In Addition to Being Racist, Everyone is Pro-Infanticide

by Belle Waring on November 19, 2013

What I am curious about in the Singer/infanticide/ending the life of the disabled vein is, what do those who are totally opposed to every form of infanticide think about anencephalic babies (and babies who have similarly non-survivable, severe birth defects)? I don’t think that, as a formerly pregnant person who has given birth to healthy children, my opinions on these questions have any extra merit, but I do think others not so situated may share my opinions without feeling so strongly about them, or in the same way. Perhaps the situation calls for some epistemic humility? The terrifying prospect to me, and to many mothers, of “late-term” abortion bans, is that pregnancies which are terminated after 20 weeks are almost all wanted pregnancies in which something horrible has occurred or been discovered. (And, in those cases where the baby is unwanted, there are almost certainly serious problems in the woman’s life that have led to the delay in getting an abortion sooner.) So, in a situation of supreme horror, the fetus might die, but the mother might be forced to carry the dead fetus inside her and have labor induced, to struggle in pain and blood to bring her dead baby into the world. She would feel the liquid inside her, and the lax ligaments, and all the other things she felt in pregnancy, but she would know the baby was dead. I have heard of mothers knowing right away. So close to you then, infinitely close, but infinitely far, and a rotting thing now, a poison for the rest of your body. So awful.

My first pregnancy was easy and wonderful. I felt and looked glowing, and although I was in labor for more than 40 hours (remind me not to do that again) I gave birth vaginally to a healthy girl who latched onto the breast just a few minutes after she was born, and fed well and naturally. In my second pregnancy I had unexplained bleeding starting at 19 weeks. Bright pink fresh blood in the toilet bowl. I thought my heart would stop. I thought her heart had stopped. They couldn’t figure out what was wrong. I was in terrible pain (I often am; but it seemed like she was tap-dancing on the worst bit of me.) I kept bleeding on and off. I knew how many movements she was supposed to make in an hour and I counted, and counted, and counted, hour after hour, so scared, and then another hour. The doctors were determined to deliver her surgically as soon as they felt she was cooked up right, so, 37 weeks. It turned out to be nothing serious, placenta previa (the organ grew over the cervical os, the opening to the birth canal, blocking the baby’s egress.) She was fine.

But sometimes when the doctors check, they find that the fetus, which has appeared to be developing fine, has no brain at all, that the blackness inside her skull on the scans is only water. This is not even a fetus, really—certainly not a future infant. It will never feel pleasure at a mother’s touch, or pain from being pinched by a crib mattress, or see anything, or hear anything. It is empty. Laws that would force a woman to stay pregnant and nourish and grow that wrongly-made creature inside her, and to suffer the agonies of childbirth, and to bring forth this…not-baby—laws like that are torture. I would go mad. I would try to abort the fetus myself. I would try to kill myself. I would want to be put to sleep then, there, in the doctor’s office, and wake up, not pregnant, and with a little coffin to bury my hope and love inside. With ashes inside, only, because I would want not to look, but I would look, and I would always wish I had not.

But let us say an unjust, oppressive, Christian regime forces me to endure, and to deliver this severely deformed baby. Does anyone think we should use artificial life support to keep the baby alive? Almost all fetuses of this type are stillborn, and those that are not usually die on the first day of ‘life.’ Even the Catholic Church has some hand-waving about letting God’s will take its course. That is, they are not insistent on providing hydration and nutrition—no one even considers artificial respiration. Reading on it, three children have lived a year or so. There are pictures of course, and now I wish I hadn’t looked at them, and I am so sorry, the poor little things, and so sorry for the parents. For the mothers! When I think of those oscillations inside you, feeling movements you didn’t make, the mysterious gliding of blood-wet surfaces over each other in the absolute black, the not-you inside you…what if you knew in the end there was nothing? Some kind of seasickness of death? At the last you would be holding a newly hatched chick, naked and grey and dead, grey and jerking with dying? But back to the matter at hand, we all think a form of infanticide is appropriate here, right? No one’s on team ‘drastic measures for resuscitation?’ Artificial respiration for 80 years, for something that can never feel you hold his hand? A rough golem on whose forehead no glyph has been inscribed? So isn’t there a small number of real-world, continuously-occurring cases in which we are all pro-infanticide?

UPDATE: so misinterpreted! Obviously my fault also. I didn’t jump in to give Singer crucial moral support. I’m not totally sure how I did…I guess I’m implying all his critics are disingenuous and have parked themselves at the top of a slippery slope with some dubious wedge. I apologize to sincere Singer-critics for insulting their position in this way. That wasn’t actually what I was trying to do at all. I was genuinely curious. There was a case maybe eight years ago now, but I can no longer find it in the welter of anti-abortion and pro-abortion articles, in which a woman’s 24 or even 26-week-old fetus died, and the laws of her state required a waiting period before you could get a late term abortion (Texas IIRC?). The removal of a dead fetus is done via dilation and curettage, i.e., via abortion. So she had to go talk to some doctor, and then go stay by herself in a motel with her dead baby inside her for two days. She wrote about her experience and I remember thinking, I don’t know if I could live through two days of that. A responsible, thoughtful doctor would have deemed the dead fetus a threat to her health and her ability to have future children and had it removed on those grounds, but in this particular case, it was a Catholic hospital and none of these things happened. So I did mean to say, I think there are a number of infants born each year whose lives everyone agrees cannot go on in any way. That doesn’t mean that—HAHA! now everyone is obliged to accept all Singer’s positions; I was honestly curious, not mock-curious, and I honestly don’t know what all Singer’s positions are. But I also meant to describe to people who haven’t been pregnant the terror of something going wrong, and how you hope you would be a good enough person to accept your baby any way she came, but you fear you’re not brave enough, not really, not truly brave enough. And that as long as she was inside maybe you could pretend it would be alright somehow? But even then there is only one feeling that is ever like this, of having something inside you that is alive, that isn’t you, that you are waiting for, and how would it be if you were waiting for nothing? That’s all. I really don’t know enough about Singer’s positions to arbitrate on any of these questions; I was just thinking, we need to hear from severely handicapped people who were written off as a total loss before we know whether he can be right. We might also be interested to hear from mothers. And I’m only the mother of perfectly healthy babies! That’s it. I’m not laying down my life for in-group sacrifice.

{ 164 comments }

1

alex 11.19.13 at 2:40 pm

I think words are beimg used with different senses. What Singer means by dead, is brain dead. And if you don’t have a brain you are brain dead, even if you’re alive in the sense of respiring etc.

2

Bruce Baugh 11.19.13 at 2:42 pm

What the fuck is it about defending Singer that encourages people I generally respect, cite, recommend, etc., to go so whole-hog with the damned ad hominems and hyperbole?

There’s never been a week where CT left me feeling so altogether chilled and set up to be an agency-less patient. Dread sucks. Off to see if I can manage to warm up any.

3

Anderson 11.19.13 at 2:45 pm

I think people are mostly on the same page re: non-survivable, but trouble is, med tech is making conditions “survivable” in a narrow sense, while allowing for no quality of life. So there’s a continuum. Which means (1) few bright lines and (2) few easy answers. Which, I take it, is Belle’s point.

4

Marc 11.19.13 at 3:15 pm

@2: Because Singer is part of the in-group, and he is to be sympathized with and real in the most charitable light possible. I’d mind less if the same impulse was applied to out-group members- which it most emphatically is not.

5

Harry 11.19.13 at 3:57 pm

I just don’t see this as infanticide at all. Its not even a severely deformed baby — just not a baby. So saying that it should be killed does not commit me to saying infanticide is ok (In most of the hard cases where Singer thinks it is permissible I think it is impermissible, but, like everyone else who has disagreed with Singer on these threads, I can’t really give very convincing reasons).

The in-group thing. Because he is well known in our profession, and because he is a sort of media star about whom if there were really bad things to know we’d probably know them, we feel we know quite a lot about him. Some of what we know about him humbles us, so we find it hard to take the vituperation that is heaped on him. If I knew the same things about James Dobson that I know about Singer I’d be pretty resistant to similar vituperation I’ve seen, even though he holds views that I disagree with and, in some cases, find reprehensible (I don’t find anything Singer believes reprehensible, which makes it easier, but even if some of it was reprehensible, knowing what I do I would find the vituperation distasteful). But its a good general point — we should be epistemically humble about our knowledge of the moral character of out-group members.

6

Sebastian H 11.19.13 at 4:40 pm

He’s the in group.

He’s part of the privileged in exactly the way many professors aspire to be.

He’s allegedly ‘rational’ in the technocratic way that buys into the stories liberals tell about themselves.

He pisses off some of the right people.

Therefore he is offered ten times as much leeway to advocate horrible things than you would allow someone who isn’t in the in group and who can’t speak eloquently.

7

Niall McAuley 11.19.13 at 4:40 pm

But let us say an unjust, oppressive, Christian regime forces me to endure, and to deliver this severely deformed baby.

Like, say, Ireland.

(Except we have the boat (and now the Ryanair jet!) to England)

8

Slippery Jim 11.19.13 at 4:48 pm

Remember when PKD’s “The Pre-Persons” was just a if-this-goes-on SF story?
http://www.kenanmalik.com/essays/gp_infanticide.html

“Is there no moral distinction between killing a newborn baby and aborting a fetus? And should an academic paper that seemingly advocated the killing of newborns have ever been published?

Those are the questions at the heart of a controversy that has erupted after the publication of a paper entitled ‘After-birth abortion: Why should the baby live?’ in the Journal of Medical Ethics. Two Australian academics, Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva, argued that the moral status of a newborn baby was identical to that of a fetus. Given that most people view abortion as morally acceptable so, they argued, there is no reason not to see infanticide as morally acceptable, too, even in ‘cases where the newborn has the potential to have an (at least) acceptable life, but the well-being of the family is at risk’. Indeed, Giubilini and Minerva reject the term ‘infanticide’, preferring to talk of ‘after-birth abortion’.”

After-birth abortion…no algebra tests – yet.

9

Evan 11.19.13 at 4:57 pm

w.r.t. the last sentences of the first paragraph… are there really late term abortion bans on the books requiring mothers to carry a dead fetus to term? I know of many anti-abortion mothers who get abortions in these cases if the fetus hasn’t miscarried on its own. They may wince when the procedure is labeled “abortion” on their medical bills, but I haven’t heard of anyone having any moral problem with it in the pro-life community, and I haven’t heard of any late-term abortion bans on this sort of procedure.

10

marcel proust 11.19.13 at 5:04 pm

or Chile.

11

bianca steele 11.19.13 at 5:05 pm

I guess everyone knows Singer starts from vegetarianism, and I guess that’s okay. If I thought he had started from the right to die or removing respiration from people in irreversible comas, and this was a reductio, I would be uncomfortable. If I thought he had started from whether people with disabilities are fully human, I would be very uncomfortable. If I thought he had started from an inability to come up with a good argument why women or black people or Jews should be considered human, so that he gave up on all the arguments that show why all people are special in the same human way, that would be very disturbing to me.

The fact that people who aren’t philosophers believe they know what’s in his mind, or know which academics they should defer to absolutely and which they can slag off, is also disturbing to me, incidentally. This is basically an academic blog, so it’s possible to assume the people saying philosopher=in-group are also philosophers, but it’s obviously not the case even here.

12

TM 11.19.13 at 5:17 pm

“Perhaps the situation calls for some epistemic humility?”

Yes indeed. In case you missed it, this is what Singer’s critics have been saying for a long time.

13

godoggo 11.19.13 at 5:28 pm

I do hope people aren’t going to start carrying “epistemic humility” to other blogs and turn it into a thing, like “conflate” and “meme” and “shorter” and “a thing,” because it’s already getting really annoying.

14

LFC 11.19.13 at 5:39 pm

bianca steele:
I guess everyone knows Singer starts from vegetarianism
I do not know that.

The fact that people who aren’t philosophers believe they know…which academics they should defer to absolutely and which they can slag off
Academics I shd defer to absolutely are those with whom I agree. Academics I can slag off are those with whom I disagree. Epistemic humility in action!

15

Niall McAuley 11.19.13 at 5:56 pm

I’ll see your epistemic humility, and raise you polymesmeric fumility.

16

adam.smith 11.19.13 at 6:08 pm

“Perhaps the situation calls for some epistemic humility?”

Yes indeed. In case you missed it, this is what Singer’s critics have been saying for a long time.

this.

