This one is designed to allow students to see different points of view on the same subject. Tutors can use extracts from the literature, fictional case studies, fictional dialogues and points of view, etc. but essentially they should try to set up a ‘see-saw’ effect; i.e. students should be taken from one point of view to the other extreme and back again. This should encourage students to see how some topics involve substantive disagreement and to conclude that they themselves will need to commit to a point of view based on good arguments.

What is it in a nut-shell?
A series of exercises demonstrating opposing points of view.


Female Genital Circumcision (FGC)

Suppose you are a surgeon. A family bring their 10 year old daughter and request that you perform the most severe procedure of FGC. There is no legal precedent to guide you.

Tutors may have to explain what FGC is. FGC is actually illegal in the UK. This is a relatively recent law (since 1985 but updated in 2003) enacted in response to requests for FGC by families immigrating to the UK from countries where the practice is widespread. Medical staff confronted with such requests prior to 1985 had no legal guidelines to help them decide whether to offer the procedure or not. It may be best not to tell the students the state of the current law in the UK, but allow them first to think through the issue for themselves. Let them assume that there is no law to guide them. Reasons for having FGC done include claims about the social role of women and the importance of controlling female sexuality and limiting female promiscuity as well as religious reasons (In general there seem to be two types of justification for the practice: those based on cultural beliefs and those based on religious beliefs, although any particular individual may rely on both kinds of justifications. Of course, as with many matters relating to religion, there is some discussion over the religious justification for FGC. Some people interpret the Koran to require such practices others do not. Tutors should be sensitive to this point and make sure the practice is not associated with Islam in such a way that anyone who believes in Islam is necessarily a supporter of the practice). An estimated 100-130 million women and girls have had FGC and the procedure is not reversible.

STOP READING. What is your immediate reaction to such a request?

Now read on… The Father’s point of view: “This procedure is common in my country where we have just immigrated from (for example 98% of women in Somalia have undergone this procedure). It is part of our culture and by doing it we are expressing our concern for our daughter. When she is older we want to see her married and happy and she will never be able to get married unless she has this done now. Her two sisters had this procedure carried out in Africa with no problems.” The Mother’s point of view: “I am not asking you to understand our culture, as you are a stranger to it. All I am asking is that you respect my strongly held beliefs and enable me to raise my daughter the way I see fit. People in Britain ‘mutilate’ their bodies every day with piercing and cosmetic surgery; what we are asking you to do is no different. In fact we have much stronger reasons as this is part of our culture and required by our religion.” The daughter is too young to have an opinion on this matter, but generally wants to do whatever pleases her parents. STOP READING. Reconsider your views. Has your original opinion changed? Why? Why not? Do you find these arguments convincing? Why? Why not?

Tutors may want to identify the individual arguments in the passages above and consider them one by one:

  • It is a very common procedure in our culture.
  • We are doing what we think is best for our daughter and many people in our culture would agree that this is the best thing to do.
  • She will not be able to be married if she does not have this done.
  • Her sisters had this done with no problem.
  • You don’t understand my culture, but you do not have to understand. All you have to do is tolerate and respect.
  • This is no different from cosmetic surgery and piercing, both of which include physical harm for personal reasons (e.g. vanity and self-image).
  • Request is based on religious grounds. 
Now read on… Martha Nussbaum, a philosopher who words on human rights issues especially with reference to women around the world, writes: “…international and national officials who have been culpably slow to recognize gender-specific abuses as human rights violations are beginning to get the idea that women’s rights are human rights, and that freedom from FGM (Female Genital Mutilation) is among them. Without abandoning a broader concern for the whole list of abuses women suffer at the hands of unjust customs and individuals, we should continue to keep FGM on the list of unacceptable practices that violate women’s human rights, and we should be ashamed of ourselves if we do not use whatever privilege and power has come our way to make it disappear forever” (Nussbaum M. C., Sex and Social Justice, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), p.129).

Questions to consider:
  • Why is it important to respect the cultural and religious beliefs of others?
  • How far should this extend?
  • Is FGC something we should accept because we should be tolerant towards the cultural preferences of others?
  • Are all values relative, e.g. some cultures see women one way and some another?
  • Are some values absolute, e.g. respect for basic human rights such as freedom from abuse?
  • Is FGC a matter of personal choice or a matter for the law to intervene and protect individuals?
  • Does it make a difference that this case involves a child? Would you be more or less inclined to accede to the request if it came from a competent, informed adult?


Same sex marriages

This example looks at a basic question: how should we respond to other people’s choices to do things we find ill-advised, or immoral, or disgusting, or off-putting, etc. It considers the example of same-sex marriages which some people find offensive. It is not necessary for all the students in the group (or even some of them) to disagree with the idea of same-sex marriages (in fact many might welcome them), rather they should all consider how they should respond to the idea of other people wanting to do something we wouldn’t want to do ourselves. Fundamentally this is a question about the limits of liberty and the requirement to respect autonomy, not our personal choices with respect to relationships and marriage; to what extent should other people be free to do things we consider wrong?

