To begin, I am discussing elective circumcision of newborn males. Circumcision can be a remedy for certain medical problems, and that stands outside the purview of our discussion here. Elective surgeries, are by definition, not medically necessary, and that is the focus of this argument.
About one-third of the world’s male population is circumcised. This figure might be surprising, until one notes that a full 70% of that number are Muslim, for whom it is a religious prescription, as it is for Jews and certain Orthodox Christian sects. Again, these folks fall outside of our purview for the discussion. While it might be admirable to try and convince such folks that their practices are harmful, arguments against religious prescriptions are often difficult, as the value of obedience to the rule will often be higher than the ‘rightness’ of the thing to human eyes.
Instead, we are focusing on Stoics, and how from that perspective, we should interact with circumcision. There’s an interesting amount of double-think which occurs in this matter. If you use the phrase “female circumcision” you will likely be corrected by “female genital mutilation.” However, were you to say “male genital mutilation,” you will probably be met with confused looks. Indeed, if you attempt to draw a parallel, “removing of parts of the sexual organs without consent and for medically vacuous purposes,” you will immediately find the person to suddenly be very knowledgeable about the “health benefits” and possibly even the ‘aesthetic value’ of the practice. Keeping in mind that the plural of anecdote isn’t ‘data’, it’s been my experience that these arguments usually come from women.
In the US, where this is less of a religious issue, the practice of circumcision is a cultural one. “My son should look like me,” is the common reasoning from men, and dubious health benefits from women. Plus: “We’ve always done this.”
To properly frame the issue in a Stoic context, there are a few things to note:
- The lack of medical necessity,
- The false argument of omnium consensu,
- A fiduciary responsibility to protect the bodily integrity of our children,
- Our motto of “Live according to nature,”
- And the vehemence in the Stoic arguments against beard cutting
The lack of medical necessity is a definitional issue, as presented in the first part of this post, and I won’t go over it again. The omnium consensu issue arises when you often hear the issue brought up that “If we don’t circumcise our son, he’ll stand out,” or “he should look like me.” It is not a universal practice, being a 30-33% minority of males, and of those, a 70% majority represented by one religious sect shows that it is firmly a minority practice. In this instance, omnium consensu (the prevalence of a universal practice), is clearly not relevant. What we actually have is an Appeal to Popularity, a fallacy. Basically, “all the cool kids are doing it.”
Thankfully, the phrase of generations of mothers and grandmothers of “If everyone were jumping off a cliff, would you jump too?” is not, “If everyone were cutting off bits of their son’s penises, would you cut too?” Because we know the answer to the latter one, as a survey from 1999-2002 showed that 79% of US males were circumcised. This is down from 91% in the 1970s. (!)
Next, we address the issues of ownership and property integrity. Our bodies are our property, we have the highest and best claim to its disposition. Parents have a fiduciary responsibility towards their non-adult children’s health, wellness, minds, and bodies. What they do not have is ownership. An owner may alter, destroy, or otherwise dispose of property in any way he or she sees fit. A custodian, however, does not have this moral right. Instead, he or she has an obligation to the actual owners to maintain the status of the property in question, to the highest and best means possible.
A parent might choose to have a child’s leg amputated in the event of a serious accident, like a crushing injury followed by infection. To protect the life of the child, cutting away the leg is appropriate. Their responsibility to the life of the child clearly trumps the bodily integrity obligations, as there is no integrity if the child dies from gangrene.
Yet, we’re not looking at that type of situation at all in regards to circumcision, which almost always is medically elective. Instead, for reasons of perceived social pressure, the parents are choosing to cut away portions of the child’s body for perceived social ease or aesthetics.
This is grossly inappropriate. It is instead, the obligation of a parent to protect the bodily integrity of their children until they are of an age to make such choices for him or herself, assuming the threat of death is not present (as ex. above).
Let us move on to the issue of our motto, to”live according to nature.” No creature is born with extra parts which as a standard matter of course need to be surgically removed. Let alone, that in a small percentage of cases, errors or malpractice can result in severe and lasting damage to the child. Indeed, were this a natural practice, we would see it in greater than 30% of the world’s population, and it would be spread across more diverse groups: namely closer to 100% than it is to 0%.
Lastly, I have a speculative argument from analogy. Musonius and Epictetus both argue that men should not cut away the beard, that to do so is impious. Their argument points to the sexual dimorphism in other species: the lion’s mane, the rooster’s comb, etc. They say that the beard is nature’s symbol of the male in mankind. In that, it is then inappropriate to make themselves ‘not like men’ in the pursuit of fashion or for other purposes not involving an illness.
Indeed, the only reason why we cut the hair at all is probably because it does not hurt. If it were to hurt to the cut hair, I don’t think we would do it as we do today. Yet, circumcision does hurt, and oftentimes the infant isn’t even given medication to lessen the pain.
Can you imagine someone coming up to Epictetus, with his beard freshly plucked out, smooth as a newborn, and asking his opinion on cutting off a portion of son’s penis? I can imagine the reply would be clear, and probably not softly delivered.
No, if the Stoics were so against the cutting off of the ‘symbol’ of masculinity as put there by nature, surely they would also be against cutting off portions of the masculine organ itself.
Many American males are already circumcised, and there’s no changing that. It may have been done thoughtlessly, or for perceived ‘good reasons.’ But, we who have examined the issue from a philosophic and Stoic perspective can make a change.
Will it be difficult to explain to our sons why we look different than they do? Folks assume it will be, but I don’t actually think that is so. In fact, part of the job of parents is to have difficult conversations for the well being of their children. That fear, even if it exists and even if it is real, should be put aside. It doesn’t contribute to our virtue.
When we’re asked, upon bathing or changing, why we look different, it is up to us to explain the problem in language the child can comprehend. Children can understand quite a bit more than we often give them credit for when the appropriate language is chosen.
“Some people remove this part from their babies. My parents chose that for me, but I decided it was your choice. When you’re an adult, you may chose to have that surgery, or to be as you are naturally. You were a health baby, and there was no need for it. It’s your body, and it should be your choice.”
It’s as simple as that. Of course, their grandparents love us and them as well, and of course their bodies are safe. As parents we should simply chose to protect our children’s bodily integrity, and protect their opportunities for their own choices in the future.
The issue of male circumcision is surprisingly a controversial one, and it is my hope that this piece provides the opportunity to re-examine cultural practices through the lens of philosophy and rational thinking, and not merely unthinking tradition or popular appeals.