On 'The Ethicists'

Parents should be able to kill their newborns, argue a panel of ethicists in a new paper, because they are not actually people; they are only potentially people.  The core of the argument lies in the definitions:
“Both a fetus and a 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.”
The academic use of "her" to avoid sexism is unusually appropriate, since the majority of abortions are of female children.

The argument sounds at first blush like the kind of argument I would expect from an ethicist with proper training, because the potential/actual distinction was important to Aristotelian theories of generation.  This arises from the form/matter distinction, and from Aristotle's theory of motion and change.  In Physics 1, he argues that in order for change to be possible, you must have two contraries and a substratum to move between them.  Thus, for something to become hot, hot must exist; and so must not-hot; and then there must be a third thing that isn't as hot as it could be, but moves towards maximal hotness.  That which defines how hot it is possible to be is 'the actuality of hot.'

In the case of generation, form and matter are joined; but the child does not have the full actuality of Man or Woman.  Obviously, at birth, the child still retains substantial potential, and it advances toward that potential over the course of its growth.  Thus, if we define an actual person on Aristotle's terms, we could say that a child isn't an actual person until the child achieves its full growth both in frame and reason.

The ethicists, however, aren't doing anything as interesting or subtle as that; they are proposing a binary standard rather than a sliding scale of acutality,.  Presumably a two-year-old would be 'an actual person' under this standard.

There are several things that I might say about this.

1)  On the history of the idea:  Aristotle himself viewed infanticide as undesirable except when the child was deformed, or in cases when population pressure made it necessary (both more serious considerations in the ancient world, when scarcity of food was a far more severe and immediate concern).  He opposed abortion after the child had developed sensation, not reason.  (Politics VII 1335b20-30, but see also History of Animals VII Part 3, which proposes based on dissection that male but not female children will have organs such as eyes -- that is, the necessary conditions for sensation -- at forty days' gestation.)

Interestingly, the 40-day standard was being enforced by the Church in Charlemagne's day:  a woman who arranged the abortion of her child after it was forty days' old in the womb was subject to three years of penance, while a woman who did so earlier was subject only to a year's penance.  The secular law, however, treated anyone who assisted in an abortion (as for example by providing abortifacient drinks) as a homicide.  (See Pierre Riche, Daily Life in the World of Charlemagne, page 50).

That was not the case throughout the Western world, however; some followed the Aristotelian view and some other views on infanticide and abortion -- generally, after the second century AD, alternative views were much harsher.

2)  On the proposed standard of the ethicists:  Indeed it may not be obvious that the child has substantially more or less moral standing ten minutes before birth or ten minutes after; no more than wine in a pitcher is substantially different ten minutes before being poured into a glass than it is ten minutes after (unless, of course, it has been drunk; in that case, it has achieved its most blessed state about that time).

Some objections:  before the umbilical cord is cut, the child is factually dependent on the mother for survival; afterwards, it is not.  It has the capacity (but not the actuality, to stay with that distinction) of being independent long before then; but if the actuality is what counts, it does not yet have it.  If independence is what counts, though, the child will still die without someone's care -- but it need not be the mother's, after that, so perhaps that is why she loses the right to dispose of the thing once it is born.

Alternatively, we might note that the experience of childbirth is a traumatic passage for everyone involved, not easily dismissed as meaningless.  It may be that the act of birth is something that is important to our society as a rite of passage:  and the child, having survived it, has thus passed into personhood ritually.  In that case, the ethicists are barking up the wrong tree:  the personhood of the child is nothing to do with the child, but with the rites of society.  That would be coherent with many human cultures, in which rites of passage are just so abrubt:  a child goes from a boy to a man in a day, or a week, or an instant, but the rite once complete is absolute.

3)  The question of value is interesting.  The child (according to them) does not itself value life; and so, if no one else values its life, its life is without value.  That is a remarkably capitalist position to take on human life.

4)  If we do want to return to a form/matter concept regarding the child, science has provided us with a genuine idea of what the form of a man or woman would be.  It is their DNA structure, which does exactly what Form in the ancient sense is supposed to do:  it organizes and structures the matter.  This is a living principle, which exists from fertilization and begins to work as soon as the zygote begins to divide.  Thus, we learn from scientific inquiry that there is not the movement in childhood from 'potentially Man' to 'actually Man.'  Rather, the Form of each individual is unique, and it is actually possessed by -- and only by -- the child from fertilization.

If possession of an actual human Form is what distinguishes an actual human being, then the child is actually human from the first moments of its life.


