Bryan Caplan  

Chabon's Unkindest Cut

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I strongly oppose circumcision.  In fact, I can't think of a good reason why we shouldn't punish it as child abuse. 

Whether or not you agree with my conclusion, I think it's hard to deny the following claim: Unless you have a good reason for circumcision, it is child abuse.  Cutting off a baby's healthy body parts might be justified in some situations, but justification is a must.

Most parents who circumcise their kids think they do have a justification.  Maybe they're right, though I severely doubt it.  It was only when I was reading Michael Chabon's latest, Manhood for Amateurs, that I saw the face of evil: A father who admitted that he had no good reason to circumcise his sons, but did it anyway.

Chabon rejects the religious reasons:
That is not an argument that holds a lot of water with me.  I have confused ideas of deity, heavily influenced by mind-altering years of reading science fiction, that do not often trouble me, but one thing I know for certain, and have known since the age of five or six, is that I really can't stand the God of Abraham.
He's not convinced by the "He ought to match is big brother" argument:
None of their other parts have to match.  They could have different eye color, different hair, different noses, differently shaped heads.
He's not convinced by the rest either:
We had been through all of the standard arguments - hygiene, cancer prevention, psychological fitness, the Zero Mostel tradition - the first time around, with our oldest son, and found that they are all debatable at best, while there is plenty of convincing evidence that sexual pleasure is considerably diminished by the absence of a foreskin.
Chabon bypasses that big downside with a wry sci-fi reference:
But I never know how to think about that one.  It is like in A Princess of Mars, in which we are informed that on the red planet Barsoom they have nine colors in their spectrum and not seven; I have tried and failed many times to imagine those extra Barsoomian colors.
He does not reject the analogy to female circumcision:
"It's not one bit less barbaric than what they do over there," my wife said.  "Not one."

"Agreed."
Chabon doesn't circumcise to hold his family together or even to please his wife.  Instead, he finds a odd mohel willing to use a topical anesthetic, and lies to his wife to keep her on board:
"It's not going to hurt," I told her, though of course... I had no idea whether it was going to hurt him or not.
And then... there's a bris!  If I were going to throw one book in my lifetime, it would have been Manhood for Amateurs right after I finished this monstrous essay.

As a social scientist, I tend to think that once people admit that a policy is absurd and cruel, they'll abandon it.  The challenge is extracting the admission.  Chabon's tale forces me to admit that even after people admit their errors, some of them will refuse to change their ways - and many onlookers will react with mildly approving smiles.
 

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TRACKBACKS (1 to date)
TrackBack URL: http://econlog.econlib.org/mt/mt-tb.cgi/2510
The author at Fahreunblog in a related article titled Circoncisione e infibulazione writes:
    Caplan sul tema. Le due pratiche vengono respinte e considerate abusive: mancano buone ragioni. Ma la ragione religiosa non puo' considerarsi buona? Ammettere la circoncisione e respingere l' infibulazione è possibile solo gettando alle ortiche il [Tracked on October 29, 2009 12:39 PM]
COMMENTS (68 to date)
razib writes:

This is going to a long comment thread :-)

In any case, if you want to see the "banality of evil" (from Bryan's perspective) I recommend Emily Bazelon and Hanna Rosen talking circumcision:
http://bloggingheads.tv/diavlogs/22168

George writes:

"I tend to think that once people admit that a policy is absurd and cruel, they'll abandon it"

I tend to think that too - and I'm constantly disappointed when they don't.

Perhaps, for most people, the function of policy is to signal allegiance to a group. So, ironically, the policy become even more useful as signal if everyone knows it's absurd.

Chris Rasch writes:

Should I have a son, I have no intention of circumcising him. However, I think the analogy to female "circumcision" is strained. As I understand it, female circumcision in most cases involves cutting off not just the clitoral hood (analogous to the foreskin), but also the clitoris, and/or the labia. This seems like a much greater harm than simply cutting off the foreskin.

David Jinkins writes:

Now there is a very good justification for circumcision. It drastically reduces a man's chance of contracting HIV (and possibly other STDs). This is enough for me to seriously consider circumcising any potential boys I may have.

I agree with the poster above. Female circumcision is much worse than the male variety. The correct analogy to female circumcision would be the outright cutting off of the penis.

In the absence of a good justification, circumcision is a strange practice, but then so is ear piercing. What are the negative effects of circumcision that make it so harmful?

