Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Is prettiness your best standard?

There is a pretty spirited debate about male circumcision going on at a NYT blog.

This was partially inspired by a recent blog post supporting female genital mutilation.

Your opinion on whether these are reasonably comparable issues will depend on your moral/ethical framework - comparative harms, consent, cultural relativism, aesthetics, etc. Personally, I subscribe to consent as the paramount value in this situation up until urgent, life-threatening conditions require immediate action. The supposed benefits in STI prevention are not compelling enough to me to justify permanent prophylactic removal of a part of an organ, and the aesthetic concerns expressed by people (especially women) are downright appalling.

One thing I do find interesting is that nary an anti-HPV-vaccination brawler has made a move to oppose circumcision because of the purported benefits in preventing STI transmission. If it is a priority to prevent our girls from turning into wanton harlots because of a vaccine against one STI given at a young age, shouldn't we also be concerned about our boys turning into the same thanks to the magical disease-defying benefits of circumcision, provided at *gasp* infancy?

9 comments:

Kelly Hills said...

I've been thinking about this a lot, Sabrina, since Law & Order: SVU recently did one of their "educate the public" shows on female genital mutilation, and cultural practices. It seemed like a pretty big ball to cover in a blog post, though, so I shied away from it. (Not to mention, I thought I'd keep my media studies stuff down to a post a week, but now I'm digressing.)

Anyhow - I have a hard time seeing the direct comparison between FGM and circumcision, just because it tends to involve more than the removal of skin, it also removes the visible portion of the clitoris. If it were just the clitoral hood, perhaps it would be the same - or if the corona of the penis were removed.

That said, I also have a hard time with the "OMG FMG REMOVES ALL ABILITY TO ENJOY SEX!" that accompanies most anti-FGM rhetoric. Those folks, I think, are relying a bit too much on the idea that the only way a woman can orgasm, or reach any sexual pleasure, is through direct stimulation of the clitoris. Where Freud goes too far in one direction, I think we find the extreme focus on the clitoris as the only sexual stimulation in the other direction.

When it comes down to it, though, I am, more than anything else, a fan of consistent thought. If it is morally wrong, if it is a violation of rights, to remove anything from the labia minora to clitoral hood to clitoris itself, even when done for religious reasons, then it is similarly unacceptable to do to boys. Even for religious reasons.

SabrinaW said...

Kelly, I agree with what you're saying here, especially on the "religious third rail" (watch out, we'll get flak for that!). I'm probably going to use this issue to help me discern how I decide which ethical standard to use, because I somehow made the decision that "comparative harms" is a less effective standard than a deontological standard of "consent to body modification". Maybe part of it is because the only people who could realistically and accurately compare the harms done by these procedures would be hermaphrodites, so there will always be some uncertainty and contention involved.

So rather than try to hash out the consequentialist impacts of these procedures, it is much more parsimonious and consistent to be against permanent non-urgent, non-lifesaving bodily modification without consent, which is the position I have chosen for myself.

(and on a personal note, I gave up a previous relationship partly due to my refusal to allow my hypothetical sons to be subjected to such a procedure for religious/cultural reasons)

SabrinaW said...

Kelly, one more thing - I agree that FGM would be more analogous to lopping off the glans plus a bit of the penis, and I actually am tempted to use that for the reverse reason - to ask the proponents of cultural relativism if they would support a culture doing that practice on its boys. Something (my "women's intuition"?) tells me there would be a train wreck.

Kelly Hills said...

Heh, I'm sure there would be a trainwreck of magnificent proportion, Sabrina - but hey, that's when you get out the popcorn and enjoy the show.

And yes, we'll probably get taken to task for not honouring religious beliefs, but if you're going to honour one religious belief, seems to me you have to honour them all. And frankly, I think it's presumptuous of parents to assume their kid is going to want to have that particular religious covenant. In this, I agree with the Protestants who feel that children should make the decision for themselves, for baptism and any sort of agreement of religious life. (Of course, I don't think a preteen can really make that decision, but again, digression.) If a man wants to honour the Jewish covenant with God, seems to me he should make that choice himself, and not have it made by his parents.

I think, though, as I have both gotten older and more immersed in the field of bioethics, my attitude has shifted from "eh, it's harmless" (earrings on infants, for example) to "leave lifelong decisions of bodily integrity to the person whose body it is" - be that decision something as simple as earrings, or as complicated as what your genitals should look like (be it circumcision for either sex, gender assignment, etc).

