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Filtering by Tag: Ethics

When Ethicists Fail: Some Thoughts on Abortion, Infanticide, and Personhood (Part 3)

James

How ethically responsible is it for two ethicists to publicly

endorse

the killing of healthy newborns?  That's the question I'd like to propose for the conclusion of this three-part blog series (read Part 1

here

, and Part 2

here

).  Mind you, I'm not asking if the authors have the right to publish their opinions, or anything like that.  Of course they have the right.  I'm simply asking how ethically responsible it was for them to do so, considering one glaringly obvious fact - the authors have no way of

knowing

that newborns are not persons.

It's my conviction that each of us has a responsibility to ensure our beliefs are well

justified

(i.e. to do our best to believe what is

true

by thinking about the reasons

why

we believe something, or

how

we know something), especially if our beliefs are morally "risky."  In my opinion, the more ethically precarious a belief is, the more justification it requires.  Now, the authors' belief that, "it's okay to kill newborns," is

extremely

risky, morally speaking.  One would need an

enormous

amount of justification, almost to the level of absolute certainty, to be able to publicly espouse such a view in an ethically responsible manner.  I don't believe the authors have such justification.  Here's why.

There's no way for the authors to

know

, with any degree of certainty, that newborns are not persons.  Their opinion is based on a very controversial philosophical view -

functionalism

.  There are good reasons to doubt this view.  I've given a couple in my previous

post

.  There are also good reasons to believe the substance view is correct (again, see endnotes in my previous

post

).  What's my point?  Consider the following thought experiment.

Suppose Smith goes deer hunting with Jones.  Both are aware of the possibility that there are other deer hunters in the area.  Smith hears a noise in the brush and points his rifle, ready to shoot.  He hesitates and asks Jones, “What if it’s a person?”  Jones replies, “The chances are slim.  Go ahead and shoot.”  Considering the fact that Jones does not know if it’s a person, is it ethically responsible of him to tell Smith to go ahead and shoot?  The obvious answer is no.

We may assume that Giubilini and Minerva, being professional philosophers, are aware that functionalism could be false and the substance view of personhood could be true.  We may also assume they’ve heard and considered arguments against functionalism, and are aware of its weaknesses.  At the very least then, the authors are in a position to know that the justification for believing newborns are not persons is open to debate and far from certain.  Indeed they admit as much.  In their

paper

, they say "it is hard to exactly determine when a subject starts or ceases to be a ‘person.’"  But if that’s the case, then the authors are in a similar position to Jones in the above thought experiment.

They don’t know that a newborn is not a person.  Yet, by publishing their paper and making their argument public, the authors are in a sense telling readers, “Killing a newborn is a valid option if it suits your interests.  Go ahead and do it.”  But given their lack of certainty about personhood, is it ethically responsible for them to do such a thing?  Absolutely not. 

It is not an ethically neutral act to endorse killing an organism, when you are not sure if the organism is a person.

  Such an act is ethically irresponsible.

I believe the authors have every right to publish their opinions and present their arguments.  And I condemn the death

threats

and hate mail they've received in response to their paper.  However, they've put their argument out there for others to evaluate.  And evaluate it we should - with hard-minded, uncompromising logic, and soft-hearted concern for the innocent, vulnerable human beings that are at the center of this debate.  If you agree with me, please share this blog series with anyone that may be interested, and help spread the word.

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When Ethicists Fail: Some Thoughts on Abortion, Infanticide, and Personhood (Part 2)

James

What makes you a person?  Is it your current ability to perform a specific function?  Or does being human automatically make you a person?  As abstract as these questions may sound, they're actually quite practical.  How we answer them affects how we treat other humans.  I'd say that makes them pretty relevant questions, wouldn't you?  If not, listen to what two ethicists recently

said

on the matter, "[A]ll the individuals who are not in a condition of attributing any value to their own existence are not persons.  Merely being human is not in itself a reason for ascribing someone a right to life."  They go on to argue that it is okay to kill healthy newborn babies, because they're not actual persons yet.  Still think these are irrelevant questions?

In my last

post

, I critiqued the logic of the ethicists'

argument

(hereafter ‘the authors’).  I'd encourage you to read my previous

post

first, if you haven't already.  In this post I will critique their view of personhood, and draw out some implications.  To give the authors' statements better context, I must quote them at length:

...‘after-birth abortion’ (killing a newborn) should be permissible in all the cases where abortion is, including cases where the newborn is not disabled... Both a fetus and newborn certainly are human beings and potential persons, but neither is a ‘person’ in the sense of ‘subject of a moral right to life.’  We take ‘person’ to mean 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… [A]ll the individuals who are not in a condition of attributing any value to their own existence are not persons.  Merely being human is not in itself a reason for ascribing someone a right to life.

