Sunday, March 04, 2012

Infanticide and authority

On February 23, 2012, the Journal of Medical Ethics published an article, titled "After-birth abortion: why should the baby live?" by Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva (publication information / PDF of full article):
Abortion is largely accepted even for reasons that do not have anything to do with the fetus' health. By showing that (1) both fetuses and newborns do not have the same moral status as actual persons, (2) the fact that both are potential persons is morally irrelevant and (3) adoption is not always in the best interest of actual people, the authors argue that what we call ‘after-birth abortion’ (killing a newborn) should be permissible in all the cases where abortion is, including cases where the newborn is not disabled.

Julian Savulescu, editor of the Journal of Medical Ethics writes in defense of his decision to publish the article. He notes (perhaps unsurprisingly) that the article is controversial and has generated considerable negative response. Savulescu defends his decision to publish the article on the grounds that the ethical evaluation of infanticide is a continuing theme in both medical ethics and ethical philosophy in general. According to Savulescu, the published article is novel in its "consideration of maternal and family interests" and because it "draws attention to the fact that infanticide is practised in the Netherlands."

Savulescu explicitly notes that his decision to publish does not rest on on his agreement with Giubilini and Minerva's argument. "The goal of the Journal of Medical Ethics," Savulescu asserts, "is not to present the Truth or promote some one moral view." He continues, "The Journal does not specifically support substantive moral views, ideologies, theories, dogmas or moral outlooks, over others. It supports sound rational argument." He assures us that the Journal would (if they met appropriate editorial standards) publish opposing arguments, including those that employed the moral equivalence of fetuses and infants asserted by Giubilini and Minerva to argue instead against the legality of abortion.

I'm not particularly impressed by the article. One key moral component of actual abortion, especially first-trimester abortion, is that there is a true conflict of rights between the pregnant woman and the fetus. Simply asserting that a fetus and an infant share the morally significant property of non-sapience cannot make abortion and infanticide morally equivalent. It does not matter how many morally relevant similarities two situations share; if they have any morally relevant differences, the two situations cannot be equivalent, and the authors' conclusion that "‘after-birth abortion’ (killing a newborn) should be permissible in all the cases where abortion is," is facially unsound.

The argument for abortion does not rest on the premise that the instantiated potential (to coin a phrase) for humanity is morally irrelevant. The argument is, rather, that this potential human being substantially infringes on the rights of a fully actualized human being. The underlying doctrine is not that potentiality is irrelevant; the doctrine is that when the potential comes into substantive conflict with the actual, the actual takes precedence.

Indeed, the instantiated potential by itself is generally considered morally relevant. We conceive, for example, that should a pregnant woman choose to carry her fetus to term, she has obligations to act in the best interests of that potential future person; it is a moral offense, for example, for a pregnant woman who chooses to carry a fetus to term to smoke, drink alcohol, or take any action that she can reasonably expect to substantively harm the future person the fetus will become. Furthermore, a pregnant woman who chooses to carry the fetus to term has a moral claim on the rest of society to help her see to the well-being of the future person, such as prenatal medical care and obstetrics. The potential humanity of the fetus is not morally irrelevant; abortion rests only on the doctrine that the rights of the actual person take precedence over the rights of the potential person.

The conflict of the rights of an individual actual person no longer obtains after birth. There may be additional considerations, which deserve careful, rational deliberation, but when any morally relevant factor substantively changes, we cannot reasonably assert equivalence.

This analysis is fairly standard ethical philosophy. Even though I think their argument is unsound and their conclusion incorrect, I'm not in any way disturbed or "offended" that Giubilini and Minerva have constructed or published their argument. What is more interesting, however, is the Christian reaction to this article.

Religious ethics is in a curious dilemma. If there is a compelling rational argument for or against some proposed ethical principle, then by definition that argument is by itself a reason to hold or abjure the principle. We need not rely on claims of supernatural pronouncements of an invisible deity. On the other hand, these claims of supernatural pronouncements are required only when all rational arguments fail.

