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What philosophers can contribute in the face of fundamental empirical disagreement: a response to Benatar and Lang
  1. Joseph Mazor
  1. Correspondence to Dr Joseph Mazor, Department of Philosophy, London School of Economics, Lakatos Building, London C2A 2AE, UK; J.M.Mazor{at}

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I wish to first thank the two respondents for seriously engaging with my arguments. Their responses suggest that they are both individuals of good conscience who are deeply committed to the quest for truth and to human welfare.

Their responses also highlight the deep empirical disagreements that lie at the heart of the circumcision debate. Given such empirical disagreements, what can philosophers contribute? I wish to reply to my critics in a way that highlights four types of contributions that philosophers can make.

First, philosophers can provide conceptual clarity. For example, I argue in my paper that appeals to the rights of bodily integrity and self-determination (understood as trumps) in the context of the circumcision debate entails a misunderstanding of the nature of these rights. This supports the position of both of my respondents that the empirical details are morally relevant in this debate.

David Lang criticises my use of the minor cleft lip operation example in making this argument. He points out that in the cleft lip case (but not the circumcision case), there is a restoration of ‘the normal appearance of the body in its natural state’. Thus, the cleft lip operation does not constitute a violation of bodily integrity, properly understood.1

Yet, Lang does not explain the moral significance of ‘the …

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  • Competing interests None.

  • Provenance and peer review Commissioned; internally peer reviewed.

  • i Such an exploration is particularly useful when it demonstrates that, even conceding to opponents of a certain practice (some of) their empirical claims, the normative outcome remains unchanged.

  • ii In retrospect, I should have included a question mark next to the cost of reduced sexual pleasure in my table.

  • iii I argue that the greater health complications and more drastic reduction in sexual pleasure from female genital cutting can explain why that practice (but not male circumcision) is impermissible.3

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