Dorries, Humanism and Infanticide

Nadine Dorries’ response to her nomination for this year’s New Humanist Bad Faith Award is – well – classic Dorries:

The Humanist magazine are running an online ‘bad faith’ poll and I am apparently in the lead.

I am not sure why anyone would admit to being a humanist and part of an organisation which has such extreme views. A humanist recently commented that, not only did he believe that abortion was acceptable right up to the moment of birth, but that termination of a child’s life was acceptable up until the point where the child had the ability to reason, understand and justify life.

The worrying thing is that almost 400 people have voted in this poll, presumably mostly drummed up via Twitter. However, it’s scary to think how many people out there hold such extreme views dressed up as acceptable in an online glossy magazine.”

As veteran Dorries watchers will already know, she has but two stock responses to criticism on which she relies largely, one suspects, simply because she is incapable of engaging intelligently with criticism, these being (1) smear the critic and (2) play the victim.

Here, quite obviously, she’s resorted to both tactics. Humanists are allegedly a bunch of ‘extremists’ who advocate not just about but also infanticide, in addition to being an “anti-faith, anti-religious ‘cult’” and, of course, the fact that she was – and still is – leading the poll by some distance is all down to the machinations of the Twitterati and nothing whatsoever to do with the fact that a sizable number of people, myself included, consider her to be fully deserving of an award which is intended to dishonour the year’s most outspoken enemy of reason.

If we take the name of the award literally, the term ‘Bad Faith’ has the following meanings:

Bad Faith (n)

1. Intent to deceive; e.g. the Republicans accused the Democrats of negotiating in bad faith

2. (in existentialist philosophy) refusal to confront facts or choices.

If I’m going to be picky then the second definition falls some way short of capturing  the full flavour of the philosophical/existentialist meaning of the term ‘Bad Faith’ in which an individual engages in self-deception as a means of denying their own agency but its nevertheless the case that both meanings can readily applied to Dorries’ antics over the last year and, indeed, the last four or five years, making her a worthy candidate for this award.

That said, Dorries’ claim that a humanist recently made comments which suggest that they support no just abortion but infanticide has led to a certain amount of perplexity, not to mention calls for a citation which – this being Nadine Dorries – will certainly not be provided as I think we can safely assume that no one has genuinely made such a comment, humanist or otherwise.

However, rather than dismiss this remark out of hand, an examination of the actual origins of Dorries’ poorly executed smear is, I think, likely to prove instructive if only because it illustrates the crudity of Dorries’ claim.

It’s been suggested that the actual source of Dorries’ allegation is a brief statement included in an article which appears on the website of the British Humanist Association under the title ‘A Humanist Discussion on Abortion‘:

Some (non-religious) moral philosophers have argued that full consciousness begins only after birth or even later, and so foetuses and infants are not full human beings with human rights.

What this, in turn, refers to is – I believe – an essay by the American philsopher Mary Anne Warren, entitled ‘On the Moral and Legal Status of Abortion‘, which was first published in 1973 at around the same time as the US Supreme Court handed down its landmark decision in Roe vs Wade, legalising abortion in the United States. The version of this essay that I’ve linked to here appears in 4th edition of Biomedical Ethics (eds. Mappe & DeGrazia, 1996) and includes Warren’s postscript on the issue of infanticide, which was written and first published in 1982.

The core of Warren’s philosophical argument hinges on drawing a distinction between the concepts of genetic humanity and moral humanity. e.g.

In “Deciding Who is Human,” Noonan argues for the classification of fetuses with human beings by pointing to the presence of the full genetic code, and the potential capacity for rational thought.’ It is clear that what he needs to show, for his version of the traditional argument to be valid, is that fetuses are human in the moral sense, the sense in which it is analytically true that all human beings have full moral rights. But, in the absence of any argument showing that whatever is genetically human is also morally human, and he gives none, nothing more than genetic humanity can be demonstrated by the presence of the human genetic code. And, as we will see, the potential capacity for rational thought can at most show that an entity has the potential for becoming human in the moral sense.

Warren goes on to propose that the concept of moral humanity is bound up with the notion of personhood, the basic characteristics of which she defines as follows:

I suggest that the traits which are most central to the concept of personhood, or humanity in the moral sense, are, very roughly, the following:

1. Consciousness (of objects and events external and/or internal to the being), and in particular the capacity to feel pain;

2. Reasoning (the developed capacity to solve new and relatively complex problems);

3. Self-motivated activity (activity which is relatively independent of either genetic or direct external control);

4. The capacity to communicate, by whatever means, messages of an indefinite variety of types, that is, not just with an indefinite number of possible contents, but on indefinitely many possible topics;

5. The presence of self-concepts, and self-awareness, either individual or racial, or both.

Before going to address the question of whether a foetus can be considered to be a person in the following terms.

