Is incest wrong?

Hamza Andreas Tzortzis recently debated Lawrence Krauss on the topic “Islam or Atheism“; you know, the one which resulted in the University College London banning the hard-line Islamic group due to gender segregation.  During this debate Hamza asked Krauss the question:

“Why is incest wrong?” Hamza Andreas Tzortzis

According to early reports Lawrence Krauss responding by saying it was “not wrong, so long as the participants use a condom”, which resulted in an explosion of Muslims holding this statement up as a clear example of atheism’s total lack of a moral compass.  It also let many others scratching their heads wondering if Krauss actually said this, or what his justification for doing so was.  Some even used these events to claim Krauss and “his blind followers” where using these events to obfuscate fact he lost the debate:

“@jbrownridge @lkrauss1 Might have something to do with #Incest Diverting attention away from the debate… His followers are blind !”  shamirul (@islam_truth_) March 15, 2013

Thankfully, video of this portion of the debate has been released, so we can now witness the exchange:

Krauss opens his response with:

“It’s not clear to me that it’s wrong.” Lawrence Krauss

This resulted in howls of protests from the audience to such an extent Krauss almost did not deliver the second part of his response – his reasoning. Luckily, he decided to press on:

“The point is most societies have a taboo on incest, and it’s an empirical one. Generally incest produces genetic defects.  So in general there’s a physiological reason and a societal one why incest is wrong.” Lawrence Krauss

Hamza can clearly be heard agreeing with these statements, thereby agreeing there are purely scientific reason why incest is wrong – no supernatural deity required. Krauss continues:

“But, if you ask me the question … and this is an interesting question … (by the way, there’s an ingrained incest taboo in almost all societies for that reason; because societies want to persist, so that works) …. But if you ask me apriori the question ‘if a bother and sister love each other and use contraception, is there something absolutely morally wrong about that?’ … I’d have to think about it because I don’t think there’s any absolute condemnation of that fact. If they love each other and care for each other and they go off and it doesn’t affect anything else ….”Lawrence Krauss

Clearly Krauss is posing a thought experiment to Hamza on the morality of actions which have no negative consequences.  After all, how can one gauge the immorality of acts which do not have negative consequences?  In this hypothetical case there are no harmful effects on the individuals themselves (since they love and care for each other) and Krauss was careful to add the caveat that it did not affect anything else.  Such hypothetical scenarios cut directly to the heart of what it means to be moral or immoral.  These are difficult and unpleasant questions to ask, but must be asked brutally and honestly if we are to discover the underlying truth of the matter.  Krauss continues:

“Would I recommend it?  No.  Would I be critically happy about it? … But would I be willing to listen to those arguments, if they were rational? Maybe?” Lawrence Krauss

Rather than shy away from these difficult questions, Krauss has decided to honestly investigate them no matter how disgusting he may find them personally.  This is open and honest scientific inquiry.  We should not be afraid to tackle the difficult issues because we get an “icky feeling” in our stomach.  Of course, most people do not approach the world with such brutally honest introspection; they prefer to react on a purely emotional level without giving any consideration as to why those emotions are stirred, or even if they are correct.

Lastly, there is this:

“If you are gullible enough to believe I espoused incest at debate you may be gullible enough to believe, say, Mohammed was prophet of god.” Lawrence Krauss (@LKrauss1) March 15, 2013

I’ve not much more to add to that.

Posted March 16, 2013
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  • Adam

    I adore thought experiments… although that’s not to say I’m any good at them! But in this case I have to agree it’s a topic well worth a free and open discussion from any and all angles – one free from intense and emotional responses. I won’t start going in to them here, but in essence with most things like theft, robbery or murder it is very easy for one to say “This is wrong, and here is why” without resorting to emotional reasoning or socially driven opinion along the lines of “Because wrong is wrong”. If contraception is used, then why exactly is it wrong to sleep with close family? Whilst I don’t fancy the idea myself (nor do I have a sister), I don’t see why people should be punished for something that doesn’t actually hurt anyone. I would propose incest became something we evolved to disgust for obvious genetic reasons, very early in our evolution.
    It’s a fascinating topic and I would love to see Krauss going in to this in more detail – no pun intended.

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