What’s the ethical argument against incest?

A recent news article has been going around about a father-daughter incestuous relationship:

An 18-year-old woman from the Great Lakes region told New York magazine she planned to marry her formerly estranged, biological father and move to New Jersey, where she said there is no legal prohibition against adult incest.

“We plan to move to New Jersey where we can be safe under the law, since adult incest isn’t illegal there, and once I’m there I’ll tell everyone,” the woman, whose name was not published, told the magazine for its “What’s It Like” column, which explores unusual and taboo topics.

It turns out the two had been estranged since the girl was 5. Other articles I’ve read portrayed the two as having no contact until she was 17, but this one says they had minor (non-sexual) interactions from when the girl was 5 to 15. This article also indicates they’ve been dating since she was 16, but it doesn’t say the age of the father; another source indicates he was about 34. At any rate, whatever the specifics here, it’s pretty clear their relationship isn’t okay. There’s a power dynamic at play that makes it wrong. Moreover, most people would simply point out that incest is wrong. I’m wondering, though, why we consider that latter point a good enough argument.

We tend to reject incestuous relationships for two primary reasons. First, they often are not consensual. Second, they can result in genetic abnormalities in offspring. But hang on. Those aren’t arguments against incest in and of itself – those are arguments against non-consensual sex and incestuous reproduction. What if we have two sisters or two brothers? At best we may have a power dynamic at play. What if they’re twins? Or they were estranged their entire lives and only met as adults? What’s the argument then?

There tends to be an “ick” factor when we talk about incest, but that isn’t an ethical argument. It’s a feeling, and no matter how strong it may be, it isn’t a very good basis to reject an idea. Indeed, it’s actually the same reason same-sex marriage still isn’t a thing everywhere.

The article that got me thinking about this topic isn’t a good case study for talking about what makes incest in and of itself wrong, so I don’t particularly want to discuss it. It was merely a jumping-off point: What makes incest wrong? Is it that incest has higher odds of leading to genetic abnormalities? Again, that’s an argument against incestuous reproduction, not incest itself. But let’s pretend that argument does address incest itself. It also addresses people with Huntington’s disease. A person with that disease will die a painful death around middle age while also having a 50% chance of passing it onto his/her children. Those are far greater odds than any incestuous relationship produces. Who is ready to lobby for laws barring people with Huntington’s disease from sexual activity that has any chance of producing children? I’m not.

Let’s be clear, then: The genetic argument against incest is out. It’s not even on point, and even it was, it’s an argument against a lot of other types of reproduction. Moreover, it entirely fails to address relationships where children aren’t possible/would be aborted.

I’m not about to go lobby for new laws regarding incest, but it strikes me that there isn’t a good ethical argument against incest in and of itself. If, at the end of the day, we’re talking about two consenting adults who don’t have an asymmetrical power dynamic at hand, there just isn’t an argument to be had. Society would certainly ostracize anyone who made it public that their relationship was incestuous, and I can’t imagine a healthy relationship would be at all easy as a result, but the same has historically been true of interracial and homosexual relationships.

EDIT: Given some other discussions I’ve had around the Interwebs, I’ve once again had it reaffirmed that some people are genuinely too dumb to have conversations above the most remedial, superficial levels.

Thought of the day

Those who fight against free speech in any way stand with the attackers of Charlie Hebdo in some way.

Stuart Scott

Every so often an icon emerges in the media. Usually, these people were never meant to be the story. We simply expected them to report the stories. If they did that, we would find ourselves discussing what they had told us, not giving a second thought to where we heard it. That is always good enough. That’s the job. But every so often one of these personalities will shine through the morass. Stuart Scott was one of those people. And now he has died at the age of 49.

Scott had been fighting cancer for the past 7 years. I had no idea this was his third bout with the disease. Hell, I had no idea he was ever even sick. Insofar as this was well-known news (and it was), I managed to miss it. Part of that is sheer chance. I simply didn’t happen to see the news stories. But most of that is because Scott never let it show. Looking back I can see some of the weight fluctuations now, but the strength of his personality always hid whatever physical weakness he may have been experiencing at a given time. He always said to keep fighting – fight, fight, fight – and he lived that. The images and tributes over the past day have made it wildly clear that he was speaking more than mere platitudes. He meant what he said and he lived it entirely.

