« Comparing the current Supreme Court to previous editions | Main | A.G. Holder provides framework for targeted killings of American citizens »

March 05, 2012

Infanticide and "Madness"

At the "Catholic Moral Theology" site, Charles Camosy notes that "Mirror of Justice has been all over an article which recently appeared in the respected Journal of Medical Ethics titled ‘After-Birth Abortion: Why Should the Baby Live?’" He seems a bit taken aback by something I said:

Now, Robert George calls the argument from the JME article about infanticide “madness.” I can understand this reaction because I also strongly disagree with the argument. But is it really madness? As Peter Singer points out very nicely, if we throw out the Judeo-Christian tradition as our guide, it isn’t clear at all that a newborn infant has the same moral status as a human being who is reading these words. It certainly wasn’t the case in ancient Greece and Rome, and infanticide is still widely practiced in places like India and China where there has been little influence from the JCT. Singer further argues that we are slowly chipping away at the JCT and its speciesist focus on human beings as somehow valuable apart from their interests. Prenatal human children are human beings, he says, but they are not persons because they have no rational and self-aware interests–and we recognize this in our culture through our abortion public policy. Is it “madness” to believe this? Many millions do believe it, and have strong (though, in my view, ultimately misguided) arguments for so doing. I think they happen to be wrong, but if they are not “mad” in claiming that ‘a non-rational human being is a non-person’ before birth, then neither are they mad when they make the same claim about non-rational human beings after birth.

I find what Charles says here very interesting, so I’m going to comment on it at some length.

I am, of course, aware that infanticide was accepted and practiced in ancient Greece and Rome, and is still practiced (usually secretly, with winks and nods from public authorities, and with guilty denials by those who perform the killings and those officials who tolerate and sometimes even encourage them) in places like India and China today; just as I am aware that slavery was accepted and practiced in ancient Greece and Rome (and in the American south until 1865), and is still practiced in some places (e.g., Mauritania) today. But if philosophers, no matter how sophisticated, were to step forward today to argue that slavery is morally acceptable (e.g., because some people would have better lives as slaves than the lives they will lead in circumstances of freedom—you can easily imagine how a clever argument might be constructed), I would call that madness.

Of course, the “madness” I am referring to in condemning the advocacy of infanticide and slavery or their moral permissibility is moral madness. I am not making a clinical diagnosis of a psychiatric condition. I take it that this was obvious, but that Charles is nevertheless troubled that I would say such a thing. But I do say it. And at the risk of giving offense, I will say it again: advocating the moral permissibility of killing healthy newborn infants is moral madness; and it is scandalous, especially in a journal (the Journal of Medical Ethics) expressly directed not merely to philosophers (who—and I confess to being one—enjoy playing with every manner of shocking idea) but to physicians, nurses, and other health care professionals—people whose attitudes shape decisions they make about the lives of real people, including real infants.

Whatever errors of fact and judgment are made possible by the complexities of human development or a prenatal child’s hiddenness in the womb—though in the age of the sonogram, the child is hidden only from those who wish to avert their gaze—it should be plain to see that killing an infant because he or she is unwanted is evil. The advocacy of that, or of its moral permissibility, is what should take one aback, not a declaration by me or anyone else that such advocacy should be denounced as moral madness.

Does that make me seem unsophisticated? Well, then I'll just have to bear the shame of being regarded as an unsophisticated person, because I really do believe that advocating the moral permissibility of killing infant children is scandalous. Anyone should immediately be able to see that killing infants because they are unwanted is unacceptable—even if they have trouble seeing, and are in need of information or argument to see, that killing a human being in the womb is wrong. Killing babies, like buying, owning, and selling slaves (even if we debate whether certain labor practices are exploitative in ways that make them the moral equivalent of slavery), is not something that we should treat as worthy of being considered as a morally legitimate option.

That is not to say that I would, or that I think we should, shun philosophers who advocate the moral permissibility of such deeds, or refuse to entertain their arguments, or discriminate against them in academic hiring and promotion. On these issues, I am an old-fashioned liberal, and only wish that my old-fashioned liberalism were shared by many, many more contemporary academics—especially many who call themselves liberals. It is simply to say that we should not hesitate to say publicly that some things are monstrous, and killing babies is one of them.

But back to those ancient Greeks and Romans and those people in India and China. They were, or are, rational people, and they thought, or think, that there is nothing really wrong with killing babies, especially if they are handicapped or female. So does that mean that it is out of line to denounce the advocacy of infanticide or its moral permissibility as madness? Does it mean that infanticide, though it might turn out to be wrong, is something that we ought seriously to entertain as a possibility for practical action?

