Opinionista Jacques Rousseau 6 March 2012

Killing the messenger never silences the message

Whether abortion and infanticide are morally equivalent is a legitimate discussion, and ethicists should be allowed to have it without perennial death threats and kneejerk censorship. However, emotive responses to potent issues are also legitimate and need not be dismissed out of hand.

To regard something as permissible does not necessarily mean you’d like to see it encouraged or become a widespread practice. It’s also not necessarily the case that simply entertaining a possibility in thought or speech means that you are favourably inclined towards that possibility.

But we seem to sometimes forget this, becoming nearly as offended by someone merely thinking or speaking about that which we find abhorrent as we would had they actually committed the act in question.

In the Journal of Medical Ethics, Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva recently suggested that if abortion is permissible, infanticide (in certain cases) might also be. The public reaction and also the reactions from other bio-ethicists seemed to suggest that Giubilini and Minerva had been spotted introducing toxic feeding formula into their local maternity ward.

Their view, in short, is this: many of the existing instances in which we consider abortion justifiable hold equally for an infant, at least for a short period after birth. The authors don’t define the period in question, but this is irrelevant to the questions of principle and consistency they raise. If, for example, an abnormality such as perinatal asphyxia is discovered only after birth, how is it ending that life to be considered intolerable where the same severity of abnormality would have justified abortion six months earlier? I can’t do the article justice here, so please read it before assuming their position to be obviously wrong.

Of course many would find it shocking to imagine that compelling arguments for infanticide might exist. Some might even be shocked or horrified that people spend their time coming up with these arguments. For the most part, though, the arguments aren’t new – Michael Tooley and Peter Singer, among others, have said similar things in the past. Tooley wrote Abortion and infanticide in 1972, though, so it’s mostly only those of us who study philosophy who got to hear these arguments, because it was difficult for these sorts of texts to get widespread attention without the assistance of platforms like Twitter, Facebook and blogs.

Consequently, it was also more difficult to foment the kind of moral outrage now being directed at the authors – including death threats and questions regarding when, if ever, it’s too late to consider infanticide for ethicists.

An increasingly common response to ideas we don’t like seems to be censorship, or the application of threats in pursuit of silencing, rather than debate. Debate and discussion should always be our preferred option though because it can result in either the weakening of the viewpoint, or in giving us the opportunity to realise that we are wrong and should change our minds. If Giubilini and Minerva’s views are mistaken, in other words, we should be able to say why this is so.

Those who are opposed to abortion in general are obviously not challenged by their views, in that if abortion is impermissible, infanticide would clearly also be. However, for those of us who think abortion in general permissible, the paper is usefully provocative in asking you to consider which features of the two cases make one permissible and the other not.

One feature which makes the cases very different is simple human emotion and the ability to make more dispassionate decisions with regard to a foetus than to an infant. And while it’s common for philosophers to note this, and simply move on as if this human frailty is regrettable – certainly not a factor that should unduly influence our conceptions of right and wrong – I do think this is an important feature.

While I do think it’s true that we should aspire to being as rational as possible, this doesn’t mean that all non-rational or even irrational motivations are always flaws to be regretted and eliminated from our repertoire of responses. In this case, the disposition to value life (and especially life that is now exemplified in a fully-formed human rather than something more developmental) is in the majority of cases good for us and perhaps a candidate for respect and encouragement rather than scorn.

Extending the range of beings that it’s permissible to kill, or the phases of development where they no longer count, serves as a signal to those of us who are living and are aware of being so. The signal is one that lacks empathy for the majority of the population, who have the same fears as everyone else, but often lack the resources to articulate those fears in the language of intellectuals. One could perhaps say that it would be ideal for us to be less sensitive and precious about killing and letting die, but this would only be on one model of the ideal human – the one that resembles a purely logical Spock more than it does any of the humans we actually know, and ourselves are.

The point is that both sides of debates like this are (at the margins at least) premised on caricatures of humanity. I do think it’s true that many cases of potential infanticide are no different from cases where we consider abortion justified. So to my mind, it’s true that we’re being inconsistent in being repelled by the former and not the latter. But to make this case in a way which presents both the foetus and the newborn as fleshy objects of logical analysis also misses something, namely the sorts of adult humans we’d like to be, and the sort of world conducive to becoming that sort of adult.

We’re understandably reluctant to end lives, even though these are not the lives of persons. That reluctance is plausibly a virtue worth reinforcing, rather than trivialising. Yet we should be able to talk about these things without fear of death threats, and without those discussions being hijacked by the likes of Glenn Beck as evidence of a “progressive” agenda to introduce eugenics.

Moral outrage is not a sufficient justification to shut people up, especially when those people could be pointing to an inconsistency in our reasoning we’d benefit from knowing about. We also don’t want the boundaries of debate to be set by those who are most strident, where death threats or accusations of eugenics become effective techniques in argument. A level of despair at how quickly emotive topics such as this descend into that sort of name-calling is understandable and justified. But having these conversations is nevertheless important, and the reactionaries can’t be allowed to win through the rest of us simply not showing up to argue with them.

So, Giubilini, Minerva, and others like them should keep asking these difficult questions. But even when the responses seem hysterical, let’s not forget that there might well be something to be said for remembering that we don’t only live in our heads, but in bodies, families and communities too. DM

Read more:

  • Killing people while they’re asleep should be no crime, Normblog.
  • “Liberals Are Disgusting”: In Defence of the Publication of “After-Birth Abortion”, Practical Ethics.
  • The Journal Of Medical Ethics Infanticide Debate And “Acceptable” Free Speech, Index on Censorship.


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