17 Jul, 12 | by Iain Brassington
Søren Holm sometimes jokes that, if you want your conference well-attended, you should have a paper on the ethics of circumcision. I don’t know how well-attended the recent IAB satellite on the topic was – the first half clashed with Peter Singer doing his thing, which can’t have helped it, and I couldn’t go to the second because I was giving a paper of my own.
Anyway: though I mentioned the decision of the German court that ritual circumcision constituted assault, I’ve wanted to stay clear of saying more about it. Partly it’s because I’ve been busy; but there’s another reason: it seemed too potentially toxic. For example, Jonanthan Sacks’ column about the decision in the Jerusalem Post noted that many attempts to ban circumcision have been motivated by antisemitism; the not-so-subtly made claim is that there’s an undercurrent of antisemitism here. (An appeal to human rights is, he claims “is the only form in which an assault on Jews can be stated today”.) Of course, that won’t show that such attempts have to be motivated by antisemitism, or that thinking the court’s decision correct is an indication of latent antisemitism: they don’t, and it isn’t. Even if it’s true that the only way to launch an assault on Jews is to use the language of human rights, it doesn’t follow that every human-rights claim is an assault on Jews – even when it touches on something that is associated with Judaism. I didn’t want to open myself to an accusation of antisemitism, so thought it best to keep quiet.
But the debate is rumbling on (it was featured on the Today programme today, for example); and one of the notable things is the poor quality of most of the arguments brought against the decision. This doesn’t in itself mean that the decision is correct – poor arguments might accidentally bring you to the correct answer – but if the general direction of the poor arguments is the same, and there haven’t been many decent arguments produced that go the same way, then that does raise questions about the conclusion in which they’re headed. Having said that, there has been one better argument against the decision that I’ve come across; I’ll come to that later. It’s some of the poor arguments, rather than the position in the service of which they’re advanced, that I have in my sights here. more…