Liam McDonald writes:

The best reason I ever heard was, "It makes your shmekle bigger."
I'm circumsized and glad I am (perhaps for that very reason)

chipotle writes:

This comment perfectly illustrates why Bryan Caplan is often not convincing in his arguments.

Caplan's very good at stating his position in a clear, uncompromising, provocative and interesting way. In fact, he's *too* good at it. Consider the second sentence:

In fact, I can't think of a good reason why we shouldn't punish it as child abuse.

The operative word is "good." But that's not clear on a casual reading. On a casual reading, it sounds like Caplan hasn't thoroughly thought about the issue and yet has a strong opinion. But what Caplan is really saying would be more commonly, and more boringly, stated as "None of the reasons that I have heard for circumcision seem to outweigh its drawbacks." If Caplan stated his position this way, it would be unremarkable, less jarring, and also less interesting.

***

In this case, Caplan is also wildly wrong about the substance of the matter.

Let's assume by stipulation that the overwhelming majority of males born in the Jewish tradition were circumcised. Over the long term, has it done them any harm? Considering the high proportion of Jewish Nobel Laureates, it seems deeply unlikely.

Furthermore, circumcision does not impair reproduction and, if pornography can be taken as prima facie evidence, hinder sexual pleasure.

But it does perform little functions like, oh, I dunno reduce HIV transmission.

Caplan makes the following claim:

Unless you have a good reason for circumcision, it is child abuse. Cutting off a baby's healthy body parts might be justified in some situations, but justification is a must.

I suppose that this means that haircuts are child abuse. And what will become of trimming fingernails?

Also, how does Caplan propose to enforce his punishment for this old, intimate, cherished custom which has gone on for thousands of years across the world? Coercive government action could logically be inferred to be Caplan's proposed remedy. Is that any position for nice anarcho-capitalist to take?

Caplan seems to blithely assume that 79% of American males are subjected to child abuse within the first 10 days of their existence.

Admittedly, this is logically possible. But it cuts against the grain of what we know about parental sentiments toward their children.

Petek Kalayci writes:

I see your point in that, one has to think hard about coming up with convincing reasons for a circumcision. It is after all a tradition. There's been sociological studies done on its bonding effects on age groups in countries where it's practiced collectively, possible ancient applications to curb fertility, and perhaps some recent findings on medical effects (see: Jinkins on low HIV/AIDS levels comment)

I suppose if we accept these 3 bases, there is no longer much reason to practice circumcision. Where there is access to birth control pills, condoms and plenty of social networking opportunities online, it is questionable.

But I am also a traditionalist and would uphold a tradition as long as it is practiced in a clean medical environment without an invasive operation, fitting today's standards. But that's because I would hardly call the foreskin a body part! (However I do find female circumcision highly controversial)

Blackadder writes:

Caplan seems to blithely assume that 79% of American males are subjected to child abuse within the first 10 days of their existence.

Not only that, but he claims he can't think of a good reason why all the parents of the 79% shouldn't be punished for child abuse. I guess we're going to need some bigger prisons, and a lot more orphanages.

Troy Camplin writes:

Haven't you read Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery"?

tj writes:

It was a very difficult choice to have this done to my boys; I was against it, the doctor was against, but others thought it was necessary (I didn't really understand the arguments)

What finally sold me? Not wanting him to shock his girlfriends later in life. Probably not a good reason; but as I think back to my youth, I'm glad it was done for me.

q writes:

i was going to have it done to my son as a kind of automatic response to my jewish upbringing and tradition. the funny thing though is that i am not observant in any substantive way. luckily my wife (who is not jewish) made me think it through and i could not come up with a good reason to have it done.

Ryan Vann writes:

I should preface the following statement with an assertion that Mr. Caplan opened this bag of worms. Anyhow, it would be useful to know the facts about Kaplan’s own nether regions, as to expose any biases based on personal experience (perhaps the doctor had a bad case of arthritis).

Full disclosure: I'm circumcised, and can't say I've developed any negative traits as a result (at least none that I am aware of).

eccdogg writes:

tj, I have two girls but we did not know the sex of either before birth so we had to make this decision and I came down in favor for largely the same reason as you.

Personally being circumcised and not feeling any ill affects of it. I thought back to whether I would have wanted it done again, and I decided that I would. The biggest reason is to not appear weird to girlfriends or in the locker room. Were we to live in a different society my veiw would be different, but the pain I felt (don't remember it at all) was nothing compared to the benefits of fitting in.

JB writes:

Strong evidence that it significantly reduces the likelihood of acquiring HIV, bacterial STDs, and certain other STDs.

