When is something wrong?

A major issue I’ve been thinking about for a while now is that of judging acts/beliefs/values/norms, whether they are your own or someone else’s. Do we ever have the right to say that something is right or wrong? When does something get classified as a universal right or a universal wrong? What if we decide something is “wrong” and yet people are doing it by choice – do we then have the right to stop them? What does choice even mean – aren’t we all socialized to believe certain things, so in the end a choice is never really a free choice?

The clearest example I can think of is female circumcision.  Millions of women choose to circumcise their daughters, for a multitude of reasons. Do we have the right to tell them to stop? Many western NGOs and feminists have consistently labelled female circumcision as backwards, primitive, even barbaric. Millions of dollars have gone into programs to end the practice. But is all of this even ethical? Who are we to say that someone else’s practice is wrong? They think it’s right – isn’t that something to take into consideration?

The main argument here is probably that female circumcision is harmful in health terms. Yes. But so is plastic surgery. Yet thousands of American women undergo plastic surgery monthly, yet no one has labelled that practice barbaric, backwards, or primitive. True, these women are at an age where they can make decisions for themselves, but we know that women who are circumcised go on to circumcise their daughters – thus they too make the same decision their mothers made for them.

I personally see female circumcision as something I would never want done to me and that I would never do to my children. But a growing part of me is questioning whether I have the right to tell other women to stop, or to make a value judgement. In Egypt, many women are circumcised because that is what society expects – so social pressure plays a role. Isn’t that also why many women get fat from their thighs put into their face? I’m not trying to argue that they are the same thing. I’m just trying to question whether we can ever deem something as either wrong or right.

Another example is polygamy. A huge part of me gets very sensitive when the topic comes up, because I just can’t imagine that a woman would accept to be married to a man who has other wives. But I react that way because my conception of marriage is that it should be based on love. But there are different reasons for marriage, and there are different types of love. Some people don’t believe in monogamy – who am I to say that’s wrong? Some women don’t mind being in a polygamous marriage – again, who am I to say that’s wrong?

My position as a feminist means that I’m pro-choice. If a woman decides to be in a polygamous marriage – then that’s her choice. Why would I tell her that she’s being oppressed: wouldn’t that be me imposing my own views on her? With circumcision it gets a bit more complicated. While I am wary of saying it is wrong, I can’t bring myself to accept that a woman does that to her daughter. Just the pain itself is enough to make me cringe. But then again, who am I to say it’s wrong?! Agh – I’m going round in circles!

What do you guys think?


23 thoughts on “When is something wrong?

  1. I think it sounds like you are taking a cultural anthropology class. lol

    Cultural anthropologists are taught that we cannot go into another culture and make value judgments on their practices or beliefs, because are coming from the outside and do not understand how that particular system of people works.

    I think plastic surgery is a good point to bring up. If you think of what breast augmentation actually is, if we break it down to a woman has her breasts cut open and has silicone or other substances stuffed into her breasts in order to make them look better for men, well shit, what isn’t barbaric sounding about that?!

    But westerners are used to it, therefore, normal. That is our culture. Some of us may not agree or do it ourselves, but we look the other way when women take their 16 year old daughters to get this surgery done.

    What’s so different between that and female circumcision? I could argue that there is a lot of differences, such as death rate, long term health complications, inability to enjoy or even have pleasurable sex, infection from menstrual blood being unable to clear from the vagina properly due to the circumcision of the labia and the sewing together of the vagina until there is only a very small hole.

    Yet with breast augmentation there is the high chance that a woman will not be able to have a proper mammogram and breast cancer will go undetected.

    What is the real issue with female circumcision that gets us all angry and upset? Is it the act itself, or who it is being done to? For me, it is the fact that it is adults doing this children. That is what makes it difficult for me to try accepting it as simply a cultural practice that I have no right to judge.

    The same rings true for me when a western woman takes her daughter to get surgery on her breasts to make them bigger and more pleasing to men.

    In both cases, if adults want to do that, no problem! If we are forcing it on our children, I have a problem with that.

    There are cultural practices, and there are human rights abuses. I tend to stick to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and if I see violation with the declaration in mind, I may not chalk it up to simple “cultural practice.”

    If we called everything done to our fellow human beings “cultural practice that we cannot judge” then there would be no such thing as human rights.

    • There are definitely many differences between plastic surgery and circumcision, the most important one being that in the latter it is being done to kids who have no say in the matter.