Ask the students to read the following passage and consider the questions:

“Vicar criticises same sex ‘marriages’. A vicar has spoken out against a west Wales local authority’s decision to hold same sex marriages. Reverend Geoffrey Fewkes of Pantygwydr Baptist Church in Swansea says the city council’s ceremonies are sinful and immoral and ‘a total waste of time and money’. But Swansea council – the first in Wales to offer the civil service – is standing by its decision to organise commitment ceremonies in its registry offices. Gay couples in the city have called Reverend Fewkes a bigot. But he believes the ceremonies should not go ahead. He said: ‘They are not good socially, morally or financially. These commitment ceremonies – whether held for gays or heterosexuals are not legally binding – they can not and should not replace marriage.” Rev Fewles said there was no need for the city to waste its resources on such an arrangement. ‘Sin is sin and a gay relationship is a sin. There can never be a marriage between two people of the same sex – it’s not productive, no children can come from it,’ he said. ‘This was not a good day for a city that seeks to flourish.’

But Duncan Atkinson and Andrew Cole of Mayhill – who are considering using the service – say there is a need. Mr Atkinson, 63, said: ‘The vicar is nothing but a bigot and I really would like to meet him face to face. Being gay is not a sin. This is why the chapels are empty, people are being driven away – churches are going to have to start moving with the times.  Equality Swansea council said the ceremonies – which are not recognised by law – also allow heterosexual couples, who do not wish to marry, to make a public commitment to one another. A spokeswoman said: ‘The council’s equal opportunity principles provide for all members of the community to be treated equally. A commitment ceremony provides a service that would otherwise not be available outside of marriage.’ The commitment ceremonies are one of three new services that Swansea council has introduced. An alternative to baptisms, called civil naming ceremonies, and a renewal of marriage vows are also on offer.”
BBC News

Questions to consider:

What limits to the autonomy of others are imposed by this view on same sex marriages?

What are the reasons given for imposing such limits on the autonomy of others?

Do you agree that these reasons are strong enough to warrant limiting the autonomy of others to act as they chose?

First of all this activity asks students to identify the view expressed. Rev Fewkes is suggesting that limits are placed on the liberty of others; specifically that other people of the same sex should not have the right to marry, a right which heterosexuals currently have. The second question asks students to identify Rev Fewkes’ arguments for wanting to place these limits on the liberty of others. At this stage students should merely try to identify Rev Fewkes’ arguments, rather than evaluate their merits, so a list of arguments will do. His arguments include the ideas that same-sex marriages are:

-         sinful. This seems to be a religious claim, i.e. that this practice is a sin in the eyes of God.

-   immoral. This could be a more general claim that these practices are unethical regardless of one’s religious beliefs.

-         a waste of time. This is an entirely different claim, as the practices are now claimed to be time consuming and, presumably, burdensome on the state to administer.

-      a waste of money. Similar to the last claim this is an argument that these practices cost too much.

-         socially harmful. These practices will lead to social harms which Rev Fewkes does not elaborate on, so the group may need to speculate on what these might be.

-         not legally binding. This one is slightly unclear as the suggestion is to make such marriages legally binding, so perhaps Rev Fewkes is suggesting that such practices go against the spirit of the law and could never become legally binding.

-         they cannot replace marriage.

-         gay relationships are a sin. This is a separate argument from the one above as the claim is that the relationship is a sin and the marriage is a sin.

-         is not a marriage. This seems to be a conceptual point about what counts as a marriage, as he is suggesting that as no children can come from a same-sex union then the relationship does not qualify as a marriage. This presupposes that the purpose or essence of marriage is to procreate.

-         the city won’t flourish. The idea here seems to be that same-sex marriages go against civic values and the aims of the city of Swansea.

Encourage your students to merely list the arguments in the first instance and not engage with them as such. If they have time, they can then start evaluating the arguments one at a time.

Start by making a list of the arguments on the board. Then group the ones that are similar together, e.g. there are at least two arguments about sin (relationship and marriage), there are a number of practical arguments (cost, time, etc), and so on. Now ask the students to critically evaluate the arguments.

There are a number of possible responses here and it is not possible to summarize them all, but it is important to try to keep the discussion clear and focused, i.e. when students present counter-arguments, it should be clear which aspect of the position they are attacking and how the counter-argument relates to the argument. All arguments based on religious grounds can be objected to by anyone who does not hold the same religious views. All arguments based on moral grounds can be objected to by anyone who does not hold the same moral views. As a more general point one could ask why should my religious and moral views restrict what others are allowed to do? Even if we agree with Rev Fewkes that these practices are immoral or sinful, this is surely an argument for our personal choice in this matter, not for restricting the liberty of others. This is a very important point as it goes to the heart of the discussions in this section: is thinking that someone else’s choices are immoral, sufficient grounds for restricting their liberty? Some of the other arguments are practical and can be attacked on empirical grounds, e.g. it won’t be time consuming and expensive to offer these services, or on ethical grounds, e.g. even if it is time consuming and expensive this is irrelevant as people are entitled to these services. Then there are some arguments that compare same-sex marriages to different-sex marriages which raise questions about the nature of ‘marriage’ itself and who is entitled to it. Notice again here that this is not a personal issue about my personal sexual preferences or my desire to get married, but a general issue about the choices available to others.

