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Radical, blind, fanatic, distorted May 30, 2011

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Ethics, Language, Religion.

In an editorial about the San Francisco initiative to make male neonatal circumcision a misdemeanor crime, The Jerusalem Post uses (or rather, abuses) language in order to disguise bad moral argument. They begin by proclaiming that we are facing “a case study of what happens when a radical interpretation of human rights combined with hatred of tradition can blind better moral judgment.” Here, on the other hand, is their own “better moral judgment”:

By marking his most impulsive organ, man makes the unequivocal statement that he is not an animal governed by the laws of nature. Rather, man is a creation whose horizon of aspirations lies far beyond the satisfaction of his natural impulses. The right of San Francisco’s Jews to pass on this religious message to their children, in a practice that experts say does not cause undue pain, has not been proved to dull sexual enjoyment and which might have medical benefits, should be carefully safeguarded against anti-religious fanatics with a distorted conception of human rights.

Notice the contrast between the extreme, decisive words they use to characterize the other side — radical, hatred, fanatics, distorted — and the lame weasel words they use to make their own case: Does not cause undue pain? Has not been proved to dull sexual enjoyment? Might have medical benefits? That hardly sounds encouraging when considering cutting off parts of one’s body — but that is not even the point, since we’re not talking about an adult circumcising himself: we’re talking about forcing an invasive procedure on another person, without his informed consent. So pretending that the issue is about man marking himself in order to make a (silly) statement about his aspirations, or about passing religious “messages” to one’s children, is disingenuous and contemptible. Appeals to tradition are irrelevant here; and opposing the imposition of medically unnecessary surgery on infants is not radical or fanatic. The Post’s moral judgement has been blinded by religious dogmatism, and they’re using duplicitous language as a smokescreen.



1. Reshef - May 31, 2011

I actually think the Post is right. If one is worried about the health, safety and sexual enjoyment of the next generations, there are much lower hanging fruits than attacking circumcision.

Society in general and parents in particular force things on children, as children are not autonomous. Some of these things are necessary for the child or for its proper future function in the society. Some of these things are dangerous or might damage the child later in his life. Some things belong to both categories.

In the western culture we generaly assume that parents act for the best interest of their children, and refrain from intervene except in extreme cases (where the act is clearly hurting the child, and probably doesn’t help him). The Post says that circumcision is clearly not dangerous, and possibly advantagous, and therefore there is no reason to do something extreme as forbidding it.

By the way, once you outlaw this, Jews (and others) will simply go to unregistered, unmonitored circumciser, which will really make it unsafe.

Ezra Resnick - May 31, 2011

I agree that male circumcision is not the most pressing moral issue we have to face (female genital mutilation is much worse, for instance), but that is not the point here. The question is whether or not neonatal circumcision is ethically justified, and I have yet to hear a convincing argument that it is. Parents do not own their children (like slaves), and they are not free to do whatever they want with them. We do not allow parents to beat their children, for instance, even if the parents think it is good for them. Children should not have painful, invasive procedures forced on their bodies, unless there is good reason to believe it is necessary for their welfare. I’ve written more about this here and here.

I find your last argument (that Jews would continue circumcising even if it were illegal, making the practice less safe) irrelevant. It obviously has no bearing on the ethical question of whether circumcision is justifiable; and I don’t think it provides a sufficient practical reason to condone practices of this nature either. For example, you could make the exact same argument for the case of female genital mutilation — do you think that should be legal as well?

Omer - June 3, 2011

There is something disingenuous by a society which allows a woman to kill the fetus 9 days before this procedure (The bill forbidding partial-birth abortions, in which the fetus is partially delivered and then killed, was opposed by Congress members representing the San Francisco area), but suddenly says it’s morally reprehensible to touch him then. I don’t make here any claim on abortion stances, only to point out the glaring contradiction.
[When speaking of week 40 abortions, the words “fetus” and “kill” are quite inappropriate, IMHO, but I don’t wish to expand the argument…]

Parents are legally allowed to do a lot of things to their children, determining their fate and causing pain much more than circumcision (You can choose to raise your child in Pakistan, for example, which will probably cause your child much more pain and suffering). Even if we limit ourselves only to physical manifestations, do you object to seeing small kids with braces on their teeth, for example? Having pierced ears? Actually, kids permanent physical changes for aesthetic reasons is quite common in our society. In some cases there are also medical issues, but in many cases (crooked legs, a very small cleft), they are negligent. I don’t accept aesthetic ideals as being “nobler” than religious ones.

I also think you confuse your ethical ideals with public policy and legalization, and in that respect your dismissal of tradition seem mistaken. Society is made up of various elements, multiple ideals, and while an attempt to design a purely secular, rational, Ezra-like-minded society may be an interesting intellectual pursuit, dealing with the real world means understanding that implementing your ideals as laws is, many times, a bad idea with unwelcome consequences.

Ezra Resnick - June 4, 2011

I’m not familiar with the “partial-birth abortion” law you’re referring to, but if they’re really killing week 40 fetuses without compelling medical necessity (e.g. the mother’s life is in danger), that certainly sounds immoral.

As I wrote in my previous comment, while parents are given the authority to make many decisions for their children, they should not be allowed to cause them physical harm or perform invasive procedures unless there is good reason to believe it is necessary for the child’s welfare. So for instance, I would object to parents piercing their children’s ears below a certain age. Of course, there are many variables to be taken into account (some are mentioned in previous posts — here and here), and there will necessarily be some gray areas (e.g. from what age can a child provide informed consent to getting her ears pierced). But I don’t think that neonatal circumcision falls in a gray area: it is painful, can entail complications (such as infection), provides no significant health benefits (certainly none that require the procedure be performed at such a young age), and is practically irreversible. People have a right to decide for themselves whether they want such a procedure performed on their body.

As for your last point, I certainly don’t think that all my personal convictions should be made into laws. Specifically, I think people have the right to do whatever they want with their own bodies. But the law is meant to protect people from having their rights infringed upon by others; and the law must especially stand up for those who cannot stand up for themselves, like children. Invoking “tradition” is not a valid excuse for infringing upon the rights of others — and I don’t see a principled distinction in this regard between neonatal circumcision and practices like female genital mutilation and child beating. (Which is not to say that they’re all equally bad, just that they’re all ethically unjustifiable.)

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