In defence of human dignity

Oh great. Now we're supposed to stand there and gawk while courts give us legal incest. The intolerable alternative would be self-government plus moral clarity.

Citizen Editorial Pages Editor Leonard Stern wrote two weeks ago that "A few years ago it would have been unlikely to hear conversations in Canada about the decriminalization of incest. Now we find them on morning radio. What happened? Same-sex marriage happened. I supported same-sex marriage, and still do." Stern then asked: " ... polygamy among consenting adults? There is no constitutional basis on which to make it illegal. The revulsion against incest is even more pronounced than that against polygamy, but unfortunately the same principles of autonomy and freedom apply."

He admitted to sharing that revulsion but "I just don't see how in a secular democracy we can insist" that incest be illegal.

Now, let's see. In the first place, we can insist on it by an act of the legislature. In 1999 Canada's justice minister told us it was a waste of time for Parliament to pass a Reform motion affirming the traditional definition of marriage because no one wanted to change it. In fact it was a waste of time because when a lower court foisted gay marriage on us five years later, MPs had neither the will nor, they claimed, the power to intervene. But Parliament has the power if citizens can summon the will.

For that we must address moral as well as institutional questions.

In his incest piece, Stern made the surprising assertion that "The gay rights movement, during the fight for same-sex marriage, shut down talk about slippery slopes."

I agree that it tried, with the connivance of liberal-minded journalists. But I did not know any group of activists had the right to shut down free expression here. Certainly when the Citizen endorsed gay marriage, I wrote a dissenting column at the editor's invitation that talked of slippery slopes.

The one that concerned me most was not sexual or behavioural. I said the whole argument about gay marriage was taking place on unsound intellectual foundations because marriage as a legal institution is not about love or about sex. It is, as Robert Louis Stevenson said, "a friendship recognized by the police," and unless you know why, you can't say anything coherent about it. So I ended that column with a line from C.S. Lewis: "Beware: Those who call for nonsense will find that it comes." And it has.

Stern admits that his "moral intuition is that incest is a grotesquerie and should be illegal even if participants are consenting adults". But having said "If you are repulsed by sex between two men or women, that's your problem ... the state has no business pronouncing on what consenting adults do in their bedrooms," he suggests that his revulsion at incest is his problem.

It's not. His problem is that he denies the possibility of moral reasoning. As McGill university ethicist Margaret Somerville just wrote in the Globe and Mail, "Those making the case for legalization reject the idea that incestuous conduct might be inherently morally wrong. Rather, moral relativism governs ... Ethics becomes nothing more than personal preferences."

Disliking this position, she tried to construct a biological argument against it. But if it's just our genes talking, why should we listen?

She wound up saying "Even some people who advocate decriminalizing incest admit to a 'yuck factor' response to it ... We need to listen to our moral intuitions ..." True, but we need to do more than listen. We need to reason about them.

There are things that are Wrong with a capital W just as there are things that are Right with a capital R. Normally the law only forbids things that are wrong because they involve force or fraud, and leave us to work out our salvation in fear and trembling on the other stuff. But once in a while we declare some behaviour such an affront to human dignity that we will not permit it even with consent. For instance cannibalism.

Our binding duty to defend human dignity is why we care about genocide and even why we have criminal law.

Doubtless it is inconvenient and tasteless to be ripped off or murdered. But we don't forbid force and fraud because they are yucky.

We forbid them because intuition and logic reveal the absolute truth that they are wrong.

So is incest. You know it, I know it and Leonard Stern knows it. I don't know where he gets the idea that we are a secular democracy. Our Constitution calls us a Constitutional monarchy under God. But either way it's very simple what we can do.

Prohibit incest through an act of Parliament because we know it's wrong, and invoke the notwithstanding clause if need be. What kind of society in terminal decay would find that statement perverse or incoherent?

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson