Circumcision Ethics

The simple case against circumcision says the procedure harms children (since the costs exceed the benefits), and parents shouldn't harm their children.  To make this case, you've got to stress the pain of the procedure plus the lost sensitivity. And then compare the benefits: lower risk of various problems, advantages of conformity (if most other boys are circumcised), etc.  This is a tricky calculation, so it's understandable that some opponents of circumcision would want to go another route.

The open future of an uncircumcised boy
For example, in a recent issue of the Journal of Medical Ethics, Robert Darby says circumcision violates a boy's right to an open future.  In other words, boys shouldn't be preempted from making this choice for themselves when they're older.  But why must they make this particular choice for themselves?  In Joel Feinberg's seminal article on this right, he doesn't just hold up an open future as a self-evident good (because the more possible futures the better), but says an open future is good because "self-fulfillment" requires making your own choices.  I find that term rather opaque, but "self-fulfillment" is basically "self-actualization," or "becoming who you are," in Nietzsche's phrase.  If your parents choose your career for you at age 10, you may wind up a lawyer when the real you is a doctor.  Using that reasoning in the present context, the opponent of circumcision has to say newborn circumcision can stop a boy from coming into his real self--if it so happens it would have been truer to the boy's self to have his foreskin.  

A compelling argument? I can certainly see that newborn surgeries sometimes conflict with later self-fulfillment--for example, in the case of female "circumcision" and surgery for inter-sex states.  But is it really self-defining to have or lack a foreskin?  For the vast majority of men, I would think not.

Perhaps the best case against circumcision simply has to do with sovereignty and self-determination, where the body is concerned.  My body is my birthright, not to be irreversibly tampered with except in cases of true medical necessity.  It may not be terribly harmful to circumcise and may not get in the way of self-actualization, but it's an intrusion upon the boy's private territory, without a good enough reason.  When all is said and done, this is the thought I find most compelling.


Enjoying gender

Today my class on procreation and parenthood discusses whether parents should foster gender differences in their children--reinforcing girlness in girls and boyness in boys.  There are lots of reasons to say No, but also some reasons to say Yes.  Here's food for thought from Alice Dreger:
While on the road a few years back, I met a stridently-feminist soon-to-be mom who pulled me aside to worry aloud about how she was going to raise her child. How was she going to keep this child free from gender expectations? Here’s what I told her: Gender isn’t just about oppression. It’s also about pleasure. We get pleasure from our genders. You will get pleasure from your child’s gender, and will sometimes delight in it the same way you will delight in your child growing and learning how to count. Your child will get pleasure from his or her gender. When we have sex, it is often in gendered ways—we enjoy sex as a woman with a man, or as a woman with a woman. How much more evidence do you need that gender can be joyfully delicious? Why oppress yourself and your child with your expectation that gender is always about oppression?
"You will get pleasure from your child's gender"... yup, it's true.  There are a lot of other good points in the article, though some will say she strawmans the social constructivists.



Hope you like the clean, simple look.  I'm planning on getting back to blogging, but in a more casual, quick style.  No treatises, just comments on the passing scene or on what I'm reading/working on.  We'll see how that turns out.


The right to an open present

That was a long blog break!  I've been thinking of changing what I do at this blog, or starting a different one, or abandoning blogging...but for the moment, I'm going to stay the course (as "W" used to say).

Quick thought for the day.  In procreative and parental ethics, philosophers are forever talking about a child's right to an open future.  By appealing to that right all sorts of conclusions are reached, about matters as disparate as gender selection, circumcision, and religious education.  The basic idea is: we should make procreative plans and parenting decisions that preserve our progeny's ability to choose among many different possible futures, upon reaching adulthood. The sheer multiplicity of possibilities isn't what's valuable (I take it), but being able to choose among many different possible futures.  So, we are to create children and raise them in such a way that we protect their adult autonomy.

Why not, I wonder, also speak of a right to an open present?  Would it really be OK to impose one trajectory on a child's life, up to age 18, so long as at 18 she burst out of childhood with lots of options?  No, surely not.  Granted, all that suppression of choice would probably yield a closed, or at least highly dysfunctional, future.  But it seems bad to make all the choices for your child regardless of what the future will bring. It would be bad even if you knew your child wasn't going to live a long life, or the world was coming to an end.   The childhood stage of life couldn't possibly go well if your parents chose everything for you--what you ate, what you wore, what shows you watched, what books you read.  It's intriguingly awful to think about this--the child whose parents choose every article of clothing, plan every party, select every sandwich.  That's bad already, I think, and not just because it's going to give the child a closed (or dysfunctaional) future.

