Female Genital Mutilation, Ethics and Cultural Values
Ethics is defined in two ways; first, it is the study of morality’s effect on conduct, and two, it is the code of morality (a system of moral principles governing the appropriate conduct for a person or group) (book). These concepts are directly focused on morality and morals, or the fundamentality of principles of right vs. wrong and good vs. evil. In “Ethical Choices”, a case study discussed female genital mutilation (FGM) also known as female circumcision. “Female genital mutilation is an ethical issue because of the contradictions of moral beliefs about its global practices, and the passion and conviction with which those beliefs are held” (Hoctor). In this paper I will argue about the human perspective of cultural relativism on female genital mutilation, its implications for the rights of humans, the act of justifying the practice, and whether the practice is morally right.
The background of female genital mutilation is extensive, here is what should be known. This practice has been around for millions of years with no distinct start date and is still widespread in many African Countries. The procedure is carried out on young women who are about to be married. The procedure removes the clitoris, in hopes that it greatly reduces sexual pleasure during intercourse and so that it decreases the chances of unfaithfulness to her soon-to-be husband. The procedure isn’t exactly what we call a routine procedure… there aren’t always doctors sterilizing equipment and getting the women ready for surgery, in fact it can sometimes be done by a relative using a razor blade or sharp rock and in many cases the women suffer infection, bleeding, and complications which lead to a fatal ending (World Health Organization).
Is there any basis for morally justifying the practice of Female genital mutilation? Female genital mutilation is a classic example of a practice that is proscribed in some cultures but permitted in others. For example, let’s compare two cultural practices towards the dead, the ancient Greeks cremated the bodies, while the Callatian Indians would eat the bodies of their deceased tribe members (Wilkinson). Members of both would be equally horrified when they learned of the other’s cruel way of treating their dead ancestors. Cultural relativism can often at times be supported by contrasting World Views like the cultures and their practices stated earlier (Wilkinson). In case one hasn’t heard of cultural relativism, it notes that cultures vary amongst what they regard as right and wrong, standards vary from culture to culture over time, there is no universal standard, and it is seen unjust to criticize the practice of another culture. Therefore, in the eyes of cultural relativism FGM is neither right nor wrong. “This practice may seem wrong to western standards but is seen permissible according to values of others” (Wilkinson). An ethical question that sometimes arises from Female genital mutilation or any other society-tested cultural practice, is how much weight should be given to the particular “culture value” of a practice. Some would say FGM helps a girl become a woman, and others might say it’s important to keep a girl’s faithfulness sacred… the idea is that these practices have virtue in some way to their specific culture and if taken away, it could be the loss of a cultural value. Cultural relativism states that we should give cultural value just as much weight as other factors in a society, however when considering the morality of a particular practice, cultural value is of no significance (Wilkinson).
In the eyes of cultural relativism, FGM isn’t bad nor good, but when trying to morally justify whether that’s accurate we must dig deeper. For instance, as people we could not medically justify female genital mutilation because it’s based solely on historical roots and culturally established values that an outsider could not justify. But the values that come from within these cultures have an utterly disturbing disrespect for women as human beings, and their acceptance requires that these women have a lower ethical status because of their gender… therefore these values do violate the principles and rights of self-government and respect for persons of equality and justice (Kluge).
Is it ethically acceptable to take away human rights? When speaking as a cultural relativist, all cultures deserve equal respect… meaning it’s a violation of cultural relativism to judge another countries practice because no culture is more superior than the other. Today, the practice of FGM has been opposed by human rights advocates in the idea that the African tradition violates a basic human right, the disposition over one’s body and one’s sexuality (Ahan). There are different ways to view FGM, for example from a deontological perspective (a normative ethical theory that quotes the morality of an action should be based on whether or not the action itself is right or wrong under a set of rules, rather than based on the consequences of the action) female genital mutilation is wrong since mutilation is a method of harm. Speaking ethically, both child labor, sexual practices, and female genital mutilation, are all practices customary to certain cultures and seen as ethically acceptable in those exact cultures but in other cultures, such cultural practices are seen as unethical. The practice its self has several defenses, including the claims that FGM is necessary to retain cultural identity, is religiously required, is a rite of passage, and that it ensure modesty (Kluge). Is this practice unethical? Is it, morally right?
Could a society’s cultural approval of female genital mutilation ever make such a practice morally right in that society? According to Oxford Dictionaries, morality consists of all moral principles and values that dictate what is morally good or bad, right or wrong. Yes, FGM is a cultural tradition but does that make it right to mutilate a woman’s source for sexual pleasure? “Ethics is not a matter of what people in fact are doing or what they believe. It is a matter of what they ought to do” (Kluge). The “Human Rights” movement suggests that there is a realm of justice and morality that supersedes the practices of many cultures, such as female genital mutilation. According to cultural relativism moral values differ from culture to culture meaning there therefore is no objective moral standard, but multiple perspectives on a topic does not mean there is one correct perspective. If cultural relativism is true, then there are no grounds for criticizing the practices of any culture such as slavery, child prostitution, or female genital mutilation; moral progress would be impossible, and all moral reformers are corrupt.
It’s right to argue that practices that are grounded in cultural beliefs of a selected society aren’t suitable subjects of analysis and criticism by people who are outside of that culture; each society has its own standards and none of them are more valid than the other. However, given every bit of information from above, this argument is fallacious. It is fallacious because there are ethical principles which hold for all people no matter their culture or social group… they are people and all people are bound to fundamental principles of ethics. Therefore, given that information, female genital mutilation and any other cultural practice is only accepted when they abide by these principles and should be morally right only when they are ethically defensible (Kluge).
Practical Ethics, blog.practicalethics.ox.ac.uk/2014/02/cultural-relativism-and-female-genital-mutilation/.
“Ethics and Female Genital Mutilation.” OTE Volume 17 Number 2 – Summer 2011 Ethics FGM – International Association of Forensic Nurses, www.forensicnurses.org/page/665.
Ahan, Faroosh., “Advanced Study of Anthropological Theory”. Department of Cultural Anthropology. (2012).
Kluge, EH. “Female Genital Mutilation, Cultural Values and Ethics” Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology.
Burnor, Richard., Raley, Yvonne. Ethical Choises: An introduction to Moral Philosophy with cases. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc. 2018