Several years ago, I wrote a long review essay for the Harvard Law Review on democracy and moral disagreement. I distinguished moral questions that are intrinsically difficult from moral questions that are difficult, not so much in themselves, but in cultural circumstances that obscure fundamental truths about, say, the inherent and equal dignity of certain classes of persons. With regard to questions falling into the latter category, attention to those truth-obscuring conditions helps us to understand how it can be that large numbers of reasonable people are able to accept even a terrible moral wrong, such as the wrong of treating human beings as chattel property. Take someone like Jefferson Davis, for example. He was by all accounts an admirable person in many ways—honest, generous, civic-minded, and so forth. Yet he believed in the moral acceptability of slavery. And there were thousands and thousands of people in the old South who were just like him—not bad people, but rather basically good people who believed and defended something monstrously evil. In circumstances in which an entire social order and way of life was built around slavery, and where the degradation of the slaves itself tended to reinforce the ideology justifying the slave system and obscure its wickedness, they failed to grasp, or grasp fully, its wickedness. But with those circumstances long gone, thank God, it would not be easy to understand how someone today could treat the advocacy of slavery as legitimate and respectable. Rather, we would, I suspect, greet such advocacy, especially if it were to be published in a journal devoted to, say, social justice by scholars holding mainstream academic positions, as scandalous. However clever the argument, we would not regard or treat the position as respectable. We would more likely denounce it as, dare I say it again, moral madness?

Okay, I can now hear a critic: “But what about you, Professor? Don’t you know that there are people who believe that some of your views are moral madness? For example, they think it is madness (bigotry!) to believe in marriage as the conjugal union of husband and wife, as opposed to a committed partnership of two persons irrespective of sex. And don’t you know that there are people who believe it is madness to regard five-day old human embryos—“clumps of cells, smaller than the period at the end of a sentence on a printed page”—as the equivalent of “living children”? And don’t you know that there are people who believe it is madness to suppose that a little wafer is the body of a crucified and risen Savior who now dwells in an imagined heaven?” Yes, I know all that. But what is its relevance? Advocating the moral permissibility of killing babies either is moral madness—i.e., something we should not seriously contemplate with a view to practical action—or it is not. If someone believes it is, as I do, then he or she should say so. He or she does not lose his or her right to say so, nor should he or she permit himself or herself to be intimidated into not saying so, by other people’s opinions of his or her views—on killing babies or anything else.

Now, let me step back from baby killing and talk about another form of killing whose moral permissibility is sometimes advocated, this time by people on my own side of the life issues: killing abortionists. I regard this, too, as madness. That is not because I think abortionists are not objectively guilty of grave injustice against their victims; nor is it because I believe it is impossible to construct a clever argument for it. In fact, I know exactly how one could construct such an argument, and I’m sure readers do, too. And, again, as a purely theoretical matter, or as the punch line of a reductio ad absurdum argument—one that is occasionally run in one form by pro-choice people against pro-lifers, and in another (satirical) form, as I have myself done, by pro-life people against people who are “personally opposed to abortion” but pro-choice—I have no objection to it. But I think it is outrageous to promote or seriously entertain the idea of killing abortionists with a view to practical action. When the late-term abortionist George Tiller was gunned down (at the church he attended) a few years ago, I published this comment:

Whoever murdered George Tiller has done a gravely wicked thing. The evil of this action is in no way diminished by the blood George Tiller had on his own hands. No private individual had the right to execute judgment against him. We are a nation of laws. Lawless violence breeds only more lawless violence. Rightly or wrongly, George Tiller was acquitted by a jury of his peers. “Vengeance is mine, says the Lord.” For the sake of justice and right, the perpetrator of this evil deed must be prosecuted, convicted, and punished. By word and deed, let us teach that violence against abortionists is not the answer to the violence of abortion. Every human life is precious. George Tiller’s life was precious. We do not teach the wrongness of taking human life by wrongfully taking a human life. Let our “weapons” in the fight to defend the lives of abortion’s tiny victims, be chaste weapons of the spirit.

So now I hear a very different critic: a pro-life critic who says, “hold on, Professor, you can’t compare innocent little babies who have harmed no one to an abortionist who kills thousands of innocent little babies.” But my point here is not to compare different forms of killing along every dimension. It is to denounce as madness—in the moral sense—forms of killing of whatever type that ought not to be seriously entertained as possibilities for practical action, even if clever philosophical arguments can be confected in their support.

Now back to Charles Camosy’s post. Let me again quote part of what he says:

Prenatal human children are human beings, [Peter Singer] says, but they are not persons because they have no rational and self-aware interests–and we recognize this in our culture through our abortion public policy. Is it “madness” to believe this? Many millions do believe it, and have strong (though, in my view, ultimately misguided) arguments for so doing. I think they happen to be wrong, but if they are not “mad” in claiming that ‘a non-rational human being is a non-person’ before birth, then neither are they mad when they make the same claim about non-rational human beings after birth.