Done.

John B. writes:

I have a son; we made sure he was not circumcised.

The obvious answer to all the "pro" reasons is "well, he can decide to have that done later if he wants to when he's older". In other words, it's the child's body so modification should be the decision of the child, not the parent. The issue of the appropriate age for that decision is another matter but anywhere between 16 and 20 would be fine by me.

Ditto ear-piercing and the like.

-John

Jason Brennan writes:

We didn't circumcise our son. The overall medical benefits were ambiguous at best (see, e.g. here: http://aappolicy.aappublications.org/cgi/content/full/pediatrics;103/3/686 ). We can expect him to be a condom-user as an adult, so we needn't worry as much about AIDs, etc. Overall, cost-benefit analysis of circumcision for someone with our SES makes it come out negative. Thus, to circumcise our son would be to inflict pain and suffering on him for insufficient reasons, and would thus be immoral. Of course, all of this depends on background empirical claims, which I have not adequately defended here. (Still, pro-circumcision people bear the burden of proof, since the moral default is that you do not inflict suffering onto infants.)

Joshua Lyle writes:

Chris Rasch and David Jinkins,
infant genital mutilation, in addition to being a barbaric practice, is also an idiosyncratic one. So, yes, male infant circumcision as commonly practiced in the United States is usually less harmful than many forms of female genital mutilation, but that is by no means universal, and it would be directly comparable to, say, female genital mutilation that involved only the surgically skilled removal of the clitoral hood. Practices differ widely and some are worse than others, but it's still a mutilation to cut up the genitals of helpless infants regardless of their sex.

xamba writes:

John is right, of course, but unlike ear piercing I am made to understand that circumcision later in life is expensive and very painful. It seems to me if we think the boy is going to wish he'd been circumcised as a baby then we ought to do it. After all, if we end up being wrong it's not as though we've inflicted some major harm on the child.

Jason Brennan writes:

Also, note that religious justifications typically fail.

Suppose you believe A:

A: God has commanded me to circumcise my male children.

A provides justification for circumcising male children only if you are justified in believing A. Yet nearly all people who believe A are unjustified in these beliefs. So, there is a simple argument against religious-based circumcision:

1. If you are not justified in believing X, then you should not harm infants on the basis of X.
2. Religious people are not justified in believing that there is a God who commands them to circumcise their infants.
3. Therefore, religious people are not justified in harming infants in the basis of these beliefs.

In other words, you can't use Judaism as an excuse to harm an infant unless you are justified in believing in Judaism. And perhaps no one on earth is justified in such beliefs anymore.

Similarly, if I believe that I should beat the crap out of my son because that will prevent him from being eaten by the Loch Ness monster, this doesn't license me to beat the crap out of him. At the very least, I would need to be justified in my belief that doing this will save him. Otherwise, I am hurting him (out of good intentions) for bad reasons.

John Jenkins writes:

I think some of you are getting caught up in the details and ignoring Bryan's point.

A central tenet of libertarianism is that we should not harm others. Here, we have a parent in a position of authority and responsibility over a child. If you're going to harm the child, Bryan's argument demands that you have a good reason for doing so.

Here you have someone who rejected every proffered reason for circumcision (so we don't have to decide whether his final reason was a good one) and still had his son circumcised anyway.

Circumcision is a surgical procedure. There is every reason to believe that it is painful for the infant (he has a brain, he has nerves, you're cutting his flesh). By any rational definition, that is harm.

Consequently, we have a parent who harmed his child for no good reason, which seems to be the very definition of child abuse. Contrast with other harms, like inoculations (they hurt, but the benefits rationally outweigh the harm).

We're not trying to decide whether there are any good reasons, we are trying to figure out why someone who has rejected ALL reasons for an act, still carries it out. Whether good reasons exist don't let that person's thought processes off the hook.

Phil writes:

I think the fact that most adults who had it done are glad they had it done is a strong rebuttal.

Of course, the adults who *didn't* have it done are probably also happy with their parents' choice.

But still, it's hard to imagine adults being glad their parents castrated them at birth or poked out their eyes.

Tom West writes:

I think the Bryan, as usual, ignores the social aspect of body modification.

Being sufficiently different from everyone else is, for the vast majority of people, a horrific enough fate that it would be akin to some sort of daily torture that lasts a life-time. (I'm autistic enough not to really fell that, but it's *easily* inferred by watching people's behavior).

If one believes that circumcision is one of those differences that is sufficiently large that it will make your child miserable in later years (due to freaking out girlfriends, derision from peers, etc.), then one could make a case that it would be child-abuse *not* to circumcise one's child.

