Friday, December 03, 2004

Infanticide & Abortion

A newborn baby doesn't seem significantly different from one that is similarly developed but yet to be born. We might say they are 'morally equivalent' - if one is a person deserving of rights, then so is the other. Pro-lifers typically use this to argue that since infanticide is immoral, so is (late-term) abortion. However, I wonder if we could turn this around, and instead argue that since abortion is morally permissible, so must be infanticide.

It's counterintuitive, I'll grant. As a species, we're very protective of our young, and our instincts (and intuitions) reflect that. However, since I think there's a gap between emotions and morality, I'd prefer to see some further reasons here.

First of all, let me be absolutely clear that it is certainly immoral to kill someone else's child. Most babies are immensely valuable - priceless - in the eyes of their parents, so to hurt them would be to commit a grave harm against the parents, at the very least. Instead, what I want to consider are cases when the parents are the ones who want their baby to die. So we can assume the baby doesn't have any instrumental value. The question becomes: does it have any intrinsic value, i.e. is it of independent moral worth, simply in itself? Is it a person, worthy of moral consideration?

I don't know. This is the old question haunting the abortion debate, of when a bunch of cells becomes a person. Probably the only sensible answer is that it is a gradual progression. A single-celled zygote is morally worthless, an embryo is perhaps on a par with a rodent, a foetus (and perhaps a newborn) is more like a household pet. As their cognitive skills develop (by which I mean not just intelligence, but also communication, emotion, desires, consciousness, etc.), they become more and more intrinsically valuable - more and more of a person.

According to Daniel Dennett, consciousness is not 'hardwired' into us, but rather is a sort of 'software' program that is culturally developed over our early childhood years. (I plan to write more about this in a future post.) I take it this implies that babies aren't really conscious. If he's correct, how should that influence our moral views about the treatment of foetuses and infants?

By the way, please don't mistake me as suggesting that people can kill their babies as they please. I'm really more interested in the abstract question of moral worth. In practice, unwilling parents can always give a born child up for adoption, which would presumably do far more good than killing it, regardless of whether the baby has instrinsic moral worth (or how much). Also, for the record, I'm not entirely comfortable with late-term abortions. Here I'm just exploring some possibilities - I don't necessarily endorse all the assumptions being made along the way. Lastly, I am not in any way denigrating the worth of the parental bond - I am certainly not suggesting that parents shouldn't value their babies. Of course they should. I'm sure that special bond is immensely rewarding, and perhaps even crucial to human 'flourishing' and the well-lived life (for some people anyway). But that is all quite independent of whether those little critters we adore so much actually have any instrinsic moral worth purely in themselves.

So, with the disclaimers out of the way, what do you think? Is there any moral difference between a newborn and the foetus it was moments before? Is moral worth bestowed some time before birth? Or might newborns be not as intrinsically valuable as everyone tends to assume?

Though even if one concedes that babies don't yet have interests or desires to be thwarted (and I'm not sure about that), one might think that we should take their future interests into consideration. Kinda like how pro-lifers like to pretend zygotes are inherently valuable in virtue of being potential persons. But a potential person only has potential moral worth, and I'm inclined to say something similar about future desires. It's not entirely clear-cut, however, and I need to give that one some more thought. Any feedback/suggestions in the meantime would be most helpful.

What brought on this post was a recent case here in New Zealand, where a father was acquitted for killing his baby child, whose brain had stopped developing when she was a 13-week-old foetus. Central to the defence was that the father 'snapped', and had no rational intent to kill the baby. But I think what he did was probably permissible in any case. With such an underdeveloped brain, this case really seems closer to abortion than infanticide. But given the circumstances, it probably has even more in common with euthanasia - an interesting topic I'll have to save for a future post...


  1. What do a person's cognitive skills determine moral worth or value or personhood? That criterion seems about as arbitrary as say, picking muscle development. I mean, as a human develops, it isn't just the brain that develops. So why pick cognitive skills over any other "part" of a human?

    "Kinda like how pro-lifers like to pretend zygotes ..."

    I don't think we are pretending. :)


    Posted by Macht

  2. Ha, yeah, I was semi-joking about that 'pretending' thing.

    But the brain/mind strikes me as what's most important about a person. Our thoughts and feelings make us who we are. The rest of the body seems almost superfluous in comparison - mere external trappings, you might say. So 'person' strikes me as more a mental than physical category. But perhaps I've been overly influenced by the (Ancient) Greeks in my views here! 

