Facts, Values and Circumcision
posted by Dave Hoffman
There’s a flurry of coverage about proposed anti-circumcision initiatives in California. (Sullivan, Volokh.) The posts I’ve been reading – and, granted, I’ve not read the field – have taken this issue oddly seriously. After all, these are merely (actual or proposed) ballot initiatives that haven’t been approved by the voters. If they were approved, their constitutionality won’t (contra Volokh) be determined by existing precedent. In my view, this is a slam dunk example of an overdetermined constitutional issue.
But there’s another aspect of this fight that is, I think, worth some extended comment. As Sarah has pointed on this blog, anti- and pro- circumcision advocates generally fight about circumcision’s health effects, and resist attacking (or defending) it as a cultural practice. To me, this looks quite like other contests in our society in which nominally empirical debates predominate — the fight over the HPV vaccine, gay and lesbian parenting, nanotechnology, global warming, etc. The Cultural Cognition project illustrates that these fights very often appear to be about facts, but that expressed conclusions of the “facts” and “risks” involved follow our less-conscious values. Moreover, though we can perceive this tendency in others, we deny it in ourselves. This is the phenomenon of naive realism. What results? We come to believe that people who we disagree with about these value-laden fights (i.e., people who deny the health benefits of circumcision) are arguing in bad faith. They think the same of us. Winning, in the world of policy, becomes an exercise of defeating not just our opponent’s values, but denying that their values are even at play. I am pretty sure that if we tested this hypothesis in the circumcision debate, we’d see a very strong set of cultural priors influencing how partisans interpret and process the medical-risk-facts about circumcision, whether the American Academy of Pediatrics is vouching for those facts or not.
This leads to a concrete piece of advice for Andrew Sullivan and other hot-tempered advocates on either side of this fight. Cool it. Stop inciting fights with question-begging terms like “male genital mutilation.” Instead, affirm the values of those you disagree with by making clear that this isn’t – at root – a debate that be resolved with reference to empirical facts. It’s (as Sarah has insightfully pointed out) a discussion about cultural practices, and the degree to which the greater society has the right to change them.
For what it’s worth, my view is that the government has about as much of a moral right to prohibit circumcision as it does to tell me that I must eat broccoli.