All we need to claim, to demonstrate that a fetus is not a person, is that any being which satisfies none of (1)-(5) is certainly not a person. I consider this claim to be so obvious that I think anyone who denied it, and claimed that a being which satisfied none of (1)-(5) was a person all the same, would thereby demonstrate that he had no notion at all of what a person is-perhaps because he had confused the concept of a person with that of genetic humanity. If the opponents of abortion were to deny the appropriateness of these five criteria, I do not know what further arguments would convince them. We would probably have to admit that our conceptual schemes were indeed irreconcilably different, and that our dispute could not be settled objectively.

Warren then goes on to address the argument that foetus has the potential to become a person with a somewhat amusing thought experiment in which a human space explorer is captured by alien scientist who intend to use the explorer as mean of producing clones:

Suppose that our space explorer falls into the hands of an alien culture, whose scientists decide to create a few hundred thousand or more human beings, by breaking his body into its component cells, and using these to create fully developed human beings, with, of course, his genetic code. We may imagine that each of these newly created men will have all of the original man’s abilities, skills, knowledge, and so on, and also have an individual self-concept, in short that each of them will be a bona fide (though hardly unique) person. Imagine that the whole project will take only seconds, and that its chances of success are extremely high, and that our explorer knows all of this, and also knows that these people will be treated fairly. I maintain that in such a situation he would have every right to escape if he could, and thus to deprive all of these potential people of their potential lives; for his right to life outweighs all of theirs together, in spite of the fact that they are all genetically human, all innocent, and all have a very high probability of becoming people very soon, if only he refrains from acting.

Indeed, I think he would have a right to escape even if it were not his life which the alien scientists planned to take, but only a year of his freedom, or, indeed, only a day. Nor would he be obligated to stay if he had gotten captured (thus bringing all these people-potentials into existence) because of his own carelessness, or even if he had done so deliberately, knowing the consequences. Regardless of how he got captured, he is not morally obligated to remain in captivity for any period of time for the sake of permitting any number of potential people to come into actuality, so great is the margin by which one actual person’s right to liberty outweighs whatever right to life even a hundred thousand potential people have. And it seems reasonable to conclude that the rights of a woman will outweigh by a similar margin whatever right to life a fetus may have by virtue of its potential personhood.

Make of that argument what you will, what matters for our purposes here is that Warren’s original essay ends more or less at this point and in such a way as to leave the door open for her formulation of the nature and characteristics of personhood to be interpreted, if taken to their full, logical, conclusion as suggesting that it may be morally permissible to commit infanticide on the grounds that a newborn child will not develop all of these characteristics at even a relatively rudimentary level until several months after its birth.

Warren’s argument certainly found its way into the wider public debate in the US surrounding SCOTUS’s decision in Row vs Wade and may well even have been put forward in argument during that case – I haven’t checked any of the transcripts of the case but it was clearly this argument which prompted Phillip K Dick to write and publish a short story entitled ‘The Pre-Persons’ (1974), in which he imagines a future in which the US Congress has determined that abortion should be legal up until the point at which a child becomes capable of doing simple algebra*.

*Both Plato and Aristotle held that the human soul was divided in such a way that there was/is a specifically human part consisting of two sub-divisions, one which is rational on its own and a spirited part (thumos) which can understand reason, while other parts of the soul were home to passions and desires similar to those found in animals. Both philosophers deemed the ability to understand mathematics and perform calculations – a horrifically complex undertaking at the time due, in the main, the number system used in classical Greece (try doing doing multiplication or division with Roman numeral and you’ll see that I mean) –  to be evidence that an individual possessed the spirited (i.e. human) part of the soul hence Dick’s choice of algebra as the determinent of ensoulment in his short story.

The critcism levelled at Warren over this omission prompted her to directly address the issue of infanticide in her 1982 postscript, which begins with the following observation:

One of the most troubling objections to the argument presented in this article is that it may appear to justify not only abortion but infanticide as well. A newborn infant is not a great deal more personlike than a ninemonth fetus, and thus it might seem that if late-term abortion is sometimes justified, then infanticide must also be sometimes justified. Yet most people consider that infanticide is a form of murder, and thus never justified.

While it is important to appreciate the emotional force of this objection, its logical force is far less than it may seem at first glance. There are many reasons why infanticide is much more difficult to justify than abortion, even though if my argument is correct neither constitutes the killing of a person. In this country, and in this period of history, the deliberate killing of viable newborns is virtually never justified. This is in part because neonates are so very close to being persons that to kill them requires a very strong moral justification as does the killing of dolphins, whales, chimpanzees, and other highly personlike creatures. It is certainly wrong to kill such beings just for the sake of convenience, or financial profit, or “sport.”

