteran what do you think? “@Thomas_Stringer: What is wrong with incest? http://t.co/iuxo5dsd”

  • Alasdair

    Your comparison of opposition to incest with Nazi sterilisation doesn’t really work. Sterilising people with inheritable conditions was wrong because it prevented them from having children with *anybody*, taking away a fundamental human right. But banning people from having children out of incest doesn’t prevent them having children altogether; there are still billions of other people on the planet they could reproduce with, just not members of their close family. So I think the genetic argument is still a pretty solid one.

    But a stronger argument, which you rather gloss over here, is that incestuous relationships tend to be abusive. This is slightly different from the question of consent: a sexual relationship between a father and daughter may be technically ‘consensual’ in the sense that both parties agree to it, but it is nonetheless almost certainly abusive and damaging. It’s the same reason relationships between students and teachers are generally forbidden even when both parties are over the age of consent.

    In principle, I can imagine there being incestuous relationships which aren’t abusive, where both parties are of similar age and neither has power over the other. I’d have no problem with that, as long as no children are involved. But surely the vast majority of incestuous relationships are abusive ones: most people don’t freely choose to have sex with members of their family, and for that reason the general prohibition makes sense to me.

  • Lee Jenkins

    Your policy therefore, is too ASSUME that an incestuous relation will be abusive, and should be illegal.
    No crime has been commited, but it might be…..that’s sufficient, is it?

    Incest and child abuse are two seperate issues.
    Child abuse is no less likey to happen because incest is illegal.

  • http://marriage-equality.blogspot.com Keith Pullman

    There is no rational reason for keeping laws or taboos against consensual incest that is consistently applied to other relationships. Personal disgust or religion is only a reason why one person would not want to personally engage in what I call consanguinamory, not why someone else shouldn’t do it. An adult should be free to share love, sex, residence, and marriage with ANY consenting adults. Youthful experimentation between close relatives close in age is not uncommon, and there are more people than you’d think out there who are in lifelong healthy, happy relationships with a close relative. It isn’t for everyone, but we’re not all going to want to have each others’ love lives, now are we? If someone thinks YOUR love life is disgusting, should you be thrown in prison?

    Some people try to justify their prejudice against consanguineous sex and marriage by being part-time eugenicists and saying that such relationships inevitably lead to “mutant” or “deformed” babies. This argument can be refuted on several fronts. 1. Some consanguineous relationships involve only people of the same gender. 2. Not all mixed-gender relationships birth biological children. 3. Most births to consanguineous parents do not produce children with significant birth defects or other genetic problems; while births to other parents do sometimes have birth defects. 4. We don’t prevent other people from marrying or deny them their reproductive rights based on increased odds of passing along a genetic problem or inherited disease. It is true that in general, children born to consanguineous parents have an increased chance of these problems than those born to nonconsanguineous parents, but the odds are still minimal. Unless someone is willing to deny reproductive rights and medical privacy to others and force everyone to take genetic tests and bar carriers and the congenitally disabled and women over 35 from having children, then equal protection principles prevent this from being a justification to bar this freedom of association and freedom to marry.

    Some say “Your sibling should not be your lover.” That is not a reason. It begs the question. Many people have many relationships that have more than one aspect. Some women say their sister is their best friend. Why can’t their sister be a wife, too?

    Some say “There is a power differential.” This applies least of all to siblings or cousins who are close in age, but even where the power differential exists, it is not a justification for denying this freedom to sex or to marry. There is a power differential in just about any relationship, sometimes an enormous power differential. To question if consent is truly possible in these cases is insulting and demeaning.

    Some say “There are so many people outside of your family.” There are plenty of people within one’s own race, too, but that is no reason to ban interracial marriage. So, this isn’t a good reason either.

    Some people who say it is wrong seem to have no problem with complete strangers having sex. So get over it, all of you who want your personal disgust to dictate the lives of others.