I only ever mention a celebrity death here once in a great while. Sometimes it’s because I feel bad for the odd life the person had (such as when I mentioned Gary Coleman). Most times, though, it’s because I deeply respected the person (such as with Christopher Hitchens). This is like most times. Stuart Scott stood out as one of the good guys. There are a lot of sportscasters I like and I’ll be sad to hear if any of them die, but Scott’s passing is especially heartbreaking. I wish his family the best.

Here are two videos. One is of Rich Eisen giving his on-air farewell only 10 minutes after hearing of his friend’s death. The other is of Stuart Scott delivering one of the best speeches I’ve heard in a long time.

Thought of the year

I’ve made it something of a New Year’s tradition to point out that there still isn’t any good evidence for God, but I can’t help but feel that debate has become overwhelmingly stale. I don’t know if it’s the self-destruction of a portion of the atheist movement that doesn’t seem to know what “atheism” means or if the debate itself is simply boring, but there’s just something unappealing about the whole thing.

Merry Christmas

Next year. Next year is when I’m going to update this picture.

Merry Christmas

The 4th Amendment doesn’t really matter

Mind you, I don’t believe in that title. It matters as much as any Amendment (and, in fact, much more so than many Amendments). The Supreme Court, however, thinks otherwise:

In a decision issued this morning, the U.S. Supreme Court sided with the police in a case arising from an officer’s “mistake of law.” At issue in Heien v. North Carolina was a 2009 traffic stop for a single busted brake light that led to the discovery of illegal drugs inside the vehicle. According to state law at the time, however, motor vehicles were required only to have “a stop lamp,” meaning that the officer did not have a lawful reason for the initial traffic stop because it was not a crime to drive around with a single busted brake light. Did that stop therefore violate the 4th Amendment’s guarantee against unreasonable search and seizure? Writing today for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts held that it did not. “Because the officer’s mistake about the brake-light law was reasonable,” Roberts declared, “the stop in this case was lawful under the Fourth Amendment.”

A man driving in North Carolina was stopped illegally due to a cop’s ignorance. Let’s presume that the cop was genuinely ignorant of the law. (I fully accept such a premise, actually.) That does not mean that this interaction between citizen and state was entered into justly. For that to be the case, there are only a few ways it can happen: 1) if the man was suspected of committing a crime or of being in the act of committing a crime or of imminently committing a crime; the basis here is reasonable suspicion (it’s a low bar); 2) if the man was suspected of committing a civil infraction (such as a traffic violation – which, except for things such as criminal speeding or DUI, generally are not crimes); or 3) if a cop just starts talking to him and he decides to engage with the him/her. In this case, while the man did consent to his vehicle being searched (ya know, like an idiot), he did not consent to the initial interaction with the ignorant cop. The beginning of the interaction was initiated illegally, so that should have invalidated everything thereafter. Of course, it didn’t. We have a very bad Supreme Court. And an often unjust world. True justice here would have not only seen this case thrown out, but the cop would have been fired and prosecuted under some sort of color of law statute. But this is America. The case was upheld and I’m sure the cop will get a promotion soon (presuming he hasn’t already).

Aside from the violation of the Fourth Amendment, the really scary thing here is the power it gives to an already powerful police state. Everyone knows if a cop wants to pull a person over, that person will be pulled over. (I have a one black friend who has been pulled over close to 30 times in about 2 years. I’ve been in his car; he isn’t a reckless driver. He has clearly been targeted, and his “infractions” have clearly been fabricated. Even as a white guy, I’ve been targeted (albeit for different reasons). It hasn’t happened since I went from a rusty 20 year old car to a 5-6 year old car, but I’ve been pulled over several times for my license plate lights being out. The cops were lying each time. I was stopped for driving a car common to a low socioeconomic class while looking younger than I am. It’s that simple.) But now the police don’t even need to worry about whether or not they have a legitimate reason. So long as they claim to have pulled someone over for what seems like it could be an infraction, the courts will uphold it. Just imagine this: A longtime resident of, say, California moves to, say, Maine and becomes a cop. In California it’s illegal to talk on a handheld device while driving whereas it’s legal in Maine. It’s plausible this new Maine cop might pull someone over for talking on the phone. And there isn’t a damn thing anyone can do about this blatantly unconstitutional stop. Nothing.

Let’s extend this to Terry stops. These are stops where the police suspect a person of some sort of criminal activity, but they don’t have any probable cause to arrest. What stops the police from extending the principles they made up for this recent case to Terry stops? A person may be stopped by a cop for some completely legal action. The cop might then pat the person down ‘for officer safety’, soon discovering drugs or a gun. I know some statists will cheer and saw that’s great, but fuck them. That’s terrible. A person should never be stopped for zero reason, much less searched. The government hasn’t the right; it’s a massive danger to the citizenry to give the government such rights. But will the courts throw out all charges? It’s doubtful. If they follow the logic made up here, there is absolutely nothing to stop them from allowing the police to make all sorts of ‘honest’ mistakes in order to stop and search people. It’s not as if the police won’t lie – hell, that’s part of the job description – but at least they needed to come up with a plausible lie. Before this ruling there were always those oddball cases were a cop locked himself into a description of events that might get a case tossed. Not anymore. Now his fuck-ups and/or lies just need to seem like genuine oopsie-daisies.

I can’t say I’m surprised at this, though. As soon as I read about this case a few months ago, I explicitly told a friend that the Court would rule this way. I didn’t think it would be quite this lopsided, but there was never any doubt. This Court hates the Fourth Amendment. They aren’t consistent with the Constitution, but at least they’re consistent with being shitbags.

Circumcision: The evidence still isn’t vanishing

Increasingly, circumcision is becoming a health policy in places where it is needed most. WHO, UNAIDS, and especially The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are some of the groups at the forefront of this fight against deadly diseases and infections. More recently we’ve seen American groups such as the American Academy of Pediatrics come out in favor of circumcision. This is in large part due to three extremely strong studies that came out in 2006, but those were really just the final straw. Evidence has been building for the effectiveness of circumcision in fighting disease and infection since the late 70’s, and more specifically it has been building against fighting HIV since the late 80’s. The evidence is in: Circumcision helps protect against infections, penile cancer, and STD’s, including HIV. It’s an extremely important tool that should be promoted around the world. And so, as the debate quickly pivots from whether or not circumcision is effective to figuring out why it is so damn effective, more organizations are coming out in favor of it in ever stronger terms:

U.S. health officials on Tuesday released a draft of long-awaited federal guidelines on circumcision, saying medical evidence supports the procedure and health insurers should pay for it.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines stop short of telling parents to have their newborn sons circumcised. That is a personal decision that may involve religious or cultural preferences, said the CDC’s Dr. Jonathan Mermin.

But “the scientific evidence is clear that the benefits outweigh the risks,” added Mermin, who oversees the agency’s programs on HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.

I went into the circumcision debate many years ago without a dog in the fight. I was neither passionately against the practice nor fervently in favor of it; my general indifference parted greatly with what any Google search will show. However, as I began to hear more and more about the topic, and as I began to study global health issues more and more (especially during the time I was studying and volunteering my time in Haiti), I found my position slowly shifting. But it was indeed a very slow shift. With degrees in both biology and philosophy it was easy to be torn. The evidence had clearly tilted – at the least – in favor of circumcision, but what about the ethical arguments against it? I would need to resolve those concerns before I would support circumcision as a health policy. And that I did. The sole argument the anti-circumcision crowd has against circumcision is that it violates bodily autonomy. But so do other things which many in that crowd clearly support. Namely, vaccines can and do permanently change a person’s body for life without their consent. Looking at circumcision and vaccines, then, under the isolation of the argument from bodily autonomy, what’s the difference? They both change the body forever and neither is done with consent when done to infants/toddlers. The only responses I ever get to this is that vaccines are more effective or that the changes aren’t visible. Pshaw. They aren’t always more effective, and even where they are, so what? The argument from bodily autonomy doesn’t get to be put on the shelf when it’s convenient to ignore. The effectiveness of a procedure is irrelevant; all that matters is the necessity of the procedure. Vaccines and circumcision are both necessary to a healthier world, but neither is an absolute necessity to survival. Yes, more people will die without either, but that’s immaterial. And as for the changes being internal, I guess I wasn’t aware how aesthetics-focused the anti-circumcision crowd was.

