Let’s hold off on the Schadenfreude.
The tragic story of Prof. David Epstein has elicited feelings that have little in common with pity and terror.
Picture a Columbia University professor of political science, a Huffington Post contributor, a staunch liberal Democrat, a certified member of the liberal elite… having a three year sexual relationship with his daughter.
Those who occupy the other side of the political spectrum may be forgiven for a twinge of Schadenfreude.
Beyond the twinge, however, most of us are feel that Epstein’s behavior was morally outrageous, and we certainly feel some level of sympathy for the pain he has inflicted on other members of his family, people who will forever be tainted by his actions.
Regardless of the legalities, and regardless of whether or not David Epstein is convicted in a criminal court, his career has been destroyed, his daughter’s life has been severely damaged, and his family has been stigmatized.
Dereliction of duty might describe his shameful failures, but it does not quite feel strong enough.
Much of the discussion of this affair has centered around the constitutional issues that it raises. I will spare you my thoughts, because I possess no competence in constitutional law.
Some who do have written on the topic here and here and here.
The fact is, the incest taboo is nearly universal; it is part of nearly all human societies. While its moral force may be affected by court decisions, there is more to morality than what the courts say.
I would prefer to ask this question: What was David Epstein thinking? Whatever made him think that having a sexual relationship with his daughter was morally unobjectionable? Did he think that no one would notice or care? Did he imagine that in an internet age, he could involve himself in sexting with his daughter and not risk disclosure? Did he think that it was alright if she was not his student?
Where did this highly intelligent man buy his moral compass? Did he read the relevant Supreme Court decisions about sexual behavior and conclude that when it comes to consenting adults, anything goes? Did he believe that right and wrong are not moral absolutes but are social constructs? Did he simply believe that since sex was a healthy human activity, it should be indulged? Or did he imagine that if it felt good no one could possibly object?
In other words, could a reasonable person, living in our culture, keying off of the decisions of the Supreme Court and the current attitudes toward sexual morality, come to the conclusion that between consenting adults, anything goes?
Could Prof. Epstein have thought that incest taboos exist because people fear producing genetically compromised offspring, and therefore, that good contraception would make the taboo irrelevant and superfluous?
If he imagined that the purpose of the incest taboo was to protect minor children from parental abuse, then his relationship with his daughter-- call it: adult-onset incest-- would not be prohibited.
Did David Epstein feel that he was superior to moral law? In a Nietzschean sense.
Just as many Americans are trying to talk themselves into believing that marriage is just an expression of affection between any two consenting adults, and thus that it has no necessary relationship with reproductive possibilities, the Epstein case throws us back into the connection between sex and procreation.
This means that we need to distinguish between different kinds of incest. Clearly, father/daughter incest is not the same as mother/son or brother/sister incest.
As we know Freud placed a special emphasis on one kind of incest: mother/son incest. Each of us, Freud wrote, is a “budding Oedipus.” The Oedipus complex forms the basis for Freudian theory.
It makes intuitive sense to say that mother/son incest is the ultimate taboo. Of all the forms of adult incest, it is, reproductively speaking, the most inefficient.
Given the female biological clock, a human society where sons bred with their mothers would yield the fewest healthy offspring. In the earlier days of human history, where life spans were radically shorter than they are today, those children would have found themselves motherless at a young age.
We tend to overlook this point because Jocasta, the wife/mother of Oedipus, had four children with her adult son. We should perhaps spend less time worrying about the Oedipus complex, and more time asking who her fertility doctor was.
If it’s just about reproductive efficiency, then father/daughter incest would not be subject to the same taboo. Nonetheless, it is universally tabooed, and anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss has labeled it the more important incest taboo.
Why would father/daughter incest be tabooed? Most of those who have considered the question have concluded that inbreeding tends to produce more genetically defective offspring, and therefore, that communities that practiced incest were weaker than those who did not.
In other words, natural selection legislates against all forms of incest. Human beings who felt disgust or disinterest about incestuous couplings would have reproduced more effectively. They would have survived over those humans who felt attracted to members of their family.
Claude Levi-Strauss, however, offered a sociological explanation for the prevalence and influence of the taboo against father/daughter incest.
If human communities are formed through a series of alliances among families, then these groupings exist and are sustained through marital alliances between members of different families. Intermarriage would threaten the solidarity of the group.
One woman from one family marries into another family. A woman from the other family marries into the first or a third family.
Levi-Strauss saw this as an exchange of gifts that produced social bonds. When a child is produced, his existence affirms the bond because the child is affiliated with both families; he is their living link. .
Psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan added an important psychological observation. If a human being defines his identity according to his place within a network of family relationships, he identifies himself as a son, a brother, and a nephew… later to become a husband, a father, and an uncle... incestuous couplings confuse the placement and thus leave people not knowing who they are, where they stand, or how they are related to each other.
Incest produces familial anomie. This undermines the person’s place in his family, his place in his community, and his relational nexus.
A woman who gives birth to her father’s child has also given birth to her half-sister. At the same time she has also given birth to her father’s grandchild. How can this woman and child situate themselves within their so-called family? How then can they know who they are, or if they are as social beings?