Sunday, March 04, 2012

A liberal ethicist believes babies are not persons

A Melbourne academic has hit the headlines after arguing that killing babies is morally permissible:

Doctors should have the right to kill newborn babies because they are disabled, too expensive or simply unwanted by their mothers, an academic with links to Oxford University has claimed.

Francesca Minerva, a philosopher and medical ethicist, argues a young baby is not a real person and so killing it in the first days after birth is little different to aborting it in the womb.

On what grounds does she argue that a baby is not a real person? Here is her key argument: individual is capable of making any aims (like actual human and non-human persons), she is harmed if she is prevented from accomplishing her aims by being killed. Now, hardly can a newborn be said to have aims, as the future we imagine for it is merely a projection of our minds on its potential lives. It might start having expectations and develop a minimum level of self-awareness at a very early stage, but not in the first days or few weeks after birth.

On the other hand, not only aims but also well-developed plans are concepts that certainly apply to those people (parents, siblings, society) who could be negatively or positively affected by the birth of that child. Therefore, the rights and interests of the actual people involved should represent the prevailing consideration in a decision about abortion and after-birth abortion.

So her argument is this:

i) There is a difference between being a human and a person.

ii) To be a person you have to be capable of making aims. You are then harmed if you are killed because you can no longer accomplish your aims.

iii) Newborns and foetuses cannot make aims, are therefore not persons, and can be killed.

iv) Adult humans and animals make aims, are therefore persons, and therefore would be harmed by being killed.

v) Adult humans not only have aims, but have well-developed life plans, and therefore take precedence over merely potential persons.

Let's stay with this for a while. What all this shows is how important it is to get basic questions right. Liberals have an odd idea that value comes from a person adopting a self-determined life plan. It doesn't really matter what the plan is (though it's often assumed to centre on a professional, creative career). Furthermore, someone who becomes a concert pianist because his father wanted him to is thought to be living a non-human life, whereas someone who becomes a concert pianist after previously considering being a neurosurgeon is thought to be fully a person.

What matters isn't the activity, or fulfilling one's natural or given telos (ends) in life - but the very act of choosing autonomously what one's life will be. That is what liberals assume gives value to being human - it is what, in Francesca Minerva's view, makes us a person.

So it's logical, if you begin from this assumption, to make the criterion of personhood the degree to which you are able to have aims or, better yet, well-developed life plans. That is what is thought to matter in life, so therefore you can begin to be deprived of your personhood only after you begin to be able to make aims.

But what is the consequence of defining personhood in this way? You arrive at the very radical view that not only foetuses but even healthy newborns can be killed if they are thought to interfere with the life plans of "actual" persons.

It's a definition, too, that allows Francesca Minerva to define animals as persons but not newborn humans (though exactly how an animal has life aims that a baby doesn't isn't obvious to me - it makes me wonder if Francesca loves her cats too much to exclude them from the protected category of persons).

And, if truth be told, Francesca's position would make it permissibe for parents to kill not only their newborns but also their young children. Does an 18-month-old child really have a clear capacity for making aims? If not, that makes them non-persons and therefore, in Francesca Minerva's view, without a right to life.

Here are some more snippets from Francesca Minerva's article. They illustrate the radical outcomes of adopting her definition of personhood:

If the death of a [handicapped] newborn is not wrongful to her on the grounds that she cannot have formed any aim that she is prevented from accomplishing, then it should also be permissible to practise an after-birth abortion on a healthy newborn too, given that she has not formed any aim yet.

...Merely being human is not in itself a reason for ascribing someone a right to life.

...If a potential person, like a foetus and a newborn, does not become an actual person, like you and us, then there is neither an actual nor a future person who can be harmed, which means that there is no harm at all.

