Thursday, December 16, 2010

Think Carefully: Government Role in Regulating Relationships

This case - the Columbia political science professor who has been carrying on a three year (physical) relationship with his now-24 year old daughter - brings up a number of very interesting areas, some of which have been touched on somewhat elsewhere.

The first question is the simpler one - why is it that he is being charged, but she isn't? I understand that in most cases, the party perceived as the "victim" is not charged, but the law isn't supposed to be based on perception of victimhood, it's supposed to be based on actual victimhood. A 21 year old girl is old enough to know what she's doing. There is no evidence of coercion or "abuse of a position power", and even if there was, then incest isn't the right charge - rape or blackmail is. The fact that they're charging him and not her is very disconcerting. Part of it is because he's older, part of it is because he's the man, but from any principle of equity, you need to charge both or neither.

It strikes me that the correct action may actually be "neither", in this case. I'm in no way condoning incest, and even the idea of making an argument in defense of the professor and his daughter makes me somewhat uncomfortable, because they're clearly screw-ups, and it's a really gross story. However, being a gross screw-up is not in-and-of-itself criminal.

The question becomes what the proper government role is in regulating consensual relationships, and the implications are far-reaching.

There are a number of choices you have to think about when formulating this policy. Does the government have any moral right at all to tell consenting adults what they can do? If it does, what is the basis for deciding what is appropriate?

To list some of the issues on which you have to be consistent:
Gay Marriage
Consensual Incest
Consensual Polygamy

If you believe the government shouldn't regulate what consenting adults can do, then you implicitly need to permit all of the above. Bestiality is one possible exception, depending on how you feel about animal rights, but people do much worse things to animals than bestiality; it seems silly to ban bestiality with a cow if you can cruelly slaughter it as a calf, for example. Adultery is actually the next easiest thing to combat - marriage is a contract not to be unfaithful and in being unfaithful, you should be open to civil lawsuits for violation of contract. This is the only camp I can feel comfortable placing myself; even if I find incest or bestiality, in particular, to be distasteful, moral consistency and tolerance of others' independent choices (with no direct impact on others) require this viewpoint.

If you do believe the government should regulate what consenting adults can do, you need to have a basis, because "it makes me uncomfortable" is not a valid reason for banning consenting adults from activity that hurts nobody else, and "Christianity says so" isn't a valid reason in a secular government.

One popular argument is reproductive - relationships are meant to be reproductive, so anything that isn't reproductive isn't legitimate. Of course, this doesn't provide any valid reason to ban polygamy, and many conventional heterosexual relationships are not reproductive. With the advent of birth control, sex and children are no longer necessarily attached. Banning the above requires banning birth control, as well. I don't see anyone other than the Catholic Church making that argument, and the Catholic Church does so a) based on religion and b) in opposition to polygamy as well. So I'm not sure there's a consistent argument there.

Another is "family-based" - Some things are destructive to the "family ideal" and thus shouldn't be permitted. This, too, doesn't pass scrutiny. It's hard to argue against anything on the basis of family if there is no family involved. You don't see people clamoring for the position "gay relationships are acceptable but they can't have kids" (if they believe that children of gay parents are worse adjusted than straight parents, which I do not.). Similarly, bestiality has nothing to do with a family ideal. This would argue against adultery, incest and polygamy, but not the others. People don't seem to be on a crusade to send adulterers to jail, so this seems like a difficult thing to pin as the principal driving force. Drinking and smoking while pregnant is not illegal, and that is far more detrimental to children than any of the above things (other than incest).

Power relationships is a common argument - polygamy, bestiality and incest and such rely on relationships between one person who is more powerful than everybody else. Setting aside the "bargaining power" element of polygamy - maybe one man is the implicit "boss" of multiple wives, but each woman, being in greater demand, has much more bargaining power than each man does - how does gay marriage qualify? For that matter, incest between consenting adults doesn't really qualify, either - by the time you're 18, the law holds you responsible enough to do most things, and 21 pretty much knocks off the rest of the things you're legally allowed to do. Why should incest be different?

Counter-evolution is a final example I can think of - some things are negative from an evolutionary perspective - but that seems to apply strictly to incest, because the others do not create evolutionarily weak offspring, nor do they prevent a party from (if they wish) creating evolutionarily strong offspring.

Maybe there's something else I'm missing, but I can't think of a basis by which the government can regulate those behaviors in the manner they currently do (adultery ok, gay marriage highly conflicted depending on the state, the others prohibited) in a manner consistent with its own role in regulating relationships and other areas.

Some of those clearly make me uncomfortable (incest and bestiality are, in my opinion, genuinely disgusting), but uncomfortable isn't a basis for law. The only conclusion I can come to is that the prosecution of this professor and the legally-justified prosecution of his daughter is an unjust role for the government to be playing.

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