I went on a bit of a rant there, but I hope it was effective. The ethical argument – singular, not plural – is weak. Yet the biological argument is strong. And as I learned more, it became quite clear that it was stronger than I initially thought. I freely admit that by the time I became involved in this debate (likely 2009, and as early as 2010 on FTSOS) I should have done all the proper research; I could have easily found myself where I am right now rather than going through a slow shift.

One of the things which always kept me tilted towards being pro-circumcision was the dogmatic attitude of the anti-circumcision crowd. It didn’t matter what evidence was presented to them, their ethical stance trumped everything. That would be fine, of course, since it would be a valid basis for opposition (even if I or anyone else disagrees with it). Unfortunately, this crowd has a habit of attacking perfectly valid science. PZ Myers did this back in 2011 when he said the following:

The health benefits. Total bullshit. As one of the speakers in the movie explains, there have been progressive excuses: from it prevents masturbation to it prevents cancer to it prevents AIDS. The benefits all vanish with further studies and are all promoted by pro-circumcision organizations. It doesn’t even make sense: let’s not pretend people have been hacking at penises for millennia because there was a clinical study. Hey, let’s chop off our pinkie toes and then go looking for medical correlations!

Emphasis mine. Clearly, whereas the organizations promoting circumcision as a health policy or recommendation have had a history of different positions on the matter, it’s ridiculous to say they’re inherently pro-circumcision. Moreover, the irony meter here is off the charts. The anti-circumcision crowd is incredibly vocal, despite being a scientific minority. Indeed, whereas the pro-circumcision groups came to their conclusions only after being presented with evidence, the anti-circumcision groups are composed entirely of people who oppose the practice on ethics first; they cherry-pick the science after the fact.

But that isn’t the important point here. As the title of this post says, the evidence of the benefits is not vanishing. It’s not vanishing with further studies. It’s not vanishing with time. It’s not vanishing at all. All we’ve been seeing is 1) more and more groups coming out in favor of the practice and 2) research focused on why it’s so effective. Myers is plainly wrong. (Of course, all the criticism by Myers is coming from a guy who once had a debate with Jerry Coyne where he said that no evidence could ever convince him of the existence of God. While I share his lack of theistic belief, I don’t share his position here. I can’t imagine a more anti-scientific thing to say than that there is no possible evidence that could convince me of something. I could be convinced unicorns exist. I greatly doubt that will happen, but it’s possible; denying these possibilities when speaking in abstract terms is doltish.)

Anyway.

[The new guidelines] are likely to draw intense opposition from anti-circumcision advocacy groups, said Dr. Douglas Diekema, a Seattle physician who worked on a circumcision policy statement issued by the American Academy of Pediatrics in 2012.

“This is a passionate issue for them and they feel strongly that circumcision is wrong,” said Diekema, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington.

Indeed, the head of one group did argue against the CDC’s conclusions on Tuesday, saying they minimize potential complications from the procedure.

The guidelines “are part of a long historical American cultural and medical bias to attempt to defend this traumatic genital surgery,” said, Ronald Goldman, executive director of the Circumcision Resource Center.

Notice the name of the anti-circumcision group in that quote: Circumcision Resource Center. Hmm, what other group of people try desperately to sound legitimate despite everything they hold dear? Perhaps it’s the people who run sites and groups like Evolution News and the Discovery Institute and the Geoscience Research Institute – creationist groups. Honestly, I’m not sure who should be insulted more by this association.

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