Tom West writes:

We're not trying to decide whether there are any good reasons, we are trying to figure out why someone who has rejected ALL reasons for an act, still carries it out. Whether good reasons exist don't let that person's thought processes off the hook.

Actually, I find in many cases that there are reasons for beliefs/acts that the person simply is incapable of articulating or has been made to feel are not sufficient justifications.

We see this all the time with economic reasoning that is logically correct, but if actually carried out would result in miserable human beings. Since people are reluctant to appear illogical or stupid, they come up with ridiculous justifications for their behavior rather than discarding the premise.

I suspect that the answer in the author's case was simply "I think my child's life will be worse due to social rejection for being different", but was not one he could either articulate or defend.

John Thacker writes:

"there is plenty of convincing evidence that sexual pleasure is considerably diminished by the absence of a foreskin."

He is reading the evidence incredibly selectively if he argues that all the studies showing medical benefits are ambiguous and "debatable at best" but that the evidence that sexual pleasure is diminished is "convincing."

The vast majorities of sexual pleasure involve surveys asking people who were circumcised at birth or not if they're pleased sexually. There are people who are circumcised that believe that someone it affects their pleasure, although studies surveying people who then had artificial foreskins made don't report a difference. Perhaps there's a study out there surveying only people who were circumcised in adulthood, as in Africa.

OTOH, the data showing reduced AIDS transmission are based on actual disease transmission, not surveys of "so, do you think you gave her AIDS?"

There are other reasons to argue the point, but I do wonder why someone takes answers to survey questions as extremely convincing, but not scientific data.

However, I will admit that if people think it affects their sexual pleasure, even if they have no real evidence or indeed it they would find that it wouldn't, then that psychologically can affect their pleasure.

Tom West writes:

But still, it's hard to imagine adults being glad their parents castrated them at birth or poked out their eyes.

Agreed, but to be controversial, how would one feel if because your parents failed to mutilate your genitals, you would die young, alone and unloved?

Just to make it clear, I'm all in favor of campaigns against female (or even male) circumcision. I just think that those campaigning against it should be aware that the costs to the children of shunning social tradition and custom are *not* fictional and there are many who might hate their parents for forcing them into outcast status.

(Do we have any statistics for the fate of the unmutilated in societies where FGM is the norm?)

John Thacker writes:
The overall medical benefits were ambiguous at best (see, e.g. here: http://aappolicy.aappublications.org/cgi/content/full/pediatrics;103/3/686 ).

No, the medical benefits are clear. What the AAP statement argues is that the medical benefits aren't worth the other costs.

If you follow your link and read the statement, you'll see that the policy statement absolutely admits that all studies show that circumcision reduces urinary tract infections, reduces penile cancer, and HIV and other STD transmission. They simply argue that this isn't significant since the first two diseases are quite rare, and in the last case behavior is more important for preventing HIV anyway. (The behavioral is an argument in general for being less likely to vaccinate against STDs or even to research vaccines for them in preference to other diseases that are transmitted through less-consensual methods.)

OTOH, if you follow that, you will see more recent articles on their website entitled:

"Circumcision in the Time of HIV: When Is There Enough Evidence to Revise the American Academy of Pediatrics' Policy on Circumcision?"

and

"Ignoring Evidence of Circumcision Benefits"

Both articles, published by MDs in the journal Pediatrics, argue that the AAP policy statement ignores many convincing scientific studies, and even ignored studies back in 1971. They footnote and link to other papers and studies.

John Thacker writes:

A response to one of those articles that supports the policy, by contrast, have comments noting, correctly, that circumcised men generally say that they have no problem with sexual pleasure because they don't know what they're missing. However, the same doctor then says that uncircumcised men oppose being circumcised because "they know that the foreskin is important." Really? For the same reason as the circumcised men, how do they know what it would be like if they were to be circumcised?

Tom West writes:

No, the medical benefits are clear.

Is there *anyone* who is danger of *actually* basing their decision to circumcise on the medical/sensual benefits or lack thereof?

I think realistically, all of this tempest is a waste of time, simply used to provide justification for a decision that will be made for far more human reasons than rational evidence.

Evidence of the last few thousand years is proof that the difference in observable outcomes between the two are small enough that the decision will be based almost entirely on social factors.

[Note for the literal minded: generalization for rhetorical effect employed in the first paragraph]

John Thacker writes:
I think realistically, all of this tempest is a waste of time, simply used to provide justification for a decision that will be made for far more human reasons than rational evidence.