The original BBC article on this story has quite a few arguments in opposition to Rev Fewkes’ position.

Now ask your students to read the following extract from Mill’s On Liberty:

 “The object of this essay is to assert one very simple principle, as entitled to govern absolutely the dealings of society with the individual in the way of compulsion and control, whether the means used be physical force in the form of legal penalties, or the moral coercion of public opinion. That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with liberty of action of any of their number is self protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinions of others, to do so would be wise, or even right. There are good reasons for remonstrating with him, or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but not for compelling him, or visiting him with evil in case he do otherwise. To justify that, the conduct from which it is desired to deter him must be calculated to produce evil to someone else. The only part of the conduct of anyone, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign...No society in which these liberties are not, on the whole, respected, is free, whatever may be its form of government; and none is completely free in which they do not exist absolute and unqualified. The only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it. Each is the proper guardian of his own health, whether bodily, or mental and spiritual. Mankind are greater gainers by suffering each other to live as seems good to themselves, than by compelling each to live as seems good to the rest.”

Mill J.S., On Liberty [1859] IN Warnock M. (ed), Utilitarianism (Glasgow: Fontana Press, 1962), pp.135-138

Consider the following questions:

What limits to the autonomy of others are imposed by this view?

What are the reasons for imposing such limits on the autonomy of others?

How does Mill’s view on the limits we are warranted on imposing on the autonomy of others compare with Rev Fewkes’ view above?

This is a short extract but slightly complicated by Mill’s old fashioned use of language so students may need a bit of time to read it and you may need to help them understand some passages.

First of all this activity asks students to identify the view expressed. Mill’s view is the opposite of Rev Fewkes. He argues that there should be no limits to the liberty of others as long as what they do does not harm third parties.

Then students are asked to identify Mill’s reasons for this view. Mill argues that simply thinking that what someone else wants to do is not good for them, either physically good or morally good, is not sufficient grounds for restricting his liberty. If we disagree with what others chose to do, we are entitled to talk to them, to attempt to persuade them, to get them to see things our way, but we are not entitled to stop them simply because they do not agree with us. The claim that the individual is sovereign over himself, captures the idea that we are self-determining and free to make our own choices. If a society is to be called free it has to respect this individual freedom to decide for our own selves. The only justification for limiting freedom is if one’s actions are harming others, because this moves from the domain of private liberty to affecting others by causing harm.

Finally the exercise asks students to compare Mill’s view with Rev Fewkes. Clearly these are the exact opposite views. Mill does not care whether we think that same-sex marriages are immoral or not. If I think they are immoral then this is simply grounds for me not to get married to someone of the same sex, not grounds for me to restrict others from doing so. Other people should be free to do things I find immoral, disgusting, ill-advised or just silly, simply because they chose to do them and as long as they don’t harm others.

A number of issues may come up in the discussion such as:

Mill’s claims apply only to rational adults of full mental faculties. Mill is the first to admit that children and the mentally ill are not able to decide what is in their best interests and decisions should be made on their behalf. Although this does sound like a reasonable thing to say, problems arise when you try to draw a clear line between children and adults, as clearly some 16 year olds have the maturity to understand and judge all the complications of some decisions, whereas some 19 year olds do not. The extent to which children are autonomous is a very fruitful ground for further discussions and possibly other projects.

What constitutes harm? If we are justified in limiting the liberty of others when they harm third parties, what constitutes harm? For Mill, harm refers to physical harm, but other types of harm such as emotional or psychological harm could be equally severe. A particular problem is raised by offence and whether this constitutes a type of harm. Rev Fewkes could claim that he is harmed when he observes same-sex marriages as this causes him offence. Is this sufficiently strong reason to restrict the liberty of those who want to have same-sex marriages (this restriction of liberty is clearly a harm in itself, but is it outweighed by the harm of offence?)? There are very interesting further questions here, particularly about freedom of speech and offending others.

Judging best interests. According to Mill, rational adults of full mental faculties are the best judges of what is in their own best interests. Here Mill is not claiming that we are always right when we judge something to be in our best interests. Clearly we are not infallible and we often make mistakes, e.g. I may think I will enjoy that second piece of chocolate cake but as soon as I eat it I realize that indigestion is not fun. Mill acknowledges that we will be mistaken about what is best for us, but he still thinks that the individual is the best judge of what is in his own best interests for two reasons. One is that the decision primarily affects the individual, i.e. it is my cake to eat and my indigestion to suffer, so the choice should be mine even if I get it wrong. The other is that making decisions on behalf of others is very burdensome and no one should be asked to bear that burden, i.e. worse than getting indigestion because of my choice to eat the cake is getting indigestion because you made me eat the cake. Not everyone agrees with this approach. Paternalists will argue that other people, often those who are experts in the particular decision to be made, will know better than the individual and should be making best interests decisions on his behalf. This kind of argument is often raised in health care, where health care professional might be claimed to be experts who know better than their patients what is best for them.

Example adapted from materials produced for the Level 3 Perspectives on Science course.