...The alleged right of individuals (such as foetuses and newborns) to develop their over-ridden by the interests of actual people (parents, family, society) to pursue their own well-being because, as we have just argued, merely potential people cannot be harmed by not being brought into existence. Actual people's well-being could be threatened by the new (even if healthy) child requiring energy, money and care which the family might happen to in short supply of. Sometimes this situation can be prevented through an abortion, but in some other cases this is not possible. In these cases, since non-persons have no moral rights to life, there are no reasons for banning after-birth abortions.

If your moral intuition is that these claims are false, then what's required is a different way of defining personhood. The value of human life can't rest on our capacity for an autonomously chosen life plan - otherwise all those who can't make such aims suddenly find themselves in the category of non-persons without a right to life.

So what does define the value of a human life? A Christian can answer that we are all made in the image of God and invested with a soul, which then makes every human a person. And a non-Christian could find many attributes which give human life value besides making and then acting out life plans. What about the capacity to experience love? Or the other joys of life?

And then there's the question of our telos - our proper ends in life. What if some of these are not self-chosen but are given to us as part of our created nature? Then part of our telos would be to fulfil the higher aspects of this nature. And that might include a maternal and paternal instinct to bear children, to show maternal love and paternal care, and to raise our children to adulthood. That would then make the choice to kill our own child, for being a hindrance to our life aims, a disordered act.

I'll finish with the thoughts of a liberal on Francesca Minerva's position . Nelson Jones, writing in the New Statesman, agrees with the logic of Francesca Minerva's argument:
Biologically, too, those who argue like Giubilini and Minerva are on firm ground. Human babies are, by most mammalian standards, born prematurely with far less autonomy than, for example, a baby cow.

But he doesn't like the argument, because he believes that it's better to base the case for abortion on the grounds of women's bodily autonomy rather than on the lack of autonomy of the foetus/newborn:
This is not how the case for abortion is usually put. As the term "pro-choice" implies, the emphasis is on the pregnant woman and her right to "do what she wants with her own body". The foetus is scarcely considered at all, which is why the moment of birth must be seen as crucial. The mother might be legally responsible for the infant, but it is in no sense still a part of her body. It's hard to argue that prohibiting infanticide impacts her bodily autonomy in the same way that restricting abortion inevitably does.

The JME paper is not, then, a logical extension of the pro-choice case. By switching the emphasis from the rights of the mother to the moral status of the foetus it in fact plays into the hands of the pro-lifers. For however logical the authors' argument, emotionally it is highly troubling. The natural revulsion it elicits can attach equally to late-term abortion, perhaps to abortion as a whole.

He is arguing that Francesca Minerva's position is logical but repulsive (but shouldn't that then lead him to wonder why the liberal position logically leads to repulsive outcomes?). He prefers the older argument which ignored the whole issue of the moral status of the foetus/newborn and which focused instead on the mother's bodily autonomy - once the foetus was no longer part of the mother's body it was then held to no longer compromise her autonomy and so no longer lost moral precedence to the mother.

It seems to be more of a pragmatic rather than a principled objection to Francesca Minerva's position. And Francesca Minerva could argue in reply that the newborn still compromises the mother's autonomy after birth, because of the time, energy and money the mother has to invest in the child. So the argument from autonomy ends up mired in inconsistency.


  1. When people argue against euthanasia (most cases of euthanasia), infanticide and frivolous abortions (save a few exceptions where it is truly needed) THIS is what should be on the table. The Western world has internalized de facto liberal assumptions and therefore the aim should be by attacking and rejecting liberalism as a philosophy.

  2. Philip K. Dick saw where this was going right after Roe v. Wade.

    The only thing is: I think he thought he was exaggerating.

  3. Doctors should have the right to kill newborn babies because they are disabled, too expensive or simply unwanted by their mothers

    It's becoming increasingly obvious that liberals are moving towards openly embracing eugenics. Useless mouths should be liquidated. In the US they already have a situation where Planned Parenthood practises eugenics by stealth by concentrating abortion clinics in black neighbourhoods. A hugely disproportionate number of abortions are carried out on black women.