      I wonder though, if circumcision was a choice being made by adult women, whether then it would be okay? I think there would still be issues around it.

      “If we called everything done to our fellow human beings “cultural practice that we cannot judge” then there would be no such thing as human rights.”

      I think this is exactly the dilemma I’m having – where do we draw the line? And because of the history of western domination, it has become very difficult for non-western people to accept western criticism. It has also become very easy for problematic practices to be defended in the name of “tradition” or standing up to westernization.

  2. I completely agree with Sarah above. We cannot use cultural relativism as something to hide behind, to excuse human rights violations.

    There are many differences, as Sarah has pointed out, between plastic surgery and FGM. First is that a child undergoing FGM has no say, no freedom to choose what is being done to her, while an adult has more agency in choosing to undergo plastic surgery (although we can argue that a woman wanting to undergo plastic surgery is coerced to do so mostly due to social pressures; still, this does not discount the fact that FGM is not moral, although it may bring into question the morality of plastic surgery as a practice). Second, the health risks are vastly different, and the pain involved is vastly different; FGM involves a number of serious health risks, and is also extremely painful as usually done at home without anesthetics or properly sterilized equipment or medical supplies. Plastic surgery is usually done in a sterile environment and the health risks are less, as well as the pain experienced – due to use of anesthesia. The two situations are very different.

    There are certain things we should agree are immoral, and these involve violence against a human person. Violence, pain, harm and death I believe are human rights violations.

    There ARE some cultural practices which we should not try to displace, but we should not hesitate to condemn certain practices as rights violations if they cause physical harm/pain or disfigurement to an individual – I do not condone such activities regardless of whether there is a cultural justification.

    Finally however, we CAN have a discussion about freedom. What it means to have freedom to make your own choices. There are cases – like that of a child undergoing FGM or a woman not being allowed to leave the house to work – where we can clearly see that the individual does not have a CHOICE as to what they want to do in life. You could also argue that in the Western world, women who undergo plastic surgery or become anorexic do not have the FREEDOM truly to be who they are because of societal norms and pressures. HOWEVER, the fact that certain acts/practices in the Western world may be coerced to some extent DOES NOT let the practices/acts present within other cultures get off the hook. They may still be morally wrong.

    • Again I would pose the question: if female circumcision was something being chosen by adult women and being done in a sterile environment under anesthetic, would it then be completely accepted?

      “There ARE some cultural practices which we should not try to displace, but we should not hesitate to condemn certain practices as rights violations if they cause physical harm/pain or disfigurement to an individual – I do not condone such activities regardless of whether there is a cultural justification.”

      I see where you are coming from, but this would disqualify thousands of practices across the world. If a culture accepts something then who are we to tell them otherwise? I tend to agree with you on female circumcision but then what about enlarging ear lobes to put in certain types of earrings, as is done among certain tribes? I mean we would then have to ban so many kinds of practices.

      • “Again I would pose the question: if female circumcision was something being chosen by adult women and being done in a sterile environment under anesthetic, would it then be completely accepted? ”

        Sara, I think Iran is a great example to look to with this question. In Iran there is the highest population of Nose jobs and sex changes chosen by adults. It is fashionable to get a nose job in Iran. Sex changes are necessary for gay people because it is illegal to be gay so they change their sex in order to appear as a heterosexual couple to the public. It is horrible, in my honest opinion, but it is done in sterile conditions with some of the best plastic surgeons in the world, so is it a human rights abuse? I would have to say no. It is done by consenting adults who have chosen this for themselves. Although I may say making homosexuality illegal is a human rights abuse, the response by the gay community to this human rights abuse, is simply their way of coping with the rules of their society.

        Maybe I could say the same with FGM if it was a sterile practice done by competent surgeons, and the death rate was not high. Also if it was consenting adults. But none of those components are involved, therefore I think we owe it to the little girls of our world to speak loudly against FGM.

        Breast Ironing is another one where we have to think about it. A mother literally takes a large wooden churn and heats it in a fire, she then “irons” her prepubescent daughters breasts to keep them from growing. The history behind it is that once a girls breasts grow she is ready for sex and marriage, meaning dropping out of school and getting pregnant. Mothers in this country of Africa are trying to keep their girls in school for as long as possible, which means keeping them looking prepubescent, therefore shielding them from men. The ironing damages the breast tissue and some girls either grow deformed breasts, or none at all. So it works, it serves a purpose for the mothers, and it is passed down from mothers to daughters throughout the generations.

