Singer, Infanticide and the importance of doubt

Ordinarily I respond to comments at the Ministry in the usual way, i.e. by way a direct response in the same comments thread. But, every once in a while I get a comment which deserves a somewhat and more considered response, i.e. a separate post and this is just such an occasion.

Following on from my last post which deals primarily with Nadine Dorries’ crude mischaracterisation of Peter Singer’s views on abortion and infanticide, Conor Carroll has responded with the following comments, which raise some interesting points which deserve further clarification.

I accept your point that Singer only allows infanticide in very regulated situations, and perhaps even a situation that may never occur, but nonetheless you are defending his position that infanticide could be morally permissible. This is an extremely dangerous stance to take, and even if is not eugenics in the sense of improving society, it will surely become that shortly. It already happens in  sense when you look at the disproportionate amount of down syndrome babies being aborted compared to healthier babies.

You have effectively said that we can kill a living breathing human being on the basis that (when the mentioned circumstances exist) that the child is incapable “of seeing themselves as distinct entities, existing over time.” They are not rational, self-conscious beings with a desire to live.” How long until someone who is mentally disabled can be killed at any age for the same reason? Or someone who has a mental age which restricts their ability to be rational. How old does a child have to be before they are rational and have a desire to live? 1, 2 or maybe 10? I suppose it depends upon the opinion of the person with authority to decide this.

I do accept the orginal premise that Dorries has made a mistake in her statements (unless she has further evidence she has yet to show which seems unlikely now.)

So, where do we begin?

Perhaps the best starting point is to be found in Singer’s own response to the question of whether, and in what circumstances, he considers infanticide to be morally permissible:

Q. You have been quoted as saying: “Killing a defective infant is not morally equivalent to killing a person. Sometimes it is not wrong at all.” Is that quote accurate?

A. It is accurate, but can be misleading if read without an understanding of what I mean by the term “person” (which is discussed in Practical Ethics, from which that quotation is taken). I use the term “person” to refer to a being who is capable of anticipating the future, of having wants and desires for the future. As I have said in answer to the previous question, I think that it is generally a greater wrong to kill such a being than it is to kill a being that has no sense of existing over time. Newborn human babies have no sense of their own existence over time. So killing a newborn baby is never equivalent to killing a person, that is, a being who wants to go on living. That doesn’t mean that it is not almost always a terrible thing to do. It is, but that is because most infants are loved and cherished by their parents, and to kill an infant is usually to do a great wrong to its parents.

Sometimes, perhaps because the baby has a serious disability, parents think it better that their newborn infant should die. Many doctors will accept their wishes, to the extent of not giving the baby life-supporting medical treatment. That will often ensure that the baby dies. My view is different from this, only to the extent that if a decision is taken, by the parents and doctors, that it is better that a baby should die, I believe it should be possible to carry out that decision, not only by withholding or withdrawing life-support – which can lead to the baby dying slowly from dehydration or from an infection – but also by taking active steps to end the baby’s life swiftly and humanely.

If nothing else, this clarifies the nature of the rare situations in which Singer argues that infanticide may be morally permissible, that of newborn baby whose disability is so severe as to lead both the child’s parent(s) and their attending physician to conclude that it would be better that the baby should die.

That naturally raises some very difficult practical and moral questions:

– How serious must the disability be for one to legitimately take the view that death is the best option for the newborn?

– To what extent is the reasoning that underpins the parent(s) decision that death is the best option a factor in determining the moral, and legal, legitimacy of such a decision? If their decision is motivated solely, or primarily, by compassion for the child is this a better, or more legitimate reason for taking such a decision than one taken on the basis of a utilitarian calculation of the likely long term consequences of the impact of raising a severely disabled, i.e. the financial, practical and emotional pressures that the family are likely to face and/or the impact that this may have on their plans for the future.

In order to provide the child with the care it needs, one of the parents (or the sole parent, of course) may to have to give up work to care for the child full time. These same demands may lead the parent(s) to the view that while they may be able to cope with raising this child this would only be possible at the cost of choosing not to have any further children. If the child is born to lone parent then that parent may well feel that the price they may have to pay for choosing to raise the child is that of giving up any prospect of finding a new partner. If the child is born to a two parent family, the parents may feel – with some justification – that the pressures of raising the child will have a serious, adverse, impact on their relationship sufficient to precipitate a separation or, if married, a divorce.

Are these legitimate considerations for a parent, or parents, faced with this situation? If they are taken in account by the parent(s) does that affect the moral character of their decision and, if so, how and to what extent, if any, does this serve to legitimise or delegitimise their final decision?

These are questions that the vast majority of people would fervently hope they never encounter and yet, for some people, they do arise and they have to tackled. On some occasions, i.e. where there is disagreement between the parents on the best course of action, or disagreement between the parents and physicians or even where a decision has been taken to sustain the child’s life by artificial means only then for the parent(s) to conclude, with the benefit of hindsight, that this was to wrong choice, the final arbiter becomes a court of law.

