Would you hand over a moral decision to a machine? Why not? Moral outsourcing and Artificial Intelligence.

Artificial Intelligence and Human Decision-making.

Recent developments in artificial intelligence are allowing an increasing number of decisions to be passed from human to machine. Most of these to date are operational decisions – such as algorithms on the financial markets deciding what trades to make and how. However, the range of such decisions that can be computerisable are increasing, and as many operational decisions have moral consequences, they could be considered to have a moral component.

One area in which this is causing growing concern is military robotics. The degree of autonomy with which uninhabited aerial vehicles and ground robots are capable of functioning is steadily increasing. There is extensive debate over the circumstances in which robotic systems should be able to operate with a human “in the loop” or “on the loop” – and the circumstances in which a robotic system should be able to operate independently. A coalition of international NGOs recently launched a campaign to “stop killer robots”.

While there have been strong arguments raised against robotic systems being able to use lethal force against human combatants autonomously, it is becoming increasingly clear that in many circumstances in the near future the “no human in the loop” robotic system will have advantages over the “in the loop system”. Automated systems already have better perception and faster reflexes than humans in many ways, and are slowed down by the human input. The human “added value” comes from our judgement and decision-making – but these are by no means infallible, and will not always be superior to the machine’s. In June’s Centre for a New American Society (CNAS) conference, Rosa Brooks (former pentagon official, now Georgetown Law professor) put this in a provocative way:
“Our record- we’re horrible at it [making “who should live and who should die” decisions] … it seems to me that it could very easily turn out to be the case that computers are much better than we are doing. And the real ethical question would be can we ethically and lawfully not let the autonomous machines do that when they’re going to do it better than we will.” (1)

For a non-military example, consider the adaptation of IBM’s Jeopardy-winning “Watson” for use in medicine. As evidenced by IBM’s technical release this week, progress in developing these systems continues apace (shameless plug: Selmer Bringsjord, the AI researcher “putting Watson through college” will speak in Oxford about “Watson 2.0″ next month as part of the Philosophy and Theory of AI conference).

Soon we will have systems that will enter use as doctor’s aides – able to analyse the world’s medical literature to diagnose a medical problem and provide recommendations to the doctor. But it seems likely that a time will come when these thorough analyses produce recommendations that are sometimes at odds with the doctor’s recommendation – but are proven to be more accurate on average. To return to combat, we will have robotic systems that can devise and implement non-intuitive (to human) strategies that involve using lethal force, but achieve a military objective more efficiently with less loss of life. Human judgement added to the loop may prove to be an impairment.

Moral Outsourcing

At a recent academic workshop I attended on autonomy in military robotics, a speaker posed a pair of questions to test intuitions on this topic.
“Would you allow another person to make a moral decision on your behalf? If not, why not?” He asked the same pair of questions substituting “machine” for “a person”.

Regarding the first pair of questions, we all do this kind of moral outsourcing to a certain extent – allowing our peers, writers, and public figures to influence us. However, I was surprised to find I was unusual in doing this in a deliberate and systematic manner. In the same way that I rely on someone with the right skills and tools to fix my car, I deliberately outsource a wide range of moral questions to people who I know can answer then better than I can. These people tend to be better-informed on specific issues than I am, have had more time to think them through, and in some cases are just plain better at making moral assessments. I of course select for people who have a roughly similar world view to me, and from time to time do “spot tests” – digging through their reasoning to make sure I agree with it.

We each live at the centre of a spiderweb of moral decisions – some obvious, some subtle. As a consequentialist I don’t believe that “opting out” by taking the default course or ignoring many of them absolves me of responsibility. However, I just don’t have time to research, think about, and make sound morally-informed decisions about my diet, the impact of my actions on the environment, feminism, politics, fair trade, social equality – the list goes on. So I turn to people who can, and who will make as good a decision as I would in ideal circumstances (or a better one) nine times out of ten.

So Why Shouldn’t I Trust The Machine?

So to the second pair of questions:
“Would you allow a machine to make a moral decision on your behalf? If not, why not?”

It’s plausible that in the near future we will have artificial intelligence that for given, limited situations (for example: make a medical treatment decision, a resource allocation decision, or an “acquire military target” decision) is able to weigh up the facts for a and make as a decision or better than a human can 99.99% of the time – unclouded by bias, with vastly more information available to it.

So why not trust the machine?

Human decision-making is riddled with biases and inconsistencies, and can be impacted heavily by as little as fatigue, or when we last ate. For all that, our inconsistencies are relatively predictable, and have bounds. Every bias we know about can be taken into account, and corrected for to some extent. And there are limits to how insane an intelligent, balanced person’s “wrong” decision will be – even if my moral “outsourcees” are “less right” than me 1 time out of 10, there’s a limit to how bad their wrong decision will be.