        Human rights abuse? I would say no

        Or what about the children who have their entire face and bodies cut with razors so it forms scars and marks them as part of the tribe? If they didn’t do this they would not look like anyone in the tribe.
        Human rights abuse? I would say no

        What about the women who go through the ritual of being whipped by their male family members in order to show their solidarity with their family and also their strength as women? Human rights abuse? I would say no

        I think for me it is about the purpose the ritual serves, the suffering involved, and the death toll. FGM is just too dirty, kills too many young girls, causes way too many long term side effects for girls, for me to see as only a cultural practice. The same with the practice of foot binding in China.

  3. I agree with Sarah’s comment. I’d just add that I also see if an act is bringing greater good or greater harm. It may be a cultural practice to chop off your daughter’s clitoris but if it brings more harm than good, I will cringe. I will say it is wrong because the child’s choice is not involved; is not even considered.

    With polygamy as well, there are some women who see polygamy as a “blessing” and certainly who am I to deny them their blessing?! But there are more unhappy polygamous families than happy ones. And then there is the gender inequality. Men can marry more women, but women must satisfy themselves with 1/3 of the man. And look at what we have created from culture – a man with more than one woman is a socially-accepted polygamist and a woman with more than one man is an outcast adulterer.

    I think if people never stood up against cultural practices we would not have any religion. Every religion is a reaction to certain cultural practices that were deemed inappropriate.

    • “I’d just add that I also see if an act is bringing greater good or greater harm.”

      Of course, but who decides what is good and what is harmful? Some people think homosexuality is harmful and some think it is good. Some think male circumcision is harmful and some think it is good.

  4. In the past I used to very much think along the lines of “everything’s relative”. I thought there must be some absolutes of morality but they are broad principles rather than specific rules.

    I guess I still think that. So much of what we think is right and wrong – in terms of specific issues – is conditioned into us.

    But moral principles are not completely arbitrary either. It is wired into us to care about others’ well-being, to care about fairness, and so on. These are sort of absolutes.

    A lot of the differences between specifics are down to who we care about. Throughout our history, enemies could be enslaved, stolen from, killed, whereas fellow group members could not. The same scenario is playing out today in the world on a larger scale.

    Personally I want to see care extended to the whole world. I want to care about others regardless of gender, nationality, political or religious views, etc. Can this be justified rationally? No, it’s subjective. I could argue that logically the world would be a happier place if everyone was nice to each other, but wanting the world to be a happier place is still a subjective judgement.

    • “A lot of the differences between specifics are down to who we care about. ”

      Really love that line, Sarah.

      Interesting post and comments! I enjoy learning from you all.

    • I like what Akhila says about freedom, and social pressure.

      Sarah, with all the talk about subjectivity and rationality and relativism, you never said your point of view, What YOU think about the issue. So what has been conditioned into you? What do you think about it?

      Or do your thoughts of “everything’s relative” keep you from having to make a decision about it?

      • I don’t agree with female circumcision if it is a procedure which is risky to the girl’s health and well-being and prevents sexual fulfillment. I try to be detached and relativistic about these things but I suppose it is hypocritical when I know I wouldn’t wish to be born into a culture that routinely practised it. It may not be as terrible for them as I am conditioned to think. But I still don’t see any benefits and I do see it as detrimental.

        As for polygamy, if it makes everyone involved happy, then great. If not, then… not so great. 🙂

    • “So much of what we think is right and wrong – in terms of specific issues – is conditioned into us.”

      I completely agree. So it comes down to who has the power to enforce their ideas of right and wrong on others.

  5. I have to say I completely disagree with you on this point.

    I think the overall point you bring up, about who we are to judge other people’s traditions/cultural values etc., is an incredibly important one.

    However, when talking about FGM I cannot in any way shape or form condone it. Would you also hesitate to condone sexual abuse of children if it was normal and prevalent in that culture? We are talking about something that leaves the child scarred for life. Taking away her chance of experiencing sexual pleasure. So what if her own mum wanted to have it done to her? That is because of a traditional patriarchal culture that wants to keep women in their place. The only way to change these things is through education.

    The majority of women used to not want the ability to vote. And men used that as an excuse not to give women the freedom to vote. If you don’t want to vote, don’t, but don’t use YOUR voice to condemn other women’s right to vote.
    Same thing here, if you, personally as an adult woman, want to be circumcised, that is your choice. But don’t force young women into this, it is just plain wrong.