Setting aside the closed/open talk, what seems to be true is that autonomy is part of the good life at ever stage of life, but what it should comprise changes with the child's development.  Perhaps writers focus on the right to an open future because they think adult choices are the ones that matter most--choices of career, marriage partner, religion, etc.  It's not worth thinking as much about choices a five or ten year old must be able to make for herself.   This demoting of the issue of childhood autonomy can be part of a more general stance that sees childhood as not quite life yet -- as merely a preparation for things to come.  You can make a case for that, but I think not a terribly convincing one.


Creation Ethics

I love the Frankenstein allusions in Parental Obligations and Bioethics: The Duties of a Creator, by Bernard Prusak.  I also recently read that novel, precisely to think about parental ethics.  The basic idea of Prusak's book is that creators have special obligations to their creatures, like Dr. Frankenstein did to his monster.  Frankenstein was wrong to abandon the poor creature at birth (he runs out of the room when he wakes up, unlike in the touching picture above).  It would be wrong if a couple deliberately produced children for others to adopt, we think (don't we?).  But why? What are the grounds for parental obligation?

Prusak proposes a "causal theory" of parental obligation, in contrast with a voluntary commitment theory, on which you are obligated to raise a child only by the fact that you voluntarily took on that project. 
men and women acquire parental obligations to a child by voluntarily acting in such a way that the coming-into-being of this child was a reasonably foreseeable consequence in the normal course of events (p. 24)
The causal condition is supposed to be a sufficient condition for having parental obligations, not a necessary condition.  Frankenstein meets the condition, so has parental obligations to the monster. And procreators meet the condition when they bear children.  At least, usually.  Suppose a man winds up fathering a child because of a broken condom or a flawed vasectomy.  Was the sheer act of having sex an act with the coming-into-being of a child as a reasonably foreseeable consequence?  I'm not sure, but I think that's the idea.

Anyhow, here's what I have misgivings about.  The causal theory makes A have parental obligations to B in a highly diverse range of cases.   The causal theory by its very nature doesn't separate the case of making your own child (in the usual way) from other cases of creation.  Frankenstein is the parent of the monster, on  this account, no less than I am the parent of my children.  The problem, I think, is that we seem to have a special class of creator obligations to those that we create in the way parents create their children. That way of creating makes a child practically like a second self (as Aristotle puts it); and the parent, to the child, is a sort of second self too.  The causal theory says nothing distinctive about the parent-child case, but should.

The adoption puzzle is a great puzzle.  Why shouldn't a couple deliberately produce babies for others to raise?   On Prusak's causal account, the producers have obligations to parent the children they produce.  But how to make this more compelling?  He says parents, by creating a child, saddle the child with the mixed blessing of existence.  The child is owed an explanation and defense that can only come from the parent, as the responsible party.
If life is not an unequivocal good, then procreation is not a morally innocent undertaking, and it makes sense to think that a procreator has much to answer for in bringing a child unbidden into being. (p. 42)
Frankenstein ought to take care of the monster, not entrust him to someone else (p. 36):

In other words, it was Frankenstein's fault that the monster existed, so only Frankenstein could help him become reconciled to his existence.  And parents general ought to be available to help children become reconciled to existence.

I'll buy this as the reason why Frankenstein must take care of the monster (which he doesn't--he runs out the room the moment the poor monster wakes up!).  But our lives aren't fraught with "burden's and travails" in the same way.  I've been around for 16 years to help my kids cope with the fact that they exist, and haven't been called upon to do so.  I hypothesize that these kinds of discussions rarely take place, and so it can't be that parents have a prima facie obligation to raise their own children in order to have them.

So, what is the problem with the deliberately relinquishing couple?  I think it has to do with what makes ordinary parenthood distinct from Frankenstein-style creation.  Biological parents can legally transfer their rights and obligations to adoptive parents, but can't, at will, completely sever the tie between parent and child that makes one seem like a second self to the other.   So the parents are likely to be troubled-- they will either suffer or delude themselves.  And the child is likely to be troubled, in a long-term irresolvable way, by the transfer.  And it will be especially hard for such a child, compared to a regular adopted child, because he'll know this was intended by the parent, not accidental.

That may not be 100% satisfying as a complete explanation why having whole children for others is bad, but it seems part of the complete explanation.  And better--more generally applicable--than the idea that biological parents need to be around to help their children understand why they were born.

There are tons of juicy issues in this book, and it has a great bibliography--I am currently working my way through some of the titles, starting with a book about child abandonment by historian John Boswell.  My most serious complaint--why the ludicrous $130 price-tag?  If it weren't for that, I'd be saying "go read it!"