About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Michael’s Picks

by Michael De Dora
* Researchers at the University of Chicago have found that a person’s responses to similar situations change as they age, most likely because of evolving brain circuitry. 
* A recent Gallup poll measured American moral approval and disapproval for 17 different activities, ranging from abortion and gay marriage to gambling and pornography. The most divisive issue: doctor-assisted suicide. The least divisive issue: having an extramarital affair. 
* On that note, Ron Lindsay writes on why he has mixed feelings about Jack Kevorkian, who recently died.
* Should we really care about Rep. Anthony Weiner’s (D-NY) recent actions? Some say yes; others say no
* Jeff Baity, writing to the editor in the Winstom-Salem Journal, argues that “The question is not whether we should legislate morality but whose morality will we legislate?”
* NPR provides a concise and informative roundup of five new books on the brain.
* As you might have already heard, San Francisco residents will vote on a proposal this November to make it a criminal offense to perform a circumcision on a male under the age of 18. Some secularists are for the ban; others are not. Your thoughts?


  1. Regarding Weiner, this should have disappeared off the top of my Google news feed a week ago. As far as I know (I quit reading the details) he did nothing illegal, and he did not even make physical contact with these women, and all seems to be consensual. And he hasn't posed as a family values type as well. Unlike, Rep. Vitter, still in office, who got busted patronizing prostitutes. This just seems to be getting much more attention than it deserves.

  2. "Researchers at the University of Chicago have found that a person’s responses to similar situations change as they age, most likely because of evolving brain circuitry."

    So the form evolves to perfect its function rather than to accommodate it? Who knew.

  3. Well, it can be useful to know when a politician is an idiot, particularly a self-destructive idiot, and possiblity a narcissist. So, I'm inclined to say we should care.

    However, this is arguably common with politicians, and sadly sex can make idiots of us all. The question whether he should resign is I think more interesting. I think he will, regardless.

    He's not the first, Democrat or Republican, to engage in such conduct and be reviled for it and certainly won't be the last. Can he function usefully under the circumstances? Will his continuing in his position undermine positions he would otherwise support? These are the kinds of questions which should be addreessed in determining whether he should resign.

  4. I am very sympathetic to Mr Baity's letter; it has long irritated me that getting liberals to make self-consciously moral statements is so often difficult. However, if interpreted charitably, the "don't-legislate-morality" crowd does seem to be getting at something a little more defensible - just using language poorly to do it.

    I think what they are driving at is something along the lines of Mills' harm principle. To illustrate, the Gallup survey above shows that liberals AND conservatives agree that adultery is morally wrong - so why isn't it, of all things, a crime?

    The answer has something to do with the division (a false division?) between personal ethical codes (which are felt to be in some sense supererogatory or private) vs the (wisely narrow) harm-based ethics we expect our laws to cleave to. So the "don't-legislate-morality" line can be interpreted to mean something like: "To the extent that homosexuality is a moral issue at all, it does not pose issues of harm to non-consenting parties, and thus is not the kind of thing that should ever be legislated."

    And THAT is a very plausible Bright Line to draw for the domain of legislation in sexual affairs. (Though note that drawing that particular line will also force legalization of polygamy, which I am ok with, but I'm not sure most "don't-legislate-morality" liberals are.)

  5. I find the gallup poll interesting. I would have never guessed that doctor-assisted suicides would be the most divisive. I always assumed the idea had gained greater acceptance. And, the numbers for having a child outside of marriage were more divisive than I would have guessed.

  6. Michael (or anyone else), do you think the results of that morality poll are particularly meaningful? A number of those prompts seem impossibly vague to me, and I feel certain that they could be rephrased or qualified in ways that would significantly alter the results.

    Most notably, the divergence between suicide and doctor-assisted suicide tells me that nearly half of the respondents find suicide acceptable under certain circumstances, and yet that fact would not be apparent if doctor-assisted suicide had not been included as a prompt. That leads me to wonder what other potentially revealing categories this poll has missed.

  7. About the gratuitous mutilation of underage children, I think that the comparison with tattooing is apt. You just don't do something like that to helpless dependents who cannot give informed consent, even if it is completely harmless. End of story. From a German perspective, the idea that this is so ubiquitous in a Christianity-dominated country like America seems utterly bizarre.

  8. Ahh, the first "mutilationist" has spoken on the SF bill. Like many at Lindsay's blog ... not very rational about this. And, ignoring that it's religiously discriminatory, backed/fueled by an apparent anti-Semite and more.

