Logically Congenital Defect

A discussion at the Practical Ethics blog happens to provide a typical example of an inquiry that treats the re-discovery of its own presumptions under different terms as validation, this time under the heading of sexual morality. The defect in such an inquiry may not be its resort to tautology or circularity, but its presumption of some other possibility on matters of constitution of the human concept.

The discussion begins with necrophilia, but moves to the subject of incest. Blogger Charles Foster, whose larger aim is to justify the taboos in question, summarizes the argument against them through a scenario involving an imaginary sister and brother, “Julie” and “Mark,” who decide to have sex:

Julie is already on the pill, but, just to be on the safe side, Mark uses a condom too. Although they both enjoy it, they decide that they won’t do it again. Nor will they tell anyone. It is their little secret.

Who’s hurt in these scenarios? Apparently no one.

Though Foster will go on to describe his own basis for disagreeing with this line of reasoning, he is attempting here to isolate the moral question from all of the complications regarding either the sex act on its own terms or the success of this sibling conspiracy. Being “already on the pill,” Julie is identified as a “modern” just like most of us: She is committed to consumption of her erotic capital for pleasure’s sake, requiring maximum possible removal of consequences. For purposes of discussion, we are encouraged also to set aside consequences, and for the same reason may ignore the consciousness of guilt or danger underlined by the extra precautions, and by the assurances of simple mutual enjoyment, cooperation, and trust in relation to the act itself and the determination neither to repeat it nor to share knowledge of it. The problem is that the reactions against incest, desecration of corpses, and other supposedly “victimless” crimes, or even against sexual relations pursued strictly for the sake of pleasure or curiosity, encode a reasonable belief that consequences cannot be known beforehand, that they may proliferate, that “all things are in sex,” however we seek to quarantine the physical act from a proliferation of meanings: The belt-and-suspenders approach to birth control suggests a neurotic defense against self-recognition that replicates the form of the pseudo-scientific exercise. The “hurt” is non-apparent because the premises of the thought experiment suppress its possible appearance.

The result is to put the critic in the position of trying to describe the ill effects of an action defined as producing no ill effects, which ought to be obviously absurd, though the paradox, or bait-and-switch, is in fact common in ethical (and political) scenario-building of this general type: The unpersuasiveness of Foster’s own argument as offered – dignity is better because dignity is better – is a residue of his acceptance of this mode of argument, or a re-expression of its conceptual impoverishment: He is not wrong that dignity is better or more simply that the good is better than the less than good, but he implicitly agrees to derive the conclusion a posteriori, as good because it is reasonable rather than the reverse. His prejudice in favor of “pure reason” as superior to any other form of knowledge, or as possibly self-sufficient, is already the demotion of the same alternative – not unreasonable, but reasonably other-than-simply-reasoned – he wishes to justify. Degradation – in other words the action or concept contrary to the interest of “thriving” or “flourishing” – is already embodied in the argument as made, since it tends to exclude the necessary conditions for any full or we might say fully human treatment of the moral question.

The reaction against the likes of “Mark” and “Julie,” or the wish that Mark and Julie might choose differently, or that in Mark or Julie’s place we might act differently, or that someone we care for might act differently, or, finally, that people in general might act differently (the predicate for a taboo), may derive, for example, from an entirely reasonable expectation that, contrary to the presumptions implicit under “apparently no one hurt,” people like Mark and Julie and by extension all who care for or depend on them will and must be damaged as a result of such action (or sin): that two such individuals may very likely come to feel sorry about what they have done; and that, in the perhaps rare alternative, a failure to come to feel sorry for what they have done may indicate a defect in character to be avoided and condemned. We may reasonably believe or expect that “the truth will out,” or that “little secrets” will not in fact be kept, or are not ever kept except at meaningful cost (or harm). We may reasonably believe that people in Mark and Julie’s place would necessarily have come to know themselves as the kind of people, people of defective character, who would excuse themselves in just such a narrow way when presented with an opportunity to keep a “little secret”: They would know themselves as irresponsible, as anti-social in this sense – as spiritually shallow or broken people, as people unworthy of emulation, and so on.

The idea of a divine commandment and the wrath its violation risks is a general expression comprehending all of these dangers and concerns for people who lack the time, imagination, inclination, ability, or self-confidence to conceive and articulate, or coherently and explicitly “reason” them out. Specifically, the end of the taboos against incest and desecration of the dead would imply a different constitution of the human, perhaps along the pure transactionalist lines that the blogger compares unfavorably with one that would include the possibility of “dignity”(finally of a “good” at all). At this point, it becomes clear that these taboos do not just happen to touch upon questions related to sexuality, but are verbal or ideational as well as social forms: ideational constitution of the human directly corresponding to the sexual – physical or biological – constitution of the human, a reproduction of reproduction one might say, or a re-creation of procreation. The continued existence of these taboos, despite the common inability to justify them convincingly within reigning instrumentalist and transactionalist ethical terms, suggests that we still prefer and need to believe, or, to say the same thing, to be human for us is to prefer and need to believe, in a human character, a meaningful human concept.1

Returning to the scenario, we could perhaps try to amend the list of excluded possible harms. We could insist that Mark and Julie will go on all the rest of their lives living just like everyone else or better, or happily, experiencing no ill effects – none! What if Mark and Julie engaged in incest, but were raised to believe that incest was proper behavior – what if they were rulers of ancient Egypt? What if they engaged in incest somnambulistically, and were never aware they had done so? If an act of incest or necrophilia occurs in the forest, and there is no one to see, hear, remember, collect evidence of it, has it really occurred? The additional exclusions realize an ever more rarefied moral-intellectual vacuum: the thought of incest producing a conceptual misbirth, as by logically congenital defect. They point to a human world in which, eventually, the answer to every “what difference does it make?” is “on second thought, none”: so not a recognizably “human world” at all.

Eventually, we will end up asking for an assessment of an act that for all intents and purposes never occurred, and by each effort in the meantime to remove the human beings as we might know them from the depiction, we re-state, or concede and stipulate to, the de-humanizing or humanity-endangering and -deforming impetus of the act in question for human beings to whatever remnant extent they remain recognizable as human beings rather than as abstractions or, as the Man from Underground put it, “born of an idea.”


  1. I attempted a more thorough consideration of the incest taboo on its own terms in “The Brady Bunch Annihilated.” []

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