This is not necessarily the case with machines. When a machine is “wrong”, it can be wrong in a far more dramatic way, with more unpredictable outcomes, than a human could.
Simple algorithms should be extremely predictable, but can make bizarre decisions in “unusual” circumstances. Consider the two simple pricing algorithms that got in a pricing war, pushing the price of a book about flies to $23 million. Or the 2010 stock market flash crash. It gets even more difficult to keep track of when evolutionary algorithms and other “learning” methods are used. Using self-modifying heuristics Douglas Lenat’s Eurisko won the US Championship of the Traveller TCS game using unorthodox, non-intuitive fleet designs. This fun youtube video shows a Super Mario-playing greedy algorithm figuring out how to make use of several hitherto-unknown game glitches to win (see 10:47).

Why should this concern us? As the decision-making processes become more complicated, and the strategies more non-intuitive, it becomes ever-harder to “spot test” if we agree with them – provided the results turn out good the vast majority of the time. The upshot is that we have to just “trust” the methods and strategies more and more. It also becomes harder to figure out how, why, and in what circumstances the machine will go wrong – and what the magnitude of the failure will be.

Even if we are outperformed 99.99% of the time, the unpredictability of the 0.01% failures may be a good reason to consider carefully what and how we morally outsource to the machine.

1. Transcript available here.
For further discussion on Brooks’s talk, see Foreign Policy Magazine articles here and here.

Cultural bias and the evaluation of medical evidence: An update on the AAP

By Brian D. Earp

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Cultural bias and the evaluation of medical evidence: An update on the AAP

Since my article on the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recent change in policy regarding infant male circumcision was posted back in August of 2012, some interesting developments have come about. Two major critiques of the AAP documents were published in leading international journals, one in the Journal of Medical Ethics, and a second in the AAP’s very own PediatricsIn the second of these, 38 distinguished pediatricians, pediatric surgeons, urologists, medical ethicists, and heads of hospital boards and children’s health societies throughout Europe and Canada argued that there is: “Cultural Bias in the AAP’s 2012 Technical Report and Policy Statement on Male Circumcision.”

The AAP took the time to respond to this possibility in a formal reply, also published in Pediatrics earlier this year. Rather than thoughtfully addressing the specific charge of cultural bias, however, the AAP elected to boomerang the criticism, implying that their critics were themselves biased, only against circumcision. To address this interesting allegation, I have updated my original blog post. Interested readers can click here to see my analysis.

Finally, please note that articles from the Journal of Medical Ethics special issue on circumcision are (at long last) beginning to appear online. The print issue will follow shortly. Also be sure to see this recent critique of the AAP in a thoughtful book by JME contributor and medical historian Dr. Robert Darby, entitled: “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice: Why Can’t the US Stop Circumcising Boys?”

– BDE 

How to deal with double-edged technology

By Brian D. Earp

 World’s smallest drone? Or how to deal with double-edged technology 

BBC News reports that Harvard scientists have developed the world’s smallest flying robot. It’s about the size of a penny, and it moves faster than a human hand can swat. Of course, the inventors of this “diminutive flying vehicle” immediately lauded its potential for bringing good to the world:

1. “We could envision these robots being used for search-and-rescue operations to search for human survivors under collapsed buildings or [in] other hazardous environments.”

2. “They [could] be used for environmental monitoring, to be dispersed into a habitat to sense trace chemicals or other factors.”

3. They might even behave like many real insects and assist with the pollination of crops, “to function as the now-struggling honeybee populations do in supporting agriculture around the world.”

These all seem like pretty commendable uses of a new technology. Yet one can think of some “bad” uses too. The “search and rescue” version of this robot (for example) would presumably be fitted with a camera; and the prospect of a swarm of tiny, remote-controlled flying video recorders raises some obvious questions about spying and privacy. It also prompts one to wonder who will have access to these spy bugs (the U.S. Air Force has long been interested in building miniature espionage drones), and whether there will be effective regulatory strategies capable of tilting future usage more toward the search-and-rescue side of things, and away from the peep-and-record side.

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Brief announcement: Interview about ‘love drugs’ on “Q” with Jian Ghomeshi

By Brian D. Earp

Interview announcement

This is a brief note to alert the readers of Practical Ethics that research by myself, Anders Sandberg, and Julian Savulescu on the potential therapeutic uses of “love drugs” and “anti-love drugs” has recently been featured in an interview for the national Canadian broadcast program, “Q” with Jian Ghomeshi (airing on National Public Radio in the United States).

Here is a link to the interview.

Readers may also be interested in checking out a new website, “Love in the Age of Enhancement” which collects the various academic essays, magazine articles, and media coverage of these arguments concerning the neuroenhancement of human relationships.

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Pedophilia, Preemptive Imprisonment, and the Ethics of Predisposition

The first two weeks of 2013 were marked by a flurry of news articles considering “the new science” of pedophilia. Alan Zarembo’s article for the Los Angeles Times focused on the increasing consensus among researchers that pedophilia is a biological predisposition similar to heterosexuality or homosexuality. Rachel Aviv’s piece for The New Yorker shed light upon the practice of ‘civil commitment’ in the US, a process by which inmates may be kept in jail past their release date if a panel decides that they are at risk of molesting a child (even if there is no evidence that they have in the past). The Guardian’s Jon Henley quoted sources suggesting that perhaps some pedophilic relationships aren’t all that harmful after all. And Rush Limbaugh chimed in comparing the ‘normalization’ of pedophilia to the historical increase in the acceptance of homosexuality, suggesting that recognizing pedophilia as a sexual orientation would be tantamount to condoning child molestation.

