Ethics Rationalizations, applied to Genital Cutting

Posted: July 8th, 2017 | Author: | Filed under: Ethics | No Comments »

Jack Marshall at Ethics Alarms has maintains a list of Unethical Rationalizations and Misconceptions. It’s a wonderful list for understanding human (mis)conduct and for striving to be better. Much of it applies to the debate over non-therapeutic child genital cutting. (See below.) Recently, Mr. Marshall posted a revision to his list. He added Rationalization #23, The Dealer’s Excuse. or “I’m just giving them what they want!”. This is the rationalization “that conduct becomes justifiable and benign if there is a market for it.” He further explains:

Those who employ the Dealer’s Excuse aren’t providing a service out of altruistic motives, but out of the profit motive. They want the money they can make by doing unethical things that make society uglier, dysfunctional and dangerous, and they really don’t care if their customers come to a bad end or bring miseries to others.

This is true of a subset of practitioners who circumcise infant males, for sure. That it happens is self-perpetuating. “That doctor is doing it, and making quick money doing it, and it makes the parents happy, so there’s no reason I shouldn’t participate.” It’s ugly and harmful.

In my experience from talking to doctors who circumcise (and some who don’t), there is a related factor. They’re cowards. I perceived many of these doctors to be ambivalent or opposed to non-therapeutic infant circumcision. But they feel obligated to appease the parents at the expense of their patient. From Mr. Marshall’s list, it’s Rationalization 15, The Futility Illusion: “If I don’t do it, somebody else will.” If one individual doctor refuses, the outcome for the child is likely no different. But change doesn’t happen if we refuse to speak out and reject what we know to be wrong.

Related, this post from 2015, Ethics Quiz: “Fixing” “Elf Ears”, has relevance. A 6-year-old boy’s ears stuck out like an elf’s, basically. Dr. Tracy Pfeifer, a plastic surgeon quoted in the news article, defended it by saying, “The surgery is relatively simple and it is life-changing in a positive way for these young children.” Someone told me that about circumcision yesterday. Like Mr. Marshall, my response is essentially “so what?”. As he said in his post:

The surgery is also premature, and thus unethical from a medical ethics standpoint, because at six no child’s adult appearance can be accurately predicted. Nor can a six year old make an informed decision about surgically changing his or her appearance at that age, though The Daily News found some dubious experts—as in “flacks for the plastic surgery trade”—to claim otherwise. Except in a case of serious deformity, the choice to radically change a child’s appearance should be made after the child has gained some understanding of the issues involved.

Exactly. Protruding ears, “big” nose, or foreskin, the analysis is the same. Science is necessary and relevant, but the application of that science requires ethics. What we can do is not the same as what we should (be allowed to) do to another.

(See also: The Slippery Slopes of Religious Freedom and Female Genital Mutilation, especially on the potential outcome if Alan Dershowitz’s expected defense strategy in the Detroit FGM prosecution succeeds. I wrote indirectly about the case. The latest version of the complaint is here (pdf).)


From the Ethics Alarms list of Unethical Rationalizations and Misconceptions, at a minimum the following rationalizations apply to the defense of non-therapeutic genital cutting on minors. I’ve encountered each at least once in my activism, some as recently as yesterday:

1. The Golden Rationalization, or “Everybody does it”
1A. Ethics Surrender, or “We can’t stop it.”
2A. Sicilian Ethics, or “They had it coming”
3. Consequentialism, or “It Worked Out for the Best”
4. Marion Barry’s Misdirection, or “If it isn’t illegal, it’s ethical.”
6. The Biblical Rationalizations
9. The Reverse Slippery Slope
13. The Saint’s Excuse: “It’s for a good cause”
13A. The Road To Hell, or “I meant well” (“I didn’t mean any harm!”)
14. Self-validating Virtue
17. Ethical Vigilantism
22. The Comparative Virtue Excuse: “There are worse things.”
23. The Dealer’s Excuse. or “I’m just giving the people what they want!”
24. Juror 3’s Stand (“It’s My Right!”)
25. The Coercion Myth: “I have no choice!”
27. The Victim’s Distortion
29. The Altruistic Switcheroo: “It’s for his own good”
29A. The Gruber Variation, or “They are too stupid to know what’s good for them”
32A. Imaginary Consent, “He/She Would Have Wanted It This Way”
34. Success Immunity, or “They must be doing something right!”
38. The Miscreant’s Mulligan or “Give him/her/them/me a break!”
41. The Evasive Tautology, or “It is what it is.”
42. The Hillary Inoculation, or “If he/she doesn’t care, why should anyone else?”
43. Vin’s Punchline, or “We’ve never had a problem with it!”
44. The Unethical Precedent, or “It’s Not The First Time”
45. The Abuser’s License: “It’s Complicated”
46. Zola’s Rejection, or “Don’t point fingers!”
48. Ethics Jiu Jitsu, or “Haters Gonna Hate!”
49. “Convenient Futility,” or “It wouldn’t have mattered if I had done the right thing.”
50. The Apathy Defense, or “Nobody Cares.”
50A. Narcissist Ethics , or “I don’t care”
51. The Underwood Maneuver, or “That’s in the past.”
57. The Universal Trump, or “Think of the children!”
57A. The Utilitarian Cheat or “If it saves just one life”
58. The Golden Rule Mutation, or “I’m all right with it!”
59. The Ironic Rationalization, or “It’s The Right Thing To Do”
63. Yoo’s Rationalization or “It isn’t what it is”
64. Irrelevant Civility or “But I was nice about it!”
64A. Bluto’s Mistake or “I said I was sorry!”

The whole list is worth reading and understanding, in general, both to notice when you encounter them and to be diligent about not offering them.

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