Friday, 2 March 2012

Why the row over infanticide involves a misreading of moral philosophy

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MP Nadine Dorries has been at the
forefront of outrage over the paper in
the Journal of Medical Ethics
Earlier this week, the Conservative MP resumed her attack on humanists, who she claims believe in the moral rectitude of killing newborn babies. The prompt for Dorries was the publication of a paper in the Journal of Medical Ethics (a journal published under the umbrella of the prestigious British Medical Journal) entitled "After-birth abortion: why should the baby live?" The paper, by Alberto Giubilini of the University of Milan and Francesca Minerva of Melbourne Universit, attracted significant attention and outrage in the media: "Ethicists call for killing of newborns to be made legal" was the Catholic Herald's take, while the Sun ran with  "Slaughter newborn kids, say academics".

But is this really what the academics are saying? We asked New Humanist contributor John Appleby, who has written for us in the past on ethical issues and moral philosophy, to explain the real story behind the tabloid outrage.
"Rarely do the popular press and wider public pay attention to moral philosophers. Consequently Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva should be applauded for the furore they have managed to stir up with their paper entitled ‘After-birth abortion: why should the baby live?’ Press reaction has been predictable, the Sun leading the charge with the headline ‘Slaughter newborn kids, say academics’. Also on the attack is last year’s New Humanist Bad Faith Award winner, Nadine Dorries, with her linking of humanism in general to the views set out in this particular article, claiming that humanism and support for infanticide go hand in hand. In the absence of any evidence that either Giubilini or Minerva are humanists, how does Dorries manage this feat? By linking the authors’ claims to similar ones made by her bĂȘte noire, the moral philosopher and humanist Peter Singer.
Actually Dorries is correct to mention Singer, but not because he is a humanist. The central argument in this paper is a variation on Singer’s and the title is surely a nod to the book he co-authored in 1985 with Helga Kuhse: Should the Baby Live? The Problem of Handicapped Infants. However, Dorries might like to reflect upon the fact that despite writing about the ethics of infanticide, Singer has neither been killing babies nor campaigning for babies to be killed. Why should this be?
Roughly, moral philosophy tries to do two things: to say which acts are right or wrong, and to say why they are right or wrong. In many cases this is quite straightforward, e.g. murder is always wrong because ‘wrongness’ is built into the definition. The difficulties arise at the limits, where things are not so clear-cut, e.g. infanticide is obviously wrong if it is murder, but is it murder? In order to address such issues, philosophers develop scenarios (some more realistic than others) and then argue about what they mean and what actions the protagonists should take. These are often known as thought experiments.
A well-known one is the trolley problem: a speeding trolley is heading towards a fork in the tracks. If it continues on course, it will kill five people; if you switch the points, it will kill only one. Should you throw the switch? There are many variations on this theme. My favourite is Judith Jarvis Thomson’s: you are on a bridge with a fat man; the trolley is below you heading for five people; if you push the fat man off the bridge to derail the trolley, he will die, but the five people will be saved. Should you push him off the bridge? How about if he was a criminal?
In the same way, the offending article pursues the line of argument as to whether newborns are persons and, if not, whether they have any moral rights. This is an interesting question because if they are not persons perhaps they do not, with all that entails to horrify Dorries. Conversely, one of Singer’s points is that some animals have greater moral rights than newborns because they fulfill more criteria for personhood.
So, contrary to the Sun’s claim, Giubilini and Minerva are not necessarily calling for the slaughter of newborn kids any more than Judith Jarvis Thomson is really suggesting that we should go around dropping fat men off bridges. They are demonstrating what happens when you follow a particular line of argument and then opening up the space for discussion. Surely it would be ridiculous to suppose otherwise?"
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