Warren’s fallback position is more or less the argument from viability – its wrong to take the life of a neonate, or even a foetus, once it become capable of surviving outside its gestational host although this is not, in Warren’s view, an absolute proscription. Rather, the fact that infanticide is considered to be morally wrong is a normative principle which is based, to a large extent, on the fact that we live in a society in which others are more than willing to care for a neonate if its natural mother is unwilling or unable to do so. In other circumstances Warren argues that this principle is not necessarily valid:

It remains true that according to my argument neither abortion nor the killing of neonates is properly considered a form of murder. Perhaps it is understandable that the law should classify infanticide as murder or homicide, since there is no other existing legal category which adequately or conveniently expresses the force of our society’s disapproval of this action. But the moral distinction remains, and it has several important consequences.

In the first place, it implies that when an infant is born into a society which-unlike ours-is so impoverished that it simply cannot care for it adequately without endangering the survival of existing persons, killing it or allowing it to die is not necessarily wrong-provided that there is no other society which is willing and able to provide such care. Most human societies, from those at the hunting and gathering stage of economic development to the highly civilized Greeks and Romans, have permitted the practice of infanticide under such unfortunate circumstances, and I would argue that it shows a serious lack of understanding to condemn them as morally backward for this reason alone.

In the second place, the argument implies that when an infant is born with such severe physical anomalies that its life would predictably be a very short and/or very miserable one, even with the most heroic of medical treatment, and where its parents do not choose to bear the often crushing emotional, financial and other burdens attendant upon the artificial prolongation of such a tragic life, it is not morally wrong to cease or withhold treatment, thus allowing the infant a painless death. It is wrong (and sometimes a form of murder) to practice involuntary euthanasia on persons, since they have the right to decide for themselves whether or not they wish to continue to live. But terminally ill neonates cannot make this decision for themselves, and thus it is incumbent upon responsible persons to make the decision for them, as best they can. The mistaken belief that infanticide is always tantamount to murder is responsible for a great deal of unnecessary suffering, not just on the part of infants which are made to endure needlessly prolonged and painful deaths, but also on the part of parents, nurses, and other involved persons, who must watch infants suffering needlessly, helpless to end that suffering in the most humane way.

In extremis, Warren argues – quite rightly – that infanticide may be morally permissible because it amounts to the lesser evil, to the most humane course of action in circumstances in which there is no prospect of a ‘happy ending’. This is not, however, the same as arguing that infanticide is, as a matter of general principle, morally permissible because neonates do not immediately possess the characteristics of personhood on exiting the mother’s womb. Rather, Warren argues that there are other, equally valid, reasons for considering infanticide to be morally impermissible in all but – to us and our society – the most extreme circumstance, reasons which do not rely on the neonate attaining personhood for their moral force.

One could argue that that’s a bit of a cop but in reality I suspect that this line of reasoning is much closer to the truth of how our moral intuitions actually work, on a day to day basis*, that the proposition that we should be guided at all times by a defined set of moral absolutes, whether these are values commended to us by religious texts or derived, by way of abstract reasoning, as Kantian categorical imperitives.

*Hume’s view that moral judgements are deliverances of sentiment is, descriptively, extremely close to what has been uncovered by psychologists studying the question of how we make moral judgements, i.e. we feel first and then reason afterwards to arrive at post hoc rationalisation we feel are particular way about a particular moral question.

I think that the worst that can be said of Warren’s arguments in this essay is that her logical view on the moral status of neonates does not, perhaps, sit well with the moral intuitutions of most people on the same subject although, to be fair, I suspect most people rarely get much beyond ‘well I know what it is when I see it’ as a personal distinction between human and non-human, i.e. that it is – or at least seems – self-evident that a newborn baby is a human being even if they cannot manage to articulate percisely why they feel that way. That doesn’t mean that our moral intuitions are wrong or that Warren’s argument is necessarily wrong, rather it illustrates the difficulty of deriving ought from is, i.e. David Hume’s famous is-ought problem which, for philosophers, is a much an intractable problem as the mind-body problem is to both philosophers and psychologists.

As I noted earlier, I strongly suspect that Warren’s original essay – without its 1982 postscript on the question of infanticide – is the original source material from which Dorries’ crude and unevidenced claim that a humanist has recently commented that ‘termination of a child’s life was acceptable up until the point where the child had the ability to reason, understand and justify life’, although I doubt very much that Dorries has the even the slightest awareness of this source material. She’s simply – and unintelligently – repeating an argument she’s picked up on from her buddies in the anti-abortion lobby in the wholly mistaken belief that this will somehow devalue her nomination for the Bad Faith award when, in fact, it serves only to vindicate her nomination and strengthen her claim to be fully deserving of such an award.

For me, what this illustrates, more than anything else, is simply that Dorries resorts to smearing her critics for no better reason that the fact that she is incapable of anything better.