On female genital mutilation 2: natural law arguments

WARNING:  There’s nothing grotesque in these posts.  I’ve tried to avoid too much detail about the conjugal act, but may not have succeeded well enough for some readers.

In The City of God, Saint Augustine ponders our need for privacy during sex.  He could see nothing shameful in the conjugal act per se–in fact, he points out that men would not want others to imagine they did not have carnal knowledge of their wives, that their marriages were unconsummated and their children illegitimate.  Augustine suggests we are ashamed of the fact that our sex organs “move” without our deliberate control, an intimation of our fallen state, that by rebelling against God above us, we lost the full and rightful authority over our bodies beneath us.  In a prelapsarian state, erection and ejaculation–for example–would be as subject to a man’s rational/volitional faculties as are the movements of his fingers.  No doubt many women having difficulty achieving orgasm and many men struggling with premature ejaculation would see the attraction of this idea, but I’ve come to regard it as a “near miss”.  (I certainly don’t find Augustine’s writings on sex silly, as many of my contemporaries seem to.)  We need privacy during our sexual responses not because they are shameful (whether or not they are shameful depends on entirely separate criteria) but because they are intimate, and they are self-revealing partly because of the loss of control involved.  If a man’s ejaculation were willed, it would reveal only the decision that caused it.  If it were involuntary in the way a sneeze is–simply bypassing the conscious faculties altogether–it would reveal nothing at all.  The orgasm as we experience it in mankind’s current state is something we do not directly control, but is something that follows upon a definite sensory and mental state.  Only the man must climax for reproduction to occur, but both male and female orgasm are conducive to intimacy and thus to one of the natural goods of married life.  Thus, even apart from the fact that the woman’s body is designed to enjoy sex, we can tie this to an intelligible good of human nature.

What about the concern that the way women experience sexual excitement is unfeminine or otherwise defective?  First of all, it’s clearly not true that women’s sexuality is the same as men’s except with the nerve endings in the wrong place.  That sexologists could make such a commotion about discovering the importance of the clitoris proves it.  No man ever needed to be told where he can feel sexual pleasure or how to masturbate.  Women’s sexual response is clearly more diffuse than men’s, presumably because the clitoris is mostly internal.  We men are more given to specialization, so it is fitting that for us sexual stimulation entirely concerns the penis.  It is appropriately feminine that women are not like this, but experience things more holistically.  One can even see some appropriateness in the fact that female orgasm takes more time and effort from her husband, that she must be carried across the threshold, as it were, of sexual release.

We have undertaken what may seem an excessive amount of effort to argue against something we knew from the first was wrong and grotesque.  Perhaps Dr. Cocks was wise to establish the wickedness of FGM briefly and then move on to the more important question of why students wed themselves to a worldview that would countenance such abominations.  (Then again, we only have the summary of his argument.  Maybe he did spend a lot of time arguing against genital mutilation before turning his guns to cultural relativism.)  However, I’d like to make two wider points.  First, it is intellectually defensible for traditionalists to criticize other peoples’ established customs.  However, we must be very careful in doing so.  We must be sure not to give any ammunition to the common enemies of all traditional peoples.  (This was my criticism of Professor Cocks’ arguments against the burka.)  Second, we get an idea of how natural law arguments against mutilation might go generally.  One shows how a given alteration of the body impedes either functionality (related to some objective good of human flourishing) or symbolism.  Thus, we can see–even aside from issues of safety and coercion–why female genital mutilation is unacceptable while male circumcision and earrings are unproblematic.

35 Responses

  1. What are the natural law arguments that makes circumcision ok? Since it was commanded by God to the Ancient Israelites, it must be morally permissible. But I’ve never heard the arguments.

  2. So, are any body alterations ok, so long as they don’t impede some natural function of the body?

  3. Also, I have been wondering about body modifications that enhance some bodily functions. Are cyborgs ok?

  4. When I was I kid, I collected Justice League of America action figures. I wanted Cyborg so badly, but no store seemed to have him. I guess that prejudices me.

  5. Bonald, I enjoyed both parts of this post a lot, thanks for writing it.

  6. I’m not sure about the argument from repugnance. I’m becoming more intellectually sympathetic to the Catholic argument against contraception, but I have never in my life felt the slightest amount of disgust or even mild discomfort with the idea of birth control. That, plus the absence of any clear statement on the issue in the Bible, made me happy enough in the past to accept the general position among Protestants.

  7. I’m not sure about the argument from repugnance

    I think it was Haidt who argued that a lot of natural morality comes from the sense of disgust.