17

David Hobby 11.19.13 at 6:58 pm

Kudos to Belle. That was beautifully written.

18

oldster 11.19.13 at 7:01 pm

Thanks, Belle.
That was important to say. No matter whether it might contribute to a partial defense of some of what Singer might say, or even if it were exhibit A in the prosecution of Singer, it doesn’t matter. It was important to say it, and it doesn’t get said often enough, by people well-situated to say it. So thanks.

19

TM 11.19.13 at 7:08 pm

“So isn’t there a small number of real-world, continuously-occurring cases in which we are all pro-infanticide?”

Yes and the trolley problem has shown long ago that we are all pro-murder. Forgive my cynicism but I don’t know what else to say and I won’t say any more.

20

Matt 11.19.13 at 7:19 pm

Even with those big blank spaces on the MRI some people thought that withdrawing life support from Terri Schiavo was murder. Many of those same people are opposed to even early term abortion. “Preventing blastocyst implantation is murder,” some of them can say with a straight face. So unfortunately some people cannot make exceptions to their moral rules even when nobody is better off for following the rule.

Singer’s original contrast-with-healthy-animals scenario in Animal Liberation was about a newborn with such severe brain damage that it could never walk or talk, and would require extensive medical care every year just to keep breathing. Such an infant cannot be euthanized even at the parents’ urging (or at least this was true when and where Singer wrote this in 1975), though it may be legally permissible to withhold medical care until it dies of asphyxiation, dehydration, or some other more prolonged cause.

21

Harold 11.19.13 at 7:21 pm

I’m not sure he does advocate “horrible things”, it is the way he states his positions that causes controversy. But this is true of most “superstar” academics. If they didn’t overstate their positions, no one would listen to them.

22

Jeff R. 11.19.13 at 8:14 pm

But would a Singer-style, rights-rejecting strict utilitarian require infanticide (and organ harvest) over late term abortion in these cases?

23

ZM 11.19.13 at 8:21 pm

I’m out of this thread since pointing out that infanticide does not equal not-artificially- prolonging-someone’s life, in the same way that homicide does not equal not-artificially-prolonging-someone’s-life is for whatever reason not deemed suitable for publication.

24

Doctor Science 11.19.13 at 8:25 pm

Jeff R @19:

Only if women aren’t people. And since the idea that “women are due full human rights and respect” has not, historically, been a given, then some utilitarians will definitely make that call.

In actual practice, to be against late-term abortion is to be pro-matricide. This is something which some countries and major religions are clearly comfortable with. At *every* stage of pregnancy, abortion is less risky for the woman than continuing the pregnancy.

25

Nik 11.19.13 at 8:27 pm

This was an intersting story.

PS: November 9 is the last day in in your RSS feed. It would be nice if you could fix that. Thanks

26

Sebastian H 11.19.13 at 8:44 pm

It is common but unfortunate that philosophers treat disagreements about the exact outer boundaries of a concept as an argument that the concept doesn’t exist. The fact that there are disagreement on the extreme margins about what counts as self defense doesn’t undermine the fact that murder is wrong. The fact that we may disagree about what far border counts as stillborn or what counts as death doesn’t make us all pro infanticide.

27

Z 11.19.13 at 9:35 pm

But back to the matter at hand, we all think a form of infanticide is appropriate here, right?

Some thing is appropriate, sure, but like Sebastian H, I don’t think it particularly useful to label it infanticide. In my country at least, the children you describe are legally considered stillborn, as life is legally defined to include cerebral activity. Should we submit this definition to critical analysis in the hope of finding a better one? Sure. Is such an endeavor helped by saying that those who believe this definition is roughly OK are pro-infanticide? Not so sure.

What I am curious about in the Singer/infanticide/ending the life of the disabled vein is, what do those who are totally opposed to every form of infanticide think about anencephalic babies (and babies who have similarly non-survivable, severe birth defects)?

Glad you asked. I think it is a tragedy that such babies are born and I feel deeply for the parents and families on which such ordeals are imposed. I don’t consider anencephalic babies to be specially relevant in a discussion about disability (by definition, I don’t consider them disabled, I consider them stillborn). Live babies born with severe non-survivable defects fall in such a large spectrum that it is hard to answer in one great swoop (in some case the baby will live barely a couple of hours, in others, say metachromic leukodystrophy, the baby can routinely reach 2/4 years with mostly normal development yet is in the current state of knowledge condemned all the same). That caveat kept in mind, my broad impression is that they should probably be offered the happiest possible life they can get and probably be kept alive on the prudential ground that many non-survivable defects of 5/10/20 years ago are survivable now.

What do you think about babies who have similarly non-survivable, severe birth defects, your post doesn’t really say?

28

Bloix 11.19.13 at 10:12 pm

A newspaper account from 1977 of the moral and legal dilemmas involved in the separation of conjoined baby girl twins who share a heart, which will kill one of the two, is not only relevant but fascinating:

http://www.daat.ac.il/daat/kitveyet/assia_english/drake-1.htm

Among other things, the surgeon is C. Everett Koop, the DA is Arlen Spector, and a judge, a group of Catholic priests, and a team of Orthodox Jewish rabbis have to agree.

29

L2P 11.19.13 at 10:27 pm

“I don’t consider anencephalic babies to be specially relevant in a discussion about disability (by definition, I don’t consider them disabled, I consider them stillborn).”

Handy definition, that! It’s always nice to be able to define away my problems.

30

Alan White 11.19.13 at 10:48 pm

Belle, if your writing were air, it’d doubtless be in pristine mountains over a fresh, deep blue lake, ready to brace the lungs.

The later editions of Rachel’s introductory Elements (pere et fils) begins with the case of Baby Theresa, an anencephalic “allowed to die” by force of state law (Florida, the literal but not figurative Sunshine State of course) rather than having her organs donated as her parents wished, which the state argued would hasten her death and tantamount to killing her. Clearly these cases beg for a Singer twist, or something that amounts to that. You just have to wonder if some otherwise-healthy infants perished so that some abstract smug moral intuition would be satisfied.

31

Hector_St_Clare 11.19.13 at 10:56 pm

Re: Given that most people view abortion as morally acceptable so, they argued, there is no reason

I doubt that ‘most people’ view abortion as morally acceptable, even in this country (and certainly not in much of the rest of the world).

In the United States, a large majority wants abortion to be legal in *some* cases, but 1) that doesn’t equate to *all* cases, and 2) legal =/= ‘morally acceptable’. Being a Klansman is legal, but most people don’t find that morally acceptable.

Niall McAuley, as I’m sure you’re aware, not all that many Irish women (as a proportion of the total) actually do make the trip to England to get rid of their baby.

32

Z 11.19.13 at 11:26 pm

L2P

Handy definition, that! It’s always nice to be able to define away my problems.

This is quite extremely unfair. I did not define away your problems (maybe my state did, as I specifically explained). In a discussion about infanticide, and especially in a discussion about borderline cases, it seems a pre-requisite that we specify what we mean by life and death. Belle did not provide such a definition, so not being sure what she meant exactly, I provided explicitly my working definition and explained why I had selected it. And I did say this definition should be critically assessed, so you are most welcome to do so. Now whether you want it or not, this definition (which is again the legal one in the country my children were born), entails that had my children been born anencephalic, they would have been considered stillborn and the range of choices I would have been offered as parent would have been the choice of funeral arrangements.

I will only add that even though I welcome critical assessments of this baseline legal definition (life requires cerebral activity) as a vital part of the making of society , I personally find it quite OK . Now it’s your turn to offer an alternative if you are dissatisfied with it.

33

Doctor Science 11.19.13 at 11:55 pm

Hector_St_Clare:

not all that many Irish women (as a proportion of the total) actually do make the trip to England to get rid of their baby.

But how many do it to end a pregnancy?

I’ll note that A February 2013 Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll of 1,000 voters in face-to-face interviews in all constituencies found that 84% felt that abortion should be allowed when the woman’s life is at risk — that is, that 16% of Irish will tell a pollster to their face that they don’t know if women should be allowed to save their own lives.

I have no reason to believe that the principle of “the only good abortion is my abortion” does *not* apply in Ireland as well as in the US.

34

Jeff R. 11.20.13 at 12:10 am

Doctor Science@24: We’re talking about standpoints that reject the idea of human rights entirely. The suffering of the woman would be part of the equation balanced against the potential lives saved, and at some number of those the balance would have to tip that way. Monstrous, obviously, but a necessary consequence of (and solid reducto argument against) strict utilitarianism combined with the rejection of the idea of rights.

35

js. 11.20.13 at 12:25 am

This is really excellent. But I think it might be worth separating this particular set of issues—infanticide, what kinds of cases it covers and what falls outside its scope, how to think about it, etc.—from Singer’s approach and arguments. Because I can accept everything BW is saying here (and beautifully at that), without giving an inch to Singer (whose arguments and approach I still find to be pig-headed).

And what TM said @12.

36

UserGoogol 11.20.13 at 12:41 am

Doctor Science@24: Every ethical system except for explicitly feminist ethics has had deep sexism in its past. It’s rather unfair to tar utiltiarianism for that.

37

Jim Harrison 11.20.13 at 1:06 am

In the olden days, i.e. before the abortion controversy, doctors simply put down anencephalic babies and then told the mother some fable or other. I remember one night when my wife, who was a nurse in those days, came back with a tale about how a doctor had demonstrated what anencephaly was all about by holding a flashlight to the back of a baby’s head so that the light would shine through its eye as if they were headlamps. There was no question of keeping such a child (if that’s the right word) alive.

I don’t think these issues are all about using the right words to make people feel better, though that’s certainly part of it. What’s embarrassing is that we come into existence gradually, and the scandal of epigenesis guarantees that there will be no obvious place to draw a line between fetus and small human being, especially since human babies are more fetus-like than the newly born of other animals. I don’t see any reason to give up the taboo on infanticide, but that’s a political decision. While I don’t want to kill newborns, their deaths just aren’t as momentous as the deaths of older children and adults.

38

Hector_St_Clare 11.20.13 at 2:07 am

Re: But how many do it to end a pregnancy?

About a quarter as many as their counterparts in England, apparently. Even taking into account the 4,000 or so women who go overseas to have an abortion, that’s much fewer than in England (and yes, I know some of that is due to demographics).

I never fail to be amused by cultural liberals who are seemingly obtuse to the fact that a lot of women do, in fact, choose to keep their baby (and pay the consequences) when they have an unwanted pregnancy. In a fair number of cases, because they think -abortion is wrong. It’s as if the cultural-liberal feminist types assume everyone is as self-centered and morally immature as they are.

39

Hector_St_Clare 11.20.13 at 2:23 am

Re: In actual practice, to be against late-term abortion is to be pro-matricide.

I don’t particularly see why ‘late term’ matters. I think an embryo one day after conception is as valuable, and as much a person, as a baby one day before birth (and by the same token, equally valuable as Belle Waring). I would recognize a limited right of abortion when the mother’s health is seriously endangered, but if the mother can safely give birth then she must have a legal obligation to do so.

Re: While I don’t want to kill newborns, their deaths just aren’t as momentous as the deaths of older children and adults.

Shades of the old Confederacy, there.

40

John Holbo 11.20.13 at 3:00 am

“I would recognize a limited right of abortion when the mother’s health is seriously endangered”

Why?

41

Matt 11.20.13 at 3:11 am

I think an embryo one day after conception is as valuable, and as much a person, as a baby one day before birth

You know that a really large percentage of embryos “one day after conception” don’t even fully implant, and that “spontaneous abortion” is one of the most common results of conception, right? What sort of god do you believe in (I know you believe in god) that does _that_, on your own set of beliefs? More than a holocaust every single year, over and over, in any country of any size. It’s enough to make me think that people who hold such views just have no idea what they are talking about. In this case, I’m certain of it.

42

John Holbo 11.20.13 at 3:27 am

Let’s also try another angle. Hector, are you completely unable to think of a reason why someone might want to say “one day after conception” is not yet a person? That is, you find that just as incomprehensible as thinking that an adult black person is not a person, because of the color of the skin? You look at the list of things that are lacking, one day after conception, but present some time after birth, and you literally cannot conceive of how or why anyone could ever think that those characteristics – that only arise later in development – are constitutive of personhood?

43

Hector_St_Clare 11.20.13 at 3:30 am

Matt,

God is the author of our lives, and he has the right to take our lives when it pleases him. Humans don’t. as the Latin proverb says, what is permitted to Jupiter is not permitted to the cow. You might as well say that because people die of natural causes, mass murder is ok.