    Posted by Richard

  3. The whole thing's tricky. Say we decide that babies can be killed because they aren't conscious. Why can't we kill sleepers (ignore dreaming)? They aren't conscious. They were conscious, and they'll potentially be conscious in the future, but right now they aren't.  

    Posted by steve

  4. Richard,

    Doesn't my body make me who I am, too? If I'm a profession marathon runner or a world-class violinist, don't my strong legs and my nimble fingers make me who I am just as much as my mind? Body and mind (if there is such a distinction) seem indispensable to each other.


    Posted by Macht

  5. Steve - Good question, I've often wondered about that myself. Dan Quattrone discussed it in a recent post, suggesting that "We're obviously concerned with the normal state of mind for people." But I'm not sure we can dismiss the problem so easily. My position is that our interests and desires persist, even when we are temporarily non-conscious (e.g. asleep). To kill us then would thwart all those desires, and that is a bad thing. A baby, by contrast, might not have any such interests or desires.

    This matter may be independent of consciousness, I'm not sure. (Can a permanently non-conscious being truly have 'interests', in the morally relevant sense?) Note also that I think a wide range of cognitive abilities are relevant here, not just consciousness (though that's surely a big one).

    Macht - sure, the body is important for us to achieve our goals (I'm a pianist myself). But cognitive skills are a prerequisite for skilled use of the body. A brain-dead body can't achieve much; playing Chopin's Fantasie Impromptu is as much a mental feat as a physical one.

    So yes, I agree the body is indispensible, but the brain takes priority - without it, we're just a worthless hunk of meat. (With it, we become a rather more remarkable hunk of meat!) 

    Posted by Richard

  6. But without a body, what good are cognitive skills?

    Your last statement reminded me of this

    Posted by Macht

  7. Haha, yes, it's a great story isn't it!

    As for this brain vs. body thing, where exactly are we headed? Are you suggesting that babies have instrinsic worth simply in virtue of having legs and muscles, etc, no matter how cognitively underdeveloped? 

    Posted by Richard

  8. I think we are heading somewhere, I'm just not sure where yet. What you said just didn't make sense to me. You said "Probably the only sensible answer is that it is a gradual progression." Then you said "As their cognitive skills develop ... they become more and more intrinsically valuable - more and more of a person." I was just wondering why you focused on cognitive development and not on many of the other ways that humans develop.

    Eventually I might question the statement "more and more of a person," too. Ah, what the heck, I'll do it now. What does that mean? Is there such thing as partial personhood? 

    Posted by Macht

  9. Richard,
    Steven Pinker asks similar questions in response to similar legal cases in this article in the New York Times Magazine. His emphasis is more on the evolutionary psychology of infanticide, arguing that infanticide can be evolutionarily beneficial and that it is present in most cultures, so there must be adaptations that make people inclined to it in certain circumstances. He claims that newborns are like mice with respect to the morally relevant cognitive abilities and thus killing a newborn should be a less severe crime than killing a developed person. In fact, at least in the US and Britain, people who kill newborns tend not to be sentenced to jail time. 

    Posted by Blar

  10. "Doesn't my body make me who I am, too? If I'm a profession marathon runner or a world-class violinist, don't my strong legs and my nimble fingers make me who I am just as much as my mind?"Nope, they don't. I'm a cartoonist, but if I lost my sight I would still be the same person; I'd just be the same person now looking for a different occupation. Although being a cartoonist is important to me, it's not my entire being; other interests (books, friendships, etc) would remain.

    If I lost my cerebral cortex, however, I'd be for all effective purposes dead. No interests of any sort; no activities; no thoughts or emotions.

    It's a common myth among ablebodied people that the loss of physical capacity is the same as losing one's life. That's simply not true. Life changes after one loses physical ability, just as life changes after many events (getting married, becoming a parent, getting a degree, going bankrupt, being fired, etc). But just because life changes doesn't mean that life doesn't go on.

    Regarding this general topic, as you probably know already, Peter Singer has written quite a bit on this topic. 

