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  • Relativists and Hypocrites: Earp on Genital Cutting
  • Jamie Lindemann Nelson (bio)

Cutting people’s genitals—at least, when thought of as an exotic practice—seems to interest philosophers chiefly as a source of problem cases for moral relativism. A ready-to-hand example is supplied by Simon Blackburn, in the relativism chapter of his charming little introduction to ethics text, Being Good: “If, as in some North African countries, young girls are terrifyingly and painfully mutilated so that thereafter they cannot enjoy natural and pleasurable human sexuality, that is not OK, anywhere or anytime” (Blackburn 2003, 21).

Now, it’s worth considering how vulnerable moral relativism actually is to intuitive counterexamples. Surely, there’s a powerful tendency to say that any metaethics that portrays as “faultless” disagreement between groups of people about whether someone should be burnt to death because he’s Jewish, or whether a child should have her clitoris excised, apparently just because she has one, has gone off the rails somewhere. Yet it’s not clear that metaethical moral relativism as such needs to accept that such disputes are without fault. That some practices seem so heinous as to merit universal condemnation may suggest that moral frameworks generally, despite their variegations, contain the resources to condemn them, whether or not those resources are always properly understood and enacted by those accepting the standards. There were clearly moral traditions altogether culturally available to Nazis that repudiated murderous anti-Semitism. Further, one of the very many valuable lessons to be learned from Brian Earp’s challenging paper is that several kinds of genital cutting rituals are controversial within cultures that practice them, and that there seems an accelerating tendency away from their most dangerous, invasive forms.

To follow out this line of thought would require devoting considerable care to how “moral relativism” is to be understood, a project with which Earp’s paper has no interest. Despite invoking relativism in his title, and despite arguing that the values to which Western critics appeal are not [End Page 165] universal, he isn’t focused on the pertinence of genital cutting to accounts of morality’s formal structure; his interest is chiefly absorbed by how our moral commitments are reflected in our lives. The weight of his paper thus falls on hypocrites rather than relativists, and one of its major conclusions is that Western attitudes and practices concerning genital cutting are shot through with hypocrisy.

While Earp’s use of “relativism” remains informal, he works much harder on clarifying hypocrisy. He offers a schematic account along these lines: some group (A) pillories a practice espoused by another group (B), on the basis of a value (R) that A takes to be universal, while simultaneously affirming the acceptability of one of its own practices that also runs afoul of R.

This schema may make Earp’s job a little easier than it ought to be. It seems to conflate being confused or undiscerning about the implications of one’s own commitments (which, given the complexity of morality, and of life, might be blameless, or at least understandable) with being hypocritical, which is vicious, although as I think, variably so. Much depends on why the A group folks don’t apply R to some features of how they live their lives. If they are aware of an apparent inconsistency and yet uninterested in finding relevant disanalogies, that’s bad behavior. If they loudly and repeatedly condemn others on the basis of reasons that they realize (or ought to realize, given reasonable attention) indict their own practices, matters are still worse.

The conceptions entertained by lots of people in the West of female genital cutting (FGC) as practiced in “remote” parts of the world are probably much as Blackburn conveys—shockingly painful and permanently disabling damage being inflicted on terrified children.1 These are decidedly not the images they associate with the circumcision of their own sons. While one hesitates to be too ready to exculpate people living in dominant cultures, it seems at least plausible to think that inconsistencies here are at least partly chargeable to ignorance. The pronouncements, attitudes, and actions of such authorities as the UN and WHO are less excusably...


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pp. 165-172
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