Emotional disgust is a morally relevant criterion. Disgust is not the only criterion, of course, and that a majority, even a near-consensus, finds some practice disgusting or abhorrent does not outweigh other criteria, but ceteris paribus, that some, many, or most people find some activity abhorrent by itself justifies ethical and legal treatment different from some other similar activity that is not considered abhorrent. One obvious example is cannibalism. Although we do not usually construe dead human bodies as having the same kinds of rights as actual, living persons, almost everyone finds cannibalism intolerably disgusting. This disgust is, by itself, sufficient rational justification for prohibiting the routine consumption, or sale for consumption, of human flesh. It is only when the moral force of this disgust creates a substantive conflict with the rights of actual, living people — usually the right to continue to live in extreme circumstances — that we have even a moral dilemma.

This case is, I think, similar. Even if we do not happen to conceive that infants — by virtue of their non-sapience — do not have personal rights, that we find their killing disgusting or abhorrent is, in the absence of any substantive conflict with the rights of other, sapient human beings, sufficient rational justification for prohibiting infanticide. That I as an individual do not want to kill an infant is, absent other ethical conflicts, sufficient justification for me not killing it; in just the same sense, that we as a society do not want to kill infants is, absent other ethical conflicts, sufficient justification for prohibiting the activity.

The key proviso, of course, is "absent other ethical conflicts." Every action, even the seemingly innocuous, entails some sort of ethical conflict. The business of ethical deliberation is discerning, weighing and arguing those conflicts. The point, however, is that desire by itself is one legitimate ethical consideration; indeed on a subjectivist meta-ethical level, all ethical conflicts are eventually about establishing hierarchies of desire and preference.

If preference is a legitimate moral criterion, why not simply argue directly on the merits? Infanticide is emotionally abhorrent, and unlike abortion, there are no substantive ethical conflicts that might plausibly outweigh avoiding infanticide, the rational case for making it illegal is open-and-shut. On the other hand, if abhorrence is morally irrelevant, it's not a criticism against proponents of infanticide that they countenance an abhorrent activity.

Thus religious critics of secular morality are in a bind. They have to appeal to emotion and simultaneously hold that emotion is completely morally irrelevant. Both horns of the dilemma are fatal to the religious position. If emotion is morally relevant, then they have a rational case; they don't have to appeal to religion to establish morality. If emotion is not morally relevant, then the emotional reaction to infanticide is irrelevant.

The dilemma is perhaps easier to see when we consider purely arbitrary moral beliefs. To some Muslims and Jews, eating pork is forbidden. But to many non-Muslisms/Jews, people such as myself, there's nothing at all abhorrent or disgusting about eating pork. The emotion in this case is, in a sense, "morally irrelevant" because the negative emotion is completely absent. A religious person must assert in this case that we need belief in God; otherwise, there's no good reason to refuse to eat pork. And the non-believer's obvious response is to forego the religious belief rather than pork. When emotion, by its absence, truly is irrelevant, the vacuity of religious morality is readily apparent.

When stated so baldly, the religious argument for morality fails so easily that the religious argument has to substantively complicate their discourse to obfuscate the central, inescapable dilemma. We see an example of this obfuscation in "Now the Atheists want to kill babies," which comments on Deacon Nick's article "Oxford University director attempts to justify abhorrent promotion of killing newborns", a criticism of Giubilini and Minerva's article and Savulescu's argument for publishing it.

The obfuscation, to the point of intellectual dishonesty, begins with the title of the article. First, in publishing the article as well as defending his decision to publish it, Savulescu is clearly acting in his capacity as the editor of the Journal of Medical Ethics, not in his capacity as director of the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics. Second, Savulescu is explicit: his decision to publish the article does not imply he endorses the position. He declares that he published the article because of its "novel contribution" and to support "sound rational argument" and "freedom of ethical expression." Savulescu is attempting to justify rational discourse, not the promotion of anything. Deacon Nick admits as much: in the lede, he changes the wording of the title to, "Savulescu... has attempted to justify his publication of Giubilin [sic] and Minerva’s article. [emphasis added]" And later in the article, Deacon Nick admits that Savulescu, as editor of the Journal of Medical Ethics, "does not specifically support substantive moral views."

