Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Infanticide debate: Moral philosophers need to defend their arguments, not hide behind 'thought experiments'

Dear reader, our blog has moved to a new address.

Do come on over (and change your bookmarks accordingly): rationalist.org.uk

The debate over abortion, infanticide and academic freedom continues ... a quick recap. Following the publication of a paper by the Australian academics Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva called "After-birth abortion: Why Should The Baby Live?" in the Journal of Medical Ethics, The Sun ran with the headline "Slaughter newborn kids, say academics"  and anti-choice UK MP Nadine Dorries repeated her ridiculous slander that humanists support infanticide. We responded with this comment from philosophy lecturer John Appleby which defended the right of the authors to publish what was, he said, a thought experiment in moral philosophy, not a policy proposal.

Now Kenan Malik enters the fray with this characteristically thorough and well-argued piece on his blog. Malik defends the right of the academics to publish, but criticises those who have leapt to their defence, including John Appleby. The paper does not, he argues, despite the claims of the authors, read like a thought experiment: "Their argument," he writes "is part of a long-standing philosophical tradition that has pushed to break down traditional moral boundaries and done so for practical reasons. Peter Singer’s arguments, for instance, have transformed attitudes to animal rights over the past four decades, and helped shape contemporary debates on abortion and euthanasia." He goes on to point out several places in the paper where the authors do seem to be making clear practical proposals. Though he can understand why the authors chose to defend themselves, from vitriolic attack, by saying they were merely doing abstract thinking, Malik thinks this is very bad for both free speech and moral philosophy: "Moral philosophy is important, intellectually, socially, politically", he argues, and therefore should not be downgraded, especially by its practitioners, as merely abstract logical reasoning. And in terms of free speech "you must also accept responsibility for what you say. Otherwise free speech becomes a game rather than a political and social necessity."

Peter Singer himself has just broken ground on the issue, telling the Chronicle of Higher Education:
"The moral status of newborn infants is a real issue, and it is proper for academic journals to publish articles that, like this one, discuss it in a serious and well-reasoned manner. People who wish to defend the traditional view of the sanctity of all human life should respond to the authors’ arguments, not by mere abuse."
I hope Singer gets to read Malik's piece, which is a philosophically serious response to the kind of utilitarianism that Singer, and the paper's authors, represent. We'll keep our eye on this one.
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