Mutilation or Enhancement? What is Morally at Stake in Body Alterations

By Brian D. Earp (@briandavidearp)


Those who follow my work will know that I have published a number of papers on the ethics of medically unnecessary genital cutting practices affecting children of all sexes and genders (a partial bibliography is at the end of this post). When my writing touches on the sub-set of these practices that affect persons with characteristically female sex-typed genitals, I have on occasion received some pushback for using the term ‘FGC’ for female genital cutting rather than ‘FGM’ for female genital mutilation (though I have also received words of appreciation, so, I cannot please everyone).

A recent instance of such pushback came from a respected colleague in response to a forthcoming paper of mine in Archives of Sexual Behavior, in which I explicitly argue against the use of ‘mutilation’ in certain contexts, as there is evidence that such stigmatizing language may have adverse effects on the very people who are meant to be helped. The paper, “Protecting Children from Medically Unnecessary Genital Cutting Without Stigmatizing Women’s Bodies: Implications for Sexual Pleasure and Pain” is available as a pre-print here.

Given that this terminological issue is likely to keep coming up, I thought I would share parts of the reply I wrote to my colleague (lightly edited). I certainly don’t expect that everyone will agree with what I say below, but I hope it can shed some light on at least one plausible way of thinking about such difficult matters.

One last thing. In order to understand my reply, you need to know that my colleague argued that my use of ‘FGC’ rather than ‘FGM’ is disrespectful because it goes against the recommendation of the 2005 Bamako Declaration adopted by the Inter-African Committee (IAC) on Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women and Children. My answer is immediately below.

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Lying About Santa: The Sequel

Written by Ben Davies

Another Christmas, and another blog about the ethics of Christmas-based lying.

Around this time last year, Alberto Giubilini wrote a post about whether we should allow children to believe in Santa. Alberto was pretty scathing about some of the arguments in favour of Santa-based honesty, but I want to offer some ethical considerations in favour of this unpopular view.

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The Good Place, the Bad Place, and the Ugly Consequences

written by Gabriel De Marco

I recently started to watch The Good Place again, a sitcom by NBC which takes place in the realm of the supernatural. The show has taken us to the good place (somewhat like heaven, where good people go after they have shuffled off their mortal coil), the bad place (the opposite of the good place), and a few others. Although the show is mainly a comedy, it manages to be funny while discussing many interesting ethical questions, and explicitly introducing a variety of ethical views and principles.

In this world there is a system, call it The System, that determines who goes to the good place and who goes to the bad place. The details of The System have never been fully clear, which turns out to be an important part of the show. Yet, there are some things we do know about how The System works. First, it assigns positive or negative points to actions. The points assigned to a given action seem to be a function of a variety of factors, including its use of resources, the intentions behind it, its effects on others. (It has also been suggested in a recent episode that if the only reason one performs an action is to make one’s points go up, one will not receive points). Whether a person ends up going to the good place is a matter of what their overall score is, and this overall score seems to be the sum of the points assigned to one’s actions.

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Bad Ads And Stereotypes

Written by Rebecca Brown

In June this year, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) brought into effect a ban on harmful gender stereotypes in advertising. In response to public outcry about adverts such as the 2015 ‘Are you beach body ready?’ campaign by Protein World, and growing discomfort with outdated depictions of gender roles in the media, the ASA undertook a project to consider whether existing regulation is fit for purpose. They concluded that “evidence suggests that a tougher line needs to be taken on ads that feature stereotypical gender roles and characteristics, which through their content and context may be potentially harmful to people.” (ASA, 2017: 3)

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The Psychology of Existential Risk: Moral Judgments about Human Extinction

Written by Stefan Schubert

This blog post reports on: Schubert, S.**, Caviola, L.**, Faber, N. The Psychology of Existential Risk: Moral Judgments about Human Extinction. Scientific Reports. [Open Access]

Humanity’s ever-increasing technological powers can, if handled well, greatly improve life on Earth. But if they’re not handled well, they may instead cause our ultimate demise: human extinction. Recent years have seen an increased focus on the threat that emerging technologies such as advanced artificial intelligence could pose to humanity’s continued survival (see, e.g., Bostrom, 2014; Ord, forthcoming). A common view among these researchers is that human extinction would be much worse, morally speaking, than almost-as-severe catastrophes from which we could recover. Since humanity’s future could be very long and very good, it’s an imperative that we survive, on this view. Continue reading

