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More defense for the indefensible June 4, 2010

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Ethics, Religion.
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Eradicating the barbaric practice of neonatal male circumcision, though a worthy goal, undoubtedly does not belong at the very top of our moral “to do” list: there are other practices which cause far more damage, like female genital cutting. However, circumcision is a good test case for examining attitudes towards morality and tradition, since most of the arguments presented in support of circumcision are the same ones used to justify other, far worse, practices. The problem is that most people – even educated, liberal people – don’t seem to see any moral issue with circumcision at all. They take for granted that parents have the right to force a painful and medically unnecessary procedure on a child if they so choose. Why would any parent choose to chop body parts off an infant? The 500-pound gorilla in the room is the religious belief that circumcision is commanded by God, as a mark of his chosen people: “My covenant shall be in your flesh.” Religious moderates are often uncomfortable with this motivation, however, so they rationalize, trying to spin circumcision as being in the child’s best interests. I previously addressed the “health benefits” rationalization, an argument that could have the potential to justify circumcision if the medical case were compelling – but it is not.

Another argument I have encountered claims that since most males in the community are circumcised, an uncircumcised child would be ridiculed for being “different.” Therefore, circumcision will spare the child significant psychological pain. This argument would be extremely weak, it seems to me, even in the case of children who really are born looking different than “normal” – those with a big nose, pointy ears, etc. These kids may very well be made fun of because of their appearance (as most children are at some point), but should parents be forcing cosmetic surgery on such children before they are even old enough to speak? Doesn’t every person have the right to make such decisions about their own body for themselves? In any case, though, applying this argument to circumcision is completely absurd, because being uncircumcised is not a deformity or a birth defect: it is the natural state of the male body. The only reason an uncircumcised child would be considered different is because other parents circumcise their children! To use this very fact as an argument in favor of circumcision is to sustain a vicious cycle.

The first question to ask someone who makes the “conformity” argument is what they would do if they happened to be raising their children in a place where circumcision was not the norm, and their sons would be made fun of for being circumcised. If they would circumcise anyway, then apparently they are not that concerned about exposing their children to ridicule after all. But a better thought experiment with which to challenge every parent who supports circumcision is this: What would you do if you lived in a society where, by tradition, parents branded their children’s buttocks with a hot iron on their first birthday? If anybody can find a significant difference between this scenario and circumcision, let me know.

The sad thing is that some people – even kind, moderate people – will bite the bullet here, and claim that if branding were the norm in the community they wanted to belong to, they would go along with it. There is probably nothing more that can be said to such a person (except to ask them how they would feel if they were the victim of such a custom). The trouble is that people are so mightily attached to their traditions, religious traditions especially, that they are incapable of evaluating them objectively and considering the possibility of giving them up. It is important to remind ourselves that the traditions we inherit can be completely arbitrary, based on the circumstances of our birth. If we had been born in another country or at another point in history we would find ourselves just as attached to completely different traditions. Moral progress is only ever made by examining traditions critically, keeping the good ones and discontinuing the bad ones. People have a strong need to belong to a group and be accepted by their peers, but haven’t we learned that doing something just because everyone else is doing it is inexcusable?

It is not an accident that so many of the “clubs” which endorse immoral behavior (female genital cutting, suicide bombing, etc.) are religious. Religion causes good, decent people to do terrible things they would otherwise have no reason to do. Religion discourages critical, independent thinking, and makes a virtue out of blind obedience to authority and tradition. The disastrous effects of such dogmatism on our world go far beyond circumcision.

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