You may have heard this story about John Prescott’s ancestry. Apparently it’s very likely that his great-great-grandmother fathered children with her own father, who was widowed. As genealogist Gillian Smith puts it:
From what I’ve been told, the daughters took over the roles of the mother when they died, and they took over all the roles of the mother. It was quite common as well.
This would obviously be a disturbing thing for anyone to learn about their own ancestry. And it’s a disturbing thing to learn about the past. We know that this sort of thing happens now; you’ll probably be familiar with this recent case from Austria. But the Austrian case seems to have been a freak occurrence. The last line from Gillian Smith, on the other hand, is striking: “It was quite common as well.” Clearly they did things differently in the past.
A similar reminder of how attitudes to such things can vary (over both time and space) came recently from the Italian politician Daniela Santanchè, who called Muhammad a polygamous paedophile. There was (predictably) much criticism. Standard Muslim sources do, however, seem to confirm that Muhammad had more than one wife and that he married one of them, Aisha, and consummated the marriage when she was nine or ten. Granted, sources don’t all agree, and I’ve heard some people say that she was in fact older. Even if she was nine, it doesn’t necessarily follow that Muhammad was strictly speaking a paedophile; that’s more a matter of whether he actually desired her sexually. That isn’t the point. The point is that, for a very long time, the idea that he might have married a girl of nine or ten and had sex with her was not found abhorrent by large numbers of people who heard the story. It’s rather like the stories in the Bible where it’s apparently considered entirely acceptable that a father offer up his daughters to be raped by a mob, provided they agree to leave his male guests be (there’s a comic-book version coming out soon, by the way).
Clearly moral opinions change. I’m not going to go down some moral-relativism route here. I think that having sex with children, fathering children with your daughter, and offering your daughter up to be raped are all wrong, and I think they were all wrong two hundred, two thousand, and twenty thousand years ago too. My point is this: if anyone tells you that morals have declined, ask them for specifics to back this up. Anecdotes won’t do it. If you want anecdotes, there are three anecdotes above, each from a different era, to counter them.
Now I’m not saying everything’s got better either. I haven’t provided any evidence for that kind of claim, and some things (e.g. the probability of humanity wiping itself out in a week) have unquestionably got worse. Some things, moreover, are probably just as bad (or as good) now as they ever were. But if fathering children with your daughter used to be “quite common”, then I submit that certain things, at least over the course of the last 200 years in Britain, have damn well got better.