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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}lse.ac.uk

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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 normal appearance of the body in its natural state’. What if the vast majority of males were born without a foreskin? Would Lang then be fine with circumcision of those born with a foreskin because such an operation would restore ‘the normal appearance of the body in its natural state?’ I highly doubt it. I suspect that Lang would still hold that circumcision is a serious violation of bodily integrity—one whose permissibility (like the permissibility of other medical operations on children) would depend on a careful consideration of the interests of the child.

David Benatar suggests that I misunderstand the nature of the relationship between a person's rights and a person's interests. More specifically, he is sceptical of the claim that a person's rights can ever trump a person's own interests.2

But I think Benatar is mistaken in dismissing this possibility. Take, for example, the right to self-determination as it arises in the debate over paternalism. It is possible to see this right as effectively trumping the person's interest in being interfered within ways that best advance his welfare. Although Benatar may not agree with this view of the right of self-determination, it seems to me to be a plausible view (though not one that I necessarily endorse).

A second way that philosophers can contribute to debates with radical empirical disagreements is to explore the normative implications of controversial empirical positions.i For example, my paper includes an exploration of the assumption that circumcision moderately reduces sexual pleasure.

David Benatar criticises me for overstating circumcision's effects on sexual pleasure. However, my paper is not meant to be a careful review of the relevant scientific evidence. Rather, my goal in the section on sexual pleasure was to ask, ‘If this empirical claim is true, what follows?’ Although I provided some reasons for thinking that the assumption of reduced sexual pleasure is not wildly implausible, I am not committed to the position that infant circumcision in fact moderately reduces sexual pleasure. Rather, I wanted to show that even if we accept (as many people do) this empirical assumption, this is not sufficient to show that circumcision is impermissible. I regret that I was not clearer about my position on the veracity of this empirical claim in the paper.ii

While Benatar criticises me for overstating the negative sexual effects of circumcision, Lang criticises me for understating them. Again, it was not my intention to establish a definitive position on the sexual effects of circumcision. In setting aside some of Lang's claims about the drastic effects of removal of the entire foreskin, I explicitly appealed to the work of Benatar and Benatar.3 However, if Lang is right about the drastic negative sexual consequences of circumcision, then he is also right that my moral analysis is fundamentally incomplete. Indeed, as I concede in my paper, a sufficiently large reduction in sexual pleasure (and, similarly, a sufficiently serious increase in the risk of sexual dysfunction) could well tilt the balance of the child's interests to the point that genital cutting would no longer be permissible.iii However, I do not believe that the evidence on the drastic negative sexual consequences of circumcision is sufficiently strong and unequivocal to take these effects as a necessary given in any normative analysis of the permissibility of circumcision.

In the face of empirical disagreement, philosophers can also highlight those empirical issues that have particularly important normative implications. In line with the respondents’ comments, my paper suggests that research on the sexual effects of circumcision warrants further attention (especially if more than a moderate reduction in sexual pleasure is suspected). Furthermore, my paper suggests that empirical research that sheds light on the likelihood of children choosing to undertake genital cutting as adults (assuming their parents are prevented from carrying out this operation on them as children) is also very important.

A fourth contribution that philosophers can make in the face of deep empirical disagreement is to explore the normative implications of the empirical disagreement itself. For example, I argue in my paper that the range of reasonable empirical disagreement in the context of the circumcision debate is key to the permissibility of the practice.

Indeed, Benatar and Lang (and the conflicting peer-reviewed studies they cite) provide an excellent illustration of the range of reasonable disagreements that exists in this debate. As I suggest in my paper, as long as the reasonable disagreements about the key effects of circumcision persist, so will the parents’ prerogative to decide whether or not circumcision really is in the best interests of their child, all things considered.

References

Footnotes

  • 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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