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Ethics and Sexual Taboos

The problem here is that social taboos are often matters of strong emotions. People are often disgusted by someone's violating a taboo. Their disgust signals to them that the behavior is unethical. They forget that what is socially unacceptable may not violate any ethical principle but, instead, be a violation of a social convention of one kind or other.

One obvious area to think through, based on this common confusion, is the area of human sexuality. Social groups often establish strong sanctions for unconventional behavior involving the human body. Some social groups inflict strong punishments on women who do no more than appear in public without being completely veiled, an act socially considered indecent and sexually provocative. The question for us, then, is when is human behavior that is considered illicitly sexual by some society a matter for ethical condemnation, and when is it properly considered a matter of social nonconformity?

Our overall goal—which we hope this chapter will inspire readers to pursue—is to become so proficient in ethical reasoning and so skilled in distinguishing matters of ethical principle from matters of social taboo, legal fact, and theological belief that you will rarely confuse these domains in your experience and, rather, render to each of them their due consideration and weight in specific cases as they might arise in your life. In the Test the Idea activities that follow, you can gain some practice in developing these important skills.

Test the Idea
Ethics, Social Taboos, and Criminal Law

In this exercise, we will briefly describe the substance of two news articles. Both articles depict examples of cases in which a given social group has established a law with a significant punishment attendant on its violation, regarding behavior judged by that group to be highly unethical. Think through how you would analyze and assess the act in question using the distinctions discussed in this chapter.

Here are some questions to think about as you read summaries of these articles:

  • Would you conclude that the social group in question has properly or improperly treated the sexual behaviors in each case as matters worthy of ethical condemnation?

  • To what extent should these behaviors be considered serious crimes?

  • Ethically and rationally speaking, how in your judgment should the two cases be treated?

Read each article summary, and answer the questions above for each one. Explain your reasoning. In each case, you may have to make explicit some of your assumptions about important details of the case that may not be in the article summary. Your judgment might vary depending on what details you suppose.

For example, you might come to a different judgment depending on whether violence or outright bodily harm is involved. As you work through the activities, take into account the probable reasoning that might be advanced against your position (for example, you might say, "Someone might object to my reasoning by saying … To them my reply would be…").

Article 1 (San Francisco Chronicle, Feb. 6, 1999)

We read, "For the first time in 23 years, the Philippines executed a prisoner yesterday, a house painter convicted of raping his 10-year-old stepdaughter. Leo Echegaray, 38, was put to death by lethal injection after months of legal delays and an emotional nationwide debate over the death penalty." Philippines president Joseph Estrada refused to stop the execution of Leo Echegaray, "despite pleas from the Vatican, the European Union, and human rights groups." Amnesty International "called Echegaray's death 'a huge step in the wrong direction for human rights in the Philippines'." President Estrada said that the execution signifies "proof of the government's determination to maintain law and order."

After reflecting on the questions we asked you to consider for both articles, come to a determination as to whether, in your best judgment, the punishment fit the crime. Then complete these statements:

  1. I believe that the law leading to this execution is or is not an ethically justified law, because…

  2. If you believe the law itself violated some human right or ethical principle, complete the following statements:

    1. The reason this case contains at least one violation of human rights is…

    2. The universal ethical principle(s) violated is/are…

    3. From a strictly ethical point of view, the following action would have been called for in this situation…

  3. If you believe the law was ethically justified, complete the following statements:

    1. The reason why this case does not contain any violations of human rights is…

    2. The relevant ethical principle(s) that justified this action is/are…

Article 2 (New York Times, Oct. 21, 1999)

This article, entitled "Boy, 11, Held on Incest Charge, Protests Ensue," states "the case of an 11-year-old Swiss-American boy charged with aggravated incest has led to an international dispute over the treatment of children in the American Justice System." The boy, "is accused of making inappropriate sexual contact with his 5-year-old sister when the children were in their yard." According to the article, after an arraignment date was set, the boy was released into foster care. "The boy has been living with his mother, stepfather, 13-year-old sister and two half-sisters, ages 5 and 3, in Evergreen, CO…A neighbor, Laura Mehmert, testified at the hearing that in May she saw the boy touching the younger girl's genitals with his face and hands. After speaking with the boy's mother, the neighbor reported the incident to the authorities. On Aug. 30, the boy was arrested and led in handcuffs from his home. Since then he has been held without bail in a county juvenile center." According to Manual Sager, spokesman for the Swiss Embassy in Washington, the circumstances of the boy's arrest "seemed disproportionate to us to the charges." He said the boy was taken into court in handcuffs and foot chains. According to Hanspeter Spuhler, director of the Swiss-American Friendship Society, "It's just a travesty… The reason why it's such a big deal to the Swiss and the Europeans is because this is part of growing up, playing doctor or something. If indeed he touched her inappropriately, then it will be talked over with the parents." The boy's parents fled to Switzerland with their other three children "out of fear that their three daughters would also be taken from them."

After reflecting on the questions we directed you to consider for both articles, come to a determination as to whether, in your best judgment, ethics is being confused with religious ideology, social conventions, or the law in the main issue that is the focus of the article. For your consideration, we have provided a brief analysis of the two fundamentally different perspectives that might be said to be indirectly implied in the article as it is written.

A Traditional View of Children's Sexuality

Children are not naturally sexual beings. If they engage in sexual acts, they are behaving in a mentally unhealthy manner. What is more, if older children behave in a sexual way toward a younger child, the younger child will be permanently damaged, and the older child should be punished as a criminal would be punished. If the parents of children who engage in sexual behavior fail to take harsh action against that behavior, they are contributing to unhealthy mental development of their children, and therefore are not fit to rear those children.

