by Niall Doherty

The topic of incest came up in my last post, and since I like tackling taboo subjects, let’s talk some more about that.

Is incest wrong?

I used to consider incest to be morally wrong, but the following passage in Jonah Lehrer’s excellent book, How We Decide, got me rethinking…

Consider this moral scenario, which was first invented by [psychologist Jonathan] Haidt. Julie and Mark are siblings vacationing together in the south of France. One night, after a lovely day spent exploring the local countryside, they share a delicious dinner and a few bottles of red wine. One thing leads to another and Julie and Mark decide to have sex. Although she’s on the pill, Mark uses a condom just in case. They enjoy themselves very much, but decide not to have sex again. The siblings promise to keep the one-night affair secret and discover, over time, that having sex has brought them even close together. Did Julie and Mark do something wrong?

If you’re like most people, your first reaction is that the brother and sister committed a grave sin. What they did was wrong. When Haidt asks people to explain their harsh moral judgements, the most common reasons given are the risk of having kids with genetic abnormalities and the possibility that sex will damage the sibling relationship. At this point, Haidt politely points out that Mark and Julie used two types of birth control and that having sex actually improved their relationship. But the facts of the case don’t matter. Even when their arguments are disproved, people still cling to the belief that having sex with one’s brother or sister is somehow immoral.

“What happens in the experiment,” Haidt says, “is [that] people give a reason [why the sex is wrong]. When that reason is stripped from them, they give another reason. When the new reason is stripped from them, they reach for another reason.” Eventually, of course, people run out of reasons: they’ve exhausted their list of moral justifications. The rational defense is forced to rest its case. That’s when people start saying things like “Because it’s just wrong to have sex with your sister” or “Because it’s disgusting, that’s why!” Haidt calls this state “moral dumbfounding.” People know something seems morally wrong–sibling sex is a terrible idea–but no one can rationally defend the verdict. According to Haidt, this simple story about sibling sex illuminates the two separate processes that are at work when we make moral decisions. The emotional brain generates the verdict. It determines what is wrong and what is right. In the case of Julie and Mark, it refuses to believe that having sex with a sibling is morally permissible, no matter how many forms of birth control are used. The rational brain, on the other hand, explains the verdict. It provides reasons, but those reasons come after the fact.

Then we have the following passage from Bill Bryson’s book, A Short History of Nearly Everything

If your two parents hadn’t bonded just when they did–possibly to the nanosecond–you wouldn’t be here. And if their parents hadn’t bonded in a precisely timely manner, you wouldn’t be here either. And if their parents hadn’t done likewise, and their parents before them, and so on, obviously and indefinitely, you wouldn’t be here.

Push backwards through time and these ancestral debts begin to add up. Go back just eight generations to about the time that Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln were born, and already there are over 250 people on whose timely couplings your existence depends. Continue further, to the time of Shakespeare and the Mayflower Pilgrims, and you have no fewer than 16,384 ancestors earnestly exchanging genetic material in a way that would, eventually and miraculously, result in you.

At twenty generations ago, the number of people procreating on your behalf has risen to 1,048,576. Five generations before that, and there are no fewer than 33,554,432 men and women on whose devoted couplings your existence depends. By thirty generations ago, your total number of forebears–remember, these aren’t cousins and aunts and other incidental relatives, but only parents and parents of parents in a line leading ineluctably to you–is over one billion (1,073,741,824, to be precise). If you go back sixty-four generations, to the time of the Romans, the number of people on whose cooperative efforts your eventual existence depends has risen to approximately 1,000,000,000,000,000,000, which is several thousand times the total number of people who have ever lived.

Clearly something has gone wrong with our math here. The answer, it may interest you to learn, is that your line is not pure. You couldn’t be here without a little incest–actually quite a lot of incest–albeit at a genetically discreet remove. With so many millions of ancestors in your background, there will have been many occasions when a relative from your mother’s side of the family procreated with some distant cousin from your father’s side of the ledger. In fact, if you are in a partnership now with someone from your own race and country, the chances are excellent that you are at some level related.

Now consider that in Ancient Egypt it was actually pretty weird if you didn’t marry a sibling, especially if you were royalty. The parents of King Tutankhamun, for example, were brother and sister 1, while Cleopatra married her younger brother Ptolemy 2. A little closer to modern times, we find that the current king of Thailand is the grandson of a brother and sister pairing 3 4.

So all this gets me thinking. I’m not saying you should go try your new pickup line on your sister or anything. I just wonder if the general repulsion we have towards incest is more due to cultural conditioning than it is to there being anything morally wrong with it.

Is happiness the best goal?

But incest isn’t the point. The point is that we all have beliefs that are so deeply ingrained that we don’t recognize them as beliefs at all. We just assume that’s how the world works, and so we have a hard time considering alternative viewpoints.

Another example along these lines is happiness as the primary goal of life. The following from Sebastian Marshall’s book, Ikigai

It’s hard to have this discussion with anyone from modern Western culture, because happiness-as-a-goal is so deeply ingrained that people don’t even realize it’s just a subjective call about what’s important. Actually, most people never critically examined happiness at all!

For me, I had a breaking out moment when I studied other cultures that had goals other than happiness. If you could talk to a 1600’s samurai and tried to discuss with him what’s important, he’d say loyalty, duty, and honor. If you said, “Wait, what about happiness? Isn’t that more important?”–well, he’d think you’re insane. He couldn’t express why–it was just a culturally inherited belief.

I remember chatting to an Indian chap in Mumbai a few months back. The conversation turned to his job at a call center, and I asked him if he enjoyed the work. In response, he threw me a crazy look like I had a blue florescent penis emerging from the back of my head. “I don’t have to do physical labor and I make enough money to take care of my family,” he said. “Whether I enjoy the work or not is irrelevant.”

For a privileged Westerner like me who thought a person would be mad to spend two thousand hours a year working a job they didn’t particularly enjoy, that conversation provided a swift kick in the perspective.

Weird, or just different?

Here’s a short and brilliant TED Talk from Derek Sivers, where he exposes several other assumptions many of us have about right and wrong…

Can’t see the video? Click here.

Question your beliefs

We’re all guilty of making assumptions about how the world works, about what’s right and what’s wrong. It’s hard to catch ourselves at it though. We don’t know what we don’t know.

But try this: Next time you find your worldview challenged, take a step back and question whether your beliefs are a reflection of reality, or simply the result of the time and environment you live in.

Promise I’ll try do the same.