44

John Holbo 11.20.13 at 3:40 am

“what is permitted to Jupiter is not permitted to the cow.”

So this is what it comes down to? You just add ‘women = cow’ and draw the logical conclusion?

But why are we then allowed to install lightning rods on tall buildings?

45

Matt 11.20.13 at 3:50 am

But why are we then allowed to install lightning rods on tall buildings?

John, surely we all know by now that asking for logical or minimally morally plausible reasoning from Hector is just silly. I don’t know why I tried, really, but then, we must all do charity work sometimes, even when it seems hopeless.

46

Hector_St_Clare 11.20.13 at 3:52 am

John Holbo,

I didn’t say that pro choicers were the *moral* equivalents of Confederates. Their arguments are objectively as damaging as the Confederate arguments, but most pro-choicers are laboring under honest delusion, so I don’t particularly hold it against them. The arguments that embryos aren’t people are stronger than the similar arguments made by slavery apologists, which means I don’t have the same degree of moral condemnation for you as I do for Gobineau and his buddies. You’re still wrong, but your wrongness is more excusable.

Judith Jarvis Thomsen is a special case, since she argued that abortion would be ok even if the fetus had full personhood. That is the same sort of argument that the Nazis and Confederates would make.

47

Sebastian H 11.20.13 at 4:03 am

I had forgotten how serious Singer’s advocacy for infanticide was. I know I posted it on the other thread but I don’t want it to get lost there.

Given these facts, suppose that a newborn baby is diagnosed as a haemophiliac. The parents, daunted by the prospect of bringing up a child with this condition, are not anxious for him to live. Could euthanasia be defended here? Our first reaction may well be a firm ‘no’, for the infant can be expected to have a life that is worth living, even if not quite as good as that of a normal baby. The ‘prior existence’ version of utilitarianism sup- ports this judgment. The infant exists. His life can be expected to contain a positive balance of happiness over misery. To kill him would deprive him of this positive balance of happiness. Therefore it would be wrong.

On the ‘total’ version of utilitarianism, however, we cannot reach a decision on the basis of this information alone. The total view makes it necessary to ask whether the death of the haemophiliac infant would lead to the creation of another being who would not otherwise have existed. In other words, if the haemophiliac child is killed, will his parents have another child whom they would not have if the haemophiliac child lives? If they would, is the second child likely to have a better life than the one killed?

Often it will be possible to answer both these questions affinnatively. A woman may plan to have two children. If one dies while she is of child-bearing age, she may conceive another in its place. Suppose a woman planning to have two children has one normal child, and then gives birth to a haemophiliac child. The burden of caring for that child may make it impossible for her to cope with a third child; but if the disabled child were to die, she would have another. It is also plausible to suppose that the prospects of a happy life are better for a normal child than for a haemophiliac.

When the death of a disabled infant will lead to the birth of another infant with better prospects of a happy life, the total amount of happiness will be greater if the disabled infant is killed. The loss of happy life for the first infant is outweighed by the gain of a happier life for the second. Therefore, if killing the haemophiliac infant has no adverse effect on others, it would, according to the total view, be right to kill him.

The total view treats infants as replaceable, in much the same way as it treats non-self-conscious animals (as we saw in Chapter 5). Many will think that the replaceability argument cannot be applied to human infants. The direct killing of even the most hopelessly disabled infant is still officially regarded as murder; how then could the killing of infants with far less serious problems, like haernophilia, be accepted? Yet on further reflection, the implications of the replaceability argument do not seem quite so bizarre. For there are disabled members of our species whom we now deal with exactly as the argument suggests we should. These cases closely resemble the ones we have been discussing. There is only one difference, and that is a difference of timing – the timing of the discovery of the problem, and the consequent killing of the disabled being.

All this talk about babies essentially stillborn have nothing to do with his argument. He is arguing that it would be perfectly moral to kill someone born with a serious but completely manageable disease. His reason for that is because it would be more of a burden on the parents than a ‘regular’ baby, that the parents would probably be happier raising a regular baby, and that a regular baby would have some marginally better life. This isn’t even close to one of the difficult borderline questions. He’s right from a purely utilitarian framework, but it is precisely freefall judgments like that which make people think that a pure utilitarian moral system sucks.

48

John Holbo 11.20.13 at 4:05 am

“You’re still wrong, but your wrongness is more excusable.”

Well, it’s nice that my error is excusable. But wouldn’t it be better just to tell me what I’m getting wrong? Your position is, I take it, that it’s so wrong it’s funny. The phrase “I never fail to be amused by cultural liberals who are seemingly obtuse …” could be the lead-in to every comment you have ever made. Being in it for the lulz is fine (or at least marginally excusable) but there is more to life than entertainment. Plus, even just at the entertainment level, there’s just plain letting people in on the joke. What is so humorously wrong with my position – even if it’s excusably humorously wrong, as you kindly allow? (Some sort of conceptual banana peel that I couldn’t have seen, even if it’s still funny to watch me slip on it?)

49

roy belmont 11.20.13 at 4:11 am

Belle OP-
Does anyone think we should use artificial life support to keep the baby alive?
Kids in the the minivan watching netflix streaming on the seat-back screen, sucking on a straw embedded in a cup full of sugar water and synthetic nutrition signals.
Define support, define artificial, let alone life.

I would practice “epistemic humility” I suppose, though I’m still not sure exactly what that is except something cool that would make me a better person.
But, to conflate the meme of infanticide into a shorter thing, possibly it would help if, instead of looking backward, toward the possible wrong and the possible right of a discrete act, we tried to concentrate our philosophical energies on what it is that makes that distinction even theoretically likely, let alone imperative.
What well-being is served by the keeping or discarding of that life in question. To whom or even what is that well-being service rendered?
We have the ghastly history of the goal of racial good before us still, and certainly something of a justifying civilizational higher good with the arcane brutalities it enables is still visible, though they both are likely only to self-mutilate, eventually, and fall away. We need a higher goal.
What other good is there? The whole damn human race good? Isn’t that there even if there’s only 200 humans left?
Or is it good for all who manage to get here – and just keep ’em comin? That’s crazy.
Something that might make the distinction, and the distinguishing, easier, is a firm recognition of how many are now discarded still, while we agonize the jots and tittles of “Survivor” rules for reproduction and fetal rights.
What about the dysfunctional in the way things are right now, individuals and communities that can’t mesh with the bigger “purpose”? They’re being euthanized because of economic and social disability. Homeless vets, backward villages, kids who just can’t sit still for the time it takes to pass the test.
What difference does it make if it takes someone who’s been euthanized years to die, if their life is just one steady decline?
But wait, isn’t that the time thing, for all of us? Isn’t it all like that?
And aren’t I not really very deserving of life to begin with? And if that’s the case who or what is? Where are they? Here? Or somewhere in the future?
Is it the kids? We were kids. It stopped when we had them, right? So if they don’t have any of their own does it never stop for them? This generation is the one all the others sacrificed to produce.
Oh I don’t know, I kind of think it should keep on going.
This business of “people are special” seems adolescent to me, limited, as though all people, moving toward forever both ways – pre-historic origin and open-ended promise of tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow – aren’t people quite like us, as though the living present trump not only the dead and gone, but the still to come. I find that suspicious. And it leaves out how special birds are.

50

Hector_St_Clare 11.20.13 at 4:51 am

Re: Why?

Self defence.

John Holbo, I’m not amused by the existence of pro-choice arguments. “Babies are not persons until some particular level of brain activity starts” is a coherent position, though I disagree with it (if you subscribe to a physicalist theory of mind, it makes sense). What specifically amuses me is the assumption that some pro-choice intellectuals make, notably Amanda Marcotte, that *anyone* faced with an unwanted pregnancy would have an abortion if they were able to. The fact that this is wrong is demonstrated by the, uh, rather high rate of unplanned pregnancies that end up with the mother keeping the baby. (Not *all* of whom were too poor for an abortion, by a long shot). Certainly not every woman with an unplanned pregnancy ends up up-ending her life plans and having a baby, but a fair number do. The fact that Amanda Marcotte finds that hard to believe, tells me that she lives in a bubble where she thinks most people are exactly like her.

51

Belle Waring 11.20.13 at 5:03 am

Sebastian H., you might want to read my update above. I’m not, particularly, knowledgeable about or a huge fan of Singer, and I was being genuinely curious rather than pretend-curious when I asked about babies whose lives could never be extended in a helpful direction. It’s easy to see where I went wrong and I think I also insulted holders of the anti-Singer view without really meaning to. Perhaps if you read the update you will read the initial post in a different spirit. I obviously wrote it wrongly for it to come out exactly this way…

52

John Holbo 11.20.13 at 5:20 am

“Self defence.”

This doesn’t work. The baby isn’t attacking the mother. You aren’t normally allowed to kill some otherwise innocent bystander because doing it might – might! – allow you to live longer.

“John Holbo, I’m not amused by the existence of pro-choice arguments.”

Yet by your own, earlier testimony you never cease to be amused by them – and this earlier testimony seems better to fit your behavior. You have a weakness for strawman arguments, as I believe I have pointed out before; and this seems to be due to your sweet-tooth for the lulz. You find it boring to address serious opponents because they aren’t mockable; you confine yourself to easy targets when there is a continuum of possible opponents, some of whom are worth taking seriously, some perhaps not. For example, it is obviously wrong, as a psychological generalization, to say that anyone facing an unwanted pregnancy would have an abortion, even people who are categorically opposed to this on moral grounds. But this is obviously just a slip on Marcotte’s part, if indeed she said it. It isn’t intellectually interesting or telling, but it’s worth some lulz, so you are attracted to it. You ignore non-lulz-worthy pro-choice arguments.

You can, of course, easily prove me wrong by behaving in a manner inconsistent with my characterization of you.

For example, you now admit that the view that babies are not persons until a particular level of brain activity occurs is a sensible and defensible position. The pro-choice view must then be taken quite seriously, correct?

53

David J. Littleboy 11.20.13 at 5:26 am

“He is arguing that it would be perfectly moral to kill someone born with a serious but completely manageable disease.”

Uh, it’s worse than that. He’s arguing that it’s OK to kill anyone who might be vaguely inconvenient for anyone. (I was about to add “; as long as it doesn’t endanger the continuance of the human species”, but I see he doesn’t get even that far.) I vote for this bloke being nothing less than monstrous.

“When the death of a disabled infant will lead to the birth of another infant with better prospects of a happy life, the total amount of happiness will be greater if the disabled infant is killed.”

54

John Holbo 11.20.13 at 5:30 am

“He’s arguing that it’s OK to kill anyone who might be vaguely inconvenient for anyone.”

This is not correct.

55

Emma in Sydney 11.20.13 at 5:34 am

Pregnancy is a huge risk, even today. My first nephew died during his birth, probably of asphixiation. He was born, revived on life support and lived for a few hours before his parents, first-time parents who had been waiting joyously for his birth, decided on advice that he had no mental function, to remove the life support. It took some more hours before he died in their arms. The grief of that day will never leave any of us, and we remember Joseph often. A good friend of mine decided, on advice that her baby would have no mental function, to terminate her much wanted and planned pregnancy in her third trimester. The grief of that day will never leave her and she remembers Matthias.

People who think they know what OTHER people should do in situations such as these make me so full of rage it’s dangerous.

56

Sebastian H 11.20.13 at 5:42 am

John, would you say that he is arguing that it is OK to kill any BABY who…etc.?

Since he is extending all the way to hemophilia, it isn’t clear what level of inconvenience or obstacle is his limit. Likelyhood of severe asthma? Chance of language deficiency? Severe Hyperactivity?

His moral measuring stick is:

“When the death of a …. [I removed only the word disabled]….infant will lead to the birth of another infant with better prospects of a happy life, the total amount of happiness will be greater if the disabled infant is killed. The loss of happy life for the first infant is outweighed by the gain of a happier life for the second.”

It isn’t at all clear what quantum of increased happiness is required here, right? The utilitarian framework doesn’t require a HUGE increase. Just an increase, right?

57

Sebastian H 11.20.13 at 5:44 am

And to be clear the increased happiness of the parent counts too. Even if the first child and the second had an equal chance of personal happiness, if the parents might get slightly more happiness out the second child, the rubric allows the life to be snuffed out of the first.

