Robert Spaemann on Circumcision

Last summer, a German court in Cologne ruled that circumcision was a crime, igniting a large public debate in Germany. The ruling has since been overruled by the German parliament, but the issue is far from settled. The following is my quick and dirty English translation of the Catholic philosopher Robert Spaemann’s article on the ruling, “Der Traum von der Schicksallosigkeit.” In the interests of philosophy, I have tried to lean on the side of producing a  literal translation here, rather than a pretty one.

The Dream of Fatelessness

A German court forbids circumcision and condemns it as a bodily injury. That is an unprecedented attack on the identity of religious families.

[Die Zeit article by Robert Spaemann in July 2012]

"The sleep of Reason creates monsters&quo...

“The sleep of Reason creates monsters”, etching and aquatint by Francisco Goya (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The regional court of Cologne has declared the circumcision of a small child to be a punishable offense. This judgment is either a signal for the liberation of millions of children in the entire world, or it is one of the monsters from Goya’s enigmatic engraving “The Dream of Reason Produces Monsters.” In this case it should certainly, on the other hand, be a signal, namely for the resistance against a powerful trend within the Western world.

The judgment has, as is to be expected, evoked a lively discussion. In debates of this sort the results more often than not hang on the initial distribution of the duty to give reasons—that is to say, the burden of proof. It lies where it is rightly thought to go, with those who want to push a demand against an established normality. Otherwise it cannot be accepted. Something like that–normality–is subject to no justification beyond the disproof of the asserted reasons against it; otherwise life would not be possible. Whoever argues against an established cultural normality pleads, as a general rule, a different normality and normativity: namely, the natural. This is notably the case in Europe ever since the Greeks of the 5th century B.C. distinguished between that based on human constitutions and established tradition and that “right by nature.”

This idea of a natural law was decisive for the medieval Scholastic. It inspired the European Enlightenment, until it was questioned by cultural relativism in the 19th century. The basic rights of the German Basic Law are something like partial codifications of natural law. Physical integrity plays a special role in it, because in regard to slight violations of it, universal consensus is more easily achieved than in the case of more subtle injuries.

In the Koln decision there is an apparent conflict between two or even three fundamental rights. Fundamental rights are not absolute. They find their inner limitation in other fundamental rights. The principle of artistic freedom implies no right to paint the wall of a stranger without the consent of the owner. The fundamental right of scientific freedom implies no right to human experimentation or consumptive embryonic research. The absolute is merely the duty to respect human dignity. This law does not collide with human dignity otherwise. It says only that to damage the lives of others he must subject this other as himself to reasonable consideration. “Everyone counts”—in this simple formula the principle of human dignity is summed up.

Basic rights, however, often underlie a weighing of competing interests. This is also the case with circumcision. Namely, the parents’ right of educating, the right to religious freedom, and the right to bodily integrity must be weighed. A restriction of parental right is already laid down in the Basic Law. This right can be revoked if the parents do not fulfill—within the realm of possibility–their duties of education and support; for example, if decisions are not made with the best interests of the child in view.

As a ritual of initiation, circumcision grants integration into both a religiously and traditionally ethnically grounded historical community–for example, the Jewish people and the Jewish religious community. For believing Jews, the revealed will of God is fulfilled through this highly symbolic act.

But now this act is associated with bodily injury, as is the case with each vaccination. But the injury is slight. For example, it accords in gravity to a measles vaccination, which is known to be disliked by some doctors and in relation to which it is the right of the parents to decide whether the received opinion is in accord with the best interests of the child. Where the genital mutilation of girls is concerned, the purpose which is served is to deny the woman sexual pleasure. Here the matter is clear. Whoever believes that this should be attributed to the will of God must abandon the field of the Basic Law. Here no pardon can be given. It is similar to the earlier Chinese practice of stunting the feet of little girls—except those of peasant girls. Or we recall the Castrati, with the intention to impede the change to the male voice.

The circumcision of boys is not something of this sort. It does not cause great pain; it does not leave behind bodily deformity or emotional traumatization.  It is often done on hygienic grounds without any religious background—to little boys, for example, on account of a severe restriction of the foreskin. All those are bodily injuries that in the case of adults must only be done with the consent of the concerned parties, but in children with the consent of the parents instead. In view of the fundamental meaning of circumcision for religious communities, the bodily injuries involved carry no weight, so that if they want to elevate the case to a fundamental conflict of rights, the consideration would only turn out to benefit the freedom of the parents, unless the judge holds the parents to be of unsound mind on the basis of their adherence to this rite. The judgment has entirely ignored the sociological, ethnocultural aspect and led an unprecendented assault on the identity of Jewish families.

However, at the bottom of the judgment, and above all at the bottom of the argumentation of the public defender, was another motive, in my opinion the actual motive, since one cannot easily suggest to the court to consider the inconsequential injury as something severe. Were the circumcision of boys actually so scandalous, then one must still question why all the defenders of the Cologne judgment have remained silent for decades on this enormity. The real, background argument seems to me to be that the religious education of children must absolutely vanish, because it prejudices and stunts later religious self-determination.

That would have been a different and greater issue, since the underlying mistake here is indeed fatal. A well-known Franco-German political scientist once said to me that he was agnostic, but he gave his children to a Catholic institution, so that they could someday make up their own minds—they could not make up their own minds if they had not gotten to know from within the first of the two alternatives, the life of faith.

The idea of “fatelessness” as quality of life stands behind the rejection of a religious background in childhood. In Western lands one can leave a religious community; but freedom does not consist in this, to know one could “opt out” from a neutral perspective. No one can abolish his past; one has it one way or another, and one must deal with it one way or another. “Question not,” as Bertolt Brecht wrote, “What have they done to me?” Ask: “What have I made from that which they did to me?”

There is no neutral perspective (Nullpunkt). Whoever keeps children from a life with a religious background impresses atheism. A world without God is just as much an imprinting as a world with God. The idea that one must protect children from “heteronomy” {being ruled by another} is a misjudment; without initial heteronomy, there can never be self-determination.

The language is the first impression on us. It preforms our thought. I can later choose another language in place of my mother tongue. But the original impression made by the mother tongue is irreversible. If we wished to wait for the child to be capable of choosing which language would be available to him as his mother tongue, then the child would never learn to speak and therefore never arrive at the use of reason, and never arrive at self-determination. The children who Kaiser Friedrich II of Hohenstaufen denied the fate of learning a language did not begin, as the Kaiser conjectured, to speak Hebrew. They died instead.

One can nevertheless learn from the Cologne decision. It involves circumcision—for any purpose whatsoever—as a bodily injury, even if minor and without consequences. The doctor who performs it should not have to do so if he would find the action distasteful. He would, in that case, be instrumentalized in an immoral way.

The American President Barack Obama has unfortunately abolished the conscience clause for doctors who do not wish to perform abortions. It will therefore come to pass in the future in the United States that there will be no more Catholic gynecologists. In Germany, where such a conscience clause exists, it should be extended to doctors who do not wish to circumcise. And since it is a question of a religious rite, it would be most sensible if a Jewish or alternately a Muslim physician performed this rite. Or alternately, if the religious communities concerned were to once more employ a circumcisor with state-approved surgical training. For anyone with goodwill, this would better and more definitely remedy the conflict than the Cologne cultural revolution.

–Translated by Alexander Schimpf

This entry was posted in Ethics, Robert Spaemann, Translations and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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