For the most part, yes. However, several of the articles note that circumcision rates, which had been declining everywhere, appear to be increasing now, and that this follows the increasing medical evidence. (Even the AAP policy statement notes that rates are increasing, IIRC.)

For the vast majority of people it is merely to justify decisions based on social and others reasons that they would have done anyway. On the margin, however, it may be different, and over the long run people making decisions on the margin affect what the new social pressure and norm will be.

LEB writes:

Female circumcision, depending on how extreme the procedure, is not equivalent to the male circumcision. It's equivalent to the head of the penis being chopped OFF, or removed entirely. It results in a woman's inability to enjoy sex. What culture would do that to men? NONE. It also drastically increases the likelihood of death during childbirth, as high as a 50/50% chance in some areas. Who does male circumcision kill?

I say this only to argue that male circumcision and female genital mutilation are NOT the same thing. That said, I think the practice of male circumcision in post-industrial countries needs to stop. There are NO medical benefits to a man who practices proper hygiene (and most do), and instead it can cause problems with his sexual functioning... that affects both him AND his partner.

In the Western world the HIV argument has little to no bearing. The risk of HIV in the West simply isn't great enough to justify preventative mutilation. Secondly, there is some indication that men who are circumcized to prevent HIV begin to develop a false sense of security and thus engage in riskier sex. Even if we were to accept that it made a huge difference (which we shouldn't, since a condom is much better), it doesn't follow that we must do it to children without their consent.

"What finally sold me? Not wanting him to shock his girlfriends later in life. Probably not a good reason; but as I think back to my youth, I'm glad it was done for me."

Probably? Probably? That's a terrible reason. Do you really want your son dating a girl who would be shocked by his natural anatomy? By this logic society should encourage some women to get labiaplasty so their boyfriends aren't shocked either.

I think it's importantant to point out that this is a uniquely American issue. Europe and even Canada to a large extent have seen through the barbaric practice and largely ended it. And as far as I can tell Canadians and Europeans continue to have sex.

Female circumcision, depending on how extreme the procedure, is not equivalent to the male circumcision. It's equivalent to the head of the penis being chopped OFF, or removed entirely. It results in a woman's inability to enjoy sex.

This is a dangerous and misleading line to take. It is simply incorrect to say that female circumcision results in the removal of all sexual pleasure. You should spend some time listening to Fuambai Ahmadu and her studies on the topic. That said, I still oppose all forms of elective child modification.

Really? For the same reason as the circumcised men, how do they know what it would be like if they were to be circumcised?

With all due respect, it is easier for an uncircumcized man to understand the difference than a person who was modified at birth. The head of a circumcized penis is very sensative. A circumcised penis becomes calloused and less sensative. Many uncircumised men could not even withstand the direct contact of one's clothing, whereas a circumcised male has no choice.

This is not to say circumcised men feel no pleasure or that the difference causes that much difference overall in sexual happiness. But there is a difference and all men, barring medical reasons, should be allowed to make this choice for themselves. Is it too much to ask that we err on the side of sensativity?

Marty writes:

If Mr. Caplan's point was that some people pursue some activities or ends despite their own logic, he could perhaps have found a better example that didn't bring in so many side issues.

If his point was to rag on circumcision, he should leave that debate to doctors and theologians and stick to things he knows something about.

Joshua writes:

Without getting into any pros or cons of the procedure, I challenge the basic premise that it represents any kind of grevious harm to the child. The pain the child feels is passing. By all outward appearance, it is not especially greater than the pain a child feels on experiencing birth, a first breath, hunger, or lack of sleep.

I think some people are excessively attentive to the pain experienced by a 1-day or 8-day-old child because of myths they may hold about an infant's personhood. It is understandable and important that we view infants as greatly important persons, and that we take on responsibility for their pain and wellness, yet their perceptions of self and the world around them are extremely limited. Children of such an early age are simply not very conscious.

It is in part the role of the parent to make determinations about when to inflict pain on or withold pleasure or comfort from a child, in service of the goal of raising children into wholesome adults. It is easy to understand a parent making the decision that offering a child full engagement in a lifelong religious affiliation, may exceed a minute of intense pain, followed by a day or two of discomfort, to a child too young to have anything approaching what most of us would consider a psychology.

Neal W. writes:

Women prefer circumcision, so if you want to improve the mating opportunities of your boys, then you should circumcise them.

If, in the future, women start to prefer uncircumcised, then we should stop.