Tom said...

The ethicists' case seems weak to me for several reasons (ignoring the gut reaction).

First, what evidence do we have that the infant does not value living? If you cause it pain, it will certainly object. If it is hungry or thirsty, it demands food or drink (well, same thing at that age), i.e., it demands what it needs to live. Contrary to the ethicists' assertions, all the evidence I have seen points to the fact that the infant actively wants to live, so I conclude that the infant values being alive.

Second, there are significant classes of humanity that would fall into similar situations, so accepting infanticide would also entail acceptance of other kinds of homicide. For example, those who have some form of severe dementia or mental retardation would be legally disposable at any age. Also, what about someone who is drunk or stoned out of his mind? He is actually less able to communicate his sense of the value of being alive than a healthy, conscious infant. Both the state of being drunk out of one's mind and the state of infancy are temporary, so that can't be used to differentiate between them.

If sheer dependency is the issue, what does the mental state of the person in question have to do with it? Parents should always be able to kill children unable to survive on their own, and adults who are taking care of their aged parents should be able to kill their parents. Any invalid becomes disposable.

Then there is the legal issue of someone unrelated killing an infant. Is that murder? If the value put on the infant's life by the mother is the measure, then what if the defendant's attorney can document that the mother was considering infanticide; should that be a legitimate defense, or at least mitigate the sentence? Does it become a property crime instead?

Anyway, my arguments shouldn't matter because I've become convinced I'm evil: instead of feeling sympathy, I can't help but snicker at the following juxtaposition:

The journal’s editor, Prof Julian Savulescu, director of the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, said the article's authors had received death threats since publishing the article.


Speaking to The Daily Telegraph, he added: “This “debate” has been an example of “witch ethics” - a group of people know who the witch is and seek to burn her. It is one of the most dangerous human tendencies we have. It leads to lynching and genocide. Rather than argue and engage, there is a drive is to silence and, in the extreme, kill, based on their own moral certainty. That is not the sort of society we should live in.”

DL Sly said...

I read this this evening and nearly lost my mind. Even the VES asked what was wrong as I muttered (well, ok, ranted) rather violently at the words on the monitor. (I talk to the tv, too, btw, especially the refs -- cause they really need my help.)

RightKlik said...

I wonder if this "ethicist," Julian Savulescu, has thought about where all this could go.

What if enlightened ethical legislatures all around the world were to begin passing "Savulescu laws," leading to a spike in infanticide.

Consider the possibilities... thousands of infanticide mills killing millions of fresh babies every year.

How about a bloody infanticide mill near Julian Savulescu's home?

No need for anesthesia for these nonpersons, right? The spine tingling screams could be heard far and wide. Music to Savulescu's ears?

Sometimes it's a good idea to move away from ivory tower abstractions to think about gritty reality.

douglas said...

Well, to no one's surprise, I'm sure, if you go to Francesco's page at Melbourne University (where he is now), you'll find he 'follows' Peter Singer.

I was already thinking it by the time I got to the end of the Telegraph article-
"He said the journal would consider publishing an article positing that, if there was no moral difference between abortion and killing newborns, then abortion too should be illegal."

I certainly think that it would be a good exercise for those staunchly Pro-'choice' folks to read this article, then ask themselves the question- what's the difference really? I don't think most of them have a considered answer, and the challenge might do them good.

douglas said...

"That is a remarkably capitalist position to take on human life."

You would think so, but I think one could argue that it's at least if not more communist. Communism is entirely based on a materialist assessment of the world, so everything, including a newborn, is merely a commodity and should be dealt with in a utilitarian way as these sorts are fond of thinking.

Grim, perhaps you should submit your post to the Journal of Medical Ethics as a response. It seems sound enough. Perhaps you could also work in Tom's points (with his permission) which are good as well.

My hunch is that these kids (they look like they're you're typical late 20's academics) were just looking for a way to get published in a recognized journal, and advance their academic careers, and hey, it worked for Peter Singer, right? It might be interesting to read the original paper, and possibly another paper Francesco wrote titled: "Abortion and the Argument from Potential. What We Owe to the Ones Who Might Exist" arguing against the AFP. You'd have to pay to see that, or get it through the college library, though.

Jason said...

Great follow up. I guess people wearing white coats will decide on every detail of all living matter. Ridiculous.

I love this blog. Ya'll should consider blog rolling me.

Eric Blair said...

