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Slate ‘s William Saletan finds a rational basis for the incest taboo: it tends to destroy the family by upsetting the roles people play and the relationships they (are supposed to) have within it. So—he heaves a huge sigh of relief—there’s no slippery slope from approval or toleration of homosexuality and same sex marriage to approval or toleration of incest. Indeed, there’s no inconsistency between homosexuality and the family at all!  If he’s right, conservatives have lost a powerful argument against same-sex marriage.

But wait: what about the roles and relationships? A man can be a father, but not a mother. A woman can be a mother, but not a father. To be sure, both are parents , but parenting isn’t generic, it’s gendered, and not just in the act of procreation.

But wait again: people assume these roles and enter into these relationships voluntarily (except for the kids, who regularly remind us that they didn’t ask to be born), and the roles and relationships have surely been redefined over the years. (For example, my mom ironed everything , and I mean everything , while in our household, everyone does—or doesn’t do—his or her own ironing. One thing has remained the same, even if the nomenclature has changed: I tell my kids that they’re universal remotes.) So if roles and relationships are voluntary and subject to redefinition, what’s the objection to a more, er, expansive definition of father, mother son, daughter, sister, or brother, assuming, of course, consent? If the roles can be redefined expansively enough to accommodate same sex marriage, why can’t they be redefined expansively enough to accommodate incest betwen consenting adults?

I don’t find a persuasive distinction in Saletan’s article. More precisely, he recurs to something like nature or essentialism when he wants to rule out incest, but seems to dispense with it in the case of same sex marriage. If the roles are naturally or essentially defined in the one case, why not in the other? And if they’re not naturally or essentially defined in the one case, then why should they be in the other?

I was on a slippery slope driving around Atlanta yesterday evening; Saletan stills seems to me to be on one this morning.

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