Emily Yoffe, who is not Ethics Alarms’ favorite advice columnist, gets one right at Slate—a weird one, but then, that’s the only kind of question she usually chooses to answer. If I had to bet, I’d place my money on this question being a fake. Emily acknowledges that possibility, but couldn’t pass this one up, and neither can I.
A loving husband who already knew that both he and his wife (it was virtually love at first sight when they met in college) were raised by lesbian parent couples who conceived via sperm donors found out that they both have the same donor to thank for their conception. Now he thinks “sister” every time he sees his spouse, and ask 1) what should he do? and 2) should he tell his wife that he has learned that they are half-siblings? Yoffe tells this poor guy to stop feeling guilty, and that he hasn’t done anything wrong. She also advises him to get some counseling, and to suck it up and tell sis about their dilemma….but not to reveal the secret to their kids, Anteater Boy and Tilly the Boneless.
My advice would be exactly the same. (All right, I’m kidding about the kids. The couple has them, and Emily advised that this be one family secret they not pass on, but freaks they are not.) I wouldn’t give this marriage a lot of hope for the long term—-Oedipus had a similar issue, and that marriage didn’t end well if I recall—but Emily’s approach gives Luke and Leia better odds than the odds this question wasn’t written by one of the same people who write the letters published in The Penthouse Forum. Her chief bullseye: the couple has done nothing wrong. There are good reasons to keep the societal and cultural taboo against incest: it undermines the family structure and the gene pool, and is a practice no sane society should want to encourage. This is one of the best examples of morality serving a useful purpose, making the ethical choice to support the moral code. The particular incestuous marriage at issue doesn’t risk setting a trend, however, doesn’t harm the gene pool significantly, and isn’t going to promote a national fad. It wasn’t the couple’s choice or fault, and if they can banish that imbedded cultural urge to look at each other and think, “ICK!!!,” they should.
Luke has to tell Leia, though. This is too significant and personal a secret to keep. I recognize that there is a good chance she will argue that she would have rather not known, but this can’t be the main factor in driving the ethical analysis. She has a right and the need to know. He has no right to keep the truth from her, because it has a direct bearing on their current relationship as well as her personal history, and she needs to understand why he is suddenly really uncomfortable when they watch the scene in “Back to the Future” where Marty and his future mom start necking in the car.
The children, however, don’t need to know, and are certain to be better for not knowing. The only question is whether they will find out eventually anyway. The prospect of that would have been significantly reduced if Dad had the brains not to describe their parentage in a well-trafficked website: “Hey sis, look at this! This family has four grandmothers just like our family! Wait a minute…Dad’s been gagging every time he looks at Mom lately, and keeps kissing her on the cheek. Wait a minute…he just burned the Star Wars blueray, and when I asked him why, he started sobbing and said, ‘I don’t want to talk about it!’ WAIT A MINUTE…Mom and Dad do look sort of alike…you don’t think…OH MY GOD!!!!”
Facts: Dear Prudence (Slate)