On other occasions – and perhaps more often that people realise – these situations are resolved in more informal and private manner. If the child’s disability is such that they have little or no prospect of survival without artificial assistance or without undergoing one or more major invasive medical procedures or even if the child merely contract an infection which, if left to run its natural course, is likely to result in the death of the child, then the physician may well accept that the parents have a right to refuse further medical treatment for their child and, in doing so, allow it die of a natural but, often, preventable cause.

In practical terms, Singer’s argument on infanticide amounts to nothing more than the proposition that if we accept that there are situations in which it would be better that severely disabled should be allowed to die then, in such situations, the most humane course of action may be for a physician to act decisively to end the child’s life in a swift and pain-free manner rather than allow the child die over a period of days from pneumonia or organ failure or some other natural cause which may give rise to suffering, if not in the child then for the parents. For many people that is a very difficult argument to deal with even if, at a purely rational level, it makes perfect sense because, for most people, the moral intuition tells them that there is big difference between the moral character of an act as opposed to the moral character of an omission – this has been confirmed experimentally, by the way, through a number of psychological studies of moral reasoning of which the best known examples are John Mikhail’s studies of responses to Phillipa Foot’s ‘Trolley Problem‘.

Is this, as Conor suggests, a dangerous stance to take?

Yes… and no.

The danger here, such as it is, resides not in Singer’s proposition that in certain circumstances, if it is permissible to permit someone to die by doing nothing prevent nature taking its course then it is – or rather, should be – permissible for someone (a physician) to act to bring that life swiftly and humanely to an end as a humane act of compassion. Rather it resides in the question of when, and in what circumstance, it become permissible to end someone’s life, irrespective of whether this is dome by omission or act. By what criteria do we make such a decision, particularly in situations where an individual is incapable of taking or expressing their own views on the matter – the practical implications of Singer’s arguments on infanticide are, after all, identical to those which operate in respect to euthanasia as this relates to adult who, due to brain injury, disease or a severe deterioration in mental capacity, are no longer capable of taking such decisions, or acting on them, purely for themselves.

Moreover, if there is no fixed and absolute standard against which the moral character and permissibility of such decisions can be assessed, i.e. the view that all (human) life is somehow sacred, what is there to prevent us – or more often the ‘authorities’ from moving the goalposts over time, expanding the boundaries of what is permissible to the extent that it become permissible to kill someone who has a relatively minor disability or even people considered, for purely irrational reasons, to be racially or morally inferior to ourselves?

This is the underlying essence of Conor’s argument – only if we take the absolute view that all (human) life is sacred do we have any kind of bulwark against the slippery slope that leads inexorably to the horrors of eugenics, forced abortion, genocide, etc., all of which would be true if only the doctrine of the sanctity of human life actually meant all human life and not all human life except…

Thar’s the problem we have with the Western and, primarily, Christian-influenced/derived view of the sanctity of human life. It doesn’t necessarily apply to all human life only to that portion of the species that is deemed to be ‘innocent’ at any given time and as history records all too well, and too frequently, the kind of ‘authorities’ that most strongly profess a belief in the sanctity of human life are often amongst the most adept at finding ways to justify making value-based exceptions to the sanctity rule, e,g,

Life is sacred… except for those Jews over there because we the Bible says that their distant ancestors murdered Jesus and everyone knows they kill Christian babies in their secret rituals and, in any case, they look a bit shifty and the Bishop owes Heimie the Moneylender a few thousand ducats and doesn’t really want to pay him back and….

You get the picture… a self proclaimed belief in the sanctity of human life offers no absolute barrier if and when some political or religious zealot decides that they’d quite like to shove people they don’t like up against a wall for a bit of target practice because even the beliefs that many people claim are absolute tend to come with more than their fair share of ‘buts’, ‘excepts’ and ‘only ifs’.

Their is no no perfect or absolute solution to Conor’s problem, not even a dogmatic belief in the sanctity of human life.

There is, however, an answer and this answer have never, in my estimate, been better expressed that it was by Jacob Bronowski who, in episode 11 of ‘The Ascent of Man’ put forward one of the truly great, moving and – of course – humanistic arguments of all time:

It’s said that science will dehumanize people and turn them into numbers. That’s false, tragically false. Look for yourself. This is the concentration camp and crematorium at Auschwitz. This is where people were turned into numbers. Into this pond were flushed the ashes of some four million people. And that was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance, it was done by dogma, it was done by ignorance. When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality, this is how they behave. This is what men do when they aspire to the knowledge of gods.

Science is a very human form of knowledge. We are always at the brink of the known; we always feel forward for what is to be hoped. Every judgment in science stands on the edge of error and is personal. Science is a tribute to what we can know although we are fallible. In the end, the words were said by Oliver Cromwell: “I beseech you in the bowels of Christ: Think it possible you may be mistaken.”

