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Is “Yuck!” a good enough reason?
Do taboos on incest and infanticide have a rational basis?
The father of modern astronomy, Galileo, did not win converts to his theories through their obvious truthfulness. Rather, the younger generation of astronomers were drawn to the new and exciting research possibilities that came with Galileo's telescopes. Older, more established astronomers doubted that the new technology could be trusted. We moderns take for granted that what we see through the end of a telescope is real. Yet some of Galileo's contemporaries refused to even look through one of his telescopes for themselves.
We are amused by such stubbornness today but we live with the advantage of a much greater body of evidence that reinforces the reliability of telescopes and microscopes. We have been to the moon, and confirmed with unaided vision the ruggedness of its surface. In a different context, “new and exciting” theories might prove to be nothing more than a fad.
It is my grave duty to inform you that the same is true of the discipline of ethics, where the most reasoned and convincing arguments nevertheless rest upon a set of basic assumptions which we simply must accept or deny. Those who best represent traditional ethics exist in a kind of parallel universe to most modern academic ethicists, and, it seems, never the twain shall meet.
Hence, such philosophers as the renowned and infamous Peter Singer can freely condemn the irrationality of moral intuition or “the yuck factor”, thereby defending in principle such remaining taboos as bestiality and incest.
Singer goes on to argue that our disgust at things such as incest is an emotional response, which we have evolved in order to protect the species from inbreeding. His broader claim is that our moral intuition is entirely composed of such evolved emotional responses, and is in fact morally irrelevant. If we cannot give a rational argument why incest is wrong, then our disgust is irrational.
Singer knows that the majority of ethicists take our moral intuitions seriously, and formulate moral theories to fit our intuitions. Singer rejects this view, arguing that:
Singer's proposal is that:
True to his word, Singer has exhibited his moral theory in defence of abortion, infanticide, incest and bestiality, clearly seeking the advance of rational judgement against the false morality of our evolved emotional responses.
But this kind of appeal to evolutionary theories of morality is not new. Nor, fortunately, are sound rational refutations. In 1922, the great British writer G.K. Chesterton answered thus the speculations of his contemporary eugenicists, as they pondered the evolutionary demerits of incest:
In the subsequent 89 years, we have achieved such progress that Professor Singer can now state with certitude the evolutionary rationale for our disgust at incest. In the same period, Western ethical formation has lapsed to the point that Chesterton's entirely rational elucidation of our moral intuition is now forgotten or ignored by the majority of modern ethicists.
To be fair to Singer, our moral intuitions are not an infallible guide. Traditional ethics indeed recognises that the human conscience must be informed and cultivated, for it to function accurately. Our “moral intuition” is really our emotional response to our intellectual perceptions; hence these emotional responses are only as informed as the intellect behind them.
But Singer's claim that moral intuition lacks a rational basis is simply false. As Chesterton demonstrates, our disgust is a function of our rational refusal to treat things in mutually incompatible ways. We cannot love babies and also eat them. The two actions are incompatible. Hence, when we hear of someone consuming human flesh, we immediately deduce the failure of human love implied in that action. We are rightly disgusted at the thought of someone abandoning their love of human beings to such an extent.
The same applies to incest. We understand with an immediacy or primacy that belies Singer's sophistication, the fact that siblings and parents cannot be loved as siblings and parents, while also being loved as sexual partners. But we need not even consider incest, to understand this principle: even Singer must understand that we cannot treat friends of the opposite sex as lovers without them actually becoming lovers and ceasing to be merely friends.
Our moral disgust at bestiality follows a similar principle: we recognise immediately that a person who engages in sexual activity with an animal has denigrated their own human sexual capacity. Our disgust in this instance is at the irrational behaviour of a person who treats something important and revered as though it were fit for animals.
Ultimately, I cannot help but feel a growing disdain (if not disgust) for an ethical theory that is so oblivious to the profound rationality of our moral intuitions. This emotional response is, contra Singer, entirely rational, and all the more intense when I consider the ethical tradition our civilisation has abandoned. As C.S. Lewis wrote:
Zac Alstin works at the Southern Cross Bioethics Institute in Adelaide, South Australia.
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