58

John Holbo 11.20.13 at 5:55 am

I’m just pointing out that it’s a big step from permissibility of killing any baby that might be replaced by a ‘better’ baby (utility-wise) to anyone can kill anyone else (baby or not) for any ‘convenient’ reason. Singer’s position is radical enough – and he has the honesty not to play down its radicalness by trying to shove awkward cases out of sight – that there is no call exaggerating what he says to make it sound even more radical, as David did.

59

John Holbo 11.20.13 at 6:00 am

More generally, all this turns on the question of who is a person. The passage you quote – as prasad points out in the other thread (this is all getting a bit involved, thread-wise) – presupposes a view on which certain babies aren’t persons. So the passage effectively says: assuming babies aren’t persons …

Now you seem to be reasoning that Singer is actually arguing: even though babies are persons …

But that’s not right. (I admit I haven’t recent read the Peter Singer stuff in question, but I read Sebastian’s quoted bit and it seems to be, as Prasad says, a bit misleading in isolation from its presuppositions.)

So really the big step is taken before the passage starts, right?

60

Sebastian H 11.20.13 at 6:14 am

Whoa whoa. Before we go further down that rabbit hole, do you agree that if we assume they are not persons (and Singer does indeed so assume) that David Littleboy is correct that trivial improvements in the parents well being are sufficient to justify said snuffing.

61

John Holbo 11.20.13 at 6:26 am

“that David Littleboy is correct that trivial improvements in the parents well being are sufficient to justify said snuffing.”

Not necessarily. But the view tends in that direction. That is, whatever is doing the stopping is not going to be the baby’s personhood (which we are assuming away) but some external factor. Presumably it would have to be some broader social ‘bad’, utility-wise. My point is just that establishing that babies aren’t persons is the really major step in the argument. That’s the truly controversial bit. I think you yourself will admit that if you waive all of your moral concerns based on the baby’s personhood – which I know you aren’t in the least prepared actually to do – infanticide has to look a lot more permissible, right?

62

Hector_St_Clare 11.20.13 at 6:37 am

If we’re going to play that game, I’d like to pronounce that opponents of the Cuban Communist Party aren’t really full fledged persons, and should be sent to labour camps for their own good, until they straighten up. I think I can make at least as good a case for that as you can about the babies.

63

Hector_St_Clare 11.20.13 at 6:40 am

Certainly, there are some people who have a lot more empathy for newborn babies than for a bunch of dissident Cuban whiners.

64

prasad 11.20.13 at 6:46 am

“there are some people who have a lot more empathy for newborn babies than for a bunch of dissident Cuban whiners.”

No doubt there are, and little doubt you’re ranting, but the view isn’t that you’re a person in proportion to how much empathy others have for you. As for “pronouncing” that Cuban communists aren’t persons, I can “pronounce” that people named Hector are really iguanas. Incredibly, the notion of personhood is slightly deeper than that.

65

Sebastian H 11.20.13 at 6:47 am

Belle, thank you for your update. Frankly I was shocked to see you [apparently] defending Singer’s views on infanticide. One of the reasons I have trouble with Singer is he leverages the difficulties of the abortion debate into his own pushing of infanticide and totalizing utilitarianism.

Slight personal digression–which I hope will be helpful. I grew up in a VERY mega-church, Baptist-style, Christian home. Almost cult-like involving at least an hour of church every day and at least 3-4 services on Sunday. And then I was a Republican. I’ve seen at close hand how in group self reinforcement works in both those groups and it isn’t pretty and experienced a number of betrayals both personal and institutional through that which made me very sensitive to covering things up just because it is ‘your’ side. So I reacted strongly to what looked like unwarranted in-group protectiveness of someone who advocates a monstrous position.

I’m also gay which doesn’t fit easily with any of that. But all of that together does mean that I have come to accept a number of things as right which I would have vigorously resisted at earlier periods.

One of the things that really gets me about Singer, is how he plays the abortion debate for his own ends. I’m pro-choice in early pregnancy (though with regrets of the “we ought to make a world where it would never be needed or wanted” variety). I’m pro-life in the late pregnancy, because I believe that the fetus is a ‘person’ at that point, and its life ought not be destroyed except for very good reasons. But I understand a couple of things. First, I’ve been VERY wrong in the past, so I have to try to be humble in the present. Second, I strongly advocate personal bodily autonomy and that obviously makes for two strong claims going in opposite directions in an abortion discussion. Third, I understand that people have different views about acceptable risks which also have to be taken into consideration.

But what Singer does is leverage that debate into his infanticide position, and frankly it is awful. My attempt to be humble in the present is along these lines: I can see how some people might disagree with me about the personhood of the late term fetus and normally I would insist that they should err on the side of life when there is a serious question, but considering the other countervailing personal autonomy factors (up to and including personal injury caused by continued pregnancy) I can see their point. But once the child leaves the womb, I can’t. At that point it is perfectly fair to insist that the personhood is highly contested, so we should err on the side of life.

Singer ignores the fact that the huge number of forces which pulled in different directions have vanished by the time of birth, and proceeds straight to his hemophiliac children might be a bother to the parents justification. He uses the current muddy waters of the abortion debate to definitively conclude that the late term fetus cannot be a person, and reason from there that infanticide even for non-threatening diseases or perhaps even for inconveniences to the parent, should be ok. [This by the way is my answer to John about personhood]

Belle, if I’m reading you correctly post-update, I would answer like this:
Babies are people. If we use methods to determine that medical care is likely to be futile with adult and teenage people I’m also ok with using those for babies. Anencephalics aren’t going to make it short of the invention of brain transplants, and if we can get to that we can revisit the question then.

66

John Holbo 11.20.13 at 7:04 am

“If we’re going to play that game, I’d like to pronounce that opponents of the Cuban Communist Party aren’t really full fledged persons, and should be sent to labour camps for their own good, until they straighten up.”

It isn’t enough to ‘pronounce’ this, Hector. Do you have a reasonable argument? If so, what is it?

67

Belle Waring 11.20.13 at 7:07 am

Sebastian H.: if Peter Singer actually thinks it would be a good idea to kill an infant that had a manageable though serious disease, on the grounds that, ‘hey, the parents intended to have two children; now they can have two more, and everyone will be better off,’ then I can perfectly well see where people might get the idea he’s some kind of moral monster. Because that’s some Sophie’s Choice nightmare shit right there. That was part of what I was trying to address in the post (I did a bad job, obviously–I shouldn’t have posted so late at night, but it was a long comment so I threw it up as a post.) Because there’s nothing else that being pregnant with a baby you want to keep is like. There’s nothing else remotely like it. Even trying to get pregnant with a wanted child is its own, sometimes happy, sometimes very difficult experience, and the idea that you would do that as a potential mother with your body right and left to get a baby that’s 18% better is disturbing. I am a staunch supporter of women’s rights to safe and legal abortions precisely because I know how serious and terrifying a thing it would be to be forced to bear a child to term and then, probably, give her away. Or if not, then make a wreck of your life. Being pregnant with a baby you didn’t want would turn all those good things you experience in pregnancy into needles and parasites, would turn your body into a factory that had been taken over by something else.

I have a number of friends who have had abortions because they got pregnant in the first semester of college or something. They have happy, prosperous families now, all with two children, as it happens. Almost all women who get abortions either already are, or later become, mothers. I think my friends all made the best choices for their actually existing children. So I can squint to where Singer thinks it’s no big deal, but he is wrong. I’m not entirely sure it’s his place, as a non-child-haver, to say. I got pregnant in the first month of trying, both times. But I’ve always personally felt that I would find it very, very difficult to have an abortion. That’s why the prospect of fatal, severe birth defects like this are so particularly terrifying to me.

68

Hector_St_Clare 11.20.13 at 7:07 am

Sebastian H,

Given that the personhood of the fetus is highly contested (at least in Anglo-American culture) how does Singer treat it as a given that fetuses (and by extension babies( aren’t persons?

69

John Holbo 11.20.13 at 7:08 am

“If we’re going to play that game”

I realize I’m a bit of a joker myself, but I – unlike you, if I make no mistake – do not regard all these arguments as a mere game. You have to try to take the other side seriously, if they have serious arguments. Otherwise you will be in the wrong, however self-amused. Man does not live by lulz alone. I don’t think it says that in the Bible, but it probably should. It would be consistent with the spirit of that document.

70

John Holbo 11.20.13 at 7:09 am

“how does Singer treat it as a given that fetuses (and by extension babies( aren’t persons?”

He doesn’t.

71

John Holbo 11.20.13 at 7:11 am

Sorry, perhaps you were being serious. (In the spirit of my attempt to induce you into seriousness, I should perhaps start treating some of them as such, experimentally.)

He doesn’t treat it as a given. He argues for it as a conclusion.

72

Hector_St_Clare 11.20.13 at 7:13 am

John Holbo,

The ’embryos aren’t persons’ theory relies on a physicalist theory of mind.

73

js. 11.20.13 at 7:15 am

Holbo,

Why are you trolling your own blog? Seriously.

74

Sebastian H 11.20.13 at 7:21 am

“He doesn’t treat it as a given. He argues for it as a conclusion.”

Not really. He treats it as a cursory intermediate step to his other conclusions.

75

Sebastian H 11.20.13 at 7:26 am

Belle the extended quote I gave in comment 47 is from Singer’s book: Practical Ethics. I don’t see any reason to think that is what he actually thinks utilitarianism has to say on the topic, and that he endorses such a utilitarian view.

76

John Holbo 11.20.13 at 7:32 am

“if Peter Singer actually thinks it would be a good idea to kill an infant”

It’s important to qualify this in at least one important way. (Sorry if my own memories of his argument are inaccurate, it’s been a while.) He isn’t trying to argue people into radically new preference sets, re: babies. If it’s going to horrify you to do this thing then that’s an excellent reason not to do it. But he doesn’t think that the reason why you shouldn’t do it is because you would be killing a person. Because he doesn’t think the baby is really a person (yet). He thinks the reason why you shouldn’t do it is that it would horrify you to do it.

Now there is a larger issue about how we should, maybe, set out to recalibrate our ideas about what is ‘sacred’, if we are utilitarians. Should we all become creatures that hold fewer things sacred, as it were, that more beings may be happy? Or would that be a mistake? Or would it be a mistake merely because it might be self-defeating, because we would all be miserable, in our unholy, ‘happy’ world? (I must admit, I don’t find it horrifying to discuss the issue in these clinical, Brave New World terms. But some people probably will.) I think Peter Singer is probably a person who would advocate a certain amount of that. He’s talked himself into a certain Mustafa Mond-ishness, no doubt. But I don’t necessarily think he would push it on the infanticide front. That is, it’s not going to be good, from a utilitarian standpoint, to encourage people to regard babies more ‘interchangably’. It’s not hard to see why encouraging that attitude toward babies could spill over, unhappily, to bad attitudes towards older children and other people around you. By contrast, trying to talk people out of other sorts of tribal ‘sacrednesses’ – i.e. my tribe is chosen by god, and that’s why it’s ok to kill your tribe – are a likelier target for attempted attitudinal rehabilitation. Would be my guess.

Actually, here’s a better way to put it. Everyone forgets that Mustafa Mond, in “Brave New World”, isn’t actually a total bastard. This is important. Maybe he’s wrong, in a “Man does not seek happiness, only the Englishman does that” way. But it’s important that he isn’t, therefore, like Hitler. (I realize that’s sort of a weak advertisement. “He isn’t like Hitler!” That would be a funny blurb to put on the back of a Singer book. A true one, too!)

77

John Holbo 11.20.13 at 7:34 am

“Why are you trolling your own blog? Seriously.”

Hector isn’t my blog, dude.

78

John Holbo 11.20.13 at 7:45 am

Actually, the more I think about this, the more I think that we need to distinguish two fundamental flavors of ‘horrible’. There’s Hitler and then there’s Mustafa Mond. And this gets confused because mostly we just assume that every Mustafa Mond is just Hitler, with a coat of ‘rational’ paint. But I don’t think that’s right.

But, for what it’s worth, if someone says they find Peter Singer horrible the way they find Mustafa Mond horrible, I don’t have a problem with that.

Peter Singer’s sin is undervaluing the sacred. Hitler’s sins went a bit beyond that, I would say.

79

Sebastian H 11.20.13 at 8:01 am

“If it’s going to horrify you to do this thing then that’s an excellent reason not to do it. But he doesn’t think that the reason why you shouldn’t do it is because you would be killing a person. Because he doesn’t think the baby is really a person (yet). He thinks the reason why you shouldn’t do it is that it would horrify you to do it.”