If Professor Singer in fact says what Charles reports him as saying, then I think he is mistaken. We do not "recognize in our culture through our abortion policy” that "prenatal children are human beings, but are not persons because they have no rational and self-aware interests." Our abortion policy (to the, alas, very large extent that it is "pro-choice") has been established by the courts on the fundamental basis of the Supreme Court's 1973 ruling in Roe v. Wade. That decision was a disgrace in its reasoning (or, more accurately, its lack of reasoning); but whatever its faults, it did not base the alleged constitutional right to abortion on the proposition that “pre-natal children are human beings, but not persons because they have no rational and self-aware interests." That might be Peter Singer's view of why abortion should be permitted, and Charles may think (though I don’t) that there are strong arguments for it, but it was not anything remotely like the argument advanced by Harry Blackmun and joined by six of his brethren. Their proposition was that there is some great and quite possibly unfathomable mystery as to when the life of a new human being begins, and that since scientists, philosophers, theologians, and others disagree about that, states are not entitled to base their public policy on a particular view of the matter. Therefore, abortion must be legal through the first six months of pregnancy, and must also be legal when indicated to preserve maternal “health” (understood in the widest possible sense as including “all factors,” even those going beyond physical well-being) even in the third trimester after the child is viable. I would not say that this is moral madness; only that it is appalling science (for reasons Peter Singer could have explained to Harry Blackmun and did once, in the letters section of the New York Times, explain to the apparently befuddled Mario Cuomo) and incompetent reasoning.

Nor do I think, though perhaps I am wrong about this, that millions of people share Singer's view that unborn children are human beings but aren't bearers of intrinsic worth, dignity, and rights (in other words, they aren't "persons") because to have worth, dignity, and rights it's not enough that one be a human being—you've got to be something that some human beings are and others (unborn children, infants, severely mentally handicapped people, people suffering from advanced dementias) are not, namely, a "person." If millions of people believed that, then (since the implications for infanticide are clear, and were clear before the Journal of Medical Ethics published its recent paper), then millions of people would think that infanticide is perfectly morally permissible. The same for actively killing very severely mentally handicapped people and people in comas and minimally conscious states. And I don't see evidence of that. The vast majority of pro-choice people I talk to are not Singerites. They are people who have been sold the idea that we can't really know "when life begins" or "when an immortal soul enters the body," or some such false (anyone interested in when life begins can look it up in any work of modern human embryology or developmental biology) or irrelevant (ensoulment simply isn’t the issue—laws against homicide are not premised on a belief in immortality, and atheists cheerfully support them) thing. Often, they imagine that it is a deep "religious" question of some kind that is opaque to reasoning, and that therefore prohibiting abortion before [choose your arbitrary “marker event”: fetal viability, the capacity to feel pain, “quickening,” the emergence of detectable brain functioning, heart beat . . . ] is an imposition of religious doctrine.

Now, having doubled down on my claim that advocating infanticide or its moral permissibility is moral madness—killing babies is not something we should consider a legitimate possibility worth discussing as a real option on the table for practical action—let me also admit that I think the best argument for permitting abortion (best in part because it does not rest on a misunderstanding or misrepresentation of well-established scientific facts about when the lives of human beings begin) is the argument that in the end logically drives us over the moral cliff into supposing that it is not wrong in itself to kill newborn infants because they are not yet “persons.” In other words, it leads us precisely to the position defended by Giubilini and Minerva in the Journal of Medical Ethics. To me, it shows that we should regard elective abortion as deeply unjust and therefore morally indefensible.

A couple of concluding points:

First, to say that the argument for the moral permissibility of abortion that leads to infanticide is the best argument for legal abortion is not to say that it is the only one. As Charles Camosy points out elsewhere in his posting at “Catholic Moral Theology” there are other arguments for legal abortion. “One could,” he says, “support abortion rights for many reasons which have nothing to do with the moral status of the child: one might reasonably believe that prenatal children deserve equal protection of the law, but also that this doesn’t require women to sustain them with their bodies; one might believe that there is no good way to get the laws banning abortion enforced without seriously hurting the common good; one might also, based on history, have some hesitation to return to a time where there was broad government regulation of a woman’s reproductive capacity. There are others, but this covers most of them.” Like Charles, I do not find these arguments compelling (in fact, I think they can be shown to be quite weak), but they have been advanced by reasonable people of goodwill, so they certainly should be engaged in a thoughtful and civil manner. Patrick Lee and I do that here: http://www.blackwellpublishing.com/content/BPL_Images/Content_store/Sample_chapter/1405115475/Cohen_sample%20chapter_Contemporary%20debates%20in%20applied%20ethics.pdf

Second, Giubilini and Minerva, as well as the editors of the Journal of Medical Ethics, report receiving a barrage of hate mail, and even death threats, from people identifying themselves as pro-lifers and even Christians. Having been on the receiving end of hate mail and death threats, I know first-hand how horrible it is. On this issue, I stand in solidarity with the authors and editors. Whatever their errors (or mine, or anybody else’s) there is no justification for hate mail and death threats. The advocacy of injustice, no matter its species, can be criticized and even denounced as outrageous (or mad) without hurling personal vitriol or threatening people with violence. One needn’t share Gandhi’s pacifism to take him as one’s guide in this domain: he did not hesitate to condemn injustice and other forms of immorality in very strong terms—terms at least as strong as any I have used in denouncing infanticide and its advocacy; but he did not resort to calling those advocating it vile names or threatening them with harm.

Posted by Robert George on March 5, 2012 at 10:50 PM | Permalink


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Infanticide and "Madness":