Repost: Brian Earp – Religious vs. secular ethics and a note about respect

Brian Earp is a research assistant in the philosophy department at the University of Oxford, and he will shortly be publishing this excellent essay.  I encourage you to read and share it, as he makes excellent and irrefutable points.  I pulled some selected quotes below, and there are also excellent comments on the original site.

Earp, B. D. (forthcoming, pre-publication draft). Assessing a religious practice from secular-ethical grounds: Competing metaphysics in the circumcision debate, and a note about discursive respect. To appear in G. C. Denniston, F. M. Hodges, & M. F. Milos (Eds.), Proceedings of the 12th Annual International Symposium on Law, Genital Autonomy, and Children’s Rights, published by Springer.* Note, this is not the finished version of this document, and changes may be made before final publication.

“I’ve noticed that there is sometimes a very serious reluctance to address the issue of religious motivation directly… Because religious convictions are a deep, and certainly emotionally-charged, aspect of the lives of so many, attempts to question a religiously-motivated practice—especially by one who is not religious, or differently religious—can lead to outcomes that are very far from productive.”

“Many practices that are now seen as very clearly unethical had been going on for an extremely long time before anyone had the idea to question them. Examples include slavery, footbinding, the cutting of female genitals, and beating disobedient children with sticks. Usually these practices persisted without much alarm for one of two reasons. Either the moral standards that they would eventually be seen as violating had not yet had been developed, or those standards did exist for other cases but just weren’t commonly seen as applying to the practice itself until enough people sat down and made the connection. I think what’s happening right now with circumcision is not so much the first of these, but more the second. In other words, the relevant ethical principles—about bodily integrity, consent, protecting the vulnerable in society, and so on—have been available to us for quite some time now. It’s just that we’re so used to circumcision as a cultural habit, that many people fail to see how blatantly inconsistent this practice is with the rest of their own moral landscape.”

“And so, I think before we can get anywhere in this discussion, we are going to have to just acknowledge that that is a different metaphysic. I think we have to acknowledge that certain religious commitments are based on a meta-ethical view of the universe that is in direct conflict with Western ideas about individuals, human rights adhering to those individuals as individuals, and the notion that children and infants, above all, need special protection because they can’t defend those rights on their own.”

“And it allows us to say that these things are wrong not just arbitrarily, or because God says so, or because we just feel like doing it that way, but because we have reason to say so. They are wrong because individuals have rights. They are wrong because those rights include things like bodily integrity, and they are wrong because the infringement of that integrity requires consent. So the idea I want to leave you with is this. If we think that there is any chance that we should give up these basic concepts—so that we can defer to a worldview that says that things like community identity are more important than individual identity and bodily integrity—then we’ll have to pay the price of that choice and face it honestly. And that means that the very same people who are asking for the religious freedom to perform circumcisions in a secular society, would have to be prepared to give up their own right to complain if someone wanted to cut off a part of their body, or interfere with their genitals, or that of their daughters or sisters or wives. That is, as I say, a logically possible universe. But it isn’t one that I would want to live in, and I don’t think you can have it both ways.”

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12 Responses to Repost: Brian Earp – Religious vs. secular ethics and a note about respect

  1. gerald says:

    Thank you so much for your blog

  2. Alfred Schram says:

    If only people would not become emotional when discussing circumcision, reading this logical and reasonable article should suffice to end neonatal circumcision of boys. Thank you for making this unusually well-written article to our attention.

    • Lilli Cannon says:

      Unfortunately, people are almost always emotional about circumcision, and rarely rational.

      • Mel says:

        I believe people in general are not very good at deciphering their own ideology and biases. It’s just human nature.

        When it comes to circumcision, it’s really difficult to make reality more appealing than the familiar composting warmth of self-deception.

        Too many circumcised guys don’t seem to understand that coming to terms with reality always happens on reality’s terms. How can one truly reconcile their circumcision with being a happy person when they’re stuck rejecting the reality hypothesis?

        • Lilli Cannon says:

          That’s a very nice way of putting it. Reality is unappealing to the circumcised man, but like you said, living in fantasy and denial doesn’t really work, either, if it requires you to hurt your own son to do so.

          • Mel says:

            Exactly. Any “reconciliation” with or “acceptance” of one’s own circumcision that is based on faulty premises is not real reconciliation or acceptance.

            What is interesting is that in any somewhat focused discussion (i.e. in the presence of ideally several knowledgeable and well-versed intactivists), the procircers quickly assume a stance of “it’s not so bad” or “it can’t be that bad“.

            This attempt to “go for a draw” imho makes it readily apparent that they are essentially haggling for the truth. What else could they do when they have no reality-based arguments, since there is very simply and ever more obviously no case for amputating healthy tissue off a child’s body.

            I believe the argumentative stance I’m trying to adopt as a response to their “haggling” is to extend a hand while still beating them with the other. As you’ve pointed out in other posts, they are against the ropes. We have to tyler-durden them through to the other side.

          • Lilli Cannon says:

            So how do you accomplish that strategy? What does the gentle part say, and what does the beating part say?

  3. Mel says:

    It depends. I’m generally trying to be more compassionate and gentle when pulling the rug of denial out from under someone’s feet. I used to throw around antagonizing words like mutilation and criminals, which do reflect my own opinions but can only push away someone in denial. I keep trying to remind myself that those who are able to overcome denial and face their loss and trauma are the strongest of all characters. So I don’t talk down to denialists anymore, instead trying to talk from one adult to another, hoping that it will inspire some to assume the role and mode of an adult.
    This video greatly helped opening my eyes about the “bad parenting” approach to educating others, which is very tempting whenever one is convinced they are right — and never fruitful, regardless of whether or not or how much they are in fact right.

    Of course, I’m using the words “adult” and “intactivist” quite interchangeably. But I don’t need to tell denialists that upfront.

  4. hsextant says:

    The thing that bothers me in the article is that Earp seems to give the rabbi that admits abuse some sort of special recognition. Earp still comes to the same conclusion but I don’t feel that he developed his argument as well as I would have liked after making the fuss about how honest this rabbi about what he is doing. The fact that this rabbi’s thinking is one or two steps further evolved beyond his fellow practitioners is refreshing perhaps, but is countered in my mind by the rabbi’s ironclad arrogance in justifying the practice as being a covenant from God. I found it particularly galling:

    I’m an abuser! I do abusive things because I am in covenant with God. And ultimately God owns my morals, he owns my body, he owns my past and future, and that’s the meaning of this covenant – that I agreed to ignore the pain and the rights and the trauma of my child to be in this covenant.

    The sentence above he would send me to prison, because out of ignorance I had my son circumcised. Yet he is not responsible for his actions because God owns his morals and his body. A holier than thou version of the devil made me do it.

    If I were to tell this rabbi that he is going to hell because it is obvious by the fact that he only has two children that he practices artificial methods of birth control, I am sure the rabbi would have much to say about false teaching. Yet he can willfully violate ethical and moral behavior because of his covenant.

    On the whole the article was excellent, but I would have liked to see some more arguments against the self acknowledged abusive rabbi who would send me to prison for doing what does under the command of God.

    I have a deep personal shame for circumcising my son, but this rabbi is in his own mind some sort of sacred yielder of the knife of the covenant with no moral or ethical flaws.

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