Elizabeth Anderson’s Uehiro Lectures: Lecture 3 – Communicating Moral Concern Beyond Blaming and Shaming

In Elizabeth Anderson’s final Uehiro lecture, she tackles what she takes to be the hardest problem facing our current political discourse – How can we overcome obstacles to communicating moral concerns in order to orient policy to important values (such as public health and justice)? This is a particularly difficult and intractable problem because it concerns our moral values; in overcoming this obstacle, there is thus a considerable degree of scope for disagreement, and judgments of the moral character of others based on their moral opinions. Over the course of the lecture, Anderson refines the diagnosis of this problem, and once again expresses optimism about overcoming the obstacles she highlights. This time she outlines how we might disarm the fear, resentment, pride, and contempt that is currently derailing our political discourse, and the virtues that we must develop to do so. You can find a recording of the lecture here.

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Elizabeth Anderson’s Uehiro Lecture Summary: “Can We Talk – Communicating Moral Concern In An Era of Polarized Politics” – Lecture 1: What Has Gone Wrong?

It is something of an understatement to suggest that we are living through turbulent times. Society today is characterised not just by deep divisions about how to address key social challenges of our time, but also on the emphasis that should be placed on evidence-based discussion of these issues, and the moral values that should guide national policies.

In this context, Elizabeth Anderson’s Uehiro lecture series, entitled ““Can We Talk – Communicating Moral Concern In An Era of Polarized Politics” could not be more timely. In the first of this three lecture series, Anderson offers a diagnosis of the problems that currently bedevil political discourse across the world. This first lecture sets the stage for the following two lectures in which she shall offer her own proposed solutions to the problems that she so vividly describes and analyses in this fascinating initial lecture. The remainder of this post shall briefly summarise the key points of the lecture – You can find a recording of the lecture here

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An Ambitious Vision for Bioethics – Some Reflections on Professor Jing-Bao Nie’s St Cross Seminar

Written by Ben Davies

Many readers of the Practical Ethics blog will remember the astounding announcement last November by Chinese researcher He Jiankui that he had used CRISPR-cas9 technology to edit into two healthy embryos a resistance to developing HIV, later resulting in the birth of twins Lulu and Nana. As Professor Julian Savulescu expressed in several posts on this blog, the announcement spurred widespread ethical condemnation.

The first in this year’s series of St Cross Special Ethics seminars saw the University of Otago’s Professor Jing-Bao Nie (who is also currently a 2019/20 Fellow of Durham University’s Institute of Advanced Study) get behind the headlines to consider the political and social context of He’s experiment. At the core of Professor Nie’s presentation was that the decision to engage in genetic editing of healthy embryos could neither be written off as the act of a ‘rogue researcher’, nor dismissed as merely the product of a uniquely Chinese disregard for ethics, as some have argued.

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Diet, Changing Desires, and Dementia

Written by Ben Davies

Last week saw the launch of a campaign (run by the group Vegetarian For Life) that seeks to ensure that older people in care who have ethical commitments to a particular diet are not given food that violates those commitments. This is, as the campaign makes clear, a particularly pressing issue for those who have some form of dementia who may not be capable of expressing their commitment.

Those behind the campaign are quite right to note that people’s ethical beliefs should not be ignored simply because they are in care, or have a cognitive impairment (see a Twitter thread where I discuss this with a backer of the campaign). But the idea that one’s dietary ethics must be ‘for life’ got me thinking about a more well-established debate about Advance Directives. (I should stress that what I say here should not be taken to be imputing any particular motivation or philosophical commitments to those behind the campaign itself.)

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The Doctor-Knows-Best NHS Foundation Trust: a Business Proposal for the Health Secretary

By Charles Foster

Informed consent, in practice, is a bad joke. It’s a notion created by lawyers, and like many such notions it bears little relationship to the concerns that real humans have when they’re left to themselves, but it creates many artificial, lucrative, and expensive concerns.

Of course there are a few clinical situations where it is important that the patient reflects deeply and independently on the risks and benefits of the possible options, and there are a few people (I hope never to meet them: they would be icily un-Falstaffian) whose sole ethical lodestone is their own neatly and indelibly drafted life-plan. But those situations and those people are fortunately rare. Continue reading


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