So what does it all mean? While most people I talked to in the wake of these stories (I include myself) were fascinated by the novel scientific evidence and the compelling profiles of self-described pedophiles presented in these articles, we all seemed to have a difficult time wrapping our minds around the ethical considerations at play. Why does it matter for our moral appraisal of pedophiles whether pedophilia is innate or acquired? Is it wrong to imprison someone for a terrible crime that they have not yet committed but are at a “high risk” of committing in the future? And if we say that we can’t “blame” pedophiles for their attraction to children because it is not their “fault” – they were “born this way” – is it problematic to condemn individuals for acting upon these (and other harmful) desires if it can be shown that poor impulse control is similarly genetically predisposed? While I don’t get around to fully answering most of these questions in the following post, my aim is to tease out the highly interrelated issues underlying these questions with the goal of working towards a framework by which the moral landscape of pedophilia can be understood.  Continue reading

Turning the Camera Around: What Newtown Tells Us About Ourselves

On the morning of December 14th, 20-year old Adam Lanza opened fire within the halls of Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, killing 20 children and six adult staff members before turning his gun on himself. In the hours that followed, journalists from every major news station in the nation inundated the tiny town, and in the days that followed, the country as a whole started down a familiar path characterized best by the plethora of ‘if only-isms’.

It began in the immediate hours following the shooting: if only we had stricter gun control laws, this wouldn’t have happened. This is perhaps an unsurprising first response in a country that represents 4.5% of the world’s population and 40% of the world’s civilian firearms.[1] Over the next few days, as a portrait of the shooter began to emerge and friends and family revealed that he was an avid gamer, a second theory surfaced in the headlines: if only our children weren’t exposed to such violent video games, this tragedy never would have occurred.[2] [3] And just in the past few days, public discourse has converged on the gunman’s mental health, the general conclusion being that if only we had better mental health services in place, this wouldn’t have happened.[4][5] (The National Rifle Association [NRA] even tried to jump on board, suggesting that “26 innocent lives might have been spared” if only we had an armed police guard in every school in America.[6] They seem to be the only ones taking themselves seriously.[7]) Continue reading

“Treating” homosexuality in minors: Protected free speech or child abuse?

By Brian D. Earp

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“Treating” homosexuality in minors: Protected free speech or child abuse?

Should mental health providers be allowed to try to “cure” minors of their homosexuality?

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The ethics of a chemical break-up


Forthcoming talk: If I could just stop loving you: Anti-love biotechnology and the ethics of a chemical break-up

Date & Time: 30th Nov 2012 4:00pm-5:30pm

Abstract:  “Love hurts” – as the saying goes – and a certain degree of pain and difficulty in intimate relationships is unavoidable. Sometimes it may even be beneficial, since, as it is often argued, some types (and amounts) of suffering can lead to personal growth, self-discovery, and a range of other essential components of a life well-lived. But other times, love is downright dangerous. Either it can trap a person in a cycle of violence, as in some domestic abuse cases, or it can prevent a person from moving on with her life or forming healthier relationships. There other cases of problematic love as well:

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When the science of sexuality meets the politics of gay rights

By Brian Earp

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Gay genes and gay rights: On the science and politics of sexuality

If homosexuality has a genetic basis, and if gay sex produces no offspring, why hasn’t the culling force of natural selection bred it right out of the species? Neuroscientist Simon LeVay has recently taken to the electronic pages of the Huffington Post to tout his latest book and offer a few hypotheses.

In light of the article’s popularity, Professor LeVay was asked to join a panel of speakers to discuss not only the genetics of sexual preference, but also the social and political implications of such research. Since I had written on this topic on the Practical Ethics blog, I was invited to take part as well.

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Religious vs. secular ethics and a note about respect

By Brian Earp

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This is a rough draft of a lecture delivered on October 1st, 2012, at the 12th Annual International Symposium on Law, Genital Autonomy, and Children’s Rights (Helsinki, Finland). It will appear in a revised form—as a completed paper—at a later date. If you quote or use any part of this post, please include the following citation and notice:

Earp, B. D. (forthcoming, pre-publication draft). Assessing a religious practice from secular-ethical grounds: Competing meta-ethics in the circumcision debate, and a note about respect. To appear in: Proceedings of the 12th Annual International Symposium on Law, Genital Autonomy, and Children’s Rights, published by Springer. * Note, this is not the finished version of this document, and changes may be made before final publication.

* * * * * *

Hello. My name is Brian Earp; I am a Research Associate [Editor’s note: now Research Fellow] in the philosophy department at the University of Oxford, and I conduct research in practical ethics and medical ethics, among some other topics. As you saw from the program, my topic today is the ethics of infant male circumcision—specifically as it is performed for religious reasons.