    Secularists who support only a selective application of the First Amendment both sadden and appall me. Read More's reply to Roper in A Man for All Seasons. http://socraticgadfly.blogspot.com/2011/06/its-sad-when-secularists-diss-first.html

  9. To piggyback on part of Gadfly's comment regarding the inherent anti-semitic nature of the SF bill, it is not at all clear to me how one might successfully enforce it. Should we expect the SFPD to raid synagogues and private residences?

    Moreover, regarding Alex's 'gratuitious mutilation' comment, besides being an appeal to emotion: (1) that male circumcision is 'mutilation' is itself unclear- while I myself do not favor the practice, I cannot under any reasonable definition of the term identify male circumcision as 'mutilation,' i.e., I have yet to see reason to consider male circumcision as causing harm; and (2) the Jewish ritual of circumcision is anything but gratuitous; for them, amongst other things, circumcision is the sign of the covenant between them and their god.

  10. If a religion espoused removing the pinkies of newborn children, would you be okay with that? Why is it okay to remove part of a newborn male's genitalia without his consent? Are you okay with parents letting children die because their religion says pray instead of seek medical help?

    Religion is *no* excuse to violate another person's consent to make decisions about their own body. If Jewish people want to participate in that ritual, they can do it when the boy is old enough to make that decision for himself. Besides, the majority of circumcision in the US is NOT done for religious reasons, but social and other cultural reasons.

    Whether you want to call it mutilation or not could certainly be a point of contention. But Alex's point about consent still stands.

  11. This is simply about being consistent. You should not do something like that to somebody without their informed consent, be they your children or not. It is not morally different to some stranger finding you unconscious and chopping off your foreskin (or if it is, please explain how). When you wake up, surprised and bleeding, your bodily integrity irretrievably violated, would you be mollified by the assailant's assurance that the procedure causes no lasting harm?

    the Jewish ritual of circumcision is anything but gratuitous; for them, amongst other things, circumcision is the sign of the covenant between them and their god.

    Quite apart from the fact that their god does not exist, there are other peoples and tribes in the world who consider pulling out all the head hair of a girl a rite of passage, or mutilating her genitals. Many military units have their own rituals of hazing, often severely humiliating or painful. Some of those are less enduringly harmful than circumcision, others more. All those people consider these practices non-gratuitous and really important. But surely their delusions and moral disfunctionality should not simply be accepted at face value when evaluating whether these behaviours are barbarous or not. The point should be whether people can give informed consent, and whether they are blackmailed into acceptance. If somebody who is of age wants to join some moronic students' club that only accepts members with a certain tattoo, that is their choice then.

    I find the word mutilation rather accurate, by the way; it simply means to remove a part of the body that does not grow back.

  12. I had my tonsils mutilated when I was old enough to be told to decide to cooperate when I was told my tonsils were required to be mutilated.

  13. Will,

    I anticipated such a response (and, believe it or not, considering our recent exchanges, I put the odds at 3:1 that you would make it). Now, given my statement “I have yet to see reason to consider male circumcision as causing harm,” how can you reasonably ask me if I am “okay with parents letting children die because their religion says pray instead of seek medical help”?

    If the lion's share of relevant scientific data unambiguously suggest that male circumcision causes or is highly correlated with deleterious medical effects, then we can identify male circumcision as harmful and proceed with curbing the practice (even then, illegalization may not be the most efficient course of action to that end). However, as far as I can determine from my (cursory) review of the data, scientific opinion on the negative and positive effects of male circumcision remains divided. In fact, the relevant evidence seems to stand 50/50 for and against both the positive and negative effects of circumcision.

    Regarding the removal of pinkies and foreskin, I fail to see how the one is analogous to the other. If you think there are no relevant differences between losing a finger and losing the foreskin, then far be it from me to argue this pedantic point.


    Whether the Jewish god exists or not is irrelevant. What is relevant is the sociological fact that Jews view male circumcision as an important religious rite. Thus, the practice is not gratuitous.

    Regarding the harm issue, to repeat what I said to above, the relevant scientific evidence does not show that there are long term, deleterious health effects associated with, let alone caused by, circumcision.

    As for using 'mutilation' to describe the practice of male circumcision, the problem is of course the connotation and ethical baggage which often accompanies the term. If I were to describe a surgical procedure (such as Baron's tonsillectomy) as a 'mutilation,' one would most likely infer that the procedure was performed (1) caused irreparable harm and/or (2) that I disapprove of the procedure on moral grounds. Thus, insofar as you use that term to describe male circumcision, you are ipso facto assuming the issue under debate (the moral permissibility of infant male circumcision and whether the act causes harm), not to mention making an appeal to emotions.