Jonah Goldberg at the National Review had some cogent points: http://www.nationalreview.com/corner/292289/pro-life-pro-infanticide-consensus-jonah-goldberg

I don’t support death threats, never mind murder plots, but the self-righteous shock of the ethicists at the response to their argument is deliciously asinine. James Taranto writes, “people who issue death threats in response to an academic article are indeed ‘fanatics opposed to the very values of a liberal society.’ But so are people who write or publish academic articles arguing in favor of the murder of children.”

What did those two article authors think was going to happen? How can such tone-deaf people end up being enough of a success in such a profession that they could publish such non-sense?

I first thought the thing was something along the lines of Swift's "A Modest Proposal" but that does not seem to be the case here.

Grim said...


I'm not sure that the Journal of Medical Ethics prints incognito blog posts. :)


I might be willing to link to you. Who are you?


It is interesting that they seem to think this is a gate that swings one way. That seems to be very common on the left right now: they assume that powers vested in the government can only operate the way they want. Thus the power to kill people you don't care about will only be used on infants, and the power to demand that everyone cover contraception for free will never be used to demand that no one cover contraception at all.

Maybe so. And maybe not.

Tom said...

I guess I should say that I think the death threats against these fellows are wrong. I just meant that the juxtaposition of a defense of philosophers who advocate murder with decrying those who want to kill is rather amusing.

Grim said...


I meant to reply to your comment re: communism. I think this really is capitalist, because it's exactly the position that capitalists take on goods. What is the real value of, say, an apple or an hour's labor? The answer, according to capitalist theory, is that it has no innate worth: it is merely valued at whatever people in the market are prepared to pay for it. If no one in the market is prepared to pay anything for your corn, it is worthless.

That's fine for apples and corn, but it strikes me as a remarkable thing to assert about human life.

However, if we are going to assert capitalist principles here, why not the principle that supply creates its own demand? The child would be valued by a couple who wants to adopt, who probably would be willing to pay for her. Why not have a free market, instead of allowing only the parents (indeed, perhaps only the mother) to determine the value of the child?

douglas said...

Grim, your argument is sound, but I think ignores one crucial element, which is often ignored in the capitalism / communism discussion- communism is a meta-philosophy, whereas capitalism is not, at least not generally so. Typically being linked into a philosophical system as an operative mode, rather than being the philosophical structure itself. Therefore, we end up with the United States for instance, where a Judeo-Christian ethic utilizes capitalism within it's structure (I think there's more wisdom in "render unto Ceasar that which is Ceasar's" than it gets credit for). Communism, on the other hand is the ethic and the functional mechanism for implementing that philosophy. Note that the persons who end up getting to the point where they can offer up arguments for infanticide come from the left- it's the logical extension of their ethics. Capitalism may or may not lead one there, depending on what ethic it's framed in. Real value in capitalism may be dependent on demand, but that demand can be driven by the meta-ethic of the capitalist society within which is functions. Children are priceless is an option. That is not so in communism- children are simply another material source of labor, or drag on labor with no innate value. That's what happens when it's not God who grants you the rights to life and liberty.

douglas said...

Also, I'm not sure you couldn't submit a letter to the JME- here's their editorial policy:
The Journal of Medical Ethics (JME) aims at being the pre-eminent medical ethics journal with high quality articles relevant to all those interested in medical ethics, particularly to health care professionals, members of clinical ethics committees, medical ethics professionals, researchers and bioscientists, policy makers and patients.

We welcome original papers form any part of the world, from all philosophical traditions and approaches, as well as interesting empirical studies.

Papers should be written in a non-specialist language and should ideally be readable by any well informed individual, in particular by both the non-philosophically trained health care professional and the philosopher with no practical health care experience. For our part The Editors will:

Ensure that all important issues in medical ethics are welcome in the journal.
Ensure that a fair, independent peer review system is in place.
Adhere to the highest ethical standards concerning editorial and research conduct.

It would seem that the only type of submission available for this would be as a paper- so it wouldn't be a direct response, but could be presented as a counter-argument. Paper submission requirements are relatively simple:

This is the main category for original research papers on all topics including both philosophical papers and empirical studies. The main criteria for acceptance are originality, rigour and accessability and interest to a wide audience.

Submissions from medical students and students in other health care professions are welcome, please note in the covering letter if the paper is written by a student

Word count: up to 3500 words.
Abstract: up to 250 words.
Tables/Illustrations: up to 5, any more at editorial discretion.
References: up to 25

But of course, it would be more involved and require sourcing, and such. Still, I'd love to see it, and I don't see anything in there that says you have to publish using your real name... ;)