Relative Immorality (Part 1 of 2)

Posted: December 19, 2011 by Isaac Cross in About Me, Learn Something, Philosophy

I recently read a post in an online forum wherein a person said that female circumcision is wrong in every circumstance, including an adult female who has requested the procedure. No one really challenged him on this assertion, but several others did pipe up with various acts that they believed were “wrong” or “immoral”. So I responded with my view on the subject, which as been modified and reproduced below.

(Not that it’s relevant or necessary for this discussion, but here’s a link to the wikipedia page on female genital mutilation if you don’t know what I’m talking about and feel like learning about a disturbing practice that is primarily performed on children in third world countries.)

Fair warning: What follows is a long rant on moral relativism, a concept that many people are intensely uncomfortable with. If you can’t read and/or respond to writing on this topic without being offended and getting rude, I suggest and encourage skipping it.

(Originally posted on 12/16/11. Modified From the Original Version and Formatted to Fit Your Screen)


I have to say that I disagree with XXXXXXXXX about female circumsision being inherantly immoral.

Body modification is huge in this and many other countries. I met a man a few days ago who chose to have his penis permanently split down the middle on the lower side so that his urethra now ends closer to the base than the tip. This is a procedure that is not only legal in the US and I’ve met multiple people who have done it.

So why should that gentleman be allowed to do that and any number of other serious alterations to his body, including male circumcision, but a female doing essentially the same thing is wrong? And for that matter, why should a female be allowed to make one kind of change (like stabbing a hole through part of her face, which a majority of American females have done), but not a different kind of alteration?

Now, to be clear, I am not talking about kids. I am against any kind of optional (not medically necessary) body modification being performed on children. I even have issues with young kids having their ears pierced. But once you are an adult, I believe that you should be allowed to do anything to your body that you want to. And if a woman wants to have her clit removed, I say that’s her call. But even in the case of kids, its not that I think it “wrong”, I’m just against it and support laws that prohibit it. And that’s not the same thing.

As the President of Planned Parenthood Federation of America once put it:  “…teaching morality doesn’t mean imposing my moral values on others. It means sharing wisdom, giving reasons for believing as I do – and then trusting others to think and judge for themselves.” I love that quote.

To this end, I don’t believe that there is (or can be) anything at all that is de facto “immoral”. Just about any act or “sin” you can think of has, at some point in human history, somewhere in the world, been considered morally acceptable, or encouraged, or even required. An extreme example being the Spartans, who killed any child that did not meet their standards of fit and healthy.

Now, some people out there (and even many in the alternative sexuality communities) have strongly held religious beliefs which contribute to, if not wholly dictate, their views on morality. And that’s fine. I happen to be one who is deeply influenced by spirituality. But since there is no way to definitively demonstrate with logic or reason that any particular standards are the correct ones (if you don’t believe me, go take a series of philosophy classes) and since no single religion can even agree on the subject internally, those views should only be applied to oneself and not imposed on others.

That changes, however, when we decide to form societies and communities. At that point, we have to agree (even if not unanimously) on a set of standards that we will all be subject to if we want to be a part of that society or community, otherwise it cannot exist. This is called a social contract (great wikipedia article) and it provides the basis for any and all authority that exists in this world, whether it is your government or the owner of a nightclub. Thus, here in Colorado, murder is illegal, as it is in every other state in the USA, but killing is not.  Each state provides for circumstances when killing another person is, as far the law is concerned, justifiable. If you don’t believe me, ask any police officer, anywhere in the country where they are trained to aim when they are forced to fire on an armed criminal. They shoot to kill. But laws (at least in theory) only dictate “legal” or “illegal”, not “moral” or “immoral”. In fact, most lawmakers go out of their way to distinguish between making something illegal versus declaring it “wrong”, though not all of them do, sadly.

In the end, we ultimately consent to laws and morality and etiquette and every other type of social contract by the act of deciding where we are going to live, who we are going to associate with, and what we are going to believe about the world. Because I live here, I choose to be subject to the laws of this nation, state, county and city. Because I am a member of several organizations, I agree to their house rules. And if any of those laws or rules are hard limits for me, I’ll either leave (see Moses v Egypt) or I’ll willfully violate them and be forced to accept any consequences of that choice.

So, it’s not that I don’t think right and wrong exist. Rather, I believe that there can be no certainty on the nature of right and wrong, so it is more productive to work from a place of practicality in defining social standards, rather than morality.

That is the heart of the philosophy know as moral relativism (linked to wikipedia), which I personally subscribe to, but recognize it is only one of many ways of thinking about things.

To summarize:

1. Nothing can be established as inherently right or wrong, but…
2. By being part of a society or community, we acknowledge the existence of rules and accept the consequences of our choices
3. We can actively work to persuade others that something is  right or wrong, but we must never impose those views on others without either their consent or a clearly defined societal interest within the bounds of the authority granted to you by the governed (but even in the case of the latter, we should avoid it if we can).

For an explanation on this topic, along with some examples of how moral relativism can go wrong, see part two of this post by clicking here.

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