Questions, questions…

In response to the post below about circumcision, “IntactByDefault” asked a number of questions.  I think that they merit a thread of their own, although I’ve touched on some of the issues before.

Is it not the case that, short of legislation, the role of bioethicists is to put a check on the potentially unethical behaviors of those who practice medicine on humans?

Why have the rights of male children been subordinated to such issues as cultural habit and medically superfluous parental preference or belief?

Why aren’t bioethicists, including yourself, relentlessly shaming and using any other tool at your disposal to correct the behavior of medical practitioners who modify the genitals of children without meeting the ethical standards developed to protect the rights of minors?

For context, I suppose I ought to say why I made the post I did: it’s not because circumcision is something that interests me in particular, but I do know that it is an area of interest for some bioethicists and people in related fields, and the Freethinker article caught my eye.  More generally, I’m interested in it insofar as it’s something that’s always controversial, and I quite like watching the debates from the sidelines.

So: to IBD’s questions.  The second question is one for the anthropologists, and I’ll leave it unanswered.  In respect of the others, I think that he/ she/ it/ they are probably starting from the wrong premise, confusing the role of the bioethicist with that of the campaigner.  qua bioethicist, I don’t think that my (or our) role is really to campaign at all – it’s to analyse.  The point of this analysis is to get rid of misapprehensions and poor arguments, but the process is, I think, ideologically neutral; we go – or aspire to go – where the arguments take us.  That’s why we aren’t “relentlessly shaming” anyone: that’s not what we’re about.

Moreover, the questions take it as read that ritual circumcision is obviously indefensible, and I don’t accept that.  There’s a number of reasons why.  If it was as clear-cut an issue as that, noone would do it.  Indeed, I find it hard to make sense of the idea of a moral agent who acts for reasons other than those he thinks right, good, or justified – call this my justification thesis.  The fact that it does happen indicates that at least some people think that, whatever the reasons not to circumcise, there are also reasons to do so; they might accept that circumcision is bad in its own terms, but justified by some larger consideration.  Now, the argument to be had here is twofold: first, are they correct to identify a larger justification?  Second, have they located the pivot between the reasons for and the reasons against in the right place?  (And, I suppose, second-and-a-halfth, have those who take an opposite view identified the correct reasons in the correct place?)

For those bioethicists who are doing work on circumcision, these will be the major questions.  The most that anyone could say, I suspect, is that they hold ritual circumcision to be acceptable or unacceptable based on this evaluation of the reasons why it’s performed.  But – and this is worth repeating – even this strong line really has to take account of there being, at the very least, some reason to go through with the procedure.  mutatis mutandis, the same will apply to any other procedure as well.  When we say that someone is behaving in a morally problematic manner, we aren’t – I don’t think – saying that they’ve woken up and chosen the obviously wrong in preference to the obviously right; we’re saying that they’ve misidentified the right.

And, of course, it works the other way: when someone says that pis a clear violation of someone’s rights, can we be sure that those rights have been correctly identified?  Either way: the interesting moral questions are precisely those where matters are not as clear as they seem at first.  And, granted the justification thesis above, it strikes me that almost all situations will be ones in which much is unclear.

That’s why the question of “correcting” behaviour is a tricky one.  That’s why I think that IBD’s questions are, perhaps, starting from the wrong assumptions.  Indeed, rather too big an assumption about the moral clarity of the world seems to be what motivates the question.

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