Jackson Doughart
articles   |   poetry   |   music   |   officiating   |   c.v.
Circumcision and the Fallacy of "Parents' Choice"

Prince Arthur Herald, 28 January 2014

Our culture has a curious preoccupation with the concept of choice, particularly in relation to moral judgments. The best and commonest, but by no means the only, examples are those of abortion and physician-assisted suicide. People who advocate their legality and ubiquity cleverly couch their arguments in the language of individual choice, which is ultimately descended from a colossal non-argument deserving of terse exposure.

What we might call the choice fallacy is double edged. On the one hand, it is logically circular. Favouring “choice” as a matter of principle cannot be plausibly defended by pointing out that the choice to perform an action is justly constituted by the act of choosing. “I support choice” is a meaningless statement because the action of choosing, free of context, is amoral. I can choose to volunteer at a soup kitchen or I can choose to commit serial murder. The relevant factor is not that I’m engaged in the act of choosing, but rather the content of the action that I’m choosing to perform.

On the other hand, the banner slogan of “choice” succeeds quite effectively at hiding the motivations of the intellectually dishonest and unscrupulous. In the case of abortion, or at least of the electively-cosmetic and routine variety that represents the vast majorities of such surgeries, its defenders present their position as favourable to choice, and that of their opponents as “anti-choice,” knowing that the liberal society in which they live has a blind bias in this regard. The unthinking credence that we give to such rhetoric provides a useful cloak for those whose true motivations and beliefs on the issue are far less noble. Some believe, in company with the late Henry Morgentaler, that abortion serves as a positive social good by eliminating the unborn children of the poor, who will go on to inconvenience the rest of society. Others, more ideologically, see it as having a more intrinsic value: namely to aid in severing the unwanted moral relationship between sex and reproduction.

Another question that demonstrates the choice fallacy is that of infant circumcision, a moral controversy that flares up in the discourse every couple of years. I have chimed in on the “anti” side on a few occasions, and the reaction thereto has convinced me that, in contrast to the nonchalant and apathetic posture that many people project, circumcision is a touchy subject, suggested above all by the way that oppositionist arguments seem to hit an especially-sensitive nerve among the masses.

This is strange, mostly because of the non-emotional face that the pro-circumcision camp presents, often in the form of — you guessed it — the choice fallacy. “It’s the parents’ choice!”, I’m consistently told, without any consciousness of the relevant descriptive/normative distinction: just because the social customs currently allow for and support the “right to choose,” in this respect, does not by any means entail that they ought to do so in the future. “Parents make choices for their children all the time.” Well yes, certainly they do. But this clearly doesn’t mean that any conceivable choice that a parent could make is acceptable, at least by mere virtue that it is a choice. I’m not arguing that parents shouldn’t take decisions on behalf of their children; I am arguing that they shouldn’t take this one in particular.

It’s true that the language of election exists on the “anti” side of this question as well, normally in the iteration of “infants can’t choose.” This is true, in a literal sense, but it rather misses the important intuitive objection here. To say that the routine submission of infants to irreversible and medically-unnecessary surgery (which involves strapping the child down to restrain his limbs, anesthetizing him — a recent improvement — and slicing away at his genitalia) amounts to a mere transgression of choice is to significantly understate the matter.

On the technical side, the real issue is one of consent, not “choice” per se, and in particular substitute consent. We advocate and prefer substitute consent by a spouse or family member, as in the case of a comatose patient, because family members are able to best gauge what the individual would himself wish. But if the patient is conscious and compos mentis, it is he or she who exercises consent. In the case of circumcision, at least of the electively-cosmetic and routine variety that represent the vast majority of such surgeries, to say that parents are exercising consent according to what the child would want is incoherent. Such a decision can evidently be delayed until such time that the person can evaluate its merits for himself, thus absolving the parents of any need to exercise substitute consent.

Yet the problem with the invocation of the parents’ choice mantra is not only its dubious status as a moral claim. Perhaps more concerning is how the proponents of circumcision use the choice card as an insulation from criticism and as a shield for more controversial motivations.

Setting aside the religious edicts for circumcision in Judaism and Islam (whose fruit borne in Canada and the United States represents but a puddle in the deep statistical pool of its secular equivalent), the dominant force at work here is not a commitment to “choice,” but to an evident societal aesthetic preference. I suspect that the more commonplace occurrence of nudity in films and the greater acceptance of pornography have contributed to the identification of circumcision as a cultural mark of “progress” or “advancement.” Since the majority of American actors are cut, their presence on the screen reinforces the idea that they represent what is aesthetically proper. Or, at any rate, it elicits the association of the practice with inclusion in our culture, thus playing on the worry of being left out. Relevant too, I think, is the way in which sexual relations have been largely reconceived as a “performance,” in which one offers up one’s body as a mechanical object to the end of satisfying the other person. As such, all physical facets of the escapade become subject to the preferences of actual and potential partners, making the perceived preference for circumcision appear as a valid justification.

This is another iteration of the contemporary infatuation with the body, which trumps the cause of health and justice for insupportable reasons. As such, the cycle of circumcised males continuing the tradition with their own children continues. What is needed to break this cycle is a more honest course of argument than the “parents’ choice” fallacy will permit, which is the strongest reason of all for its dismissal.

Jackson Doughart jdoughart (at) gmail (dot) com