Killing inconvenient infants
Something is seriously wrong when ''logic'' tells two academics it is fine to kill infants if they are inconvenient since infants are not ''persons''.
This is the argument advanced by two Melbourne philosophers in the Journal of Medical Ethics. They suggest that it is permissible to kill live infants who might be a burden to their families, in the same way they might have been aborted before birth.
I learnt about the paper - by Alberto Giubilini, of the universities of Milan and Monash, and Francesca Minerva, of Melbourne and Oxford - from Friday's Age, which reported that they had been shocked to receive email death threats.
''This was a theoretical and academic article,''' Dr Minerva told The Age. ''I'm not in favour of infanticide. I'm just using logical arguments.'' However, she carefully defined her proposal as ''after-birth abortion'' and not infanticide, leaving it unclear what she does favour.
She said the argument had been around for 30 years. This is true; Australian philosopher Peter Singer has managed to become widely admired despite - or perhaps because of - advocating similar views. But the simple fact that someone advocates an idea does not make it a legitimate concept or proper subject for discussion. Some ideas are simply depraved, and should be met with revulsion. Killing infants because they might be inconvenient is one such.
English philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe suggested in a famous paper half a century ago that some discussions should never happen. She wrote that if someone thought in advance it was open to question that we should procure the judicial execution of an innocent person, ''I do not want to argue with him; he shows a corrupt mind."
That's also the case, I think, when philosophers argue that a newborn is not a person and therefore cannot suffer harm, so that killing a new-born is not committing a harm. Their argument might weigh with some people if it were confined to those infants who suffer a defect during birth, or whose defect was not diagnosed in utero. But they explicitly extend this to any child who might be perceived as a burden by its parents, and even suggest that a mother would find it easier to have a baby killed than adopted.
The authors say nothing of post-natal depression or mood swings that might lead a mother to a hasty decision, though I am sure they are aware of this aspect and would factor it in to a fuller proposal. They reach their position by using a viciously reductive definition of ''person'' as someone who values their own existence, such that being deprived of it would be a loss. An infant does not do this, true; nor does someone in a coma.
But in talking this way I have already conceded too much. To talk of "persons" as a separate category from other human beings, who are non-persons and thus less morally significant, is to allow thuggish thinking to smuggle in the desired conclusions in the premise.
A fatal step was taken earlier in this arena, when ''quality of life'' was allowed to replace the value of life in such discussions.
I do not think other people should decide someone's life is not worth living, especially for ''defects'' such as Down syndrome (I speak as the father of a Down child).
Nor is it any justification to claim one is following logic. Logic is a tool, whose usefulness depends on the premises with which it works; it is not a good in itself.
Take this example. Premise one, Jews, Slavs, gypsies and homosexuals are subhumans. Premise two: Sub-humans drain society and are not fit to live. Conclusion: Therefore their lives should be ended. The logic is valid (the conclusion matches the premises) but it is wrong.
The other point about logic is that reason - of which logic is a part - cannot be detached from morality. Thinking is a moral activity, subject to moral descriptions such as ''generous'' or ''callous'' or ''selfish''. It is a fallacy beloved of some philosophers to imagine that they can analyse the "facts" as neutral entities, then later subject them to some moral test.
Dr Minerva told The Age she was frightened by the death threats, most apparently arriving via a conservative website in the United States. But I wonder how she failed to understand that publishing such ideas would stir deep passions.
When she said the paper was "theoretical and academic", was she saying it did not articulate a real-life possibility that the authors intended should be taken seriously? It seems unlikely, in a journal of ethics.
Of course, the death threats are reprehensible, and I don't condone them at all. But perhaps Drs Giubilini and Minerva can find it comforting that those making the threats were engaged in the same activity as the philosophers: following the logic where it took them.
NB: Read the original paper here. It is quite short.
Follow the National Times on Twitter: @NationalTimesAU