Chad Perrin: SOB

22 June 2007

the ethical argument for infanticide

Filed under: Cognition,Liberty — apotheon @ 01:38

If Sudden Infant Death Syndrome is actually economically-motivated infanticide, this makes it seem likely to me (and others) that the decision to get an abortion is more similar to the decision to commit infanticide than you might want to think. On the other hand, abortion is obviously very much preferable to infanticide, at least when it occurs early enough in the pregnancy, so this strikes me as strong incentive to keep abortion legal and socially unstigmatized.

Ironically, this raises the question of how often unwilling Christian mothers’ children suffer SIDS at their mothers’ hands. In other words, I wonder how many “good” Christian mothers commit infanticide because abortion wasn’t an option.

There’s another possible implication of this, because the economics of survival as they’ve played out over millions of years of evolution of the species should always be considered, and this is definitely an evolutionary optimization. Let’s start with what I’ve generally said about abortion:

A logical, self-consistent system of ethics dictates that one must not initiate force against an ethically significant being that has not freely abdicated its rights. An ethically significant being, it seems, should be measured by its capacity for ethical reasoning — which indicates that abdication is dependent upon the exercise of ethical reasoning (or the refusal to exercise ethical reasoning, as the case may be). One of the requirements of a capacity for ethical reasoning is, of course, a capacity for abstract reasoning. So, the point at which an abortion becomes unethical may be the point at which a capacity for abstract reasoning exists in the fetus.

That’s where my thoughts on the subject rested, until I read about the economic realities of infanticide. It begins to occur to me that, even after birth, a child is not necessarily capable of ethical reasoning. Another requirement of ethical reasoning, in addition to a capacity for abstract reasoning, is recognition of context, which of course is related to an cognitive awareness of the existence of other ethically significant beings. This would, in fact, suggest that perhaps a human infant is not necessarily an ethically significant being.

That’s not to say that harm delivered to a living creature that is incapable of ethical reasoning with malicious intent is acceptable. Wanton cruelty is itself a problem, of course. What it really boils down to is that it becomes easier to justify harming some living thing if it is not as ethically significant as an adult human, assuming there is some defensive, survival-driven impulse that motivates that harm. This applies to killing animals for food and, possibly, killing a newborn if the deck is stacked against the primary caregivers’ survival by allowing the child to live.

In today’s world, however, social mechanisms exist for seeing to the survivability of our young even if the mother cannot care for them. Adoption agencies, for instance, provide an out for mothers who simply cannot rear a child under current circumstances. Such options must be taken into account when considering how to judge the actions of an infanticidal mother. So, too, must the possibility that the act of killing a newborn may not in and of itself be unethical.

NOTE:

A number of people who came to this site specifically to disagree with me on the subject of justification of abortion in my SOB entry the anti-pro-abortion argument may, if they see this, be surprised. It probably looks like I’m inconsistently advocating extremes at both ends of the spectrum. Such people will probably disagree with me in this case as well, and may describe their reactions as “horrified” or something to that effect. These people, should they read this and come to these conclusions, would likely have done so by failing to think things through very clearly, refusing to understand my actual points (and thus refusing to understand how they are not actually contradictory) because they want instead to believe that their own ideas are infallible in this case. It would be interesting to see whether any of this happens for the reasons I surmise.

6 Comments

  1. I think we may need to consider that there exist women who are both unable to rear the child (economic pressures) and unable to adopt or abort (societal pressures) such that adoption isn’t a real option for them.

    But then, given you promote a situational ethics for occurances of infanticide (or seem to at least) its highly probable you know this.

    Comment by Confusion — 22 June 2007 @ 03:02

  2. I think we may need to consider that there exist women who are both unable to rear the child (economic pressures) and unable to adopt or abort (societal pressures) such that adoption isn’t a real option for them.

    That did occur to me, but it wasn’t really central to my statement, so I didn’t address it. I rambled enough as it was, I thought. I kind of left the door open for understanding and accounting for that fact, however, and did so deliberately.

    But then, given you promote a situational ethics for occurances of infanticide (or seem to at least) its highly probable you know this.

