Moral psychology has no answer as to whether brother-sister incest is wrong, but I have given the below dilemma, made famous by Jonathan Haidt, many times in classes to undergraduates. It is particularly useful in that it allows people to experience, rather than just learning about, the social intuitionist approach to moral reasoning.
Julie and Mark are brother and sister. They are traveling together in France on summer vacation from college. One night they are staying alone in a cabin near the beach. They decide that it would be interesting and fun if they tried making love. At the very least, it would be a new experience for each of them. Julie was already taking birth control pills, but Mark uses a condom too, just to be safe. They both enjoy making love, but they decide never to do it again. They keep that night as a special secret, which makes them feel even closer to each other.
Is what Julie and Mark did wrong? Many people feel that moral reasoning is (or should be) rational and that introducing emotion into the process leads to error or irrationality. Recently, in my writing about libertarians, I have had people argue that I am a closet libertarian because I ascribe the "compliment" of rationality to their moral reasoning. The social intuitionist hypothesis is really a restatement of what many (e.g. Hume) have said for years, that the true origin of most moral reasoning is intuition or emotion, and that we rationalize these intuitions later. The above scenario is useful because people experience, rather than being told about, moral intuitions. It is powerful because people know the actions in the story are wrong, but they often don't know why, if standard arguments about offspring and emotional damage are pre-empted.
Personally, I've come to appreciate my emotionality, that gives me a rich moral compass. It limits me (I get embarrassed or react defensively at times.), but it also brings me closer to others. I recognize when others are hurt, as I've been hurt similarly. I can understand fear, as I am sometimes afraid myself. At the same time, sometimes others have emotional reactions that I don't share. Conservatives are likely to be more disgusted by sexual deviance than I, and are more likely to moralize that disgust. The point is not to scientifically figure out issues of right and wrong. Rather, the point is to understand why I think some things are wrong, while others disagree...and vice versa. Even in the most liberal of classrooms, some people are disgusted enough by the idea of incest (especially if they have a sibling) that they intuitively feel that the above scenario is wrong, no matter how rational they believe moral judgments should be. I encourage you to try it with your liberal friends.
I have always thought (perhaps naively) of the brother-sister incest story as a hypothetical, fabricated story, and so I was fascinated to be forwarded this story of true life brother-sister incest where nobody appears to have been hurt, except through the efforts of those who wanted to punish such deviance.
Tony Wells Washington was a joyful kid, the sort of boy other parents wanted to have over for barbecues and board games....He was 9 years old. Too young, he says, to see what he saw. Too small to endure what he endured. Exposure to pornography. Unbidden touching. Sexual misconduct that he stops short of calling abuse.
His family moved to a rougher neighborhood, then moved again. "We couldn't make rent," Washington says. Four more times they moved, putting him in three different schools. His only constant was Caylen, younger by a year. He looked after her, helped her with homework, made sure she ate dinner. She gave him purpose, reminded him of the person he used to be, before.
On May 9, 2003, Washington pleaded guilty to having consensual sex with his biological sister, Caylen. He was 16, she was 15.
"Incest," he says, looking straight ahead.
He says he didn't plan to do it. He was a teenager. Unstrung. Unsupervised. His world was at war. He was scared. Isolated. Except she was there, the two of them best friends, close as book pages. They loved each other, trusted each other. And one day that tipped into something more. Something neither one felt was wrong in the moment. "We were just sitting there, and it was like, 'Do you want to?'" he says. There was no discussion. "We did it. And it was like, 'OK, what's next?' We never talked about it after that."
"I feel for my brother," Caylen says calmly. "I was so happy when he got out of jail. He had no reason to be in there."
She wants this to be known, to be clear: "My brother never, ever raped me. He never tried to hold me down. Or threaten me. Or abuse me. Or frighten me. Or anything like that. What some of these people are speculating, none of that ever happened."
The above excerpt is part of a much longer, very moving story that likely touches many emotions. Tony Washington is now trying to make it in the NFL, or otherwise, we might never have known his story. Without the meager minor league football salary he earns, who knows where he might have ended up. I don't have any particular insight to share as your reaction is likely to be too nuanced to be summarized in a bar graph. But as you read the story, if you are interested in moral psychology, I might try watching your own emotions and considering how those emotions are affecting your own moral judgments. And then perhaps consider whether you really would like your moral judgments to be completely rational.
- Ravi Iyer
ps. Tony, if you ever read this, I'm rooting for you.