  • Ian

    Your presumption that “incestuous relationships tend to be abusive” I find unacceptable. In a climate where openness is impossible, you are completely unaware of any non-abusive incestuous relationships taking place around you. The only ones that see the light of day are the abusive ones, mostly because they are uncovered for reasons OTHER than the fact that they are incestuous. It could be described as a distortion similar to a self-reinforcing constructed culture of fear. The illegality produces distorted statistics, which reinforce the need for illegality. It is not a stronger argument; it is in fact at the core of the objection!

    In essence: Don’t shoot the messenger.

  • Niall

    Nice piece of trolling – *doffs cap*.

    You did miss one obvious argument, though – the presumption of undue influence between close family members means that an apparent “consent” may not be so voluntary as libertarians would like to believe.

  • Pingback: What is wrong with Necrophilia? - The Backbencher

  • http://www.thebackbencher.co.uk Christopher Gage

    Just cannot argue with Mr Neville. Watertight argument.

  • Daniel Jackson

    As a conservative with libertarian leaning views I think that the state should generally avoid taking a moral stance where it doesn’t need to. The issue is defining that point of need. Clearly the U.K will never allow incest, short of the ECHR having a change of heart. I think the level of state involvement in our lives needs to start swinging in the opposite direction, but not to the point where I’d defend the right to get icky with your nonexistent sister.

  • Rhubarb

    This is an interesting article, and Olly makes a compelling argument. I wonder whether an argument against incest is the separation of two definitions of love – that unconditional love of a family and that, sexual love. If we presume that legalising incest makes a statement about the acceptability of incest, is it likely that we will eventually see a merging of the two forms of love? Will we see an inc in sexual abuse of children by their parents, or between brothers and sisters, justified by a non-distinguished definition of love? Will it be that we are at some time in the future less able to “love” in a way that does not have sexual implications? Just an idea.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1060794952 James Rigby

    There is liberty and there is political pragmatism. I agree with the article, but I question its value to the cause of Libertarianism. There are many battles to be fought in the cause of liberty, but this is not one of them. If there was a list of priorities for laws to be repealed, this would be x hundredth on the list. And it plays into the hands of our authoritarian enemies. We can fight the good fight on taxes, welfare, the NHS, education the surveillance state, drug policy, planning laws, the EU, immigration, etc etc – and maybe come close to winning some concessions in the name of liberty. Then the statist turns round and says “but these are the people who think incest is a good thing” – and all the other good work is undone in an instant. Just saying… :)

  • Hapsburg

    I dated my cousin at one point – which is perfectly legal – and what people are saying about incestuous relationships being abusive is ridiculous. My cousin and I genuinely liked each other in that way, and the thing was totally consensual. Yes, it’s just one example, but I’m sure that if it were legal for closer relations, and wasn’t such a taboo topic, people would come out and say precisely the same thing, that it was consensual.

  • ketaset84

    Great article, an even better discussion below. Its nice to see some logic Intelligent feedback. I completely agree what 2 consenting ppl decide “tickles their fancy” or whatever for that matter; is no ones business but their own. I can think of multiple common sexual niche categories on the average porn site that I find more disturbing/weird. But who the fuck am I to decide what is “right or wrong” for any1 other then myself. Dif strokes (no pun intended lol) for dif folks. Its like arguing what is Art. There’s no grey area on this issue for me. Mind ur own business, u know?
    It’s insane how many old church based/derived laws are still presently within our legal system & the masses of the “Unthinking majority”. Who Just blindly follow the herd, putting the idea of following/proceeding w/ the collective as sole priority (as if such is even given enough conscious thought for a word like “priority”). They take ignorance over intelligence w/ out even actually deciding to do so. If that makes sense. I’m sure most of above is nothing short of a grammatical nightmare, but the effert & intelligence is there if u bare thru that element. Anyways, nice to stumble onto this and kudos to every1′s input. It was quite refreshing & outside the typically comments I see spewed across the internet. Cheers

    “Welcome to the internet. Where every1 knows everything & no1 likes anything” .