Of course, the thing is - with that position, comes accepting that some people will choose to do things I would not, such as FGM. But if they make the decision as competent adults who are making informed decisions, well. That's why it's their body and not mine.

SabrinaW said...

I can't help but chuckle at the "bioethical shift" you've undergone, because it's exactly what I've gone through too - we are no longer capable of rendering simple judgments on matters like this (much to the exasperation of those around us). I wonder if future bioethicists will end up aligned based on whichever standard/method they subscribe to, rather than their position on specific issues.

For the purpose of clarifying the difference between personal decisions and good policy, I'll often refer to "Sabrina-World", where everything I personally like is law and everything I personally dislike is forbidden (ie: no cars, sushi three days a week, and no fast food), and contrast that with a world based in policy that promotes self-actualization and respect for differences.

It takes a level of social maturity to be able to say, "I personally don't like what you're doing, but since it does not hurt others or me, I shall support your right to do it and not bother you about it," a level that maybe we can achieve in America... someday.

Kelly Hills said...

I'll often refer to "Sabrina-World", where everything I personally like is law and everything I personally dislike is forbidden (ie: no cars, sushi three days a week, and no fast food
Hey, I think I could like Sabrina-World! ;-)

I don't have that, but admit my friends give me great grief about my circadian rhythm. For years, everyone knew it as "KST - Kelly Standard Time" - because I keep a very bizarre wake/sleep cycle. Or at least, I thought it was bizarre til I met the bunch of bioethicists I now know. KST has officially been renamed Bioethicist Standard Time. ;-)

It takes a level of social maturity to be able to say, "I personally don't like what you're doing, but since it does not hurt others or me, I shall support your right to do it and not bother you about it," a level that maybe we can achieve in America... someday.
This seems like it could be a, what, nouvea-Rawlsean position related to overlapping principles, where a just society agrees to disagree.

The main problem I have with Rawls's overlapping principles position is that it requires people to not give their reasoning if it is reasons that everyone wouldn't consider, well, reasonable. So if a Catholic is motivated to argue against hESC research, they cannot use their religion as justification for the view, since not everyone will find that religious reason, uh, reasonable.

I think Rawls has it wrong, and people should be clear to justify their reasons - I think I should have the right to know that someone who is anti-hESC is so because of their religion; I should be given all information to make an informed decision (hmm, where have I heard that before?).

In your description of a socially mature, pluralistic society, people would know the reason for someone else's decision, be confident that the person made an educated, informed decision on the pro's and con's, and say "okay, your decision..." I could very easily live with that (altho I can see snags coming in with what it means for education, information, etc).


...can you tell classes are done and I am a philosopher with too much time on her hands? ;-)

Laurie said...

So if a Catholic is motivated to argue against hESC research, they cannot use their religion as justification for the view, since not everyone will find that religious reason, uh, reasonable.

Here's an interesting question, though--are there many people who believe that human life starts at conception for reasons that aren't religious? Since that's the reason for the Catholic point of view on this.

I wouldn't know since I don't intellectually believe that's when human life starts, myself. If there were any nonreligious people who think that destroying embryos is a tiny Holocaust, then it would no longer be a "this is what my religion says, now obey" type of issue.


- LBN, WBB staff Catholic nutjob

LifeEthics.org said...

Kelly, first, we need to begin from the assumption that the other guy is doing his best - that the woman you disagree with is acting in what she believes is a reasonable, even good manner.

Then, once we agree that the other person is a good person with rational thoughts, then we can have a conversation. Who can share ideas with an evil person or someone who makes it clear that they believe *you're* an idiot?



Laurie: http://www.godlessprolifers.org/home.html

Kelly Hills said...

Oh, I know there are oodles of problems with Rawls and even beginning to define ideas of reasonable - think Rawls says something about it being a socially agreed upon standard, which kind of gets us in circles. I spent my entire Rawls class going "lovely theory, practical how?" and being told over and again (and should my prof catch this post, see, I was listening) that "that's not Rawls's project - he left the details for other people."

Laurie - while I was beaten to the punch for the Godless Prolifer group, even if someone does have a religious reason for why they're anti-hESC, that reason can vary from religion to religion, and people should still have the information as to what backs someone's opinion.

Without knowing motivation, even the sanest person could appear insane. (Which leads us back around to how do you define reasonable, but I think I'm going to try to go to bed instead of debate philosophy all night...)