    Do you have any idea how many young girls die every year from these unsafe procedures? Bleeding to death or dying from infections? Women who are permanently scarred and may end up dying in child birth. Women who can’t even pee normally, much less have anything resembling a normal sex life.

    Would you also defend Chinese women breaking their little girl’s feet so that they could have smaller feet and look more attractive to men? Cause that was the women doing it too!

    What about women saying there’s no point in sending their girls to school, cause she should just stay at home anyway?

    I’m sorry if I sound harsh, but this is an issue I’m very very passionate about. I normally love your blog posts, and I have to say I was pretty shocked to read this.

    • Okay I thought it was clear in the post that I am against female circumcision…if not then I will repeat it here again: I am against female circumcision. What I am asking is whether we have the right to judge other people’s cultures, and I was using female circumcision as the ultimate example of that. Sorry if I offended you. This post was me thinking aloud about an issue I’m having regarding judgement, not an issue about whether I think female circumcision is good or not. I wanted to hear what other people thought about it. I wasn’t saying I accept female circumcision and so was not asking people to argue against it.

      • My apologies Sara, I misunderstood you.

        Well, I do think we have the right to judge, and to work against changing it, when it is something that permanently hurts and damages minors.

  6. Interesting questions Sara. I think I have to agree that it’s wrong when it’s harmful, and it’s still someone’s right to decide to do it any ways – smoking for example!

    I just finished a book about Global Citizens and Global Intelligence (GI) and it’s all about embracing people’s beliefs and traditions – and opinions – while recognizing your own position about those. It should be a mutual respect thing. I wouldn’t say I don’t respect someone who wants to circumcise their daughter, but I would hope and try maybe to highlight all the facts that I know about this (maybe it’ll be useful and first time information) BUT without bias or any imposition that I want them to be on my same side.

    😀 Keep em coming

    • I think that’s a really good approach. That’s what I’ve been doing so far – not outright telling someone that female circumcision is “wrong” or backwards, but simply highlighting the fact that there are so many negative consequences.

  7. I used to think, what should people be allowed to do?

    So I said people should be able to choose and live as they please. Herein lies the difficulty.

    Yes people have the right to lead their lives as they please.Its fundamental to humans to do so. But what if our choices harms others?

    So then I added to the statement, People should be able to choose and live as they please, as long as they dont harm anyone else.

    Then the problem gets bigger. What is harming someone? Yes im father drinks, and kills his own liver, that was his choice, but his family gets affected too? Then other people have to support the family.

    So its almost impossible for a choice to not harm someone.
    So I extended the statement , People should be able to choose and live as they please, as long as they dont harm anyone else, directly.

    I know that still leaves grey areas, but it becomes increasingly difficult to have any choices at all.

    With regard to some of this things, for example, lets say some culture used cow dung on a wound for pregnant mothers. Or we can look at genital mutilation, the whole process. or whatever other process. If some medical investigation shows it to kill people 50% of the time, should people still be allowed to do it? Should choice be taken away from them? Id say so.

    Its a difficult line, one that well always end up crossing and retreating over.

  8. I think it is absolutely essential to have a clear sense of right and wrong and to be able to say those things out loud and think of them in that way. Sometimes there is benefit in this, sometimes there is restriction. My word for the “right and wrong” perspective is: “moral code” / “morals”.

    I think our justice system tried to take these things into account – for example we are judged on two things – 1. the action itself and 2. the intention of that action. So you can kill someone in defence for example, but you can’t kill someone for sport. The punishments are different.

    Yes, on a large philosophical level right and wrong is a matter of how you are raised and what you were taught, the time that you live in and such like. But in my humble opinion and limited understanding, I sincerely feel that if there if we carry no moral code by which we, as individuals, manage our own behaviour and actions then we will be ruled by temptations and desires which is harmful, not just to individuals but to Earth and it’s existence itself.

    Whilst there are many people who right now are dominated by their desires, it is at least a comfort to know that there are groups of people who see such actions as “wrong” and who say they are wrong and who fight to right these wrongs. You will have a group of fishermen, for example, who ct off sharks fins whilst they are alive and throw them back into the water for profit, and a separate group of people who will attack those fishing boats and sink them. Each party sees the other party as wrong.

