Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Last Taboo

A professor conducted an interesting experiment with his class. He proposed to them the following moral problem and asked them to discuss it.

A brother and sister decided they wanted to have the experience of having sex with each other. They made sure to use birth control and promised they’d only do it this once. When they had completed the act, they found that the experience made their relationship stronger.

As can be expected, all the students condemned the act as immoral and repugnant. However, when asked to articulate why, they could only point to its potentially perilous consequences. First they said that the incestuous union could result in monstrous offspring. However, the professor countered that the pair had taken every precaution to avoid impregnation. They then declared that such an experience would make their relationship awkward and potentially ruin it. However, the professor countered that the experience in fact strengthened their relationship.

Finally, unable to get over the ick factor, the students could only declare, “It’s just wrong.”

The experiment, the professor claims, proves that our concepts of morality are taught to us by society and are “pre-rational”; that is, there are no solid, consistent principles behind them.

However, there are some problems with the professors logic.

First of all, does the fact that a classroom of college students is unable to articulate a moral principle mean that such principles do not exist? I’m sure the same students would not have been unable to articulate Einstein’s theory of relativity. Does that mean that the theory doesn’t exist or is a social construct? There are many things college students cannot articulate or are ignorant of. That’s why they’re in school!

Secondly, most likely the college students were unable to spell out any principle behind the injunction against incest because our society has reduced moral reasoning to managing the potentially harmful consequences of an action. It is interesting that the students immediately had recourse to the damage the incestuous union could have. No one reportedly located the immorality of the act in the nature of sexuality itself which is meant to be shared exclusively by a publicly committed man and woman open to bearing and raising children. This is the moral principle behind any sexually immoral act. Again, not knowing the constitutive moral principle or refusing to recognize it is not the same as saying it does not exist.

Thirdly, as entertaining as the case study may be, it is thoroughly hypothetical. It is extremely unlikely that an incestuous union would lead a brother and sister to have a closer relationship. Even if it did, it would not legitimize or justify the act. Furthermore, the case as it has been proposed has been totally scrubbed of any harmful consequences. It would be like asking if one man murdered another man but he did not really die and it made their relationship stronger, would the murder be wrong? Totally ridiculous.

But, we have learned something from the exercise. We must be able to spell out the moral principles and values behind our ethical judgments, not just recite their potentially harmful consequences.

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