How should one respond when ethicists publish arguments in favor of infanticide?

In the current issue of Journal of Medical Ethics, two philosophers argue that what they call “after-birth abortion” should be permissible in all cases where abortion is (even when the newborn is healthy).

Not surprisingly, soon after BioEdge covered the article, the news spread on the internet… and the authors of the article unfortunately even received death threats.

If you know the spirit of much current academic philosophy, you will not be surprised to know that the authors defended themselves by statements like:

  • “This was a theoretical and academic article.”
  • “I’m not in favour of infanticide. I’m just using logical arguments.”
  • “It was intended for an academic community.”
  • “I don’t think people outside bioethics should learn anything from this article.”

The editor of JME, Julian Savulescu, defended the decision to publish by emphasizing that JME “supports sound rational argument.”

In a similar vein, the philosopher John Harris, who developed basically the same rational considerations in support of infanticide, felt a need to clarify his position. He never defended infanticide as a policy proposal. – What did he do, then?

He engaged in “intellectual discussions.”

What I find remarkable is how some of our most significant human ideals – logic and rationality – seem to have acquired a technical and esoteric meaning for at least some professional philosophers.

Traditionally, if you build on logic and rationality, then your intellectual considerations ought to concern the whole of humanity. Your conclusions deserve to be taken seriously by anyone with an interest in the matter.

The article on after-birth abortion, however, is JUST using logical arguments. It is ONLY presenting a sound rational argument. It is MERELY an intellectual discussion. To me, this sounds like a contradiction in terms.

Moreover, because of this “merely” logical nature of the argument, it concerns no one except a select part of the academic community.

Still, logic and rationality are awe-inspiring ideals with a long human history. Philosophers draw heavily on the prestige of these ideals when they explain the seriousness of their arguments in a free liberal society.

When people in this free society are troubled by the formal reasoning, however, some philosophers seem surprised by this unwelcome attention from “outsiders” and explain that it is only a logical scale exercise, composed years ago by eminent philosophers like Singer, Tooley and Harris, before academic journals were accessible on the internet.

I repeat my question: how should one respond when ethicists publish what they present as “rational arguments” in favor of infanticide?

My answer is that one should take them seriously when they explain that one shouldn’t take their logical conclusions too seriously. Still, there is reason for concern, because the ideals they approach so technically are prestigious notions with a binding character for most of us.

Many persons think they should listen carefully when arguments are logical and rational.

Moreover, JME is not a purely philosophical journal. It is read by people with real and practical concerns. They are probably unaware that many professional philosophers, who seem to be discussing real issues, are only doing logical scale exercises.

This mechanized approach to the task of thinking, presented on days with better self-confidence as the epitome of what it means to be “serious and well-reasoned,” is what ought to concern us. It is problematic even when conclusions are less sensational.

Pär Segerdahl

Following the news - the ethics blog