    Posted by Ampersand

  11. Richard, your views here are very close to my own. Possibly, they're even identical. I've written some on this topic before. The abortion debate is so absurdly politicized that neither side -- including, I'm sorry to say, most liberals -- is willing to engage in this sort of honest intellectual consideration.

    Peter Singer has done some worthwhile stuff in this field, as you may know. He has an interesting book on medical ethics, mostly about terminally ill or comatose people, but he also mentions infants. I've forgotten the title, unfortunately... I'll ponder on that for a little while.

    One thing I've heard that I find interesting and relevant (and I'm sorry to say, I've never done the research to discover just how *true* this is*) is that in societies where survival is more difficult, infanticide is practiced regularly and not condemned. I think I've read that some Inuit societies were/are like this.

    Just mentioning this brings up the hard metaethical questions, but we needn't go there just now. 

    Posted by Jonathan

  12. Most people instinctively will not like a cognative worth approach to the rights of people because of two groups
    the first is very young babies - they have less cognative ability than a mouse all they have is the potential to develop much further.
    a rational scale using that as a baisis might have to wait until the children were 3 or 4 before giving them proper rights making all sorts of human rights abuse possible. We are then faced with the problem that if you seriously physically abused a baby (jsut like if a mother takes drugs during pregnancy) the big problem is how terrible you may make the life of hte person you thus damaged so badly.
    similarly there is hte issue of a sleeping person as brought up before - but msot people would say the temporary suspention of these things is somthing one would not consider to create a moral dilema.
    The next group is of course the mentally handicapped because most people realise one day that could be them who would thus be "expendable"
    Reminds me of the problem that arises when we invent a "computer" smarter than ourselves 

    Posted by GeniusNZ

  13. "I'm a cartoonist, but if I lost my sight I would still be the same person; I'd just be the same person now looking for a different occupation. ... If I lost my cerebral cortex, however, I'd be for all effective purposes dead. No interests of any sort; no activities; no thoughts or emotions."

    I don't see how you can compare those two. A better comparison would be losing both your eyeballs compared to getting hit in the head and permanently losing your ability to see.

    "It's a common myth among ablebodied people that the loss of physical capacity is the same as losing one's life."

    I would never make such an assertion. 

    Posted by Macht

  14. GenuiusNZ makes a good point and I think the *potential* development/growth/etc that a given being might have is a strong moral consideration. A (normal) fetus is an "actively potential" (normal) human being and thereby has worth. Were the fetus to have severe deformities, and therefore lack potential to develop into a normal human being, we would be less inclined to save it's life at all costs (though of course many would still think the fetus was intrinsically valuable as an "actively potential" malformed human being). The same logic applies to cases of euthanasia/terminally ill/comatose persons who lack much potential for future development/life. Most handicapped people, however, are sufficiently "normal" to be viewed as persons with full (basic) human "rights". 

    Posted by Daniel

  15. Richard,

    I'm a little late to this party, but in your original argument you wanted an argument favoring the intrinsic moral worth of the baby/fetus. I wonder whether science, particularly evolutionary biology, has something to say about this.

    According to your argument, the parents want their baby to die. This is unusual - from an evolutionary standpoint - but I will leave it alone because there are cases of parents wanting to do this.

    One of the curious things about humans is that we are social beings. We display a special sort of altruistic behavior. This special altruism is found primarily in species with parental care or those that form social groups. The sorts of behavior observed include the willingness to defend or warn close relatives, to share food, etc. This behavior is favored by natural selection because it enhances the fitness of the genotype.

    If our altruistic behavior is favored by natural selection and we are social creatures, then others in the parents' community have reason to save the baby/fetus. The reason for others wanting to save the baby/fetus is on account of s/he being intrinsically valuable. So, in terms of the social group and for the sake of natural selection, the baby or fetus has intrinsic value.

    This is an unusual way to arrive at intrinsic value because it disregards questions of personhood or other political/religious flourishes, but that might be a blessing in disguise. Well, it's just a stab at it. Cool topic! 

    Posted by Joe

  16. We always have to consider a thing's potential. This isn't to say we should treat a thing as what it will potentially be, but that it would be foolish to ignore potential completely. (Saving bonds have some value for what they will be potentially worth, but we don't treat the bond as if it's worth its potential).

    Lets say you had to choose between killing a baby and a senile old man. If you chose to kill the senile old man, you probably did so because you took the baby's potential for cognitive skills into consideration.

