Modern liberalism, female circumcision, and the rationality of traditions

J Med Philos. 2004 Aug;29(4):473-97. doi: 10.1080/03605310490503560.


Tolerance is at the heart of Western liberalism, permitting mutually exclusive ideas and practices to coexist peacefully with one another, without the proponents of the differing ideas and practices killing one another. Yet, nothing challenges tolerance like the practice of sunna, female circumcision, clitorectomy, or genital mutilation. In this essay, I critique the Western critics of the practices, not in order to defend these practices, but rather to show that Western liberalism itself does not offer transcultural and transtemporal principles, for these principles only cohere within the tradition of liberalism. The Western critique of sunna often maps onto the bodies of African women Western symbolic notions of sexual and political freedom, as symbolized in the clitoris. The practices of sunna cohere within the web of beliefs, the tradition, of those who practice them and, thus, are rationally justified within those traditions. I offer Alasdair MacIntyre's notion of moral inquiry as a guide through the complex world of cultural and moral dialogue between differing traditions.

MeSH terms

  • Circumcision, Female / ethics*
  • Cultural Characteristics*
  • Cultural Diversity*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Philosophy, Medical*
  • Politics