Where do you get this idea? My impression is that he believes the idea of “horrifying you” is essentially an inappropriate emotional reaction which has no good place in rational moral system (of the kind he claims to prefer).

“He thinks the reason why you shouldn’t do it is that it would horrify you to do it.”

Where do you get the idea that he thinks you shouldn’t do it? He gives every impression, over a long career including debates with actual disabled people where he said they were of the type that should have been killed off before they became ‘persons’, that it would be the correct moral thing to do. I have never gotten the impression that his infanticide stance was ‘for illustration only’. He really seems to believe that utilitarianism is the proper moral guide and that it leads to the conclusion that disabled people–even not gravely disabled people like hemophiliacs–should have been killed for the better happiness of the people who now don’t have to take care of them and can focus on easier to deal with children.

80

John Holbo 11.20.13 at 8:05 am

Re: Singer’s definition of ‘person. (I really should review this but I think I’ve got it about right.) Sebastian is right that the concept is semi-stipulative, in an ‘either you buy it as immediately intuitive or not’ sort of way. But it is supposed to be highly plausible, i.e. it is not exactly mysterious why you would define it this way.

A person is 1) self-conscious; 2) of itself through time; 3) preference-having; 4) autonomous.

Something like that. Singer doesn’t see harm in sudden death for creatures that do not have preferences for their own future existences. He sees harm in pain for such creatures.

81

John Holbo 11.20.13 at 8:13 am

“My impression is that he believes the idea of “horrifying you” is essentially an inappropriate emotional reaction which has no good place in rational moral system (of the kind he claims to prefer). “

Well, I guess I should review what he actually thinks. There are obvious, potential arguments on both sides that are broadly utilitarian (probably we should select from that set). On the one hand, people should try to reason themselves out of preferences/reactions that have no rational basis. If you know the spider is harmless, you should try not to freak out about it. One the other hand, people’s preferences are not at bottom rational. The point is to satisfy them, not to rationalize them. Just because you can’t prove that you should like chocolate, that’s not a good reason to try to train yourself not to like chocolate. I think Peter Singer isn’t particularly insightful about this stuff – from what I remember. But I don’t remember him ticking all the way over to the former position. That is, I don’t remember him arguing anything like: if you know the baby isn’t, technically, a person, you should fight hard not to regard it as one, because to do otherwise would be to fall into irrationality, and that’s bad.

82

John Holbo 11.20.13 at 8:36 am

“He gives every impression, over a long career including debates with actual disabled people where he said they were of the type that should have been killed off before they became ‘persons’, that it would be the correct moral thing to do.”

I think the most he argues is that it would have been permissible, right? He’s not arguing for an obligation of infanticide, for the greater good. Is he? (I’m asking.)

83

Emma in Sydney 11.20.13 at 8:41 am

Belle said “Because there’s nothing else that being pregnant with a baby you want to keep is like. There’s nothing else remotely like it.”

This is true. It is also nothing remotely like being pregnant with a baby that you cannot possibly have and keep your family going. Or remotely like losing a baby you want to keep through miscarriage. I have done all of these, at least twice each.

My experience is that these are not rational states that you can argue yourself into or out of. For me, it was much closer to an elemental emotional state like love, or grief or hate. Embodied, all the way, whichever way it goes.

84

Mao Cheng Ji 11.20.13 at 8:42 am

“Singer doesn’t see harm in sudden death for creatures that do not have preferences for their own future existences.”

From the rationalist’s point of view, where’s the harm in a sudden death of anyone at all? It’s not like the dead guy is going to be unhappy about his being dead. As Epicurus (I believe) said: as long as you’re alive there is no death for you, and once the death has come, there is no you.

85

bad Jim 11.20.13 at 8:47 am

I live with my mother, who is 88, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s 7 years ago, lost her driver’s license, became unable to use a cell phone, to attend social event on her own, even to play the piano, and since fracturing her hip has become incapable of walking or conversing or feeding herself. Some of her friends, and even her late doctor, offered the opinion that she’d be better off if she’d succumbed to pneumonia. During a recent emergency someone said, in effect, “We wouldn’t object if you just let her go”.

I don’t think they were wrong, but I don’t think I’m a monster for keeping her around, though it is indefensibly expensive, and something I’d prefer not to spend on myself in such a diminished condition. My mother’s fate is something she feared and wanted to avoid, but the condition is such that one is insensible to its consequences. Anosognosia is the operative phrase.

The defiance of death is one of the things driving antibiotics into the ground. Elderly patients, exposed to a toxic confection of well-educated bacteria, are routinely provided with the latest and greatest defenses, predictably breeding resistance which will doom the next generation of infants. One question which might have been interesting: do you save grandma or granddaughter? has already been answered.

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Niall McAuley 11.20.13 at 9:07 am

My point, Hector, is not the absolute number of women taking the trip to the UK (which has dropped to about 4000 a year from 6000, perhaps because of the availability of morning-after contraception), it is the narrower subject of Belle’s post: pregnancies involving fatal foetal abnormalities.

In Ireland, a doctor’s advice in a case like this is for the patient to take the trip, which, according to some, amounts to “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.

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John Holbo 11.20.13 at 9:07 am

“as long as you’re alive there is no death for you, and once the death has come, there is no you.”

A classic argument, to be sure. This gets to the usual issues about hedonism.

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UserGoogol 11.20.13 at 9:16 am

Mao Cheng Ji: Basically Peter Singer’s kind of preference utilitarianism is that if someone prefers something to happen and it doesn’t happen, that harms them even if they never become aware of that fact. Preferences, not just raw hedonism, are the fundamental basis of utility then. Which makes a certain amount of sense, although I’m not entirely convinced that’s the right way to go.

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bad Jim 11.20.13 at 9:17 am

There may be no moral posture which is not utterly evil when all its effects are taken into account. Even my modest proposal – saving the planet – would entail immediate harm to humans and livestock. Any consistent morality is monstrous when all its consequences are considered. So?

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Mao Cheng Ji 11.20.13 at 9:28 am

“if someone prefers something to happen and it doesn’t happen, that harms them even if they never become aware of that fact”

This just doesn’t make sense. What, it makes your guardian angel suffer?

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Belle Waring 11.20.13 at 12:15 pm

This is true. It is also nothing remotely like being pregnant with a baby that you cannot possibly have and keep your family going. Or remotely like losing a baby you want to keep through miscarriage. I have done all of these, at least twice each.

Emma, I’m really, truly sorry to hear you suffered all those things, and I can only use my imagination to paint a picture of what that would be like. I found even merely the constant threat of miscarriage so grinding and awful; I think I would truly lose heart after I lost a second baby. I hope that you have a family now that can keep going, and that is filled with love.

I have to say, utilitarian discussions about infanticide that rely on the equivalent value of replacement infants don’t seem to be taking the whole “being pregnant for nine months” thing into sufficient account. It’s really, really…um…an embodied thing. It is not, in some ways, an excellent topic for ratiocination. It is very unlike not being pregnant. As with abortion, hearing a lot of people unequipped to handle the problem arguing about it rings hollow. My mother told me I would dream about it sometimes, and I do. Or now am I just balancing my inconvenience at having to take care of a hemophiliac child against the inconvenience of killing either a near-term fetus or a living newborn plus the inconvenience of getting pregnant again and bearing the new, grade-A fetus to term? This is taking a couple years now. And wait, how is the horror I feel for the rest of my life because I killed my infant on the grounds of his manageable illness going to work out for me? Aren’t I going to be nuts now? I’m pretty sure I’d be nuts. To be fair, I’m not the absolutely most finely balanced person in all the world at this moment, but I really don’t think that’d do me up very well.

My father’s father tried to drown my father and his cousin in the bath when they were a little older than one, because this terrible world, that had contained the Pacific Theater of WWII, was not a place for anything good or pure, and because if my father grew up he also would be mentally ill. This did indeed prove to be the case, although my father is doing very well now and is a lovely person to be with. My grandfather got stopped by one of the maids and then had the sense to go on and do the thing up properly. I can’t for the life of me remember just now whether he shot or hung himself. It’s really the sort of thing you think you’d remember, but I do have a funny old family. Ate a gun, I guess, everything else is stupid. Must have been. But? I think a revolver. Taken all in all, I think it was better for my grandmother and everyone else that my father was liberated from the inconvenience of his father’s illness than the other way round.

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Anon 11.20.13 at 12:38 pm

UserGoogol 11.20.13 at 9:16 am
“Mao Cheng Ji: Basically Peter Singer’s kind of preference utilitarianism is that if someone prefers something to happen and it doesn’t happen, that harms them even if they never become aware of that fact.”

This doesn’t make sense. If it is harm despite their lack of awareness, then it it is the preferability that has been violated, not their preference (which no longer exists when it’s frustrated. And if it’s preferability not preference that’s the issue, then even animals that don’t have preferences about their future are harmed, since if they had preferences they would prefer to have a future.

Frankly, I thought it was because Singer, like all utilitarians, is an intellectualist. Better to be a dissatisfied Socrates than a sastisfied pig, etc. Animals are awesome, but stupid animals, fuck those guys. And stupid children, too.

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John Holbo 11.20.13 at 12:42 pm

“The ‘embryos aren’t persons’ theory relies on a physicalist theory of mind.”

Yes, that’s probably true. I realize you don’t have one of those. But, on the other hand, not everyone is you.

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John Holbo 11.20.13 at 1:00 pm

” I thought it was because Singer, like all utilitarians, is an intellectualist.”

‘Ooooh, now ‘e’s ‘avin preferences fer things what isn’t ‘is own ‘edonic state ‘o mind. ‘E’s an intellectual, ‘e is, our Pete!’

Thank you for that one, Anon. I will also treasure the notion that Peter Singer is distinguished, among philosophers, by his hostility to animals.

On a more serious note, folks might want to read something like this about preference utilitarianism, if they are curious about these puzzles.

http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/consequentialism/#WhaGooHedVsPluCon

Short version: preference utilitarianism seems weird for the reasons cited. What I don’t know can’t hurt me. But it’s denial can seem as paradoxical. Are we then irrational to have self-regarding desires for things that aren’t subjective states. Is it insane to want to win, say, instead of wanting to feel like you won?

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Belle Waring 11.20.13 at 1:46 pm

Does everyone have a sad now? You guys can keep arguing about utilitarianism, ain’t like it’s going to hurt my feelings. I just feel stupid and un-anchored from reality in that I cannot remember so obvious a thing as the mode of suicide of a near relation (not that I knew the man, mind). I probably just need some sleep and it’ll come to me. See, a gun is the only way to go, but the fact that I even considered hanging makes me think it must have been hanging. It’s also…retaliatory. And then, my inclination to say it was a revolver? Again, a shotgun is what you’re after there. So many questions. Utilitarianism would make painless modes of suicide available to the suicidal, that would be nice for them, possibly. Or, in lowering the hurdle one needs to overcome, not nice. Most people who fail are happy they failed if you ask them a few years later. It makes one wonder whether people are really very rational at all.

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Matt 11.20.13 at 1:52 pm

“The ‘embryos aren’t persons’ theory relies on a physicalist theory of mind.”

I’ll disagree a bit w/ John here, and say that it does not. And, in fact, there’s no very strong connection here one way or another. If being a person meant having an immortal soul, for example, that could happen at any time. (It was long thought to happen well after conception, for example, in part to help reduce the view that god willfully causes the destruction of more than half of all created persons all the time, a view that Hector is apparently committed to.) And, there is a recent book by Robbie George and a co-author that argues that it’s abortion proponents who must be dualists, as having the good proper theory of mind that a Catholic has rejects dualism, and that it’s just this rejection of dualism that should lead us to see that abortion at any time is immoral. So rather, it’s once again the case that Hector just doesn’t know what he’s talking about, and merely spewing his ill-informed ideas. Having different views about the mind might well inform one’s views on abortion, but there is no necessary link at all from any particular view of the mind to a particular view of abortion.

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Hector_St_Clare 11.20.13 at 2:07 pm

Prasad,

You may want to work on your reading skills a bit. I’m talking about the monkeys who peace around Miami whining about ‘human rights’ and I don’t know what else, not about communists.

Matt,

Do you deny that there is a strong association between people who believe in physicalist theories of mind, and people who believe in abortion? singer even admits that if physicalism is not true, his whole threory falls down.

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Matt 11.20.13 at 2:14 pm

Do you deny that there is a strong association between people who believe in physicalist theories of mind, and people who believe in abortion?