I should begin by saying that in debates on this topic, I’ve noticed that there is sometimes a very serious reluctance to address the issue of religious motivation directly. And this is true even among those who are otherwise outspoken in their opposition to circumcision on other grounds. For example, in 2007, Harry Meislahn of the Illinois chapter of NOCIRC—a prominent anti-circumcision organization—was asked if he would argue that Jews should discontinue circumcising their babies, along with secular or non-religiously-motivated parents who might be doing it out of a sense of cultural habit, or because they thought it could be good for the baby’s health. He replied: “No. I don’t prescribe for Jews, at all. This is an absolute loser. I’m not Jewish. … I withdraw from this field because it generates lots of heat [and] very little light” (quoted in Ungar-Sargon, 2007).

(He went on to say, however: “I would maintain that a Jewish baby feels pain just as a non-Jewish baby feels pain, and there are Jewish men, just like non-Jewish men, who are real angry that this was done to them.”)

The philosopher Iain Brassington has recently expressed a similar concern. On the Journal of Medical Ethics blog, he wrote: “Though I [have] mentioned the [recent] decision of the German court that ritual circumcision constituted assault, I’ve wanted to stay clear of saying more about it [because] it seemed too potentially toxic” (Brassington, 2012, para. 2)[1]. To give another example, the bioethicist Dan O’Connor from Johns Hopkins University—in an article entitled “A Piece I Really Didn’t Want to Write on Circumcision”—has recently said that: “when [a reporter] calls my work and ask[s] if there is a bioethicist in the house who will give the anti-circumcision viewpoint, I beg off.  … I would be a terrible interviewee anyway, [since I would have to preface] my every argument against circumcision with rambling spiels about what loving and caring parents my [Jewish] friends are” (O’Connor, 2012, para. 10).

Finally, as a philosopher colleague of mine wrote to me in a recent email: “To be honest with you, I am strongly anti-circumcision. The reason I don’t [write papers on the topic] is that I have a large number of circumcised Jewish … friends who I think would be offended if they found out [about my views]” (personal communication, May 17, 2012).

Like all of the individuals I have just mentioned, I find myself in the position of being largely skeptical about the moral permissibility of ritual circumcision—for reasons I will give in just a moment—and yet I am well aware that since I myself am neither Jewish nor Muslim, I have an especially good chance of offending someone who is when I subject the practice to critical scrutiny. This chance is, of course, magnified by the fact that circumcision is seen by some as being a central, or even obligatory, ritual in each of these religions. And just like the bioethicist Dan O’Connor and the philosopher-colleague whose email I quoted above, this potential for causing offense extends to many of my closest friends, to colleagues of mine, and to a pretty wide range of people I have no particular interest in irritating.

So perhaps there is a reason to hesitate. Because religious convictions are a deep, and certainly emotionally-charged, aspect of the lives of so many, attempts to question a religiously-motivated practice—especially by one who is not religious, or differently religious—can lead to outcomes that are very far from productive. To illustrate, here is a quote from a comment I received on my Facebook page in response to a post I published on this topic in 2011:

Sorry Brian, you’re entitled to your non-Jewish opinion, but we’ve been doing very nicely for 5,771 years with this ancient tradition of our people. And I don’t even know who the hell you are, but this kind of nonsense just pisses me off. (quoted in Earp, 2011).

So, as I say, sometimes the conversation doesn’t turn out to be as productive as I’d hoped. Part of what I think is going on here, is that we have an unwritten rule in polite society that says that certain ideas or practices are out of bounds for critical discussion. The English humorist Douglas Adams made a similar point in a speech he gave in Cambridge in 1998. Talking about religious customs specifically, he said:

Here is an idea or a notion that you’re not allowed to say anything bad about; you’re just not. Why not? — because you’re not!’ If somebody votes for a party that you don’t agree with, you’re free to argue about it as much as you like; everybody will have an argument but nobody feels aggrieved by it. If somebody thinks taxes should go up or down you are free to have an argument about [that], but on the other hand if somebody says ‘I mustn’t move a light switch on a Saturday’, you say, ‘Fine, I respect that’. (Adams, 1998)

Now, obviously I don’t have any arguments about whether—or when—it’s OK to use a light switch. I do want to focus, however, on this idea about respect. I don’t think it actually is showing respect to anyone to give an automatic pass to anything she says or does just because it might have to do with her religious practice. I think that sort of avoidance has much more to do with fear than with respect—fear that you might upset the person, or fear that you might sound stupid for not knowing more about the custom, or fear that the conversation might turn out to be awkward, or whatever the fear might be.