I owe it as a scientist to my friend Leo Szilard, I owe it as a human being to the many members of my family who died here, to stand here as a survivor and a witness. We have to cure ourselves of the itch for absolute knowledge and power. We have to close the distance between the push-button order and the human act. We have to touch people.

Its not belief that steers us away from the road to atrocity, its doubt – because only when we have doubts do we ask ourselves the hard questions from which we ultimate gain our limited, and fallible, understanding of the nature of right and wrong.

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  • Richard Gadsden

    I note that no-one is opposed to the killing of human life.  Cancerous tumours are human life, and no-one objects to the intentional killing of them.

    Note that HeLa is a single-celled human organism (a cervical cell, originally from Henrietta Lacks), and they are deliberately bred and killed in great numbers.  But they are genetically human.

  • You’re right Richard. You never see people rallying against the killing of *part* of humans, do you?

    Where are all the people against nail-cutting? And what about those barbarous err, barbars? Setting up shop, cutting peoples hair!

    • Richard Gadsden

      Nails and hair are not living, they’re just chitin.

      Even viability doesn’t seem to be the criterion: cancers are viable outside the body; they can be cultured as cells (note that non-cancer cells can’t).

      A cancer is an independently-viable human organism growing inside another human.  Why do we give a greater moral significance to a fetus than a cancer, then?

      Because the fetus is capable of developing into a person, and the cancer isn’t. It’s the only possible answer to the question.

      It’s not the presence of human DNA, because cancers have human DNA.

  • Paul Newman

    Thar’s the problem we have with the Western and, primarily, Christian-influenced/derived view of the sanctity of human life. It doesn’t necessarily apply to all human life only to that portion of the species that is deemed to be ‘innocent’ at any given time and as history records all too well, and too frequently, the kind of‘authorities’ that most strongly profess a belief in the sanctity of human life are often amongst the most adept at finding ways to justify making value-based exceptions to the sanctity rule, e,g,

    You suggest that because some religious people have been murderers the murder is not that bad ? Why not child abuse then, why not  torture, why not  both ? Rose West sits in a comfy cell moaning about her sausages. Bad bad lady  yes ,but bad enough to deserve to die …nothing is that bad !
    Science did not question the inferiority of the “Negro” and sent the Victorian period  toying  with human evolution starting form that assumption. This would, one assumes, have justified the murder of back babies at a later stage than white one by  the gradualist argument you  have used 
    It was Christian and spiritual thinkers that challenged this axium, not science. Eugenics was championed by the atheist Fabians and Nazism is suffused with romantic humanism its central myth being the Promethean escape from structure into pure will and intelligence.( Interesting Bronowski quote,a spiritual  man divided against himself , you must see Hamlet  …)
    People who want to lead  us down slippery slopes  always laugh at the suggestion but the slither in this article provides no evidence of any sticking point. If the child with no concept of time may be killed, then why not eaten?
    If abortion on demand is right, why not infanticide on demand, for, shall we say, social reasons? 
    To say that  we do not have a soul  we are a soul, and we have a body, is not to say that death is not a fact that must be dealt with or that death is never right. It is precisely to say that death is not the  immoveable moral forbidden  because we are more than our bodies Your thinking leads you to the conclusion that the only valuable life is  a murderers and the least valuable  is a child’s. Scientifically  perhaps you are right . This shows you are wrong .

    Doubt does not steer in any direction it renders  the doubter incapable of any action good or bad. It is not in itself a good thing . Julian Baggini dealt with this Liberal delusion in a balanced way recently http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2011/oct/28/lust-for-uncertainty

    I am not god but some things are so much more certain than others that I may act on the certainty that they right. Not killing babies is one of those and I despair that such a statement should be subjected to perverse doubt. 
    I do not believe you believe this and I dare not even think that by incrementally normalising murder of you think you will fill the gaping hole in your bridge over the River Kwai. 

    Madness  

  • tim f

    It might be true that some religious bigots have made value-based judgements on when it is okay to kill people, but it is perfectly possible to genuinely believe in and act to ensure the sanctity of human life: to be anti-death penalty, pacifist and act to combat poverty and disease. Even if this weren’t true, (and presuming that many of us  intend to live up to this but fall short of it), acceptance of infanticide is surely more likely to result into a slide towards eugenecism than occasional religious inconsistency.

    I have a problem with parents making a decision either to deliberately with-hold treatment or to kill a child. I agree that there is little difference between the two except where the resources needed to ensure the child lives are unavailable, and excepting the likelihood that the former is likely to cause less guilt in the parents. Once the child is a distinct, breathing human being, if parents won’t support it then the rest of society has a duty to, in my opinion. (I freely admit that is in part a theological judgement: about when life begins – in my view at first breath; in the particular value of human beings as created in the image of God; and in the belief that preserving (and ensuring the quality of) human life is important not only in itself but also because it honours God and reflects aspects of Christ’s behaviour who we are encouraged to imitate (for example as Healer).