Saturday, March 10, 2012

Arguing With The Pro-Infanticide Crowd

I've already discussed the pro-infanticide argument presented by Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva (published by editor Julian Savulescu in the Journal of Medical Ethics). But this is a big topic that deserves more than two short posts. So consider this Part II in a series.

Tauriq Moosa, a pro-infanticide M.Phil (Masters in Philosophy) student specializing in Biomedical Ethics at Stellenbosch University, says my previous post on the topic was not "rational or reasonable, but filled with ... emotive nonsense."

He declined to comment in more detail, but I will respond to his criticism, and to the criticism of others who have attacked me on this topic.

Those who defend Giubilini, Minerva and Savulescu say that Giubilini and Minerva were simply making an theoretical argument that mere laypersons can't possibly understand and that Savulescu was "merely allowing the authors to exercise their basic human right to free speech."

But Julian Savulescu is not merely an innocent bystander fighting for the right to free speech. He is an important scholar who shapes public policy -- and he abused his position of privilege and power to publicize dangerously radical ideas.

One could make the (unsubstantiated) argument that Giubilini and Minerva's paper was simply an academic exercise designed to present a controversial idea in its "
clearest, least hysterical form so that you can, also, reasonably defeat it," but if that's truly the case, the authors should have mentioned that important caveat.

(In the wake of the ostensibly unexpected uproar over the paper, the authors hopefully now appreciate the fact that in this era of broadband internet and social media, the academic world is not hermetically isolated from the rest of society.)

Consider this scenario: A journal of ethics could present, hypothetically, an article featuring well-articulated reason and a large body of data in support of Apartheid, but I doubt that many infanticide proponents would make statements along the lines of "Hey, that Apartheid
sure sounds hard, difficult and awful, but that doesn’t make it wrong," or "People are going to self-segregate and create social stratification anyway, so why shouldn't we do it in a rational, humane and orderly fashion?"

The fact of the matter is that the infanticide argument, like many other ethical considerations, isn't just about reason, science and ivory tower debate. It's also about a society's
values and standards (extrascientific concerns).

Those who strenuously reject Minerva's defense of infanticide do so for the some of the same values-based reasons that infanticide proponents so vehemently and emotively oppose online threats and "forcing babies to starve to death in filthy dumpsters."


Irene: "Er.. you seem to have missed this quote from Savulescu: 'I am personally opposed to the legalisation of infanticide.'"

RightKlik: I'm happy to see that Savulescu has decided (belatedly) that he is "personally" opposed to "legalisation" of infanticide, even if I don't find it entirely reassuring.

Does Savulescu believe that infanticide should be decriminalized? Is he simply making a distinction between infanticide and "after birth abortion"?

Is Savulescu tacitly making a distinction between "personal" preference and public policy?

Does Savulescu think infanticide is unethical, immoral and unacceptable? Or does he voice his opposition only to "
calm the public"?

If Savulescu is against infanticide on moral grounds, he should at this point feel compelled to make his case, having promoted the pro-infanticide view as editor of his prestigious academic journal.

If Savulescu is genuinely opposed to infanticide, this view would seem to be out of place among
the rest of his controversial views, e.g., abortion following sex selection, the creation of human-animal hybrids, the sale of human organs, eugenics, and amputating perfectly normal limbs to appease apotemnophiliacs.

In arguing in support of harvesting materials from so-called savior siblings, Savulescu uses logic and language strikingly similar to that in Francesca Minerva's defense of infanticide, citing the acceptance of abortion of "future persons" and "potential persons" as justification for using
savior siblings for spare parts.

Ben: "In your entire post, you have failed to present even a single argument based on anything more than your own outrage... [B]asically you are saying that your argument has no grounding in science... You're allowed to hold whatever opinion you want, but if you can't back it up with anything more substantial than "I don't like it" then don't expect anyone to take you seriously. "

RightKlik: There are no objective scientific criteria by which the value of a human life can be judged. One can approach the question with scientific data, but it's not a scientific question -- it's a question of morality or ethics.

Do Giubilini and Minerva base their argument on scientific data? Absolutely not. Moreover, the authors of the paper in question propose an academic definition of personhood that has zero practical value.

The authors tacitly admit that their definition has no practical value when
they say that "we do not put forward any claim about the moment at which after-birth abortion would no longer be permissible..."

Their best guess must seem
woefully imprecise to anyone who prefers facts, hard data and "scientific reasons":

"[A baby] might start having expectations and develop a minimum level of self-awareness at a very early stage, but not in the first days or few weeks after birth."

Days? Weeks? Take your pick.

In an interview, Francesca Minerva was
laughably vague:

"These attributes (the characteristics that define a person) start to develop a little later. I don't know when exactly."

Why don't Giubilini and Minerva provide a workable definition of personhood based on "scientific reasons," facts, or data? Because it can't be done.

Can we to define personhood on the basis of self-awareness, i.e., "an individual who is capable of attributing to her own existence some (at least) basic value such that being deprived of this existence represents a loss to her"?

Such a definition of personhood would be purely arbitrary, as this capability waxes and wanes along a continuous spectrum. There are no discrete milestones that can be defined with empirical data.

The same can be said of neurodevelopmental definitions of personhood. There's a continuum of development. Human development isn't as simple as the quantum states of an electron, readily defined by some utilitarian calculation comparable to Bohr's formulae.

I understand the temptation to discard my opinion on the basis of how uncomfortable it apparently makes you feel, but I'm sure that you understand that every statement of ethical condemnation needn't be based on a scientific argument.

Update: I made minor changes to this post for clarity.

Update II: Lydia McGrew: Quick, get that sunlight outta here!

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