Respect, it seems to me, is very different from this. Respect has to do with taking certain positive things for granted. In my own experience, for example, I sometimes talk with my Jewish and Muslim friends about my views on the ethics of circumcision. Some of these friends are in agreement with me that ritual circumcision may be, at the very least, morally suspicious; but others hold a different view. Whatever their perspective, however, I respect these friends enough to know that they’ll listen to my arguments with an open mind, really consider what I’m saying, and engage in debate productively. And most of the time, to be sure, they respect me enough to know that I’ll extend them the same courtesy, which I will. Respect is not about avoidance, then, at least in my opinion. It is about the opposite of avoidance—it is about engagement, conversation, communication—so long as these are done in a fair-minded and well-intended way.

I also think that there is something potentially very condescending about the idea that someone’s feelings—religious or otherwise—might be so fragile and irrational that instead of just saying what you really believe, and having an honest conversation about it, you should tiptoe around, and blush, and make excuses, and pretend that you don’t mean what you mean or think what you think. That doesn’t seem like real respect either—and I think my religious friends would be quite rightly insulted if they thought that I was operating out of this kind of mindset when I talked with them about their beliefs and practices.

So, having said all that, in what follows, I am simply going to trust that I can engage directly with the ethical arguments for and against religiously-motivated circumcision, without having to hedge or qualify, or worry about whether I might offend someone for whom this practice is seen as being too sacred to talk about. People are free to disagree with me, of course, and I will be happy to take on board any constructive criticism they may have to offer. I am open to changing my views. But I do want to spend the rest of my time dealing directly with the arguments.

I will start with an argument against religiously-motivated circumcision, and then I will consider some common objections.

The premise of my argument is this. As a rule, it should be considered morally impermissible to sever healthy, functional tissue from another person’s body—perhaps especially if the tissue cannot “grow back,” and even moreso if it comes from the person’s genitals—without first asking for, and then actually receiving, that person’s informed permission.

Now, ordinarily, and with respect to almost every case we could imagine, this would count as a foundational ethical principle. It does presume that the individual is an appropriate unit for moral analysis; it does presume that individuals have certain rights, among which is the right to bodily integrity; and it does presume that the infringement of that right can only be permitted under conditions of informed consent (or in circumstances like a medical emergency).

Of course, someone could question or even deny any one of those presumptions, but then they would have to come up with a better way to ground their own moral theories that didn’t inadvertently create a justification for having parts of their body cut off without their permission. I’m not saying this is impossible, but it’s something to look out for. And actually, I think there is a competing meta-ethic hidden within religious defenses of circumcision—and it’s one that downplays the relevance of the individual, and specifically the individual as a child, to independent moral consideration—but I will come onto that point a little bit later on.

For now, let us assume that the ethical premise I’ve given is a reasonable one, and let’s take it for granted to see what follows. Well, since ritual circumcision involves the removal of healthy, functional, erogenous tissue from the genitals of a newborn or young child, and since babies and young children are incapable of giving meaningful consent to such a procedure, our principle is obviously violated, and therefore circumcision is unethical on this theory.

Now, this is not just abstract philosophy. As most of us know, a recent decision by a German court in Cologne—which said that ritual circumcision is a form of assault—relied on ethical reasoning very similar to what I have just laid out. And as we also know, this conclusion was not very readily accepted by a large number of religious leaders within Judaism and Islam, and even within some corners of Christianity. This last part should be a little surprising, of course, since the founder of Christianity—Paul (or Saul) of Tarsus—was explicitly and even energetically opposed to the practice of circumcision, as he made very clear in his letters to the earliest Christian churches. And, as Sami Aldeeb pointed out in his speech yesterday (see Aldeeb, 2012), this was the official church position for a pretty long time.

But, leaving that aside, what this reaction to the Cologne decision means is that we can look at some objections to the argument I have given that are not just hypothetical, but that have actually been given—and very recently—as serious attempts to defend ritual circumcision against the charge that it is an unethical practice. And I would like to consider a few of these objections one at a time.

The first objection is that religious circumcision is an ancient tradition, and one that is felt to be very important to the practice of Judaism or Islam. For example, Dieter Graumann, the president of the German Central Council of Jews, has said, “Circumcision of newborn boys is a fixed part of the Jewish religion and has been practiced … for centuries” (quoted in Hall, 2012). He then went on to criticize the Cologne ruling as being “outrageous” and “insensitive.” An Islamic representative, Ali Demir, made a similar point: “this is a … procedure,” he said, “with thousands of years of tradition behind it and [a] high symbolic value” (ibid.).

Now, as I was preparing this talk, I wondered about whether I should count these sorts of statements as being actual “objections” to the ethical case made by the German court. Seemingly, it should go without saying that something’s having been done for a long time does not in any way amount to an argument for its moral permissibility. The thing might actually be morally permissible, of course, but this just wouldn’t be the way to show it. The more I thought about it, however, the more I came to believe that I couldn’t just pass over the “ancient tradition” argument as a sort of a straw man. This is because this exact line of reasoning has been repeatedly cited in recent weeks, by a number of influential religious leaders, in a seemingly sincere attempt to shape public discussion on this topic. So I need to spend a little bit of time responding to this view, with what would otherwise be a statement of the obvious:

Many practices that are now regarded as being very clearly unethical had been going on for an extremely long time before anyone had the idea to question them. Examples include slavery, footbinding, the cutting of female genitals, and beating disobedient children with sticks. Usually these practices persisted without much alarm for one of two reasons. Either the moral standards that they would eventually be seen as violating had not yet had been developed, or those standards did exist for other cases but just weren’t commonly seen as applying to the practice itself until enough people sat down and made the connection. I think what’s happening right now with circumcision is not so much the first of these, but more the second. In other words, the relevant ethical principles—about bodily integrity, consent, protecting the vulnerable in society, and so on—have been available to us for quite some time now. It’s just that we’re so used to circumcision as a cultural habit, that many people fail to see how patently inconsistent this practice is with the rest of their own moral landscape.