  8. manwhoisthursday,

    “but I have never in my life felt the slightest amount of disgust or even mild discomfort with the idea of birth control”

    I think one of the more evil aspects of the pill is its ability to make contraception an out-of-sight out-of-mind non-issue, while giving married couples the illusion of having normal natural sex. Prior to the pill, one common method of contraception was the withdrawal method. I don’t know for sure, but I would think that in more sane times such an action as withdrawal would be viewed as filthy – or at least the action put on full display in a most dramatic way how the couple viewed their sexual acts. I wonder if that was an emotional burden to those couples living prior to the “sexual revolution” that served as a natural barrier against contraception.

  9. I expect that the disgust arrow actually points the other way: veridical perception of evil leads to revulsion. It seems fairly obvious though that what subjectively repulses and attracts various people is easily distorted.

    If objective evil doesn’t repulse you, or if resistance of objective evil repulses you, the problem is you.

  10. I expect that the disgust arrow actually points the other way: veridical perception of evil leads to revulsion.

    Maybe it should work that way, but back in reality I don’t think it actually works that way.

  11. such an action as withdrawal would be viewed as filthy

    Even if done in accordance with Catholic teaching, sex almost inevitably involves significant amounts of bodily fluids escaping everywhere.

  12. manwhoisthursday,

    I took it as uncontroversial that the withdrawal method is recognizably different, disruptive, and appalling in a manner than natural, normal sex is not.

    That the “uncontroversial” part of the above is under debate likely just lends further strength to Zippy’s point.

  13. One of the problems with Zippy’s account is that there are actually some things that are reliably disgusting to most people across time and culture. But withdrawal is not one of them. It wasn’t even considered widely disgusting in premodern times. Some premodern religions recommend it.

  14. manwhoisthursday,

    The fact that child sacrifice, excuse me, withdrawal was “recommended” by premodern religions is about as irrelevant to my original point as it gets.

  15. One of the things that is being born out by scientific literature is that disgust sensitivity varies among individuals. Puritans tend to have very low disgust thresholds.

  16. Wood:

    On its own perhaps not. But in the context of hardly anybody outside of one particular religious tradition ever finding it particularly disgusting (something that definitely can’t be said about child sacrifice) it’s relevant.

    This failure is also especially troublesome because the prohibition against all contraception is supposed to be based on natural law, which should be available to all.

  17. disgust sensitivity varies among individuals

    Irrelevant. Weirdos and perverts have always existed.

  18. BTW, none of this invalidates the arguments against contraception. It only shows that contraception, including withdrawal, has not widely been considered disgusting, even among premodern cultures.

  19. manwhoisthursday,

    I’d almost be willing to place a wager on a numbers game of premodern religions who recommended withdrawal versus recommended child sacrifice.

    At any rate, the prohibition against contraception is most certainly based in natural law, and – as you say – the natural law *should be* available to us all. But the Church has long recognized that such law is best understood “as illuminated and enriched by divine Revelation.” That “hardly anybody outside of one particular religious tradition” is in 2016 still, however feebly, proclaiming contraception to be gravely sinful might also be one of those arrow point type things.

  20. I’d almost be willing to place a wager on a numbers game of premodern religions who recommended withdrawal versus recommended child sacrifice.

    Stop being a twit. Lots of premoderns from lots of places found the idea of child sacrifice abhorrent.

    That “hardly anybody outside of one particular religious tradition” is in 2016 still, however feebly, proclaiming contraception to be gravely sinful might also be one of those arrow point type things.

    It’s not just 2016 that is at issue, but all of human history.

  21. I don’t believe I’ve said anything that relies on an argument from disgust.

  22. manwhoisthursday,

    Friend, I didn’t say abhorrent. I specifically said “recommended,” using your own words that you tossed out as an earlier criticism – a criticism that I was “ALMOST willing to place a wager” on its being historically inaccurate . If you need to survey “all of human history” to come to terms with the natural law – in a manner the Catholic Church has never recommended – in order for you to embrace the Church, I’m afraid you will be searching in vain. But since we’re in the arena of name calling I’ll bow out. I hope you continue to search out the Catholic Faith. My own search was quite tedious and painful at one point.

  23. I’d also point out that there are other examples of sexual sins that haven’t aroused much disgust anywhere: one would be lesbianism.

  24. I don’t believe I’ve said anything that relies on an argument from disgust.

    The quote I was thinking of was this:

    “Yet, most of us would recoil at even chosen, safe, painless genital mutilation.”

    Apologies, if I’ve misinterpreted you.

  25. Bonald,

    You didn’t, and I apologize for my tangent. Many people do see the natural law in terms of manifest right or wrong. And if it’s not manifest to all humans of all times (and I think thats where the “disgust” part came in), then it must not be based upon the natural law. Its a way of making subjective the natural law. I apologize for derailing the OP.