Women prefer circumcision, so if you want to improve the mating opportunities of your boys, then you should circumcise them.

I think you mean shallow American women prefer it. Much of the world has no such delusions.

I challenge the basic premise that it represents any kind of grevious harm to the child.

I haven't really seen anyone say it's grevious. Real and unnecessary, I've seen.

By all outward appearance, it is not especially greater than the pain a child feels on experiencing birth, a first breath, hunger, or lack of sleep.

I'm not sure that's true. The shreaks I've heard seem different, but I'm not sure how one would prove this one way or another.

I think some people are excessively attentive to the pain experienced by a 1-day or 8-day-old child because of myths they may hold about an infant's personhood.

Does it then follow that post-birth abortions should be allowed? Or how about slapping a newborn? Clearly they're only partly human so they won't remember and thus it's ok, no?

8 writes:

Bryan,

My suggestion is get Google Adwords, then have a post the ties circumcision together with illegal immigration.

Joshua Lyle writes:

LEB,
you seem to be making a category error, as if you were comparing apples as a class to cameo apples in particular. Genital mutilation, of infants of any sex, comes in myriad forms varying horror.

Joshua Lyle writes:

LEB,
You said: "It results in a woman's inability to enjoy sex. What culture would do that to men? NONE."

I beg to differ. Many societies, including the ancient middle east, China, India, Greece, Rome, Byzantium, Ottoman Turkey, and Renaissance Europe deliberately castrated men to produce eunuchs. Of course, they did not do so with anything close to all men as a class, but they did it to men none the less.

Tom West writes:

It results in a woman's inability to enjoy sex. What culture would do that to men? NONE.

Of course, history is replete with examples where young men had to perform tests that had every chance of killing or maiming them in order to have the opportunity to enjoy sex.

Social norms that involve significant discomfort, danger, or sacrifice in order to obtain social acceptance are not in anyway unusual both historically and currently.

Campaigns to change these behaviors have to understand that or they are basically doomed to failure.

PJens writes:

When Moses accepted from God the message that we were supposed to cut the end skin off our penis, he should have gotten a good reason as to why!

Tom West writes:

I think you mean shallow American women prefer it.

So what?

You're not going to go very far if your answer to social exclusion is "live in a different society".

Of course, I'd like to see any statistics to back up the original claim about what women prefer. Somehow I suspect such preferences are almost entirely in the minds of men.

Kurbla writes:

This time I'm with Bryan, circumcision is very cruel sexual abuse. Ear piercing is also abuse, just to lesser degree, and not sexual.


Joe Marier writes:

Um, religious freedom?

Joshua Lyle writes:

Joe Marier,
your religious freedom to worship (for instance) the God of Abraham through genital body-modification does not extend to others that have not consented to having their genitals modified, just as my religious freedom to worship (for instance) Baal does not include the freedom to make you into a burnt offering.

Mark Lyndon writes:

It's worth remembering that no-one except for Jewish and Muslim people would even be having this discussion if it weren't for the fact that 19th century doctors thought that :
a) masturbation caused various physical and mental problems (including epilepsy, convulsions, paralysis, tuberculosis etc), and
b) circumcision stopped masturbation.

Both of those sound ridiculous today I know, but if you don't believe me, then check out this link:
A Short History of Circumcision in North America In the Physicians' Own Words

Over a hundred years later, circumcised men keep looking for new ways to defend the practice.

caveat bettor writes:

If I hate infections (both newborn and adult sexual) and diseases, then should I hate tattoos more than circumcisions?

Just wondering.

caveat bettor writes:

Joshua Lyle makes a good point. Is it ok for anti-abortionists to make the same point?

Joshua Lyle writes:

caveat bettor,
yes. But it doesn't settle that issue; Judith Thomson's counterexample (from her 1971 A Defense of Abortion) still trumps.

caveat bettor writes:

Thanks, Joshua. I'm giving you the last word on Thomson, but it's not because I don't have counter arguments (at least to her 'Violinist' or 'Seeds' cases), but out of respect for the owners of this blog.