My colleague Anders Sandberg has given an argument for this view that I think is worth considering in a little bit of detail. He writes:

It is interesting to consider a fictional case: suppose I come up with a religion that claims [that] male nipples are bad, and should be removed in infancy in order to prevent various spiritual and medical maladies, as well as showing faith. I have no doubt that getting this new practice approved anywhere would be very hard, no matter how much I and my adherents argued that it was a vital part of our religion. No doubt arguments about unnecessary mutilation and infringement of children’s self determination would be made, and most would find them entirely unobjectionable. If my religion joined the chorus of religious critics to the German decision it is likely that the others would not appreciate our support: after all, they do not want approval for all religious surgery, just a particular one. And nobody likes to be supported by an embarrassing supporter.

But this seems to suggest that what is really is going on is [a] status quo bias and [something about] the social capital of religions. We are used to circumcision in Western culture, so it is largely accepted. It is very similar to how certain drugs are regarded as criminal and worth fighting, yet other drugs like alcohol are merely problems: policy is set, not based on actual harms, but … on a social acceptability scale and who has institutional power. This all makes perfect sense sociologically, but it is bad ethics. (Sandberg, 2012)

Now, I don’t think that Anders’ scenario is completely water-tight, and I don’t think that a theologically sophisticated religious person would find the “male nipples” example to be an appropriate or a complete analogy. But I do think that Anders is onto something when he suggests that if the “ancient tradition” objection does carry any weight in this conversation, it is for sociological reasons rather than ethical ones. In fact, I don’t see that this objection does any argumentative work for the defender of religious circumcision: It might work as a rhetorical strategy to affirm the social capital of his religion, but it isn’t an argument.

OK, I would like to move on to a second objection that I have heard a number of times in response to the Cologne decision, and one that is potentially a little harder to deal with. This objection is that circumcision is divinely mandated and hence obligatory for religious Jews and, according to some interpretations, maybe Muslims as well. In Judaism, as we all know, the mandate is even specific about the exact timing of the procedure: according to the book of Genesis, the baby’s foreskin must be removed on the eighth day after birth. And this timing is, according to a number of vocal religious commentators, quote, “non-negotiable.”

I want to start with this idea about non-negotiability. My first question is, according to whom? Certainly people like Dieter Graumann, the president of the German Central Council of Jews I mentioned before, has repeated this claim (see, e.g., Gedalyahu, 2012). And so have a number of influential, usually conservative or Orthodox Jews, some of whom have been saying some very authoritative-sounding things on behalf of, quote, “the Jewish people” (see, e.g., Harkov, 2012). But this seems to me to be somewhat disingenuous. As anyone who knows any actual Jewish people can attest, “the Jewish people” is not a collection of uncritical sheep who all think the same thing. “The Jewish people” do not uniformly adhere to the exact same theology. And, specifically, “the Jewish people” includes a large and growing number of individuals—including, in my view, individuals with exceptional moral insight—who simply do not believe that circumcision is a “non-negotiable” component of their religion (e.g., Goldman, 1998; Goodman, 1999; Glick, 2001; Milgrom, 2012; Pollack, 2013; Sadeh, 2013; Ben Yami, 2013; Ungar-Sargon, 2013; Steinfeld, 2013)[2]. I suppose someone could argue that certain conservative representatives within Judaism are theologically correct, and everyone else is deluded, but that would take a lot of time and energy and it would be an argument that would probably fail to convince anyone who didn’t already hold that view. Also, it would be much harder to express as a simple axiom, which is what the newspapers seem to appreciate. So instead we are confronted with a string of public declarations that make it sound like Judaism a monolith and that there are no meaningful debates to be had about the religious requirements implied by certain passages within the Torah.

Another point is this—and, again, I wish I were attacking a straw man here, but based on the mainstream, public debate I have seen going on in the last few weeks, I feel that some very basic points about the philosophy of religion need to be brought up as reminders. First, even though a person or a group of people may sincerely believe that a given practice is divinely mandated, it doesn’t necessarily follow that it is divinely mandated. Second, even if something really is divinely mandated, it doesn’t necessarily follow that it is non-negotiable. Third, even if something is felt to be non-negotiable, it doesn’t necessarily follow that it is morally permissible. And this brings us very quickly to the classic dilemma about what you’re supposed to do when God tells you to do something unethical.

