Kwame Anthony Appiah has a neat thought-provoking piece in the Washington Post that discusses what currently tolerated practices are likely to meet with future moral condemnation. He argues that there are “three signs that a particular practice is destined for future condemnation”:
First, people have already heard the arguments against the practice. The case against slavery didn’t emerge in a blinding moment of moral clarity, for instance; it had been around for centuries.
Second, defenders of the custom tend not to offer moral counterarguments but instead invoke tradition, human nature or necessity. (As in, “We’ve always had slaves, and how could we grow cotton without them?”)
And third, supporters engage in what one might call strategic ignorance, avoiding truths that might force them to face the evils in which they’re complicit. Those who ate the sugar or wore the cotton that the slaves grew simply didn’t think about what made those goods possible. That’s why abolitionists sought to direct attention toward the conditions of the Middle Passage, through detailed illustrations of slave ships and horrifying stories of the suffering below decks.
Appiah proceeds to argue that the following meet this standard: our prison system, how we treat the elderly and the environment, and industrial meat production. Ross Douthat and Will Wilkinson respond in kind – Douthat nominates abortion; Wilkinson, the nation-state system.
Tyler Cowen counters by asking “which practices currently considered to be outrageous will make a moral comeback in the court of public opinion.”
My nominee of a currently tolerated practice that will be seen as less and less morally acceptable is voluntary male circumcision. It is a painful (some might say barbarous) ritual practice that has few proven health benefits (the most important of which, possible reduction of the risk of STD/AIDS acquisition, can be controlled through safe sex practices such as monogamy) and some serious potential medical side-effects. Thus it is not surprising that the American Academy of Pediatrics does not recommend routine neonatal and has stated that “the procedure is not essential to the child’s current well-being.” Moreover, male circumcision may diminish sexual pleasure in adult males and their female partners. In the West, it is largely a product of the Victorian Era’s misguided sexual puritanism.
Circumcision (btw, Will W., this is not my personal hobby-horse) also fits Appiah’s standards quite well. First, the arguments against circumcision are out there and growing. Indeed, according to my wife’s OB/GYN, people on the coasts are engaging in the practice less frequently while the Midwest has been less comfortable with these changing sentiments. Even more importantly, people are more aware of the barbarism of female genital mutilation (FGM) – and this compels people to think about male circumcision. Indeed, my growing awareness of FGM was a contributing factor that led me to think seriously and more carefully about our own cultural practices and ultimately to decide not to circumcise my sons.
Second, defenders of the custom certainly use tradition to defend the practice (as in “My Dad is circumcised, I’m circumcised, so I’ll circumcise my kid”) or make a claim to necessity (“we need to do this to prevent the spread of STDs” – even though there are many other avenues to reduce the risk).
Third, supporters certainly engage in “strategic ignorance” – indeed, most people I’ve discussed this with never even give it a thought, and if they do, it is due to the pangs of possible regret as they watch their son go under the knife just after entering the world.
So, I predict that (absent new compelling evidence of serious health benefits) voluntary male circumcision will be seen in the future as a strange ritual of the less enlightened past.