There might well be, but that’s not an argument, nor is it what you’d said before, nor would it help you. You really should try to figure out what your argument is and stick with it. Of course, that would be inconvenient for you, for many reasons.

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prasad 11.20.13 at 2:35 pm

“The ‘embryos aren’t persons’ theory relies on a physicalist theory of mind.

I’m actually not sure that’s true either. Didn’t Locke argue you can have a soul without being that soul, that what makes you a person is basically being a thinking, reflective creature existing over time? IMO that’s right regardless of the truth of dualism, at least I don’t see how the thing that makes me me can be something that’s so utterly opaque to me. Not unless there are no other options anyway.

It’s still fine with such a view to say that what gives you *moral significance* is having a soul. So the embryo has the right sort of supernatural jelly in it, hence it mayn’t be killed. But that still wouldn’t make it the person that later emerges from it. [Perhaps a simpler argument is the twinning embryo case, but it’s hard to make much sense in any case of embryo-soul arguments.]

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prasad 11.20.13 at 2:44 pm

Hector, I understood you to be implying arguments against the personhood of even Cuban communists using the physicalist principles you decry, but I will work on my reading skills. Meanwhile, can you lay out the argument you promised? For Miami human rights peace monkeys (not Communists!) this time?

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John Holbo 11.20.13 at 2:47 pm

“The ‘embryos aren’t persons’ theory relies on a physicalist theory of mind.”

Pretty clearly there’s no logical reason why you can’t be a dualist who thinks the soul only enters at age 2 – or 12. Or that men have souls and women don’t. Or that people have them and dogs don’t. Or that dogs do, too. Or that rocks and trees have souls, too. Animism.

That said, I think it is a fair anthropological generalization that most contemporary philosophers who defend Singer-like views of personhood do so from a base of materialism.

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Tim O'Keefe 11.20.13 at 3:15 pm

Matt’s right here about personhood and theories of mind. John Locke is the clearest example here to make the point. Locke distinguishes between the identity-conditions of substances (e.g., an individual atom), of organisms (e.g., an oak tree or a human being), and of persons (Tim O’Keefe). He’s agnostic about whether there is an immaterial substance that supports mental properties, or whether bodies could support them. But he’s clear that even if there is an immaterial soul that survives my death, that it survives my death doesn’t imply that *I* survive. That’s because I’m a person, “an intelligent thinking being that can know itself as itself the same thinking thing in different times and places” (to quote the SEP entry on the subject). If my soul were to move on and animate the body of a factory farm-raised chicken, in retribution for my consumption of McNuggets, it wouldn’t be *me* who suffers horrifically.

Ditto for persons and organisms. If I suffer a massive stroke that wipes out my personality, I cease to exist, while the human animal survives. On the other hand, the organism can die and God can resurrect me by recreating me in a new body.

And you can be a physicalist about the mind and not accept a Singer-style view on persons. For instance, Eric Olson argues for “animalism,” the view the I (and other people) are identical to human animals.

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John Holbo 11.20.13 at 3:21 pm

Tim is right.

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Sebastian H 11.20.13 at 5:35 pm

“[for Singer] A person is 1) self-conscious; 2) of itself through time; 3) preference-having; 4) autonomous.

Something like that. Singer doesn’t see harm in sudden death for creatures that do not have preferences for their own future existences. He sees harm in pain for such creatures.”

Personhood is in part the quality we identify in order to attribute certain rights: you can’t willy-nilly kill persons, you can plants.

But it seems quite sharply drawn as presented. His conclusions strongly imply that a person must have those characteristics right at this very moment. His infanticide stance completely falls apart if you extend it to creatures who through the natural course of growing and developing (i.e. children) can be expected to have those traits. And similarly creatures who had those traits recently and are still alive (i.e. people sleeping, people in a coma).

It seems perfectly plausible that lots of very thoughtful people might believe that you shouldn’t kill human beings who are asleep just because they don’t presently show all of those characteristics. It seems perfectly plausible that lots of very thoughtful people believe that you shouldn’t kill human beings who are well on their way to developing those characteristics.

These aren’t esoteric objections to Singer. Pretty much any non-philosopher could immediately come up with “but they are growing up”.

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Mao Cheng Ji 11.20.13 at 5:36 pm

Well, the problem is, it seems impossible to separate the *I* capable of self-reflection (and, incidentally, operating with 0.5 second delay) from the sub-conscious *Me*, who actually does all the work (albeit a subject to an occasional veto by *I* in humans), same as in animals. It seems unlikely that your *I* can inhibit any other body. Or that it’s as crucially important as we tend to believe (which is not really all that surprising: our *I* being full of itself).

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neuroscience_of_free_will

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Bloix 11.20.13 at 5:50 pm

Belle, I came by a while ago to make yet another comment about utilitarianism, or something, and I read your comments, and said, wow, maybe I’ll just sit quietly for while and think about all the bad things that can happen in a family and be thankful for the good things that we do have.

I can’t explain how the conversation has just flowed around you except that sometimes, perhaps, things are so overwhelming that people don’t accept that they’re happening at all.

It’s a funny thing about personal experiences and intellectual argument. I was at a dinner party once and the conversation turned to capital punishment. I was making some sort of incisive point and the wife of a friend – someone I’d known for over a decade – said, my sister was murdered. I hadn’t known that. Whatever I’d been saying all of a sudden seemed pompous and idiotic.

I took a seminar once on early modern England. We’d read an article on attitudes toward murder and suicide, and a student was pontificating about present-day attitudes compared to blah blah and the professor suddenly lost his patience and said, mildly, my father committed suicide. You could tell after he’d said it that he’d meant not to.

The wonderful thing about Singer-Johnson is that Johnson engaged Singer at a very high level with the insight that her own condition brought to the debate. Berube does that too. The rest of us (e.g. me) chatter about how smart we are until something hits us personally and then we just get angry and rationality goes out the window. It’s nice of you to remind us that abstract concepts are abstracted from the experiences of real people.

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Anon 11.20.13 at 5:51 pm

Holbo @94 “I will also treasure the notion that Peter Singer is distinguished, among philosophers, by his hostility to animals.”

Surely there’s nothing immensely shocking about the suggestion that a loud mouthed preacher might be a closet sinner, or that the one who crows loudest about speciesism might, to some degree, be a speciesist?

Now I did not and would not say he is “hostile” to animals, and obviously not in contrast to other philosophers, but yes, he seems to have a natural but irrational bias toward the worthless eccentricities of his own sick, sad species.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but the category of creatures he allows us to kill (but not inflict suffering upon) is any animals lacking self-consciousness through time. And so moral weight and value is graduated according to proximity to the what has, historically, been treated by humans as one of their most distinctive traits.

Give a damn about animals if and to the degree they’re like us: the more like us they are, the more rights they get. That surely expresses a devaluation of non-human animals–of the traits that distinguish them from human animals.

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Anon 11.20.13 at 6:03 pm

Holbo @94

“preference utilitarianism seems weird for the reasons cited. What I don’t know can’t hurt me. But it’s denial can seem as paradoxical.”

There’s nothing weird about it, both options have intuitive appeal: yes, I can be harmed even if doesn’t affect my subjective states. And, of course, I only know that I am harmed if it is experienced as a subjective state.

What’s weird is having and eating the cake too (or humanely raised steak). Why does a person’s non-subjective harm count but not anyone else’s? And the answer seems to be: because person-animals are like people, and people, well, we’re great, aren’t we?

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dbk 11.20.13 at 6:38 pm

BW’s OP presented one extreme of the argument for infanticide; it is possible to go in the other direction and suggest that on strict utilitarian grounds (as defined by the rational utilitarian philosopher), any embryo/infant who in the best judgment of experts will not attain full personhood (as defined by the rational utilitarian philosopher) should – in the interests of those who will be harmed by its living – be killed/left to die.

Surely Singer doesn’t go this far? And yet, this seems to me to be the logical extension of an argument ad infantidium.

The knotty or wicked cases fall somewhere in between the two extremes, of course; it is to deal with these cases that bioethics committees exist and struggle over such questions on a daily and ever-evolving basis, given the progress of medical science and technology.

I’d like to present a real-life example in order to point to an aspect of utilitarianism that I find, well, troubling. My husband had a younger brother who suffered horrific brain damage (accidental) when he was a few months old. He was left blind, deaf, mute, and paralyzed. And yet, he survived – and was cared for at home by my mother-in-law and my husband – for seventeen years. When he died, my mother-in-law fell into a depression from which she never really recovered. Why? I believe it was because she loved him, because she found a purpose in life by caring for him, because he was valuable to her because she found value in her own life through him.

Children who are by strictly utilitarian criteria not destined to attain personhood are not in all cases the causes of moral harm to others – in fact, they can offer the opportunity for unconditional and unending love. When I recall the posts by Michael Berube on this blog that concerned his son, the sense that emerged was of a very special type, an almost-overpowering, sense of love.

Do strictu senso utilitarians factor love into their considerations (a genuine question, I simply don’t know)?

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Emma in Sydney 11.20.13 at 7:52 pm

Bloix @ 106: Exactly.

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Matt 11.20.13 at 8:16 pm

BW’s OP presented one extreme of the argument for infanticide; it is possible to go in the other direction and suggest that on strict utilitarian grounds (as defined by the rational utilitarian philosopher), any embryo/infant who in the best judgment of experts will not attain full personhood (as defined by the rational utilitarian philosopher) should – in the interests of those who will be harmed by its living – be killed/left to die.

Surely Singer doesn’t go this far? And yet, this seems to me to be the logical extension of an argument ad infantidium.

Singer considers the effects on relationships that would be changed by killing as well as the possible emotional suffering and/or bodily damage pain experienced by that being killed before cessation. The latter two points make it ethically problematic to condemn a creature to death when it is aware and afraid of impending death, or when killing brings pain first. The first point is why (presumably) his examples about infanticide have the parents deciding, rather than the doctor, the hospital president, or the central committee of philosophers. If the parents believe they would suffer greater grief from a swift death than from a longer life with medical support, nobody else is really in a position to contradict them. And this is not some special humans-only cherrypicked case: he is also against the killing of non-human animals that have social relations that apparently cause others to grieve their absence, even if the death is humane. This is why there is no such thing as ethically harmless veal, no matter how carefully the individual animals are treated and painlessly killed.

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Mao Cheng Ji 11.20.13 at 8:40 pm

“It’s nice of you to remind us that abstract concepts are abstracted from the experiences of real people.”

Abstracting from the experiences of real people (as you described) can actually be a good thing, the right thing to do. Someone whose sister was murdered would not be a good juror in a capital murder case. People get traumatized; it doesn’t make them experts. On the contrary, normally it’s assumed that it makes them partial.

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roy belmont 11.20.13 at 11:25 pm

Not infants or anything, but:

Because the social context of this thread is a world in which marginalized folks are being treated to a kind eugenic, kind of euthanasic, extermination. So it’s already going on. Right now.
Kids who damage their minds permanently with solvent huffing become candidates for the survivor-austerity program. Discardable. A drain with no productive potential.
Kids who kill themselves because no future, no place, no hope, are being aborted post-partum. It’s just that the agencies of abortion aren’t medical, aren’t even operating with conscious human intent to kill them. But they’re dying just the same.

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roy belmont 11.20.13 at 11:27 pm

link to code garbled quote: https://tinyurl.com/ljcbz2h

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roy belmont 11.20.13 at 11:28 pm

code garbled quote:
To mark UN Children’s Day on November 20, a new photo gallery from Survival International highlights appallingly high levels of suicide and social breakdown amongst tribal children whose lands have been taken. The gallery also provides rare insights into their ways of life.

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Helen 11.20.13 at 11:34 pm

I’m pro-life in the late pregnancy, because I believe that the fetus is a ‘person’ at that point, and its life ought not be destroyed except for very good reasons.

(Sigh) Yet again, this hoary chestnut. Sebastian, can you point to any instances of women having late-term abortions for frivolous reasons?

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Hector_St_Clare 11.21.13 at 12:20 am

Ah, I missed Ms. Waring’s latest ourvre.

Re: I have a number of friends who have had abortions because they got pregnant in the first semester of college or something.

Yes, of course. God forbid they drop out of school, keep the baby and marry the father, as they ought to do. Career is more important than childrearing, don’t you know, and an inconvenient baby must not be allowed to derail one’s career in university and the corporate boardroom.

Re: They have happy, prosperous families now, all with two children, as it happens.