Joe Marier writes:

And the appropriate role of the State is to protect children's genitals from the worshippers of the God of Abraham? Interesting. How do you suggest they go about that?

razib writes:

cards on the table, i'm moderately anti-circ (not gonna have it done to my sons). that being said, *all things equal* it does seem very convincing that in many nations circumcision does cut down on transmission of STDs (e.g., see south africa, xhosa vs. zulu, kenya, luo vs. non-luo). but is that a reason for americans? there's no difference between japan and south korea, one uncirmcised and one circumcised. so social context matters. if you're a middle class american the STD arguments probably should not be weighted too strongly, unless you plan to raise your sons as polyamorist swingers.

finally, the argument about not shocking girlfriends in the USA doesn't hold much anymore. circ rates are down to 60%, and only a minority of boys on the west coast are circumcised. so there's a strong regional variation. i've known young women from the pacific northwest who were a little curious when they first slept with a guy who was circumcised (circumcision is obviously common in portland and seattle, but if there are enough uncircumcised men then the likelihood of simply dating a sequence of them is not trivial).

Dr. T writes:

From an epidemiologic standpoint, the risks of sexually transmitted diseases (including HIV) and squamous cell carcinoma of the penis are substantially reduced by circumcision. Is that a good enough reason for circumcision: many physicians and many parents agree that it is. This decision is similar to decisions about vaccinations: doing something painful to the infant now in order to improve future health.

Circumcision, when done correctly on a newborn, certainly isn't child abuse. The pain is no worse than doing a heel stick to draw blood. I agree that circumcision removes not just foreskin but a future option for the child. But, parents alter their children's options all the time. If I take a new job and relocate, my children lose the ability to grow up with their current best friends. Is that emotional child abuse?

I think Bryan Caplan's hyperbole is misguided.

Kevin writes:

Suppose female genital mutilation produced precisely the same reduction in HIV transmission rates that male genital mutilation is supposed to. Would you honestly support giving parents the option of cutting off parts of their daughters’ genitalia to give women the same medical benefits male circumcision is supposed to provide?
The fact that many parents in the US decide to circumcise their sons is no defense. In ancient Sparta, many parents left their children to die in the wilderness if they were deformed in any way. That was barbaric, and probably child abuse. So a great many Spartan parents were child abusers. I fail to see what is wrong with saying that a great many American parents are child abusers if they cut off healthy, normal parts of their sons’ genitalia.
For the record, I underwent circumcision as an infant, and I’ve never felt the same about my parents. The fact that Bryan posts things like this is what makes me a regular reader of this blog.

Joshua Lyle writes:

Joe Marier,
I assume your 4:39 comment was directed at me. If so, I don't know where you would get the impression that I would think such a thing.

Regardless, I would merely posit that the usual justification for the intervention of a third party on behalf of a human of reduced capacity applies as much to a child as to a coma victim whose penis you picked at random for shortening.

Rachel writes:

This is a very interesting philosophical discussion, but it's not new. The Greeks considered circumcision an abomination - and they went naked enough that men couldn't hide their parent's choice. They also argued that circumcision was child abuse - and tried to forbid Jewish parents from circumcising their sons. The Hannukah story is a celebration of the Greeks being kicked out and Jews getting back to mutilating their sons in peace.

The only long-term result of the Greek's laws is that circumcision was made more strict. Prior to the Hannukah story, Jews only removed the end of foreskin. However, that circumcision can be reversed by stretching the remainder. In order to prevent that, modern circumcisions remove the entire foreskin.

razib writes:

Suppose female genital mutilation produced precisely the same reduction in HIV transmission rates that male genital mutilation is supposed to.

some people have pointed out that the regions of africa where female circumcision is common also have lower HIV rates. though there's a confound in that these areas also tend to have high obligate male circumcision rates.

This decision is similar to decisions about vaccinations: doing something painful to the infant now in order to improve future health.

the analogy exists, but it is weak. as i pointed out above there is no difference in HIV rates, etc., between japan and korea. much of northern europe has lower rates of many of the ailments which circumcision is supposed to prevent than the USA, where circumcision is common. that's because there are other variates involved. to my knowledge there's a much stronger direct & deterministic correlation between lack of vaccination and the spread of viral infections.

p.s. this is kind of off topic, but there's a wide range of variation in female circumcision. how much of the female sexual organs is removed varies. not that that matters to my attitude toward the practice, but the mutilation does differ quantitatively.

razib writes:

the more i think of the analogy between vaccination and circumcision, the more i think the anti-circ screamers really have a point. these justifications are emerging to support a customary practice which has no real rational justification in the form it is practiced today. i mean come, the pain of a shot vs. removal of part of an organ? and to my knowledge, while children can be carriers for deadly infections, they generally don't have sexual intercourse (though again, if pro-circers expect their 7 year olds to get it on, i can accept circumcision of infants as precautionary).

i'm not going to argue too much with people who have primitive religious beliefs which sanction the practice. male circumcision isn't that high on the human rights abuses list in my world (if you can call it a human rights abuse). but the secular pro-circ people present some real dumb arguments (and yes, i know the history of dumb secular pro-circ arguments, e.g., re: masturbation). "cuz god said so" is really refreshing in contrast.

p.s. unlike judaism, circumcision in islam isn't mandatory or a sacrament of the religion. rather, it is customary. there's no reference in the koran to circumcision, though i believe there are some hadiths supporting the practice. but then, some hadiths also support female circumcision.