    I don’t really promote situational ethics for infanticide. There’s a clear dividing line in the ethics I promote — even if its real-world applicability might be a touch difficult to nail down. This includes a sort of “escape clause”, where an act can be unethical but choosing to perform that act might be excusable even if not justifiable, based on your act being in fact a sort of proxy for the unethical acts of others.

    I’ll attempt to make that a little clearer:

    One who acts unethically, all else being equal, in effect makes a statement of abdication of rights. Such an act serves as a statement that the person performing it does not recognize rights (as rights either exist or not, universally), thus essentially saying “Your rights do not exist to me because I do not believe in rights.” This is the “punishment” for unethical acts, enforced by relentless logic, and provides for the ethical restraint of such individuals in an attempt to defend the rights of others. It’s the basis for an ethical system of jurisprudence.

    However, when coerced into a given act — even if you know that act is unethical — you are in fact serving in practical terms as a proxy for the person that coerces you. Ultimate responsibility for that act lies with (s)he who violated your rights through that coercion. This does not make the act ethical: it just eliminates the de facto abdication of rights as someone who willfully or with depraved indifference chose to violate the rights of others. In other words, putting a gun to someone’s head and saying “Rape that person’s anus with a broomhandle or I’ll kill you!” does not make that person personally culpable for the act. Far from being a situational distinction, it’s a matter of intent, carried out by the application of the coercing party’s force, where the medium for the act is only a lever in his or her hands.

    Rather than being a guilty party, the person with the gun to his or her head is little more than a tool in the hands of the person with the gun. The same might apply to a case of infanticide due to social pressures that translate into very real danger to survival, even if my above speculations about the (relative) ethical insignificance of a newborn prove inapplicable (or simply “wrong”).

    Hopefully, I understood your point correctly and addressed it sufficiently.

    Comment by apotheon — 22 June 2007 @ 03:35

  3. If Sudden Infant Death Syndrome is actually economically-motivated infanticide,

    That’s a pretty big “if”. I dare say, a Michael Moore-ish “if” :-)

    The link makes pretty clear that SIDS is not identically infanticide. I would say, though, that the existence of SIDS does provide a handy cover for infanticide. And if it’s true that 75% of SIDS is actually infanticide… that’s pretty chilling.

    Comment by sosiouxme — 22 June 2007 @ 03:43

  4. That’s a pretty big “if”. I dare say, a Michael Moore-ish “if”

    That’s not a realistic comparison by any stretch.

    And if it’s true that 75% of SIDS is actually infanticide… that’s pretty chilling.

    Yeah, it is — and if that’s the case, that basically means that SIDS is infanticide. The other 25% would just be misdiagnosis, essentially. After all, it has always been the case that SIDS was like “old age” as a diagnosis for death: it was something applied when the cause of death was something nobody could (or would, if they disliked the implications) properly diagnose. The fact that people still fail to come up with diagnoses in so many cases of infant death is a pretty good indicator that there’s something going on that nobody wants to admit.

    Comment by apotheon — 22 June 2007 @ 04:28

  5. You might want to take a read at some of Peter Singer’s works about some very similar topic. When discussing veganism, his basic premise is that an adult pig or cow or chicken is actually more “ethically significant” (as you put it, and I like the phrase so I’ll borrow it) than a newborn infant or a severely mentally handicapped adult. So if we consider our children “ethically significant” enough to not eat them, we should not eat those animals either.

    Sadly, this arguement can be succesfully flipped around, since the negation operator distributes across all symbols while maintaining logical validity. In other words, it is perfectly fine to eat animals, as long as we are willing to eat infants. The fact that this logic can be brought to that (admitedly disgusting) level and still be valid is quite troublesome.

    I was taught by my professors that any moral or ethical theory that counts on the “yuck factor” (emotional response) to justify itself is not provably true, and I agree with that. As you’ve shown here, infanticide and abortion may very well be ethically acceptable (“not wrong”) and even justifiable (“right”). As much as part of me (most of me) wants to scream, “that’s madness!”, I know the logic to be valid.

    J.Ja

    Comment by Justin James — 22 June 2007 @ 07:43

  6. In other words, it is perfectly fine to eat animals, as long as we are willing to eat infants.

    Hey . . . if we’re not supposed to eat vegans, why are they made out of meat? Right?

    It’s all just protein and fat, after all.

    Comment by apotheon — 28 June 2007 @ 10:17

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