    I blogged about this a while back -

  4. The Dutch have a new innovation for euthanasia at the other end of life:

    "A controversial system of mobile euthanasia units that will travel around the country to respond to the wishes of sick people who wish to end their lives has been launched in the Netherlands.

    The scheme, which started on Thursday , will send teams of specially trained doctors and nurses to the homes of people whose own doctors have refused to carry out patients' requests to end their lives.

    The launch of the so-called Levenseinde, or "Life End", house-call units – whose services are being offered to Dutch citizens free of charge – coincides with the opening of a clinic of the same name in The Hague, which will take patients with incurable illnesses as well as others who do not want to die at home."

  5. We need not credit Ms. Minerva with having made a philosophical argument. If she had actually begun with a principle and worked out its implications, she would probably have found herself approving the murder of a class of humanity to which she was sentimentally attached. But this argument has all the appearance of reverse engineering. She began by identifying a property infants lack and then worked back to the ostensible premise of intentionality.

    I think she should have gone with teeth. A human isn't a person without teeth. It stands to reason! The defining acts of personhood are, after all, chewing and smiling.

  6. Here in the US the Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade defined the beginning of personhood as the age of viability. that is the age the fetus would be capable of surviving out of the womb. This is frequently thought to be around 20 weeks. That would mean that in order to accept Minerva's argument, the definition of personhood would have to be changed to meet her definition.

    I would assume that given Minerva's position that she does not object to the infanticide that allegedly takes place in India and China where newborn girls are rountinely killed because families want boys. I say allegedly because while I have no doubt this occurs, I don't think it's as common as some believe. It is more likely that the births of girls (esp. in China) is simply not reported due to the one child laws.

    While I haven't read Minerva's article, I would caution you not to confuse ethics and morals. There is a difference. Ethics tend to be based in philosophy and are generally applied in order to govern group behavior. Morals are a system of personal values.

    Ethics and morals may conflict. Personally, I have argued that a just society is a society that permits a woman to choose abortion as an option. At the same time, I would find that option repulsive from a moral point of view.

    By the same token, I believe that morally a man should support his children whether he lives with them or not and regardless of whether or not the children's mother permits contact. On the other hand, a just society that permits abortion for women should also permit a man to opt out of fatherhood if he chooses to do so within a reasonable time of being informed of the pregnancy or birth.

    Ethically, one could make a case for Minerva's argument, but it would be morally reprehensible.


  7. I didn't read the whole article cuz it's so disgusting.


    I have distinct memories of being in the hospital after birth. I remember being placed onto the blanket in the clear plastic crib thing and staring at the blue nose drop plastic thingie that the nurse with weird fingernails placed next to my head.

    I remember being INSANELY angry that the blue plastic thingy was by my head.

    Fuck off Minerva....I was 100% a person when I was in the womb and I was completely conscious with a clear opinion of my surroundings the moment I popped out.

    I used to tap my feet to the rhythm of music while in my mom's belly. Seriously.

    Furthermore, I have spoken to other people who have clear memories just days and weeks after birth.

    This woman is acting as though she is no longer human.

    Maybe she isn't?

  8. You can't argue with these people. They have no heart.

    These people are acting like automatons, little more than machines using computer logic to make life decisions.

    It's heart and soul and love and respect and sorrow that make us human.

    You can't argue these qualities!

    This is too crazy for me.

    Minerva, just join the NKVD and line people up who you dislike and shoot them. That's who this woman is.

  9. Bring on the crash! Any society that allows this sort of discussion doesn't deserve to continue.

  10. Sorry Bob no crashes please. TDOM I do think morals are more than simply personal values, if that was the case we could all come up with our own morality.

  11. Incorrect TDOM. That's liberal talk. Ethics and morals are roughly the same thing, the difference is that they express in different forms the same thing.

  12. @ Jesse 7

    "I do think morals are more than simply personal values, if that was the case we could all come up with our own morality."