    Maybe the newborn infant is more valuable than the embryo because it is further along in its development toward cognition.

    Or maybe what is essential to being a person is not having cognitive skills, but having a human mind. These probably aren't the same thing, since I'm sure you're more reluctant to say a baby does not have a human mind than to say a baby has few, if any, cognitive skills.

    The mind assertion solves many problems. One, it excludes zygotes as being especially valuable. It also wouldn't lead us down the slippery slope of killing the disabled. It seems to work with our moral intuitions about infants and late term abortions. 

    Posted by Kupad

  17. Wow, lots of comments to catch up on...

    First up, I must admit I've never actually read Peter Singer, though I've certainly heard a lot about him.

    Kupad (& others), I think you're right that future potential does have at least some moral relevance. I'm not sure how to tie that in with my other views in a coherent way, however. It's something I'm working on :)

    I disagree about that "mind" stuff though. I basically take 'cognitive skills' as being synonymous to 'mind'. I don't believe in adding any unnecessary metaphysical trappings to the brain's mechanisms, which your suggestion would appear to require. (I'm entirely happy to say that babies do not have minds, insofar as they lack cognitive skills.)

    Joe, I think I'll need to give more thought to your argument once I'm more awake. My initial reaction is one of wariness, however. I tend to think that evolution has a huge amount to tell us about how (and why) human beings are, but nothing at all about how we ought to be.

    Jonathan, I think you're right about the closeness of our views. I've certainly had similar thoughts when reading some of your writings on these sorts of topics (e.g. Ben Bradley's "choose a murder victim" thought-experiment). Some of your speculation about widespread infanticide would seem to be supported by the fascinating article Blar links to above. (Thanks Blar!)

    Macht - Don't forget, we can see without eyeballs.

    As for "partial personhood", hmm... I guess what I had in mind was that personhood wasn't so much a clear-cut metaphysical category, but rather a sort of 'cluster' concept, to which many different attributes contribute. (E.g. all those difference cognitive skills I listed. Perhaps you would like to also add muscles!) The idea would then be that the more of those properties you hold, the 'fuller' your personhood. I guess it sounds a little strange, but I don't think it's incoherent. (I'm sure you'll correct me if it is though!) 

    Posted by Richard

  18. "The idea would then be that the more of those properties you hold, the 'fuller' your personhood. I guess it sounds a little strange, but I don't think it's incoherent."

    I don't know if it is incoherent, but when you talk about "properties you hold," aren't you implicitly assuming personhood? I don't see how you with some diminished or missing property is any less you.

    I guess this is the heart of the matter and it gets back to my earlier questions. Your view seems to separate "human life" from "personhood." All biologists agree that an embryo is a human life at an early stage of development. Your claim is roughly that as a human life develops more and more cognitive skills (intelligence, consciousness, emotions, etc.), it becomes more and more of a person. As somebody said above, we don't (or, at least, we shouldn't) treat people with fewer physical "skills" (e.g., quadrapeligics or people born with brittle bone syndrome) as less of a person than somebody with more of those "skills." So, I guess I am still wondering why - in your view - certain types of "skills" or properties or functions (or whatever you want to call them) lead to personhood but other kinds of "skills" or properties or functions don't lead to personhood.

    It also isn't obvious to me that a person who suffers from a stroke or Alzheimer's or similar injuries/diseases is less of a person, even though they have less cognitive skills than an "average" person. 

    Posted by Macht

  19. with that view you run into a problem that a dead person or one who is brain dead might still be considered a person since they are no less "themselves". Presumably most people accept on death somthing is lost that removes their rights (or at least most of their rights). 

    Posted by GeniusNZ

  20. I would argue that a dead person is no longer a "human life," by definition. :)  

    Posted by Macht

  21. I think that the aim of abortion or infanticide is the mothers' natural instinct os survivor

  22. The point is that the birth of a fetus makes no difference to the fetus/infant's moral stance. So if abortion is permissible, than why not infanticide. An early infant has no intrinsic value, as a fetus does not- so what makes them different. When considering intrinsic value while discussing the difference between infanticide and abortion you are at a loss because the intrinsic properties assumption states that The only properties that justify the ascription of moral standing or rights to an individual must be the intrinsic properties of the individual.


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