So I cross posted my last piece to my facebook notes, and a couple of days later, while sitting outside the pub, a friend of mine who read it said something like: “I agree with the sentiment, but if I was to critique it I’d want to know where moral relativism comes into it”.
It is of course an interesting question, because it is easy writing from a western perspective to define what is moral entirely in those terms. However as Brian pointed out we live in a multicultural society where issues such as Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) are emerging into our society’s consciousness.
I think FGM is an apposite subject to explore cultural and moral relativism. For example by defining what its practitioners call “female circumcision” as mutilation I am already making a moral judgment. Also it is a practice often defended on religious grounds despite it not being mandated in any scripture.
This is key in one respect. By calling this process “circumcision” it is equated with a practice that is religiously mandated in the Jewish and Islamic scriptures, although in reality circumcision is to FGM like cutting your fingernails is to amputating your hands.
In some African cultures the practice is part of puberty, a right of passage with the “surgery” being performed by an older woman, sometimes with a sharp stone with which she cuts the clitoris and often removes the labia minora. In other cultures the clitoris is cut at birth or during infancy.
You might think (from our western perspective) that women in these cultures would universally condemn the practice as they would remember the painful experience themselves. But this is to underestimate the power of tradition.
The reality is that not only men but many women in FGM societies defend the practice on religious or cultural grounds.
So, if even the victims of this practice support it, who am I to say it’s immoral?
The first part of my answer falls directly out of my previous post. Universally we agree on fundamental axioms of morality, acting selflessly to another’s benefit is moral; acting selfishly to another’s detriment is immoral. So the first thing to establish is to whose benefit is FGM?
Whether religiously inspired or not (but I bet it was) the prima facia reason for FGM is to control the sexuality of women. It desensitises the clitoris so discouraging masturbation, and leads to lack of lubrication making sexual intercourse uncomfortable. In the most extreme cases the labia majora are sewn together making sexual intercourse impossible until the procedure is reversed, usually when the girl is due to marry.
From this perspective it is clear that FGM is for the benefit of men and preservation of the culture, not for the woman.
This is not to say that FGM’s defenders do not make a case for benefit to the woman. One is hygiene. They argue that reducing the mucus producing area of the vagina promotes cleanliness, but while they may have thought this centuries ago, we now know that vaginal secretions are vital for the health and cleanliness of the organ, so if it was a valid argument once it isn’t now.
They also argue that because the practice is culturally endorsed it guarantees the girls’ acceptance into the culture. The circularity of this argument hardly needs pointing out.
So if the practice is not for the benefit of the girl it fails on that basic moral premise.
The other reason the practise is immoral is that it is always done to minors. The girls who have to go through this have no say in the decision, are usually not old enough to be moral agents themselves, yet they must live with the consequences throughout their lives.
In this scenario FGM is a violation of their human right to self-determination.
But, what about the right of the parents or elders to pass their cultural heritage onto their children? It is important, some say to defer consideration of the rights of the child to preserve cultural integrity.
To this I would say that cultures, ideas, ethnic groups do not have rights: Individuals do. It is not defensible to impose a cultural concept on an individual who may well in later life wish to adopt a totally different one. At least if a child is brought up in a belief system they can, if they choose abandon it for another at some time. However a victim of FGM can never reclaim her clitoris, or the fully functioning human sexuality she was deprived of.
FGM is an extreme example of a cultural practice that the west may see as immoral while the third world (or indeed some cultural relativists) may defend, so it throws the relativist argument sharply into relief. However I think that the basic reasoning presented here could be applied to any practice detrimental to individuals in another culture, done in the name of that culture. This would put male circumcision performed for anything other than medical reasons in that bracket. Again there are plenty of people including circumcised males who defend it, and barring some rare complications such as meatal stenosis it may to many seem a trivial mutilation. That doesn’t make it right and neither does the cultural context in which it is done.
"Religion is a hypothesis about the world: the hypothesis that things are the way they are, at least in part, because of supernatural entities or forces acting on the natural world. And there's no good reason to treat it any differently from any other hypothesis. Which includes pointing out its flaws and inconsistencies, asking its adherents to back it up with solid evidence, making jokes about it when it's just being silly, offering arguments and evidence for our own competing hypotheses...and trying to persuade people out of it if we think it's mistaken. It's persuasion. It's the marketplace of ideas. Why should religion get a free ride"