  26. if it’s not manifest to all humans of all times . . ., then it must not be based upon the natural law

    This is a straw man. The question is what happens when hardly anybody in any society seems to have a moral intuition that something is wrong. As Bonald stated, people have tended to recoil more at FGM than at circumcision or earrings, which may be an indication that it is more morally problematic, though there are counter-examples, like lesbianism or, perhaps, contraception, where something immoral arouses hardly any recoil anywhere.

  27. Wood:

    The position is even more shallow and solipsistic than you propose. It goes “I don’t find sodomy or usury (or insert some other sin that cries to heaven for vengeance) repugnant; therefore it isn’t.”

    Again: if you fail to find an objectively execrable sin repugnant that indicates a problem with you; it doesn’t call into question the repugnance of the sin.

  28. In other words, if you find yourself saying to yourself “but I don’t find usury repugnant” the next step should be to ask yourself “what is wrong with me?” If you are asking or saying something other than that, you are deceiving yourself.

  29. Again: if you fail to find an objectively execrable sin repugnant that indicates a problem with you; it doesn’t call into question the repugnance of the sin.

    Maybe the question should be whether repugnance is necessary for moral judgment.

  30. I’ll restate the point I made in my first comment in this thread.

    Repugnance is not precedent to, but rather is a product, of moral judgment. Failure to detest (a particular) sin reflects deficient moral judgment. (Detesting what is good – which includes detesting veridical moral judgement and veridical disgust arising from it – also reflects deficient moral judgement.)

    Deficient moral judgment produces a deficient spectrum of disgust. Cart, meet horse.

  31. Repugnance is not precedent to, but rather is a product, of moral judgment.

    And, as I said before, in the real world it tends not to work that way. Trying to gin up disgust for something you don’t feel disgust for doesn’t seem helpful in any way.

    Focus on subjective feelings rather than objective criteria is what got us into this mess in the first place.

    Furthermore, there is more than one way to skin the cat. Most of what motivates us should be love of the ideal, rather than repugnance at deficient. Focusing mainly on the latter tends to leave one nasty, cramped, mean and uncharitable.

  32. manwhoisthursday:
    Whatever may be the case about moral disgust, your combination of false dichotomy with ad hominem does say something about discussing the subject with you.

  33. I’ve been having trouble understanding why Zippy is so concerned over what we feel disgust over. May I suggest that the “moral disgust” he’s talking about is different from regular disgust that the rest of us have been thinking about? Disgust in the normal sense of the word is a different affective response than moral revulsion. There’s nothing immoral about worms, for example. We’re certainly not obliged to feel that coitus interruptus, lesbianism, or anything else are yucky. On the other hand, a perfectly chaste person should have sufficiently internalized the moral law that it these things prompt some sort of affective as well as intellectual disapproval.

    Like many of my contemporaries, I don’t feel any particular affective revulsion for unnatural sex acts. This is obviously linked to a defect of chastity on my part and the reason I have so much trouble avoiding these sins. On the other hand, I do have a strong repugnance for adultery. I can find women other than my wife attractive, and the idea of sleeping with them isn’t yucky like the idea of eating worms, but I do experience an instinctive repulsion from such an action. I know that contraception devalues sex, but with adultery I can feel it. I’m probably pretty secure against temptations in this area, at least much more so than if all I had was intellectual assent to the rule and a naked will to obey.

  34. Bonald:
    I suppose it is possible that there is an amoral (or purely subjective, that is, purely a matter of taste) kind of repugnance. But I am always a little reluctant to grant pure subjectivity like that, even in aesthetic matters. The beautiful is a transcendental as much as the good and the true. I expect that an active desire on the part of a human being to eat worms over bread or meat manifests an objective (though not necessarily moral) deficiency of some kind. Eating locusts is an ascetic practice for a reason. I am virtually certain that failure to be repelled by execrable grave matter is itself a defect (not one to which I claim personal immunity, mind you).

  35. I’ve always taken the relative difficulty of female orgasm, by way of the apparently suboptimal placement of the clitoris, to be the way nature navigated between the malaptive extremes of zero female sexual pleasure (which prevents procreation), and extremely easy female sexual pleasure (which prevents any man from taking her as his wife). Since there is a range of ease of orgasm among women, it is certainly possible that some subset of women, some nationality for example, experience such great pleasure from sex that they tend to be unsuitable (i.e., untrustworthy) wives. If so, it is possible that some artificial diminution of sexual functionality might be socially beneficial. (Cf. Mick Jagger’s possibly inexpert thoughts on the subject in “Some Girls”.)

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