  14. Yes, it occurred to me that I should have included an "unnecessary" in the definition. If you remove a leg to save a life you would not call it mutilation - but unless it can be shown that circumcision is necessary it remains mutilation. And the disapproval built into the word is a feature, not a bug, until you can address the moral equivalency I pointed out above and tell me why it is acceptable for people to damage their defenseless dependents in a way that would be considered unacceptable with defenseless strangers.

  15. Para,

    You're such a psychic!!! *eyeroll*

    You have yet to see harm from circumcision? Just do a google search. Here's one of the first links that came up: http://www.circumstitions.com/death.html

    Deaths from routine, medically unnecessary circumcisions. You're okay with that?

    I asked if you're (well, anyone) okay with letting kids die due to prayer because you (and others) are using religion as an excuse to take away people's informed consent. What if the kid does not die but is seriously disabled due to the parents not seeking out medical treatment but choosing instead to pray. Is that okay? I mean seriously, where do you draw the line and what do you base that on?

    Again, I asked about pinkies because of the reason above: you are using religion to say that circumcision should be allowed. What if a religion insisted upon the removal of pinkies from newborns for religious reasons? Would you be okay with that or not? Why or why not?

    It is about not having informed consent to take a piece of a person's body away from them. Permanently. For medically unnecessary reasons. I don't see how you (or anyone else) think that's okay.

  16. Alex,

    The idea here is that male circumcision does not 'damage' the child (there in fact may exist reason to believe that it provides benefits) and that therefore the act is permissible to do.

  17. Alex,

    As for your analogy about defenseless strangers, I do not see how one might act with respect to a stranger, defenseless or otherwise, is a guide to how one might act with respect to a child or family member. For instance, I am pretty sure it is unethical to pick a stranger up from behind and plant a big kiss on his lips, but it certainly is not unethical for me to do so to my 1.5 yr daughter, even if she is angry with me at the moment and would rather not give her father a kiss. Various social relations permit and omit various behaviors, etc.

  18. Paraconsistent,

    We are talking about permanently, irretrievably removing a part of the body, and you come back with kissing? And kissing a stranger is not so much unethical as inappropriate - not quite the same thing. If you want to talk about something as unethical as circumcision you would have to up the ante to molestation, and there you are, you should not do that to your daughter either.

    You may say that with defining circumcision as as unethical as molestation I have once again begged the question. But well, we are not talking about something as harmless as a kiss after all, but about an irretrievable alteration of the body. Knocking out a stranger and cutting off their foreskin, giving them silicone implants or tattooing a mermaid on their biceps are really the only comparisons that are legitimate! And in contrast to mutilation, the implants and the tattoo could even be undone, although with varying degrees of difficulty and scarring.

  19. Alex,

    Again, there is no good evidence to suggest that male circumcision is harmful let alone disfiguring.

  20. Alex,

    I think we have reached an impasse, so I will end by saying that the relevant scientific evidence does not show that male circumcision is harmful, thus it is permissible, and that your stranger-child analogy is disanalogous.

  21. Para, it's not about the harm. It is about removing a piece of someone's body without their informed consent. PERIOD. FULL STOP.

    I don't know why you keep ignoring that point and focusing on "harm" as if that is the SOLE criteria for this. I think an argument could be made that doing a medically unnecessary operation on a person without their informed consent is harmful in that we are stripping a person of choice about the use of their body. It's harmful to society to take away people's rights to make decisions about their own bodies.

    Regarding your harm argument, I should point out that you keep saying there's "no good evidence" that male circumcision is harmful; however, there's no good evidence that it is helpful, either. Your default position, therefore, should not be to err on the side of "it's not harmful therefore go ahead" but one of "insufficient evidence" and perhaps lean towards the benefit of the doubt towards letting people make decisions about their own bodies.

    Finally, to say that it is not disfiguring is intellectually dishonest and ethnocentric. It may not be disfiguring *to you* but it certainly is to other people.

  22. Yes we have, because you simply avoid addressing the point. The implants and the tattoo are not harmful either, nor are they necessarily more disfiguring (there are tattoos that are quite pretty!). Unless you can explain why people should be allowed to hack a bit off their children but not do those other things, or why the non-harmfulness of the procedure should mollify a knocked-out stranger you have just circumcised, your arguments boil down to special pleading. But well, that is the main defense of religion anyway.

  23. Paraconsistent, you speak well for me.

    I don't say circumcision is ideal, but it's not mutilation, it's not done to "damage," its more serious complications, while minimal, are quite rare, etc.

    The second one is the point on why "faith healing," "withholding food," etc., in the name of religion are analogies so bad that, per Dick Feynman, they're not even wrong.

    Circumcision isn't done to "test out" a certain idea of god's provenance.

    And, Will ... you got links to polls that say it's disfiguring? And, what about an uncircumcised penis? Maybe some ppl think it's disfiguring.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.