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Rationalizing Incest

Julie is traveling in France on summer vacation from college with her brother Mark. One night they decide that it would be interesting and fun if they tried making love. Julie was already taking birth-control pills, but Mark uses a condom, too, just to be safe. They both enjoy the sex but decide not to do it again. They keep the night as a special secret, which makes them feel closer to each other. What do you think about that—was it O.K. for them to make love? (The Moral Instinct—via The Situationist)

Why? Leaving aside appeals to authority and tradition, explain you answer (in a comment if you like). I’ll wait.

Did you have a hard time justifying your answer? Some psychologists suggest that this is because our moral judgments aren’t based on reason and logic alone. In this example, we are born with a strong, visceral aversion to incest that defies rationalization. We would like to think that we are rational beings who make conscious decisions, but the truth seems to be that we are largely driven by instincts, the endowment of our evolutionary past.

Jonathan Haidt suggests that human beings have five innate moral senses:

  • aversion to harming innocents
  • fairness
  • community or group loyalty
  • respect for authority
  • purity

These affect us at an unconscious level. Each person and culture mixes these traits differently. Taking myself as an example, my loyalty to the group seems pretty low. This allowed me to leave the Mormon community. This shouldn’t be too surprising because I’ve grown up in a culture that strongly values individuality. My culture stresses fairness to the individual and its rights over respect for community or authority. Aversion to the incestuous scenario above probably triggers our desire for purity for another example.

The instinctual nature of our morality is part of the reason that I have little time for formal ethics. Morality seems to boil down to what humans want, not some abstract set of laws that we can discover given enough time and brainpower. Moral laws look nothing like mathematical or physical laws in this respect.

[By the way, catchy title, eh? :) ]

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  1. Lincoln Cannon said,

    January 18, 2008 @ 1:14 pm

    Moral law is to communities as will is to individuals, desire is to their anatomies, and physical law is to their environments. I think moral laws actually will look something like physical laws, as we begin to become better acquainted with them through increasingly sophisticated tools. The difference will be that moral laws emerge from systems that are FAR more complex than the systems in which we’ve already identified physical laws. It is not our rational intelligence, but rather our emotional intelligence that continues to make us superior to our computers — although that will change.

  2. Jonathan Blake said,

    January 18, 2008 @ 3:15 pm

    I agree. I believe our moral laws derive from the physical laws which govern our mind/brain. Would you agree that other sentient life would have other moral laws then?

  3. Lincoln Cannon said,

    January 18, 2008 @ 3:33 pm

    Yes. I think their moral laws would be as different from ours as our anatomies and environments are different from theirs. To suggest a Mormon perspective on this, Joseph taught that God commands according to circumstance; what is right in one circumstance may be wrong in another.

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