We all know the puzzle about Abraham and Isaac: God tells Abraham that he must sacrifice his son. So what should Abraham do? There are a couple of well-known possibilities in logical space here. One option is that Abraham should assume that he’s misunderstood something. Since killing innocent children is unethical, and since God is a morally perfect being, God must not really have said that. Another option is that he starts to wonder if maybe he wasn’t really talking with God after all, but maybe it was Satan, or maybe just a voice in his own head. Or he can conclude that God is not as morally developed he used to think, or is even a source of evil. Whichever way he chooses to go, the correct answer from an ethical perspective is: No, I will not kill my son.

Obviously a lot of people have looked at this case over the centuries, and I’m not the first one to give the analysis you just heard. As a number of commentators have noticed, there is a pretty big conflict in this story between the requirements of morality and the requirements of the divine mandate. Kierkegaard (1843) thought he could solve the puzzle by talking about the “teleological suspension of the ethical.” This is the idea that we should use our faith to rise above mere ethics and morality and enter into a higher, and more absolute relationship with the divine. Now I think that this is a very dangerous thing to propose. And I think it has real consequences, one of which is that the religiously-motivated suspension of morality has been a source of a lot of suffering, for a lot of people—including marginalized and vulnerable people—for a very long time.

But my sense, in fact, is that the large majority of contemporary religious believers don’t actually do this. What I mean is, when something is felt to be unethical, what they actually do is one of two things. Either they revise their understanding of what is divinely required in the first place; or else they engage in some very complicated psychological maneuvers—many of them unconscious—that lead them to conclude that the thing must not be unethical after all, even though it really looks like it is from every other perspective. So for circumcision, for example, they might downplay the harms, risks, and drawbacks of the procedure; or they might use euphemisms like “snip” or “flap of skin” when they talk about what it is that is being cut off; or they might emphasize the postulated health benefits (while ignoring disputes over their scientific credibility); or they might exaggerate the differences with female genital cutting, or exaggerate the similarities to vaccination, or whatever: a whole range of strategies that make it seem like circumcision isn’t so bad to begin with.

I have seen one major exception to this approach, however. And this comes from an interview conducted by the filmmaker Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon (see Ungar-Sargon, 2007). The clip starts with an Orthodox Rabbi named Hershy Worch talking about circumcision. He says:

It’s painful, it’s abusive. It’s traumatic, and if anybody who’s not in a covenant [with God] does it, I think they should be put in prison. I don’t think anybody has an excuse for mutilating a child. … Depriving them of [part of their] penis. We don’t have rights to other people’s bodies, and a baby needs to have its rights protected. I think anybody who circumcises a baby is an abuser, unless it’s absolutely medically advised. Otherwise – what for … ?

After a moment of what I interpreted as stunned silence, you can hear Eliyahu ask a pertinent question:

How does this covenant alleviate your ethical responsibility that you just so articulately posed? How is it that being in this covenant exempts you from that term … How can you not call yourself an abuser?

The Rabbi actually cuts him off and says:

I’m an abuser! I do abusive things because I am in covenant with God. And ultimately God owns my morals, he owns my body, he owns my past and future, and that’s the meaning of this covenant – that I agreed to ignore the pain and the rights and the trauma of my child to be in this covenant.

Now, I must tell you that—in an important sense—I have a lot of respect for this Rabbi. I think that his statements reach a level of honesty, and accuracy, and even Kierkegaardian philosophical consistency, that has otherwise been lacking from the public conversation on this issue. Here is someone who acknowledges, without hedging or qualification, that he is mutilating the penis of an infant. But he doesn’t take this knowledge as an excuse to go back to his scripture and re-interpret the original commandment, nor does he allow himself to believe that circumcision is a harmless little snip. He just doesn’t resolve the dissonance. Instead, he takes responsibility for his religious commitments, as well as for his behavior—and I think that in doing this, he gives us a rare and unmediated example of the power of religious belief to justify (what the Rabbi himself acknowledges is) the painful assault of a child.

So what should we do with this? I started with the idea that it should be considered morally impermissible to remove healthy, functional tissue from another person’s body without obtaining that person’s permission. And since circumcision violates that rule, I said it was unethical. Then I tried to show that the “ancient tradition” objection doesn’t get us off the hook, nor do the points about circumcision’s being divinely mandated or non-negotiable. So at this point, it seemed like we should be able to stick, at least provisionally, with the conclusion that circumcision is indeed a morally impermissible act.

But now we have something different. Now we have this idea to think about that maybe there’s something bigger than ethics – something like this direct relationship to the divine.

I said at the beginning that I thought there was a hidden meta-ethic behind religious defenses of circumcision, and I think that now we’re beginning to see what it might be. I think it’s this idea that an individual human being, such as a child, is not really the ultimate object of moral analysis. Instead there are other obligations, obligations that come from a community identity, from concern about historical continuity, or ritual continuity; obligations that come from a special covenant between a god and a group of people. And the effect of all this is that the individual child becomes a sort of non-entity. His body becomes not his body. His pain becomes an instrument in fulfilling a higher purpose.