An Opposing View

To engage in sexual behavior is a natural part of human life. It is natural, normal, and healthy for children to experience, explore, and appropriately express sexual desires. Very often, children invent games (such as "playing doctor") as a form of exploring their sexual feelings with other children. Parents who understand the biological make-up of humans and the natural desire of children to explore their sexual desires will not punish children for having, or appropriately acting upon, sexual thoughts and feelings. Rather, they should look upon exploratory forms of sexual behavior as part of most children's lives.

This latter view seems to be implied in the article by Hanspeter Spuhler, director of the Swiss-American Friendship Society, who states, "It's just a travesty. The reason why it's such a big deal to the Swiss and the Europeans is because this is part of growing up, playing doctor or something. If indeed he touched her inappropriately, then it will be talked over with the parents." In this view, if problems seem to be present with the child's behavior respecting sexuality, the parents will be expected to help the child overcome the problem as parents are generally expected to help children develop as responsible persons. The role of authorities, then, is to help the parents develop their abilities to deal with their children as effectively as possible rather than acting as punitive bodies.

Now, given these two differing perspectives, how would you answer the following questions:

  1. From an ethical perspective, which of these points of view seems the more reasonable, given what you know from reading the article and from your own thinking?

  2. To what extent do you think ethics is confused with social conventions in the minds of the legal authorities in this case?

  3. To what extent do you think religious ideology might play a role in the thinking of either of the above perspectives?

  4. To what extent do you think the law upholds what is ethical in this case or, conversely, reflects poor ethical reasoning?

  5. How do you think this case should have been handled, given what is ethical for the children at issue and their parents? Do you agree with the way it was handled by the authorities, or would you have acted differently had you been in charge of the case? Explain your reasoning.

Test the Idea
Cultural Practice and Ethics

On June 12, 1999, the New York Times (p. A4) reported that in Muslim West Beirut, Lebanon, women and men are expected to avoid sunbathing together except when they are engaged or married to one another. At one beach only a handful of women could be seen, and most were fully clothed, and sheltered by tents or beach umbrellas. Those who swam simply strolled into the water, until their baggy dresses began to float along beside them… "I don't bring my fiancée here because if someone said something like "what a beautiful girl," there'd have to be a fight," said Hassam Karaki, who sat with other men on an all-male beach.

Randa Harb, 27, wore a modest pair of shorts and a tank top as she sat under an umbrella with her bare-chested husband and young son. "If you wear a bathing suit, you're going to attract more attention," Mrs. Harb said. "So my husband won't let me, because he doesn't want people to look and talk…"

Lebanon is not alone, of course, as home to a culture averse to women showing too much skin. In Iran, a strict Islamic republic, the insistence on female "modesty" means that women may not even enter hotel pools. In most Arab countries, except among elites, a standard woman's bathing costume is a dress.

Now answer the following questions:

  1. To what extent does the cultural practice of denying women the right to wear swimsuits at beaches and swimming pools where men are present seem ethical or unethical to you?

  2. On what ethical concepts and principles do you base your reasoning?

Determining Ethical Dimensions of Cultural Practices

On March 6, 1999, the New York Times (p. A15), reported:

In Maine, a refugee from Afghanistan was seen kissing the penis of his baby boy, a traditional expression of love by his father. To his neighbors and the police, it was child abuse, and his son was taken away….

[Some sociologists and anthropologists] argue that American laws and welfare services have often left immigrants terrified of the intrusive power of government. The Afghan father in Maine who lost his son to the social services, backed by a lower court, did not prevail until the matter reached the state Supreme Court, which researched the family's cultural heritage—while making clear that this was an exceptional case.

The same article also focuses on female circumcision, or genital mutilation, as some call it.

"I think we are torn," said Richard A. Shweder, an anthropologist and a leading advocate of the broadest tolerance for cultural differences. "It's a great dilemma right now that's coming up again about how we're going to deal with diversity in the United States and what it means to be an American."

Some, like Mr. Shweder, argue for fundamental changes in American laws, if necessary, to accommodate almost any practice accepted as valid in a radically different society if it can be demonstrated to have some social or cultural good.

The article states that Mr. Shweder and others defend controversial practices including the common African ritual that opponents call female genital mutilation, which usually involves removing the clitoris at minimum … But going more than halfway to tolerate what look like disturbing cultural practices unsettles some historians, aid experts, economists, and others … Urban Jonsson, a Swede who directs the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), said that there is "a global ethical minimum" regarding cultural practices. "There is a non-ethnocentric global ethicality," and that "scholars would be better occupied looking for it rather than denying it…. I'm upset by the anthropological interest in mystifying what we have already demystified. All cultures have their bad and good things."

Now answer the following questions:

  1. Focusing on each case presented in this article separately, to what extent is there an ethical component to each?

  2. To what extent do you think it is true that any culture has "bad" and "good" practices? Or do you think that all practices within a culture are to be honored?

  3. To the extent that an ethical case exists for opposing positions described by this article, what ethical concepts and principles would have to be taken into account when determining the most reasonably defensible position for each?

  4. The cases inherent in this article focus on culturally accepted practices that other cultures consider unethical. To what extent do you think each case contains a violation of human rights? Explain your reasoning.

It is important that you develop your ability to determine for yourself whether any belief system, practice, rule, or law is inherently ethical. To be skilled at ethical reasoning means to develop a conscience that is not subservient to unethical laws, or to fluctuating social conventions, or to controversial, theological systems of belief. But consistently sound ethical reasoning, like consistently sound complex reasoning of every type, presupposes practice in thinking through ethical issues. As you face ethical problems in your life, the challenge will be in applying appropriate ethical principles to those problems. The more often you do so, the better you will become at ethical reasoning.

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