I am not the only reader to be confused by the article; in the "Now the Atheists want to kill babies," which led me to Deacon Nick's article, the anonymous writer calls Savulescu a "pro-baby killing advocate." The author of "Now the Atheists" makes a rather obvious hasty generalization: an argument not even made but published by one person who happens to be an atheist cannot be reasonably attributed to "the Atheists" in the general plural.

Deacon Nick also misrepresents infanticide in the Netherlands and Savulescu's mention of it. Deacon Nick says, "Savulescu... has attempted to justify his publication [of the paper] by revealing the little known fact that it is already legal in Holland. But Deacon Nick actually quotes Savulescu, who says he published the paper because the authors revealed that infanticide is practiced in the Netherlands. (Deacon Nick does not cite any primary sources that asserts the practice is legal in the Netherlands.) Deacon Nick also asserts that "the Groningen Protocol allows a physician to deliver a lethal injection to a newborn who suffers from a disability, at the request of the child’s parents." But this is an egregious error. According to Giubilini and Minerva*, "The Groningen Protocol (2002) allows [physicians?] to actively terminate the life of ‘infants with a hopeless prognosis who experience what parents and medical experts deem to be unbearable suffering’."

*citing Verhagen and Sauer (2005), "The groningen protocol—euthanasia in severely ill newborns," in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Indeed, Deacon Nick seems entirely unconcerned about evaluating Giubilini and Minerva's position; Deacon Nick complains instead that the topic is even under discussion. "Julian Savulescu publicly admits he’s not disturbed by the argument that parents should be allowed to kill their newborn babies for social, psychological, or economic reasons because their babies are non-persons." But rational people in general, and especially medical ethicists, cannot allow themselves to be disturbed by mere arguments. Deliberation on any topic, and most especially ethical topics, is a social process. All the arguments must be made, and they must be published, and the whole point of an academic journal is to establish a neutral venue to publish all sides of an issue. If an argument is correct, it should of course be published; if it is incorrect, it must be published to be rebutted. This is an uncontroversial position since John Stuart Mill's On Liberty.

The critics of Giubilini and Minerva as well as Savulescu not only oppose the underlying argument; they are also incensed that an ethical principle is even being rationally considered in a social context. But why? If rational argument were not in their favor, then their position would simply be incorrect. But rational argument (as noted above) appears to actually be in their favor, so why not just rely on the argument itself? When someone does not make an obvious response in what appears to be his or her own interest, we are justified in looking for hidden motives.

Obviously, I can only speculate as to hidden motives. Rational discourse fundamentally undermines authority, social, cultural, and religious. It is a priori illegitimate to even question authority; an authority that must rationally justify its pronouncements is not authority at all. But in our democratic age, support for authority qua authority cannot be made openly. Instead, challenges to authority must be delegitimatized by indirect means. But to delegitimatize a challenge it is necessary that the actual points made by the challenge not be addressed, even if mistaken, invalid, or unsound. To address the substance of a challenge is to legitimatize it, and fundamentally undermine the notion of authority itself. Thus, religious advocates must take action not to further our rational understanding of ethics, but to undermine rational examination to maintain social, cultural, and religious privilege and authority.


  1. Here's a rational religious argument:

  2. Just because a person who happens to be religious makes an argument, that doesn't make it a religious argument. As best I can tell, Professor Camosy is making a purely rational argument; he does not appear to invoke revelation or scripture in any substantive way.

    His argument appears as flawed as Giubilini and Minerva's, and for the same reasons (which is why bad arguments are bad regardless of their conclusions). A deeper point, though, is that Camosy fails to uphold the authority of scripture and the church by legitimatizing the spirit of rational inquiry. Of course, I approve of his failure, but the Pope might not be so pleased.


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