Couldn’t have more than two, of course, that would be unfashionable and low-class, just like the stupid Christers in flyover country.

Re: Almost all women who get abortions either already are, or later become, mothers. I think my friends all made the best choices for their actually existing children.

That’s great. How about the choices they made on behalf of the unborn ones?

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GiT 11.21.13 at 12:32 am

Probably best if people refrain from making choices on the basis of the deluded fantasy life of spirits, souls, angels, ghosts &etc of certain Christians.

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Helen 11.21.13 at 12:50 am

Note I was being very kind to Sebastian there by specifying late term abortions. “Frivolous” abortions at any stage are about as rare as unicorns, but play a huge part in some peoples’ fevered imaginations.

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Alan White 11.21.13 at 12:57 am

I’m not going to ask certain incessant posters about situations of pregnancy in college due to date-rape, which is not exactly an unknown kind of case. Because that will only elicit more moral condescension, which this thread bleeds freely.

I want to make just one observation about Singer. He’s radical, yes. But he’s consistent. Okay, maybe a foolish consistency by conventional standards, but that’s not my point.

He says that morality must be centered on some objective moral intrinsic good. Certain properties of sentient beings–pleasures, preferences–appear to qualify in a prima facie way. So, morality is a function of those, and only those.

That implies that beings that possess these properties–humans or any plausible candidate in the rest of the animal kingdom–only participate in the moral sphere due to the contingency of access to these properties. These beings, those properties aside, do not have intrinsic worth. So calculations of maximization of the good need not include any essential consideration of the beings themselves in the calculation. That’s why talk of “rights” and the like have no basis–there is nothing to anchor them in this world-view.

Is it a familiar or comfortable world-view? No. But its conclusions are coherent and consistent (in many cases offered here), even if many recoil in horror when asserted. Remember Jack Smart’s “so what” reply to conflicts with traditional deontological concepts–I think he embraced a similar world-view.

FFIW I do not endorse Singer’s full view, but I do admire both his commitment to metaphysical naturalism and the consistency with which he enunciates the moral consequences of his morality with that. I am a naturalist. Religious world-views aside, where does the supposed intrinsic worth of humanity come from, aside from its properties like happiness and preferences that we seem to in fact value?

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Hector_St_Clare 11.21.13 at 1:15 am

Re: “Frivolous” abortions at any stage are about as rare as unicorns, but play a huge part in some peoples’ fevered imaginations.

Nonsense, Helen. The vast majority of early term abortions are for reasons that are frivolous *compared to the life of the embryo*.

Re: I’m not going to ask certain incessant posters about situations of pregnancy in college due to date-rape, which is not exactly an unknown kind of case.

You asked by implication, and my answer is still no.

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Hector_St_Clare 11.21.13 at 1:15 am

I’m open to allowing abortions in rape cases as a legal compromise, but the only valid moral choice is still to keep the baby.

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Hector_St_Clare 11.21.13 at 1:17 am

Re: Meanwhile, can you lay out the argument you promised? For Miami human rights peace monkeys (not Communists!) this time?

Again, I believe in a sliding scale of rights based on moral worth of the individual. An unborn child exists in a state of innocence: people who embrace wicked political causes are not. Therefore, I’m more interested in the rights of embryos than in the rights of, for example, Venezuelan dissidents.

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GiT 11.21.13 at 1:44 am

I thought I had made a post about this earlier, but facts suggest otherwise. In any case the history of infanticide has been rather absent from the ready moral condemnation of it tout court as one of those obviously disgusting practices we should all be able to pillory without thought.

And yet it is reported to have been relatively widely practiced throughout history, and its practice has been mitigated over time in part due rather straightforwardly to the development of the material capacity to practice contraception, abortion, and abandonment or transsfer to the care of others (or, in the case of the disabled, accommodation of disability by oneself or others). We’ve been able to substitute away from infanticide and ability selective abortion.

Hector and his ilk, of course, have no issues dismissing people’s autonomy in the face of a deeply serious concern for immaterial immortal souls. But I’m not really prepared to throw unwed servant girls impregnated by (married, perhaps) men or subsistence living nomads and peasants under the bus because they lacked the technology necessary to reliably practice abortion or the socioeconomic conditions necessary to practice transfer to the care of others.

Historically, many people have placed autonomy in planning their life and family, and a desire for some degree of sexual freedom, before holding to a taboo against neonatal killing. Underlaying, exposure, drowning – different cultures have had their different acceptable methods of killing infants.

It makes sense to me to take that prohibition more and more seriously as a moral matter as we have developed a greater and greater ability to avoid it. Given the somatic stakes of the whole experience of pregnancy and birth that Belle has movingly pointed out it seems advisable to take the decision of women to nonetheless practice infanticide of their own volition in the past as saying something rather important about the conditions they faced and the moral stakes of the proposition for them. Even if that’s admitting the specter of a bugbear perhaps even worse than that of ultilitarianism – moral relativism (I’d rather say that the extent of the moral duties we can take upon ourselves to perform are constrained by the material capacity we have to practice the good works such duties would require of us).

Or we could go the Hector route and call all the women of the past who practiced infanticide selfish feminist whores.

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William Berry 11.21.13 at 1:58 am

Hector@117:

What is an “ourvre”?

Is it the same thing as an oeuvre? As in a complete body of work?

Well, if Belle just suddenly came up with a new, complete body of work back there, guess I missed it too!

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David (Kid Geezer). 11.21.13 at 2:12 am

Not anti-abortion and pro-abortion. Anti-choice and pro-choice. Never should have ceded the language on that.

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Frank Ashe 11.21.13 at 2:21 am

Belle,

I found your post incredibly moving. Thank you.

As a male I will never be able to have the feelings that a pregnant woman has. For those discussing utilitarianism etc, that would be fine if we were rational creatures. But we are only creatures capable of rationality. Most of the things we do are driven by those brain/body processes evolved over 600+ million years; this gives the embodying of the feeling that Belle has mentioned. This is the joy and the despair of the human condition.

Using our frontal neo-cortex to try to figure how we should live our lives is always going to fail when it comes up against the brutal fact that the rest of the human creature just gets on with living. Philosophical (and theological) fancy dancing might work fine in theory but never works in practice.

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Helen 11.21.13 at 2:36 am

Nonsense, Helen. The vast majority of early term abortions are for reasons that are frivolous *compared to the life of the embryo*.

That presupposes a supernatural entity, some kind of spirit of the dead embryo, who is able to float around and bemoan the fact that it hasn’t been born.

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Hector_St_Clare 11.21.13 at 2:54 am

Re: Not anti-abortion and pro-abortion. Anti-choice and pro-choice. Never should have ceded the language on that.

When was the language ever yours to cede? I’m not aware ‘anti-choice’ was ever widely used, except among those already ideologically committed to your side.

Re: As a male I will never be able to have the feelings that a pregnant woman has

I love calling the feminists’ bluff on this one. You’re aware, right, that attitudes towards the legality of abortion essentially don’t differ (except maybe a tiny bit year to year) between men and women? And if we only let women vote on whether abortions should be legal or not (not sure why we would, but let’s grant it), the status of the debate would not particularly change? Abortion attitudes are affected by education and marital status, but not really by gender.

It may not ever occur to Amanda Marcotte that some women might actually be strongly pro life, but surely you folks are smarter than that.

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Alan White 11.21.13 at 3:02 am

@122

Thanks for further meta-condescension that you might “allow” legal access to abortion in rape cases, despite thinking that people who take that route are sinners. Your thoughtful separation of the legal and the moral commends you to the category of moral elitists tsk-tsking the vagaries of real life in favor of the pursuit of heavenly temptations of eternal life–which of course are self centered interests at bottom. Pascal Wager all you want, you grossly overestimate the chance that god exists, and you grossly underestimate the chance that Singer is right.

131

Belle Waring 11.21.13 at 3:45 am

Abstracting from the experiences of real people (as you described) can actually be a good thing, the right thing to do. Someone whose sister was murdered would not be a good juror in a capital murder case. People get traumatized; it doesn’t make them experts. On the contrary, normally it’s assumed that it makes them partial.

Mao Cheng Ji, honestly, we’re not trying Peter Singer before a jury of his peers, we’re having a discussion about different sorts of utilitarianism. Don’t actively search for ways to be an asshole. Just lay back and let them come naturally.

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Hector_St_Clare 11.21.13 at 4:02 am

Alan White,
Well, yes. I’m condescending to those who show themselves to lack moral or intellectual maturity. I do not subscribe to idea that morality should be decided by the political fads of our day, or by resorting to fashionable slogans like ‘my body, my choice.’ Those who do so, indicate that they lack the moral maturity to be even allowed to vote, let alone to exert the power of life and death over the innocent unborn.

133

Alan White 11.21.13 at 4:34 am

@131

Master of ad hominem: I (and I hope no one else) will further engage you. My previous post of a weak defense of Singer stands. Should you (or anyone else) wish to engage that, fine.

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Belle Waring 11.21.13 at 4:44 am

130: eh, perhaps that was a bit much, sorry.

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Hector_St_Clare 11.21.13 at 4:50 am

Alan White,

Your post boils down to saying he’s a consistent utilitarian, and you’re a naturalist.

Well, I’m not a naturalist, and Singer has the same problem that all utilitarians have: 1) he judges actions strictly by their consequences, rather than in terms of the nature of the action or the character of the agent, 2) he doesn’t treat individuals as distinct and indissoluble units, and 3) there is no room in his scheme for ideas of justice, desert, and individual obligations, all that matters is the dim
Total of ‘happiness’.

If I had to choose a moral theory it would be some form of virtue ethics, influenced by both the Marxian and Christian strains (I quite like MacIntyre), and of course by Plato. The criticisms I have of utilitarianism and naturalism apply to Singer, and the more consistent of a utilitarian he is the more forcefully I criticize him.

Truthfully though, Singer is a joke outside academic philosophy so id rather spend my time criticizing people like Adam Smith, who actually have substantial political influence.

136

roy belmont 11.21.13 at 4:50 am

the proper course of action is the one that maximizes utility, usually defined as maximizing happiness and reducing suffering.
It’s only wikipedia, but it’s all I’ve got. Is it silly to point out the passive voice there? Here?
The refusal or inability to precisely define whose happiness, the soft vague cloudiness of, you know, happiness, kind of overall, for somebody, sort of now, sort of later, sort of both, sort of abstract, sort of real.
Folks get to join in the discussion you’re having who think God just loves them little babies soo much, and know nothing about how bloody often miscarriages occur without the mother even knowing she was pregnant, cause God didn’t like them particular little babies much, or enough. That’s hideously, intentionally, blind.
And high-function emotionless neuro-atypicals get to natter on about thought problems involving death, and you know, happiness, without betraying the slightest recognition that human existence is dumbfoundingly mysterious, and not reducible to logical packets sent back and forth between sentient nodes.
Plus real-life experiences, some of them heart-wrenching sad. Thank you Emma in Sydney .
It’s great to read but the discussion just keeps sitting there spinning it’s wordy little wheels. (note to self: reread that sentencee later)
Utilitarianism without an expressed criticizable goal in front of its utility is just academic wank.
We all already agreed what that happiness is attached to so we don’t have to define it again, only I don’t think you ever have.
You can’t articulate the goal precisely because it would make plain the futility of talking about it in concrete terms.
It’s like “the greatest good for the greatest number”. Sounds great, man, but what’s being counted? Everyone now, or a little ways into the future?
God forbid you should have to calculate the greatest good for everyone for all time from here on out. Ridiculously impossible.
But that future’s coming right out of this moment, if it’s going to come at all. And we’ve go our hands all over its beginning.

Hector, your fallacy at 4:02 am is a common one in many Judeo-Christians’ moral position viz. abortion – because of the emphasis on intentionality in your dogma of punishment and reward, you can skate across your complicity in the real deaths of real children caused by your mere presence and place in the world, let alone the lives that are consumed daily to keep you relatively comfortable.
Because you don’t mean for them to die it’s not your bad. God won’t get mad at you.
The numbers of miscarried pregnancies are hard to calculate because many pregnancies end in the first few weeks, without conscious or tested recognition of the condition, but the reasonable estimates are upward of 50%.
Your God, with his almighty power of life and death, is killing innocent babies all day long. You don’t want to see it, so you don’t.

137

Alan White 11.21.13 at 4:58 am

@134

So what is (are) the intrinsic good(s) and how do you justify it (them)?

Good luck. I think Singer has a leg up on that.