And so, I think before we can get anywhere in this discussion, we are going to have to acknowledge that that is a very different meta-ethic. I think we have to acknowledge that certain religious commitments are based on a particular view of the universe, and that this view is in direct conflict with a “Western” moral focus on: individuals, on human rights adhering to those individuals as individuals, and on the notion that children and infants, above all, need special protection because they can’t defend those rights on their own.

I don’t have a good answer to this conflict. Obviously one can, in theory, adopt any meta-ethical view under the sun. One can adopt a view that says that parts of children’s bodies may be removed without their consent, if that is what a god requires; or one that says that animals should be set on fire and burnt at the altar (again, if that is what a god requires); or one that says that sparing the rod will spoil the child; or that our daughters should be stoned to death if they disobey, or whatever we want. All of these views are logically possible, and many of them are historically accurate. Many of them find direct textual support as well in the holy books of major religions.

But that isn’t how we tend to think about things in modern, Western societies; and it isn’t how we’ve set up our laws. We have a different sort of worldview that we use to make sense of concepts like individual rights, including the right to bodily integrity. So the idea I want to leave you with is this. If we think that there is any chance that we should give up these basic concepts—so that we can defer to a worldview that says that things like community identity are more important than individual identity (and the right to decide what happens to one’s own flesh)—then we’ll have to pay the price of that choice and face it honestly. And that means that the very same individuals who are asking for the religious freedom to perform circumcisions in a secular society, might have to be prepared to give up their own right to complain if someone wanted to cut off a part of their body, or interfere with their genitals without their consent. That is, as I say, a logically possible universe. But it isn’t one that I would want to live in, and I am not convinced that you can have it both ways.



Adams, D. (1998). Is there an artificial god? Digital Biota 2. Lecture conducted from the University of Cambridge, Cambridge, UK. Available at:

Aldeeb, S. (2012). Islamic concept of law and its impact on physical integrity: comparative study with Judaism and Christianity. 12th Annual Symposium on the Law, Genital Autonomy, and Children’s Rights. Lecture conducted from Helsinki, Finland. Text available at:

Ben-Yami, H. (2013). Circumcision: What should be done?. Journal of Medical Ethics, 39(7), 459-462.

Brassington, I. (2012, July 17). More on circumcision in Germany. Journal of Medical Ethics blog. Available at:

Earp, B. D. (2011, August 26). On the ethics of non-therapeutic circumcision of minors, with a post script on the law. Practical Ethics (University of Oxford blog). Available at:

Gedalyahu, T. (2012, July 3). Berlin hospital suspends circumcisions. Israel National News. Available at:

Glick, L. B. (2001). Jewish Circumcision. In Understanding Circumcision (pp. 19-54). Springer US.

Goldman, R. (1998). Questioning circumcision: A Jewish perspective. Boston: Vanguard publications.

Goodman, J. (1999). Jewish circumcision: an alternative perspective. BJU international, 83(S1), 22-27.

Hall, A. (2012, June 27). Religious groups outraged after German court rules circumcision amounts to ‘bodily harm.’ Daily Mail Online. Available at:

Harkov, L. (2012, August 22). German rabbi circumcision case sparks outrage. The Jerusalem Post. Available at:

Kierkegaard, S. (1843/1946). Fear and trembling. In R. Bretall (Ed.) A Kierkegaard Anthology. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Milgrom, L. (2012). Can you give me my foreskin back? Open letter to Bent Lexner, Chief Rabbi of Denmark. Originally published as ‘Kan du give mig min forhud tilbage?’ in the Danish Daily Politiken. English translation available at:

O’Connor, D. (2012, September 14). A piece I really didn’t want to write on circumcision. Available at:

Pollack, M. (2013). Circumcision: Gender and Power. In Genital Cutting: Protecting Children from Medical, Cultural, and Religious Infringements (pp. 297-305). Springer Netherlands.

Sadeh, E. (2013). Circumcision from the perspective of protecting children. Available at:

Sandberg, A. (2012, June 28). “It is interesting to consider a fictional case …” [Web log comment]. Posted to: Earp, B.D. (2012, June 28). Of faith and circumcision: Can the religious beliefs of parents justify the non-consensual cutting of their child’s genitals? Practical Ethics (University of Oxford blog). Available at:

Steinfeld, R. (2013, Noveber 26). It cuts both ways: A Jew argues for child rights over religious circumcision. Haaretz. Available at:

Ungar-Sargon, E. (Producer and Director). (2007). Cut: Slicing through the myths of circumcision [Film]. Los Angeles: White Letter Production Studios.

Ungar-Sargon, E. (2013). On the impermissibility of infant male circumcision: a response to Mazor (2013). Journal of Medical Ethics, doi:10.1136/medethics-2013-101598.


[1] Just as with Mr. Meislahn, he did nevertheless go on to say more. See:

[2] Some of these articles were published after the present lecture was delivered. They are cited here simply to give an indication of some of the most recent Jewish voices opposed to circumcision.