When Ethicists Fail: Some Thoughts on Abortion, Infanticide, and Personhood (Part 3)

7:59 AM James 4 Comments

How ethically responsible is it for two ethicists to publicly endorse the killing of healthy newborns?  That's the question I'd like to propose for the conclusion of this three-part blog series (read Part 1 here, and Part 2 here).  Mind you, I'm not asking if the authors have the right to publish their opinions, or anything like that.  Of course they have the right.  I'm simply asking how ethically responsible it was for them to do so, considering one glaringly obvious fact - the authors have no way of knowing that newborns are not persons.

It's my conviction that each of us has a responsibility to ensure our beliefs are well justified (i.e. to do our best to believe what is true by thinking about the reasons why we believe something, or how we know something), especially if our beliefs are morally "risky."  In my opinion, the more ethically precarious a belief is, the more justification it requires.  Now, the authors' belief that, "it's okay to kill newborns," is extremely risky, morally speaking.  One would need an enormous amount of justification, almost to the level of absolute certainty, to be able to publicly espouse such a view in an ethically responsible manner.  I don't believe the authors have such justification.  Here's why.

There's no way for the authors to know, with any degree of certainty, that newborns are not persons.  Their opinion is based on a very controversial philosophical view - functionalism.  There are good reasons to doubt this view.  I've given a couple in my previous post.  There are also good reasons to believe the substance view is correct (again, see endnotes in my previous post).  What's my point?  Consider the following thought experiment.

Suppose Smith goes deer hunting with Jones.  Both are aware of the possibility that there are other deer hunters in the area.  Smith hears a noise in the brush and points his rifle, ready to shoot.  He hesitates and asks Jones, “What if it’s a person?”  Jones replies, “The chances are slim.  Go ahead and shoot.”  Considering the fact that Jones does not know if it’s a person, is it ethically responsible of him to tell Smith to go ahead and shoot?  The obvious answer is no.

We may assume that Giubilini and Minerva, being professional philosophers, are aware that functionalism could be false and the substance view of personhood could be true.  We may also assume they’ve heard and considered arguments against functionalism, and are aware of its weaknesses.  At the very least then, the authors are in a position to know that the justification for believing newborns are not persons is open to debate and far from certain.  Indeed they admit as much.  In their paper, they say "it is hard to exactly determine when a subject starts or ceases to be a ‘person.’"  But if that’s the case, then the authors are in a similar position to Jones in the above thought experiment.

They don’t know that a newborn is not a person.  Yet, by publishing their paper and making their argument public, the authors are in a sense telling readers, “Killing a newborn is a valid option if it suits your interests.  Go ahead and do it.”  But given their lack of certainty about personhood, is it ethically responsible for them to do such a thing?  Absolutely not.  It is not an ethically neutral act to endorse killing an organism, when you are not sure if the organism is a person.  Such an act is ethically irresponsible.

I believe the authors have every right to publish their opinions and present their arguments.  And I condemn the death threats and hate mail they've received in response to their paper.  However, they've put their argument out there for others to evaluate.  And evaluate it we should - with hard-minded, uncompromising logic, and soft-hearted concern for the innocent, vulnerable human beings that are at the center of this debate.  If you agree with me, please share this blog series with anyone that may be interested, and help spread the word.

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  1. Excellent conclusion to a great series, James. Thank you for your concise thoughts on such a controversial issue.

  2. Good work James, I very much enjoy being able to clearly communicate your point of view. A question that popped into my head while reading your post is if it not considered a person, could it be considered property? Like a pet and not a human being, can you sell, puchase or destroy as you see fit? Looking down the logical extension, is slavery worse than never having a chance to live? Great posts! Keep up the good work.

    1. Nathan, thanks for your comments and encouraging words! Your question about slavery and personhood reminds me of a very relevant historical fact: denying the personhood of Africans is exactly how Western slave traders attempted to justify what they did. So, yes, I think you're correct. When you deny the personhood of an organism, it tends to become the property of other persons. It's a disturbing truth to keep in mind for those who want to relegate personhood to only the individuals they deem fit.