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Is circumcision cruelty?

June 28, 2010

Response from Oliver Leaman on July 16, 2010
I rather think it is and I wonder why we allow it to be performed, except in those cases where there is a medical need for it. There are many countries already where female circumcision is illegal, although sadly also plenty of countries where it is widespread as a custom. To alter the physical structure of a child who cannot give consent and for no good physical reason seems indefensible.
Response from Eddy Nahmias on July 20, 2010
To offer an opposing view to Professor Leaman's (and nothing particularly philosophical): there is some evidence that circumcision reduces the risk of contracting certain STDs, such as herpes and HIV. Though there is disagreement about this evidence, if it is substantiated, then this benefit of circumcision might outweigh the reasons one might take it to be cruel. By analogy, we vaccinate our children because of the health benefits despite the fact that it causes them pain (and in my experience, they tend not to consent to the shots, even after they are old enough to provide something like consent!). From my experience observing circumcision performed and discussing it with my OB/GYN friends who perform many of them, I'm also not sure it causes that much pain to the newborn, though it is very difficult to know, and not just for philosophical reasons having to do with the problem of other minds. Finally, I suspect some boys may be unhappy if they (well, a certain part of them) don't look like their father or their friends, so the weight of tradition may provide some reason to carry on the tradition, but that reason is pretty weak (the pain, and diminished pleasure, involved in female circumcision certainly outweighs any value it might have as a tradition).


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