Is it Ever Right to Impose our Cultural Beliefs on Others?
“Circumcision” vs. “Mutilation”
By Richard Bernstein
A dozen gathered on a fine May evening to discuss if the appropriate attitude about garbage strewn streets and female circumcision should be acceptance, indignation or belligerence. Were these two issues even related?
Strolling along the streets of the non-tourist section of a developing Caribbean island nation prompted thoughts about whether one should feel indifferent about detritus, since the people seemed to accept it as part of their environment, even though it would be provoke indignation at home. The group was impressed by the libertarian suggestion of allowing those who like to leave garbage on the beach and play loud music to use specific beaches where such expressions were perfectly acceptable, while those seeking litter-free and noise free beaches could use different designated beaches. Nonetheless, politics, in the form of ordinances define lawful standards of conduct. Furthermore, this issue seemed to involve aesthetic relativism more than ethics.
In a more extreme case, ethical relativists were challenged with how to react to deeply held and historically respected rites of passage, such as female circumcision, even when it led to medical complications and impaired sexual enjoyment. Most believed it was appropriate for parents to hand down their values and traditions and to take pride in them. How was female circumcision different? Both involve minors having their parents’ believes imposed on them. Most agreed that parents have a right to educate their children as they see fit, providing it doesn’t jeopardize their life. What about the case of the hermaphrodite child whose parents decide to surgically make female? Is this unethical or wise, in saving the child the pain of humiliation and gender confusion? Even if female circumcision were “mutilating,” as its detractors describe it, this religious custom is nevertheless a way to earn acceptance within a family and within a society. It reinforced identity in a positive way, even it was at the risk of health or cost of something of low or even undesirable value in the culture, i.e. sexual gratification. Many physicians in this country view male circumcision as mutilating, of no hygienic value, in most cases, and traumatic to newborns on whom it is imposed. Some believe it also decreases sexual pleasure. How would we feel if others tried to impose their anti-circumcision beliefs on those who view it as religiously significant? Are male and female circumcision issues of human rights and religious freedom? Is it different for the Sudan and the US?
But is it ever justified to impose ones values on other cultures and what is the proper response to extreme practices in other countries? Most felt that genocide, even within the sovereign borders of a recognized nation, should prompt military action to protect innocent victims from ethnic cleansing. On the other hand, there was a need to moderate the response to less heinous infractions, such as the deprivation of education, voting rights, and occupational opportunities. Most felt that even involuntary servitude, exploitation of children and acts of torture and maiming limited to political enemies of a dictator would not justify military intervention. In such cases, political action, formal rebuke by international organizations, protests, economic sanctions, and educational efforts should be used to change deplorable conditions within a country. Thus proportionality in one’s response–making the punishment fit the crime–seemed to be a common theme.
Some expressed concern about American commercial values being imposed on countries. Others believed that adoption of American brand names and the popularity of American sports heroes and movies was voluntary and represented the work of the marketplace of ideas, even if it seemed to mean the apparent loss or submersion of longstanding local values and customs.
Is moral absolutism ever justified? Most believed that slavery, maiming, honor killings and genocide should be universally condemnable. While certain ethically unenlightened areas may engage in these practices, they should be fought against, although only a deliberate national policy of genocide should prompt military intervention. Gray areas would be socially sanctioned practices that are voluntarily accepted by the majority as promoting social stability, even if they are discriminatory, adversely affect minors and are inhumane when judged by other nations.
The group felt that education, especially the ability to freely analyze and discuss such anthropologically diverse human customs, would help others critically evaluate the given values of their society and lead to a broader set of universally accepted human rights. Join us in our right to enjoy lively and thought-provoking discussions on the last Mondays of the month.