    But this is precisely what we do. Each and every one of us develops our own concept of what is moral and what is not. Our personal system of morality may be based on a doce of ethics or religeous teaching, or some other value system, but it is our own.

    @anon 12:52

    This is Philosophy 101, not liberal thinking. It applies to conservative ethical systems and morality as well as liberal ones. Consider this from an article I've written on the subject:

    "Ethics may most aptly be described as codes or standards of behavior expected by a group of its members. Ethical standards may even be codified into law. Ethics may be based on the morals and values of individual members of the group. From an academic standpoint, ethics is the philosophical study of morality that produces a systematic framework for the determination of right and wrong."

    "Morality is more personal and is based upon personal belief systems. Morals may at times, be contradictory as they are less systematic... Morality is typically rigid and unchanging. It is often associated with religious doctrine. As such it may be determined by a value system associated with good and evil instead of an ethical system of right and wrong."

    In other words, ethics are systematic, rational, and logically derived standards for behavior of individual members of a group. Morals are personal standards derived from an individual sense of good and evil, may be conflicting, and are not necessarily logical or rational (though they may be).


  13. By Francesca Minerva's accounting, the left third of the bell-curve is non-person.

  14. TDOM,

    People might own their morality on an individual basis but conservatism works on a more universal or objective basis, ie that certain things are right and wrong, unacceptable acceptable etc and this is regardless of our individual perceptions.

  15. TDOM - That is not Philosophy 101. That IS liberal talk. Liberals talk all the time how "Morals are not to be encoded into law" (aka Conservatism) but that "Ethics" should be when they are the same thing. Morality and ethics BOTH deal with universal standards and objective right and wrong. Don't fall for the muddling of language. Next thing you will say is how women don't have vaginas and men don't have penises. Sheesh. It's absurd and you're hookwinked into their trap.

  16. It would follow then, wouldn't it, that if somebody walked up to a pram on the street and shot the newborn inside it, he would not have committed murder, only something like property damage - unless it was the mother's doing. In either case, according to Minerva, "no harm at all" has been done to the baby because no 'actual person' was killed.

  17. Anon,

    Very good point. To the parents it would be undoubtedly not only a murder, but a heinous crime. But if Francesca Minerva's ethics were to be accepted, then it could not be termed murder - the only crime would be one of frustrating the parents' wishes to bring the non-person to personhood.

  18. Are liberal ethicists fully human?

  19. @ anonymous

    "Next thing you will say is how women don't have vaginas and men don't have penises. Sheesh. It's absurd and you're hookwinked into their trap."

    That's not even a very good strawman.

    "Morality and ethics BOTH deal with universal standards and objective right and wrong. Don't fall for the muddling of language."

    You are the one muddling the language here. There would be no need for the two words if they meant precisely the same thing.

    Liberalism is largely based on a system of utilitarian ethics advoctaed by John Stuart Mill, with a bit of Kant and Hobbs thrown in for good measure.

    Individual happiness is the objective and whatever makes the most people the happiest will identify the goals to achieve that end. Since no two people are alike regarding what will make them happy, indiviual morality guides behavior and cannot be legislated. What can be legislated is an ethical sytem that permits the most happiness for the majority of the people.

    There are two guiding principles of utilitarian ethics, rule utilitarianism and act utilitarianism. Act utilitarianism suggests that the end (outcome) justifies the means (the act). this makes it possible to justify immoral acts as ethical. This can lead to the creation of unjust rules made to benefit the majority at the expense of the minority (rule utilitarianism).

    Thus Minerva can justify killing babies (an immoral act) in the name of a greater good (an ethical outcome). According to the utilitarian ethic, all women would not be required to kill their babies, but it would be a personal choice according to her moral beliefs. This should illustrate the difference between ethics and morals. The laws permitting this would be based upon a system of ethics, the individual would act according to a personal moral belief. A similar example could be made from a conservative point of view using a different system of ethics that would outlaw such practices. The difference between ethics and morals has nothing to do with being liberal or conservative.