Thursday, 1 March 2012

Philosophy, Infanticide and Death Threats

It appears that quite a storm has broken out over the recent publication of an article in The Journal of Medical Ethics. The article, which is freely available on-line, is by Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva, and concerns the ethics of what the authors term "after-birth abortion". Unusually for an article in the area of practical ethics it has been reported in the UK in the Daily Mail and, as has been reported by both the Australian paper The Age and by the editor of The Journal of Medical Ethics, the authors of the original article have received intense negative publicity and a series of death threats.

In order to respond to what has occurred here there are a number of things that will need to be sorted out. Firstly, the philosophical context of the article. It mounts its case against a backdrop of other serious philosophical material that addresses similar issues. Peter Singer, likely the most prominent writer in the generic area of practical ethics, already arrived at arguments proposing what he termed "euthanasia" for severely disabled infants in the book Should the Baby Live? which, for better or worse, has a classic status in the literature. Singer's general approach to the question was shaped by his commitment to utilitarianism, and the authors of the controversial paper share the basic outlook of Singer. If you adopt the kind of reasoning that is shaped by this approach it is true that counter-intuitive conclusions are often reached. Some of these have included the advocacy of vegetarianism and animal liberation (Singer here following in the tradition begun by Bentham), and, since the time of John Stuart Mill, a concern with women's liberation. Amongst the achievements of the latter have been supports for female suffrage, the establishment of colleges for women (supported by Henry Sidgwick) and the general opening of social institutions to accommodate them better. Singer has spoken in general about "widening" the domain of the ethical so that more can be included within it than has tended to fit the demands of an often conservative "common sense" morality.

Utilitarians and consequentialists can be said to have acted often as social reformers and to have frequently shown disregard for the sensitivities of others. Alongside the reforming zeal that has come with this approach has emerged a conception of "humanity" that tends to assimilate it to either capacities (as in the work of Amartya Sen) or in terms of a conception of "personhood" that is deemed distinct from simply being human. The latter conception animates the controversial paper and leads to a distinction between "actual" and "potential" persons and to the conclusion that since new born babies are just as much "potential" persons as fetuses that it follows that the moral status of each is equivalent. It is on these grounds that the authors argue for the conclusion that the new born baby lacks any specific interests of its own and can, therefore, suffer no discernible "harm" if its life is terminated.

Before turning to the public reaction to these propositions I should first point out that just as the paper merely extends positions that have been elaborated in much recent philosophical work that there are others who have argued even more "extreme" points. David Benatar, for example, in his book Better Never To Have Been, taking an approach that is similar to Singer and the authors, argues that coming into existence is itself "always a harm" and that ceasing to be will be a benefit and, in endorsing this view, argues against people having any children and in favour of euthanasia. Whilst this view has not been without its critics, Benatar has been robust in his response to them. A similar argument of Derek Parfit's has led to problems with accepting that "future generations" have any real claims on current moral concern.

So the article that has caused this general controversy and brought such opprobrium to its authors is one that, if placed in its general intellectual context, is rather less extraordinary than it likely appears to the general public. This is part of the problem with its being presented to the general public, that, in being "explained" to them, it appears without context and thus simply as a kind of Swiftian "modest proposal". Not only is this the case but it is also propelled into a general political climate in which opponents of abortion have very frequently and overtly compared it to infanticide. When the general public's lack of awareness of philosophical debate is combined with a highly charged political atmosphere surrounding the whole issue of abortion, the poisonous reaction to the authors of the contentious article becomes more understandable.

It is the context of publicity being given to philosophical propositions that produces the explosive response that appears to have taken the authors of the article rather by surprise. As Andrew Brown has pointed out, in his rather sanguine piece in The Guardian, the authors should, in a sense, have expected such a response once their article became public since the result of applying the author's arguments would be abhorrent. Brown points out that publicity was given to the article by political campaigners such as Glenn Beck and that the use of the article in this campaign was simply to bolster the anti-abortion case. The editor of The Journal of Medical Ethics has also agreed that using the premises of the article's argument one could easily reach an anti-abortion conclusion.

So there are three contexts to the way the article has been received and the collision between them has been unfortunate for the article's authors. The philosophical context is one in which others, more authoritatively than the article's authors, have essentially constructed a position that allows this article to appear as an application of a view that, whilst controversial, has a certain philosophical solidity. The general context of public outcry is constituted partly by ignorance of this background and partly by a clear understanding that implementation of the position argued for as a policy would be socially unacceptable. The political context gives the argument a twist that is quite different from the author's intent and shows that philosophy, like contemporary art, has the potential to play a role in today's "culture wars".

It would be the subject of a different and much more extensive piece to work through reasons why there are rather better philosophical positions than those adopted by the authors that support a general possibility of abortion and which enable it to be clearly distinguished from infanticide. Whilst common sense morality is not always a reliable guide and ethical intuitions can be faulty there are good reasons to trust both in this case. It is, however, important to make three key observations in relation to this situation. Firstly, philosophical reflection is rarely equivalent to formulation of public policy and Francesca Minerva, in defending the article, makes the point herself that it was not an argument for introducing a policy. Secondly, philosophical reflection is by its nature such that it often reaches conclusions and positions that will appear implausible, impractical or immoral to many others. The offence that a philosophical position will cause is not itself however an argument against it and if no better arguments can be made against deeply counter-intuitive views than such offence then the ability to be able to reason in public appears to have reached a nadir. Thirdly, defence of the right of philosophers to be open in their inquiry and not to feel the usual burdens of restraint that weigh on other sorts of public discourse is more urgent against a backdrop of increased publicity of the results of reflection. It is late to be arguing for a responsible media that enables some sense to arise amongst the public at large of the point and context of difficult and abstruse argument but without some form of acceptance that there is responsibility amongst more popular forms of communication to accept the rights of philosophers and others to engage in such debate precious freedoms will be placed in danger. Defending the right of philosophers to advocate infanticide is not defending infanticide itself but the defence of this right is not optional given that without it the ability to challenge conventional wisdom and overturn established truths will be seriously endangered.

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