Notice the authors fully admit the fact that fetuses and newborns are human beings, but still deny they are persons.  That's because they hold to a

functionalist

view of personhood.  The authors believe that humans are only persons (i.e. have inherent value and a right to life) when they are in a condition to perform a certain function - namely, valuing their own existence.  This means that a human could have the inherent

capacity

to value her own existence, but if she's not presently in the condition to

exercise

that capacity - if she is in a coma, for instance - then she is not a person and therefore has no right to life, according to the authors definition.

I don't know about you, but I find that view of personhood unsettling.  I don't like the idea that my right to life depends on what others deem a suitable "condition."  What disturbs me even more, however, is the idea that the most innocent and vulnerable human beings - fetuses, newborns, and those who lack full cognitive function - lose their value and worth simply because they can't

perform

.  Talk about a cold-hearted, dehumanizing way to view people!  And most disconcerting of all, the authors cite medical practices in

The Netherlands

where similar views are already being applied to newborns.

I prefer what is called the

substance

view of personhood.  According to this view, humans are automatically persons by their nature.  All living organisms have, from the moment of conception, an inherent nature that determines the kind of thing they are as well as their ultimate capacities.  To illustrate, a dog is, by its nature, a

dog

at the moment of its conception.  And its inherent dog-nature determines its ultimate capacities - barking, wagging its tail, chasing the mail carrier, etc..  A dog that never learned to bark, because of some injury or developmental problem, is still a dog.  Its the dog's

nature

that determines the kind of thing it is, not its ability to immediately exercise its capacities.[1]

Similarly, a human is (by nature) a

human

from the moment of conception.  This is not simply a philosophical opinion, it is a biological fact.  From the moment of conception, a human fetus has a distinct,

human

genetic code (different from its mother's or father's) that determines its ultimate capacities for distinctly

human

things - things like imagination, reason, language, religious belief, math, etc..  A human that hasn't yet learned to read, speak, or value her own existence is still a human, and therefore a person,

by nature

.  Having a human nature means having ultimate capacities that meet the necessary criteria for personhood (e.g. the capacity to value one's own existence), whether the individual is ever in a condition to exercise those capacities or not.  Thus, on the substance view, fetuses and newborns (and comatose individuals) are all truly persons - by their nature they have the ultimate capacity to value their own existence; they just aren't in the condition to immediately

exercise

(or perform) that capacity.  But the capacities are nonetheless there. 

I believe the substance view is superior to the functionalist view for many reasons intellectually.[2]  But when I look at the above picture of my daughter (then just a week old), smiling in contentment from her mother's touch, the substance view is also confirmed for me existentially.  True, she cannot presently talk or reason, but those capacities are already in her by nature.  She's simply not able to perform them yet.  Even still, with such a look of peace and happiness on her face, I find it hard to believe that she doesn't already value her existence in some fundamental way.

So what does this all mean?  Well, a number of things.  First, I think most of you reading this would agree that it is morally wrong to kill an innocent person for convenience.  According to the substance view, newborns are persons.  Thus, it is wrong to kill them.  According to the functionalist view, newborns are

not

persons, so it is okay to kill them.  Choose which view makes the most sense.  But remember, as I pointed out in my last

post

(and as the authors argue), newborns and fetuses are morally equivalent.  If it's wrong to kill a newborn, then it's wrong to kill a fetus.  Those who are deeply committed to the belief that it is okay to kill fetuses (if the mother so chooses), but also want to believe it is wrong to kill newborns, will experience some

cognitive dissonance

with this argument.  Logically speaking, you can't have it both ways.

In my next and final post in this series, I will do something ironic.  I will evaluate how

ethical

it was for our two ethicists to publish their argument.

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*If you like this article, please consider supporting my writing by

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Read part 3

Endnotes

1.   Credit goes to

Scott Klusendorf

for the dog illustration, and for much of my application of the substance view to this issue.

2.  I believe the substance view of personhood is superior to the functionalist view for a variety of reasons: (1) There are clear counterexamples to functionalism.  For instance, a comatose woman is not in a condition to attribute value to her own existence, but that does not mean she temporarily lost her personhood and right to life.  (2) Our moral intuitions regularly presuppose the substance view, as the comatose example proves.  Intuitively, we want to say that the comatose woman is still a person with a right to life.  But that can only be the case if she is a person based on the kind of thing she is (i.e. a human being), which assumes the substance view.  (3)  The substance view better explains other moral facts, like human equality.  If personhood is based on mental development, which comes in degrees, then the right to life must also come in degrees.  But we Americans believe it is a fact that all humans are created equal.  That's only true, however, if humans have a right to life simply by virtue of being human.  The substance view can explain why.  The functionalist view can't.

When Ethicists Fail: Some Thoughts on Abortion, Infanticide, and Personhood (Part 1)

James

How does it feel to know that your worth as an individual, indeed your very right to life, is not based on the kind of thing you are (i.e. a human being), but instead is based solely on your current ability to perform a specific function?  In other words, if you can't perform this function, it's okay to kill you.  That's the view proposed by two ethicists who recently

argued

, "[A]ll the individuals who are not in a condition of attributing any value to their own existence are not persons.  Merely being human is not in itself a reason for ascribing someone a right to life."  On this basis, the ethicists argue that it is morally permissible to kill healthy newborn babies, if it suits the parents.

