In December of 2010, ABC News reported that David Epstein, a Columbia University professor, had been arrested for having a consensual sexual relationship with his 24-year-old daughter. Epstein’s attorney told ABC the following, “It’s OK for [others] to do whatever they want in their own home, how is this so different?” His argument was clear. Epstein and his daughter were born with a biological preference for incest and, therefore, they should be tolerated to the same degree as all the rest of us who are born with our own sets of genetic proclivities and appetites.
Question: Why in the world does biology matter? What difference does it make if Epstein was “born that way”?
In his seminal work Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton said, “original sin…is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved.” His point was simple. Turn on the nightly news and you can see that something is wrong. We live in a broken world. All of us are “born” with a sinful nature – with broken appetites, broken attitudes, and broken spirits. When we look in the mirror each morning, all of us know that the person looking back is far from perfect and has a compromised body, compromised personality, and compromised soul. Whether it be physical or mental, we all have some proclivities that are wrong and which we are obligated to control as struggle our way through life.
You see, we all intuitively (and empirically) know that genetic predisposition really doesn’t mean that much when it comes to questions of morality. For example, some people may be born with a genetic predisposition to be angry. Does that mean they have the right to strike out at others all the time? Does a guy with the “anger gene” have the moral right to verbally abuse his colleagues, his spouse and his kids? It could be argued that all of us are genetically predisposed to lie. Does the “liar gene” give you and me an excuse to be deceptive in our business dealings, friendships and marriages? What if it can be proven that thieves are genetically predisposed to steal? Does the “thieves gene” mean burglary is now an amoral discussion and that those of us who judge it as wrong are guilty of intolerance and hate? How about racism? If it could be proven that Nazis were genetically predisposed to hate Jews would the argument that they were “born that way” have justified their genocidal actions? How about the plantation owners of the 1860s? Would their claim of being “born that way” vindicate their actions of treating blacks like chattel? You see the “born that way” argument really doesn’t work if one believes that we still have the obligation, culpability and free will to “behave” morally in spite of our broken dispositions and desires.
Human behavior has always been a moral discussion and the measure of right behavior and wrong behavior has never been, and can never be, grounded in the assumption that we are free to do all the things we were “born to do.” We are not animals. We don’t just rut about enslaved to uncontrolled instincts. We are moral creatures, which means that, by definition, we “don’t do” some of the very things we are “born to do.”
So, don’t we have to conclude that even if there is an “incest gene” that it really doesn’t matter? Surely we can all agree that the genetic predisposition of a Columbia University professor who is justifying having sex with his 24-year-old daughter is irrelevant, can’t we? Isn’t it obvious to all of us that our moral culpability must always supersede our appetites?
Bottom line: Who cares about our biological penchants? You and I are predisposed to do a lot of things that are just simply wrong. Genetic predisposition does not determine what is moral and what is not. If our physiology or our chemistry becomes the final measuring rod of right and wrong then we are left with absolutely no moral standards regarding any behavioral choice. Even, incest becomes nothing more than a matter of personal expression. Frankly, in such a world we would have no moral arguments for or against any action -sexual or otherwise. If personal behaviors are “predetermined” by nature we are all nothing but animals governed by our instincts and genes and any discussion of morality and personal responsibility becomes mute by definition.
Chesterton also said “If you wanted to dissuade a man from drinking his tenth whisky you would slap him on the back and say, ‘Be a man.’ No one who wished to dissuade a crocodile from eating his tenth explorer would slap it on the back and say, ‘Be a crocodile.’ For we have no notion of a perfect crocodile; no allegory of a whale expelled from his whaley Eden. If a whale came up to us and said: ‘I am a new kind of whale; I have abandoned whalebone’ we should not trouble. But if a man came up to us…to say, ‘I am a new kind of man. I have abandoned [morality]’; we should answer, ‘Doubtless you are new, but …[you] have fallen with Adam…”