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JanieM 11.21.13 at 4:59 am

without betraying the slightest recognition that human existence is dumbfoundingly mysterious, and not reducible to logical packets sent back and forth between sentient nodes.

This.

*****

Those who do so, indicate that they lack the moral maturity to be even allowed to vote

Right back atcha, Hector. You should be just as relieved that I’m not in charge of who gets to vote as I am that you’re not.

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Alan White 11.21.13 at 5:13 am

BTW apparently Copernicus is a major joke outside a vast popular US opinion on whether the sun orbits us or not–the marriage of ad populum and ignoratio elenchus begets a lot of offspring. Not that I’d advocate abortion here–my, that would be cruel even if it were rational, taking the perspective of the parents.

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Mao Cheng Ji 11.21.13 at 8:31 am

@133, T’s all right, everyone here is opinionated and that’s good. I was just saying, it’s a long way from the entirely reasonable “you don’t REALLY know what it’s like to lose a child”, to “you don’t know what it’s like to lose a child” (which is already BS: we all know), to “you shouldn’t even have an opinion on the capital punishment or suicide, unless…”, which is what 106 sounds like to me.

Most of what we REALLY know, that’s the topic of our excruciatingly boring endless conversations at work (any minute now), and what are we supposed to talk about outside of that, the weather?

141

John Holbo 11.21.13 at 9:11 am

“I do not subscribe to idea that morality should be decided by the political fads of our day, or by resorting to fashionable slogans like ‘my body, my choice.’ Those who do so, indicate that they lack the moral maturity to be even allowed to vote, let alone to exert the power of life and death over the innocent unborn.”

Hector, you aren’t exactly convincing me to revise my opinion that you conspicuously refuse to engage any but the most absurd caricatures of the opposition.

142

Fishy 11.21.13 at 3:11 pm

@140. Am I confused? I thought I was reading 2 conversations, which Bloix noted in whatever comment. Is the idea that people should not comment on or judge a situation they’ve never experienced? Or is it that grasping actual situations/experiences is essential to deriving and applying principles? If we’re getting into questions of law, our common law system does think actual experience is pretty important.

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sanbikinoraion 11.21.13 at 3:33 pm

Another +1 for Roy at #136 and also for Belle’s original, desperately beautiful prose.

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politicalfootball 11.21.13 at 6:58 pm

I do not subscribe to idea that morality should be decided by the political fads of our day

What an odd thing to say for someone who appears to regard abortion as murder.

Me, though, I’m all about the political fads of the day. For example, I’m opposed to traditional marriage because once you allow polygamy and incest, it’s a short, slippery step from there to diddling box turtles and whatnot.

145

Sisyphus 11.21.13 at 7:32 pm

As a father of a newborn with a heart defect, I think I’ve gained some perspective. Fortunately, our son will be made whole through surgery. However, he had a cystic hygroma identified very early in the pregnancy. For those who don’t know, about 50% of the time, that indicates a chromosomal defect. In the remaining 50%, about half have some form of birth defect (ranging from a repairable heart defect to something…worse). Of the most common chromosomal defects, two are invariably fatal. Then there is Downs. Finally, there’s Turner syndrome.

We were unusually fortunate. His problem is one that, a couple of months of hospitalization and agonizing waiting and worry, and two open heart surgeries before he is a month old, will save him. Then, several more surgeries throughout his childhood should result in a more or less normal life for him. However, we had to wait until 22 months to see his heart well enough to know what was wrong. Had it been something else, something worse but harder to spot, we never would have known. Had we not been over 35, we never would have had the early diagnosis. It was only because of our age that we had that early ultrasound. Parents in the situation we were in have enough pain and difficulty and fear to contend with. Adding a law like this to the mix is just cruelty and a demonstration that well-meaning people can completely lack the empathy and open-mindedness to see the pain that their black and white view can inflict on people already suffering.

While I love my son, and am happy that he’s alive and will, we hope, live through his second surgery and his childhood, my experience has demonstrated one thing to me; these laws that make getting an abortion more difficult only serve to make the pro-life people feel better, while inflicting pain and fear on people who are already in agony. They are wrong morally, wrong politically, and wrong from a policy standpoint. Pro-life does not have the moral high ground. They just have the closed minds that religious certainty seems to give to people.

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Ronan(rf) 11.21.13 at 7:54 pm

I’d allow Hector vote, if I had the call, but his choice would be between Amanda Marcotte and Jessica Valenti‎, forever.
Everyone else would vote under a more sensible system

147

JanieM 11.21.13 at 9:07 pm

I’d allow Hector vote, if I had the call

So would I, in real life. What I was trying to get at, however obliquely, is that Hector’s idea of voting isn’t actually voting. “Only people I approve of [who agree with me] can vote” is actually something else entirely.

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Belle Waring 11.22.13 at 2:22 am

Sisyphus: I wish you and your partner and your newborn lots of luck, and I hope he makes it through everything else OK. He’s done really well to make it this far.

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heckblazer 11.22.13 at 4:12 am

Mat @ 41:

It’s rather worse than that for Christians. Those unborn infants are going straight to hell because they were unbaptized. Baptists and other sects that hold off baptism until the “age of reason” don’t have that problem, but they still end up with a weird heaven where most of the residents never left the womb. Then there’s the problem of physical resurrection, which to my knowledge is doctrine for at least Catholics, Anglicans and Lutherans. Being reunited with the body you died with seems like a problem if you were a blastocyst.

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js. 11.22.13 at 4:12 am

I’d allow Hector vote, if I had the call, but his choice would be between Amanda Marcotte and Jessica Valenti‎, forever.

This made me laugh. Cheers.

And let me be the third or fourth person to say that roy belmont’s 136 is quite excellent.

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Hector_St_Clare 11.22.13 at 4:41 am

Heckblazer,

As I understand it, the idea is you’re reunited with a perfected body (like, if you die of some wasting disease you don’t get your sickened body back, you get your body at its physical peak).

I think most Christians nowadays say they go to heaven, or that it’s a mystery. There were some first century Christians, I think, who believed aborted fetuses would be re-incarnated on earth so they could get a kind of mulligan on life. I’m certain they don’t go to hell and that everything works out for the best- God is perfectly good, after all- but I’m equally sure I don’t know exactly what happens to them.

152

MG 11.22.13 at 4:45 am

Sisyphus — My daughter was diagnosed with a heart defect when I was 20 weeks pregnant. Same situation as yours: tough call, sad pregnancy, anxiety-racked infancy.
She had surgery at 6 months. Fast forward: she’s now 20, in college, swans around with her friends, plays sports and is just a delight to me and her dad.

I hope you have an equally great outcome with your son. Good luck.

153

Emma in Sydney 11.22.13 at 5:56 am

Sisyphus, I wish you strength for the next few years and joy, as well.

154

heckblazer 11.22.13 at 6:10 am

Hector_St_Clare @ 151

You can find first century Christians who believed all kinds of things including that Jesus was not God and that the Creator was evil ;). My concern here is general modern Christian doctrine. You’re right that most Christians would say unbaptized infants go to heaven, and the official Catholic position echos you saying “As for children who die without Baptism, the Church can only entrust them to God’s mercy, as she does in the funeral rite provided for them.” Still, the strict logic of Original Sin is pretty grim.

Any church that recites the Apostolic Creed is professing belief in “the resurrection of the body”, and IIRC that covers most of them. Traditionally you got the body you died with, hence the Catholic ban on cremation and laws limiting dissections to corpses of executed criminals. You’re right that most believers nowadays likely expect a body in its prime whatever the official dogma is. That then gives us the situation where instead of an idealized blastocyst you get a fit teenager who never before breathed air or seen sunlight, and moreover a world where that describes most of the people. I’m not saying that’s wrong, but I find the God that would create that to be kinda weird.

155

roy belmont 11.22.13 at 7:34 am

154 11.22.13 at 6:10 am
Whereas the “accidental” chemistries of DNA as primary conduit for everything from pronounced upper canines to a propensity for twinning is not weird at all, yes?
I think what you find weird maybe is motive, weird motive. What who would ever want that to happen, why?
But that’s coming from your frame and p.o.v. It’s possible some way-down-there theory will come along that accounts for the way-up-there too at the same time, but it seems far more likely to be only another leap toward further boundaries.
Lots of people used to say to each other “God works in mysterious ways”. Rather than responding to the obvious sidestep that can be, the denial and delusion it’s enabling, see how that’s true s no matter what’s in back of it – mysterious ways – crazy molecules or sub-Planck rainbows, or some patriarchal thug with an organic fiber robe.
Or something unspeakable, beyond our little evaluations and descriptions.
My beef with Hector’s ilk, aside from the obviously despicable shoving of images of aborted fetuses into the faces of women and their loved ones who’ve recently suffered miscarriages, is the reduction of God to a super-human management-class drone. Who wants them to do what they already want to do.

156

Anders Widebrant 11.23.13 at 6:17 pm

> Nonsense, Helen. The vast majority of early term abortions are for reasons that are frivolous *compared to the life of the embryo*.

Hector, so long as you’re chucking these howlers without showing your work there’s simply no bullying others allowed for their beliefs in “fads and slogans”.

157

ChrisTS 11.23.13 at 8:47 pm

I don’t understand the CT commentariat. Belle wrote a moving OP about what it might be like to actually be a pregnant woman suffering with a dangerous or highly compromised pregnancy, and she tied this to the issue of late term abortion. Most of the comments have been about Singer. Yes, she mentioned Singer, but how did so many utterly overlook the substance of her post?

Weirdly, Horrid Hector seems to have focused on the content of the OP more than many others. That must be damned frustrating.

158

notsneaky 11.23.13 at 10:45 pm

God that counterpunch article is stupid.

159

notsneaky 11.23.13 at 10:45 pm

Sorry, wrong thread.

160

js. 11.24.13 at 1:26 am

Belle wrote a moving OP about what it might be like to actually be a pregnant woman suffering with a dangerous or highly compromised pregnancy, and she tied this to the issue of late term abortion. Most of the comments have been about Singer. Yes, she mentioned Singer, but how did so many utterly overlook the substance of her post?

Yeah, bit of a strange thread. I think some part of it is that several people saw the post as sort of a continuation the relevant Holbo post/thread, which (post and thread) was indeed about Singer. But even more so, I suspect it’s some version of what Bloix said at 106 (which, lovely comment)—he (or she) wasn’t referring to the OP, but it’s easy enough to see how similar points could apply.

161

ChrisTS 11.24.13 at 6:39 am

@js 160:

This all makes better sense of what makes no sense to me. :-)

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Ronan(rf) 11.24.13 at 9:59 am

ChrisTs !! Fwiw, it’s a pity you don’t comment around here more often (genuinely, no sarcasm)

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ChrisTS 11.24.13 at 6:05 pm

Hey, Ronan. I don’t know why I don’t comment here more often. Lack of avatar?

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L.S. 11.25.13 at 8:45 pm

Have you ever heard of the double-effects test? The “Double Effect test” is a moral checklist used often by both Christians and hospital ethicists since the 12th century when Thomas Aquinas popularized it.

Even if you disagree about how the Catholic church uses the test, the test is a good starting point to think about life-and-death moral choices. It also might help you understand why Catholics have come to embrace certain positions regarding abortion and euthanasia. Even if you still think they are ultimately incorrect conclusions, it’s important to understand the reasoning behind those positions isn’t based on lady-hating mumbo-jumbo, but on some serious and careful moral reasoning.

The test has been formulated many different ways. Here is one:

1. the action in itself from its very object be good or at least indifferent;
2. the good effect and not the evil effect be intended;
3. the good effect be not produced by means of the evil effect;
4. there be a proportionately grave reason for permitting the evil effect.
from http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/double-effect/

The example you use, a mother bearing a baby that is dead or can only live outside the womb for a short time with ongoing care is not an easy one. I understand your anger and sense of futility. At times, I share it. It just seems cruel, especially in the case of a baby who is born without a brain, or a child that has already died inside the womb.

On the other hand, a young, tiny disabled human with a short life expectancy is still a human. I know a lot of disability advocates who say that what utilitarians and others advocate implies that their own lives do not have worth. It implies that a very disabled person would be better off never seeing the light of day, that their capacity to sense and to live and be loved is worthless. It implies we should kill off the weak instead of learning how to help them. Those implications, when piled up, stunt our compassion. It is hard to love disabled people. It’s easier to say, “they would never have wanted to live if they couldn’t be normal” than to admit, “I don’t want to love them and then lose them.”

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