Several months ago, many people were shocked when philosophers Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva published a

paper

in the

Journal of Medical Ethics

, in which they argued, “‘after-birth abortion’ (killing a newborn) should be permissible in all the cases where abortion is, including cases where the newborn is not disabled,” (I encourage you to read the paper in its entirety and take their argument seriously).[1]  Reactions to the paper ranged from complete denial ("Surely these guys are just playing devil's advocate") to total outrage (the authors even received some death threats).  What was lacking in all the uproar was a cogent, level-headed response.  Perhaps it is because my wife and I just had our first child (our daughter, pictured above at one week old), or perhaps it's because I just finished a study of bioethics, but I feel like I need to take a shot at responding.  So, here goes.

The logic of Giubilini's and Minerva's (hereafter 'the authors') argument can be summarized as follows:

  1. Fetuses and newborns are morally equivalent (i.e. there is no biological/developmental difference significant enough to make killing one morally permissible, but not the other).
  2. If killing a fetus is morally permissible, then killing a newborn is likewise permissible.
  3. Killing fetuses is morally permissible.
  4. Therefore, killing newborns is likewise permissible.

The authors' logic is valid and takes on the form known as

modus ponens

(for my fellow logic buffs).  Now, look at premise 1 - the claim that fetuses and newborns are morally equivalent.  I believe this is true.  There appears to be no biological or developmental difference between a fetus and a newborn that would make killing one okay, but killing the other wrong.  Think about it.  Is there any significant difference between, say, a late term fetus with a week left in the womb, and a newborn that's a week out of the womb?  Not really.  It's not as though the trip down the birth canal magically turns a fetus with no right to life into a person with a right to life.  To draw such a line at birth is completely arbitrary and unfounded.

Philosopher

Stephen Schwartz

says there are four primary differences between a fetus and a newborn: size, level of development, environment, and degree of dependency.  None of these differences is morally significant.  For instance, none of us would say that a conjoined twin has no right to life because of her degree of dependency (being biologically connected to, and dependent on, her twin sister).  Nor would we say, for example, that a teenager has more of a right to life than a toddler, because he is at a higher level of development (actually, the difference in level of development between a teenager and a toddler is more drastic than that between a late term fetus and a newborn).  It is the same with size and environment - they don't make a lick of difference in whether or not it is morally permissible to kill one and not the other.  Thus, premise 1 appears to be true - fetuses and newborns are morally equivalent.

If premise 1 is true, then premise 2 is necessarily true - they essentially say the same thing in different ways.  But, if premise 2 is true, and premise 3 is also true (as many people believe), then the conclusion that killing newborns is permissible follows inescapably.  There's no denying it, unless you deny one of the premises, or deny logic altogether.

I believe Giubilini's and Minerva's paper is a big problem for people who consider themselves 'pro-choice.'  If you agree that abortion is permissible, then you have to deal with the authors' argument.  You cannot rationally deny their conclusion without providing (via

argument

) some morally significant difference between a fetus and newborn.  I've offered the biggest differences I know of, and none of them appear to be morally significant.  If you can think of some better ones, then more power to ya.

Now, call me old fashioned, but I think killing newborns is morally abhorrent.  In fact, I think this is so obviously and intuitively true, that I'm just going to assert it baldly for now, with no argument:  killing newborns for convenience is just flat out

wrong

.  If you agree with me, then there is a solution to the dilemma posed by the authors' argument.  Rather than accept their conclusion, one can simply reverse their logic (i.e. turn their

modus ponens

into a

modus tollens

):

  1. Fetuses and newborns are morally equivalent.
  2. If killing a fetus is morally permissible, then killing a newborn is likewise permissible.
  3. Killing a newborn is not morally permissible.
  4. Therefore, killing a fetus is likewise impermissible.

Hard core pro-choicers won't like this argument of course, because of the conclusion.  But I don't mind it.  I think it's the more rational view.  It recognizes the facts of biology and adheres to logic and reason.  It also has the added benefit of

not endorsing the psychotic, morally abominable, absurd act of killing newborns for convenience.  Which is a plus.

In my next post, I will critically examine the authors' view of personhood, and draw out some implications.  And for those who actually need an argument for

why

killing newborns is wrong, I'll offer that too.

Want to learn more about logic and critical thinking?

Pre-register for my new online class

!

*If you like this article, please consider supporting my writing by

becoming a patron, and get cool rewards in return

.

Read part 2

Endnotes

1.  Those who follow developments in philosophy were probably not surprised at all by the paper.  Philosophers

Peter Singer

, of Princeton, and

Michael Tooley

, of UC Boulder, have been making similar arguments for decades.  They were just never published in a medical ethics journal.