    We, as observers of this and many other things have a choice as to whose side we are on and the way we decide that depends on our sense of right and wrong and if we did not have that sense of right and wrong: then no action will be taken on any other action – the fishermen will continue to cut sharks and throw them back, BP will leave their oil in the sea, slaves will not be freed and so on and so forth.

    Therefore I think what is right and wrong centres around that which we hold valuable and that which we respect and treasure (such as the air, the Earth, the water, the family unit, our children and so on) and everything that threatens those things is “wrong” and everything that supports those things is “right”. For some, what is most important is “profit” or “gain” or “pride” and things like this, and everything which threatens that is wrong.

    So we can now create groups of people according to their central belief systems: and by belief systems I mean: “what they hold as valuable”, and “what their moral codes are”.

    We do need a universal set of values that everyone adheres to, and inshaAllah those values are good values that will improve the lives and health of all of humankind, the Earth, the creatures in it and create some harmony in the world and reduce conflict, reduce pain, reduce suffering and reduce the damage that we are doing to the air, the water, the sea, the forests and so on and so forth.

    What that particular set of morals should be, (I believe), is in religion – because the root of all problems in the world comes from the actual personality characteristics that we value (peacefulness, patience, forgiveness and so on) and the characteristics that we avoid (greed, lust, envy and so on). Whether people can understand that or not depends on the personal perspective they are looking through at any given moment., however our right and wrong should not be about actual actions – but about intentions and character that we aspire to or repel from.

    So to bring all of this back: yes, there is right and wrong and that right and wrong is related to the internal mechanisms that are driving individuals to aspire to a type of character which leads to the actions they comit, and not the external actions themselves which can be explained by too many reasons for them to be judged in and of themselves. A murderer is not wrog simply because he committed an act of murder: a murderer is evil because he wanted to murder, desired murder and believed that murder was OK for him.

    • So I think that what is “right” is human self betterment and aspiration to selflessness and what is “wrong” is human degradation and aspiration to greed and self aggrandisement. Everything else in the whole entire world (I believe) is a spin off from these things.

  9. I like to follow the general philosophy that we have here… If something doesn’t hurt others, then I accept their choice to do it. I accept that people chose to go through with cosmetic surgery and I would accept a woman’s choice to change (mutilate, cut off, circumize) her genitals if she wished, but I don’t accept a mom’s choice to do it to a child! AT ALL!
    Like Islam specifies, I think care needs to be taken for children and people unable to make their own decisions (mental problems).
    I like to think that people can make their own decisions and answer to the consequences, as long as they’re not dragging people down with them. Following this system, people would be allowed to drink alcohol, but the producers wouldn’t be allowed to produce it, so it would be a society without alcohol. Same with cosmetic surgery (except reconstructive)… I think it makes sense anyway 😛

  10. Just because plastic surgery, etc. is done in the west (and parts of the east, I suppose) when female circumcision is done in the east doesn’t mean the latter should be tolerated just because the former is tolerated. We can’t stop speaking against one injustice in one culture just because something that may lie in the same category is done in another culture. That’s like saying, “Well, since Side A does X and I don’t speak against it, because most others don’t either, I won’t speak against what Side B is doing either.”

    What we should be doing as human rights advocates as to be standing against both FGM and the violations of human/women’s rights we witness in the west, including extreme dieting.

    I completely understanding what you are saying — when IS it okay to decide whether something’s wrong or right? It’s one thing to say I would never want it for myself (’cause we don’t always want the same things, if ever all), but what if what’s being done to another person is actually harmful and is done ONLY out of pressure, which makes it not only physically unhealthy but also emotionally and mentally? Otherwise, what comes next–who decided that rape is wrong? I know, I know … I’m prolly going too far here, but if you think about it, it’s not that different, is it? The victims don’t have a say in what’s being done to them, their bodies are being violated; that’s what makes rape wrong. Similarly, in female circumcision, another individual’s body is being violated and mutilated completely against her will. That’s what makes it wrong to me. We can’t assume that just because many mothers do it to their daughters, their circumcised daughters will grow to do it to their daughters in return.

    In polygamy, I think if the women’s consent is sought and if they’re cool with it, then only then do we not have the right to think it’s wrong. If they’re okay with it, if they’re willing to live with co-wives and share their husbands, who are we to say it’s not good for them? It’s certainly not for me or you, yes, but it works for some other women, although I’ve never met them.

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