Friday, October 14, 2011

Incest in an Elevator

The other day one of my seminar groups spent a good half hour discussing whether a Millian state could prohibit incest. It's actually an example I've used myself in lectures (though not this year). For what it's worth, I think the answer is no: such interference would presumably be moralistic (or perhaps paternalistic) - it's unclear that it could count as harmful since, even if a deformed child is born as a result, that child would not have otherwise existed (and therefore cannot be harmed) and, in any case, no child need result, so at most the state should prohibit incestuous couples producing children, rather than incestuous relationships per se.

It seems that, while our state may be more liberal than in Mill's day, incest is still punished by both the courts and society, as this recent/local example shows.


  1. Ben, do you *really* want to say this: "even if a deformed child is born as a result, that child would not have otherwise existed (and therefore cannot be harmed)"? (As it stands you probably need to have a qualifier ensuring that children aren't born with a standard of life lower than a minimally acceptable threshold - but even leaving that to one side, do you think the non identity problem should actually figure in the reasoning of legislators? I'm not being snarky - I'm genuinely interested!)

  2. I strongly disagree with the notion that any sort of life is better than no life at all.

    Logically, I think the only thing we can feel about non-existence is indifference. That is because the non-existent simply have no life experience to enter into any sort of moral calculus.

    To say that incest is allowable because the children would otherwise not exist is to make an argument that extends to any behaviour that produces children - for instance, breeding a personal army of slaves.

  3. Sorry for taking so long to reply to these - I can't actually comment on my own blog on my home internet connection for some reason!


    I think I am prepared to say that, yes. Harm requires a counterfactual comparison. Someone cannot be worse off (i.e. harmed) as a result of coming into existence, because there is no alternative in which they are better off. I think this is compatible, however, with the idea of 'wrongful life' if their life is worse than a minimally acceptable threshold. (Note that this isn't saying worse than not existing, since that doesn't make sense.)


    I don't think I said any sort of life better than no life at all. I said any sort of life cannot be worse than no life at all, since there's nothing to compare to.

    And I don't think the 'breeding an army of personal slaves' analogy works, because once you've bred the children their lives clearly can go better or worse: treating them as slaves harms them. But the point is that coming into existence is different, because one cannot be made worse off as a result.

    In any case (this to both of you), my original point was that a Millian state lacks grounds on which to prohibit incest. And I think that stands, because incestuous relationships need not produce children. At most, the Millian state can prohibit incestuous couples reproducing (or seeking to do so).

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