(Bio)Ethics, Male Circumcision & Religious Practice.

A few weeks ago a German court ruled that male circumcision constituted bodily harm and should be banned. Since then the debate has rumbled on, both in bioethical forums and in public discourse. Today saw posts from Iain Brassington, on the JME blog, and Giles Fraser, on the Guardian’s Comment is Free. Brian D. Earp has been particularly active, first, in his post for Oxford’s Practical ethics blog and, subsequently, on his twitter feed. I am less interested in the specifics of the circumcision debate because, as I see it, it is merely a distracting microcosm of our broader anthropological understanding of religion, religious practices and the nature of raising children. 

One aspect of the German court’s ruling is that circumcision is, somehow, tantamount to allowing individuals other than the child to determine his religion and, therefore, denies the child the right to choose their own religion. We could note, as John Gray recently argued, that construing religion as a kind of existential choosing; as the selection of one metaphysics amongst many - as if theological commitments were, merely, a form of modernist enlightenment philosophy – radically misunderstands the nature of its history and practice, as well as the nature of theology and theological debate. Furthermore, as a cultural institution, no religion is a unitary phenomenon. We might also note that, even if the issue at stakes was making a fully informed rational choice, the child does not have the ability to make such a choice and so, at best, this perspective is predicated on the idea that the child has the potential to make such a choice in future. I don’t think I need point out what such commentators think of potentiality arguments in other contexts. 

It is perhaps simpler to point out that raising children cannot be considered a value-neutral activity. Whilst one might dispute the fact that atheism and agnosticism offer particular philosophical judgments that, in practice, render them the cultural equivalent of religious traditions. Furthermore it is indisputable that raising a child in an agnostic or atheistic context is to impart them with certain values, in particular certain values regarding religion, philosophy and religious practice. As such, when the time comes for them to consider the question: ‘What, if any, religion do you believe in?’ Their answer is as subject to the conditions of their upbringing as the answers given by those raised in the context of a particular faith or, indeed, those who are asked to make a choice whether or not to be Amish following their 'rumpspringa.'[1]

Choosing to follow a religion when one has not been brought up in the tradition is a perfectly valid thing to do, but it is not the same as continuing to follow a religion when one has been brought up in that tradition. Neither is it simply a matter of making an existential choice about one’s preferred metaphysics. It is about embracing a tradition and living one’s life according to its precepts and the particular cultural instantiation specific to time and place. This includes raising one’s children within the faith. However we can now see that this is not simply a matter of a parent’s right to raise their children as they see fit but also about everybody’s collective ‘cultural rights.’ 

As such pretending that “[t]here is no such thing as a Christian child” (p.25) is to miss the point of what a Christian child is. Obviously just as an atheist child (or, perhaps more accurately and more ‘ethically’, an agnostic child) is, simply, the child of atheist parents, a Christian child is the child of Christian parents. But this does not mean that those brought up Christian, Atheist or in any other tradition are, on attaining the age of maturity, somehow, existentially interchangeable. Religion is a cultural practice and to deny the child’s full participation in those practices on the grounds that it has not made a choice to be Christian, Jewish, Muslim etc. is facile. Raising a child within the traditions of a particular faith is not morally distinguishable from choosing not to raise one’s child within a particular faith. Both create and constrain the possibilities of the child’s future choices and indeed its very being. Existence might precede essence but, nevertheless, one is not born, but, rather, one is made atheist, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, agnostic and so on and so forth. Such is the nature of raising children to be men and women, which is to say, to be the adults, and future raisers of children, in a particular cultural context. 

What does all this tell us about the ethics of male circumcision? Well, possibly very little. Just because the act and omission [2] of raising one’s children within a particular faith or within the context of no particular faith cannot be morally distinguished, at least not simply morally distinguished, is not to say that the act or omission of circumcision is morally equivalent. What we can, I think, say is that male circumcision causes very little harm and certainly causes nothing like the harm that female genital mutilation causes.[3] Furthermore it does not seem to me that the cause of those who would wish to see an end to the practice will be furthered by simply banning it. It seems telling that such a ban has no chance of being introduced in the USA where, independent of any religious affiliation, circumcision is a widespread cultural practice whilst it is clearly a proposition that is causing a good deal of consternation in the European context where circumcision is not the general norm and is more affiliated with the religious practices of two cultural minorities.[4]

Alongside Alasdair MacIntyre, Giles Fraser regards “the liberal mindset as a diminished form of the moral imagination” and, one might add, in seeking the ethical view from nowhere it deliberately lacks a sense of history and of the thick cultural context in which life takes place. It seems to me that this is also a feature of mainstream bioethical thinking. Applied philosophical ethics does not seem to grasp the moral relevance of culture nor does it recognise itself as the product of particular cultural in a particular time and place. Bioethicists are not born but, rather, they are made. Our judgements reflect this fact. For me the current debate over circumcision reveals nothing more than the need for a greater cultural reflexivity on the part of mainstream (bio)ethical debate and for an assessment of our aims and intentions in the context of the contemporary moral milieu. I think we should not seek to close this diversity down but, rather, in the spirit of mutual respect we should embrace the contemporary moral diversity and the traditions that constitute it. If that means tolerating circumcision or, rather, not being intolerant of those whose traditional cultural and religious practices include circumcision - a relatively harmless practice - then it seems to me the ethical choice is clear. 

[1] It has been argued that the Amish practice of rumpaspringa means that they their young adults are able to make an informed choice having had experience of both Amish and modern life. It has also be argued that the practice of rumpaspringa is constructed such that, in isolation from their family and community, young Amish people taste and tire of modern life, thus ‘nudging’ them to choose to return to Amish life. The point is not that the choice is subject to undue cultural influence, from both the Amish and the mainstream, but that there can be no a-cultural choice because we are not a-cultural beings. 

[2] I don't think I need point out to vigorously that most mainstream bioethicists would reject a hard moral distinction between acts and omissions. 

[3] Indeed I am reluctant to mention them in the same passage such is the degree to which I think they are not in any way comparable.

[4] There are also relevant differences in the medical establishment’s attitudes to circumcision in the USA and Europe. As such even the biomedical view of circumcision has a cultural dimension. The body is not simply a biological fact but a cultural form. One might counter that the intactavist phenomena is more of an American phenomena than it is European.