Nick writes:

Your chance of acquiring genital herpes is significantly reduced through circumcision, this has been demonstrated in several scientific studies.

Doc Merlin writes:

What are your views on ear piercing on young children?

Very similar arguments can be made against that. I am curious what you have to say.

liberty writes:

For those arguing that women prefer circumcision, this is likely only because it is what they know--it is considered normal. This only poses the first-mover problem. If overnight circumcision ended (was outlawed and considered child abuse for example) then women would suddenly prefer the new norm.

Ron Low writes:

People are letting definitions drift.

To say circumcision fights AIDS is ONLY true of
"adult voluntary circumcision" when certain pro-circumcision researchers are minding the study.

This article is about infant circumcision. Infants don't have sex.

Most of the US men who have died of AIDS where circumcised at birth. In Sweden where almost nobody is circumcised AIDS is more rare than in Israel where 97% or cut. In 7 African nations, the circumcised have markedly higher HIV incidence.

Whatever circumcision might be thought to protect an infant from, the risks and harms overwhelm the potential benefits.

Foreskin feels REALLY good. It's HIS body and HIS decision whether or not to reduce his pleasure-receptive apparatus for dubious protective value.

Google "circumcision damage" to see hideous cosmetic and functional outcomes of infant circumcision that ARE NEVER figured into the acute complication rates because they don't manifest until puberty.

Ryan Vann writes:

I would have never imagined people would be passionate enough about foreskin for this entry to have as long a comment section as it does.

The Cupboard Is Bare writes:

Before offering a comment, I thought it best to do some research on the topic first.

What I've read has led me to conclude that an intact penis is in fact healthier and can provide benefits both to the man and his partner. Maintaining basic hygiene does not appear to be a problem, certainly no worse than it is for a woman.

Having seen some of the complications that can occur as a result of botched procedures and inappropriate aftercare, I would say that the decision to undergo circumcision should be made by the son, once he has reached the age of consent.

I definitely do not recommend that men undergo the procedure to please a woman. IMO, any women who rejects her partner because he is uncircumcized has her own set of issues.

Alan Zisser writes:

Most of the arguments for and against have already been stated, however, since I am Jewish by birth (non-observant but very much identify as a Jew) and my twin sons were circumcised (with a bris) 29 years ago, I felt like I needed to comment. I certainly have mixed feelings about it, but I think Mr. Caplan is way off base in his attitude that it is child abuse. Yes, in some ways it could be considered somewhat primitive, but there are many things that could be considered as such. Like organized religion for instance. I think forcing small children to be mind controlled at an early age by fundamental religionists with ideas of burning in hell, and that sex for pleasure is a bad thing, is far more harmful than a quick snip of some foreskin. Also, as others have said, comparing it to female genital mutilation is simply ludicrous, and shows how little the author has really thought in depth about this. But then why should we concern ourselves about the opinion of someone whose expertise is Economics? Why does he get a forum on this anyway? Economics professors can be as dumb as the next guy on subjects that aren't in their area of expertise. We tend to assume that since you are well-educated or successful in one area, then you must be smart about other things. This is just not true. PhDs in nuclear physics or constitutional lawyers can be the dumbest people when it comes to parenting, or relationships, or even the history of the world. Caplan's opinions on this issue are no more valid than those of Sarah Palin, who probably has castrated a few moose in her time. Which is much worse than circumcision, I'm sure.

Joshua Lyle writes:

Alan Zisser,
1. Comparing male and female genital mutilation is in not "ludicrous", as you would have found out if you bothered to read, for instance, my other comments in this very thread. Again, mutilation is a practice that widely varies in form and horror, even though all are mutilations.

2. Even as Economics experts may be wrong on a non-economic subject, they may be right. Further, many of us listen to Dr. Caplan on non-economic subjects because he has a perspective that is penetrating and unusually unencumbered by the cultural peccadilloes that people such as yourself seem prone to, giving us the chance at achieving valuable insight even when he is not wholly in the right.

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