Mar. 26th, 2012

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While it may or may not be the case that I've never been to Boston in the fall (bonus points if you get the reference), I have been there at the height of spring. A friend is presenting her dissertation tomorrow late afternoon. I offered to see the actual defense, but I know less than nothing about her topic and apparently space in the room was at a premium, so I decided to go up this weekend to "keep her sane" (her words, not mine).

We fed ducks in the park (no, not those ducks but we did see the statue and fed their kin nearby. We went to the cinema to try to see Hunger Games but the tickets were sold out, so we hit some thrift stores (I'm now the proud owner of a macrame keychain) and then we went out drinking. Well, she did; I have next to no tolerance for alcohol so had some virgin fruity things.

This morning we went to early mass at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross, which was an Experience with a capital E. A friend of hers came over and made us all what she called "California Italian" (think pasta, but with lighter sauces and more veggies), and then we got our cultural game on over at her university: an exhibit of inmate-created art depicting prison life, and a classical trio (piano--violin--cello) before I had to hop a train back to New York.

It's funny how little things turn out to be the most amusing. Case in point: at the church where we went to mass, they had a notice about the Ethiopian style mass they were holding later that night. The traditional name? The Ge'ez mass. That had us snickering like loons all afternoon long.

I also re-read Anselm's reply to Gaunilo on the train-ride back. I think the logical points are well-taken (Gaunilo does mis-state Anselm's argument), but there's a bigger point where Gaunilo is spot on. Anselm defines God in a certain way, and he says that once you have God in your mind --which you have to, once you've heard and understood the word "God"-- then it's a contradiction to say this hing in your mind doesn't also exist on its own. Kant and others asked whether existence was a property so you could say, if God didn't exist that violated the definition. (Anselm thought yes; Kant, no.) I actually think Anselm can handle that point if we interpret him right. But Gaunilo's raising a bigger problem, and I don't think any clever atheist would grant him those assumptions. It's not quite begging the question, but neither is it the argument that's likely to convince anyone who doesn't already believe their idea is of God.

Enough philosophy. I need to sleep so I can read some more tomorrow, and get caught up on student emails. I mainly wanted to let people know the fun stuff I was up to this weekend.

(Alas, no pics. The phone's memory card died on the train ride up. I'm really and truly convinced there are gremlins at work...)
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I wrote a few weeks back about the by-now infamous bioethics journal article comparing late-term abortions to infanticide. (My initial thoughts and a later reaction.) Now Andrew Brown over at The Guardian is weighing in:

Infanticide is repellent. Feeling that way doesn't make you Glenn Beck.


According to Mr. Brown:

In any case, the piece was picked up by the website of the immensely popular rightwing American Mormon, Glenn Beck. The commentators there – who probably already believe that there is no difference between abortion and infanticide, or believe that they believe this – erupted in predictable fury.

Savulescu [the journal editor] claims that he and the authors have received death threats. In his blogpost he wrote:

"What is disturbing is not the arguments in this paper nor its publication in an ethics journal. It is the hostile, abusive, threatening responses that it has elicited. More than ever, proper academic discussion and freedom are under threat from fanatics opposed to the very values of a liberal society."


Mr. Brown goes on to argue that this is ridiculous, concluding, "If "the very values of a liberal society" include killing inconvenient babies, or discussing their killing as if this was something reasonable and morally competent human beings might choose to do, then liberalism really would be the monster that American conservatives pretend it is."

Now, Mr. Brown is a well-respected journalist, the section editor of a major paper, and I have no reason to doubt his intelligence. But here's the thing: that's such a simplistic reaction to the issues at play here, that I'm struggling a bit to see how to reply. Whatever I think of the article (and I still haven't had time to read it, so can't comment on it directly - I know, shame on me), I would still find it deeply upsetting to think that a professional philosopher should get freaking death threats for anything he wrote in an academic journal. I found it astounding when a legislator got a brick through his campaign headquarter's window after he signed Obama's healthcare legislation, and politicians have in a certain sense signed on to be in the limelight.

Not so with academics. If we've gotten to the point where private citizens can't testify before a Congressional committee and be called "slut" for their efforts, where a university professor publishing in an academic journal could have his life threatened - well as someone whose academic interests touch on that powderkeg that is religious practice, I do have a dog in that particular fight. And yes, that is a key value of liberalism: that people are free to express ideas. And yes, you are free to disagree with my ideas. But you don't get to intimidate me from having or expressing them.

Mr. Brown also takes aim at the article itself. He seems to think it's advocating infanticide, and asks what we would think about sex-selective infanticide. And as I said, I've not read the original article, but I have read several different summaries of it by people both friendly and not-so. I've also read the other articles the journal editor cites as originating the arguments these bioethicists are building on, and I'd be very surprised if they were actually advocating infanticide. (If they are, I'd say that's a big mistake on their parts, but that their basic point can survive without that claim.)

More likely, I'd expect Giubilini and Minerva to argue for something more subtle. If a fetus one day before birth and a child one day after are as similar in their features as (say) a one-day and three-day old child, then you'd expect there to be similar standards for how we treat them. Namely, if it's wrong to kill a newly-born child in certain circumstances, then it should also be wrong to kill an about-to-be-born fetus in those same circumstances. And vice versa; if abortion is permissible in circumstance X one day before birth, then infanticide should also be morally permissible in circumstance X one day after birth.

That's actually a perfectly reasonable position, at least when we're talking about morality. (The law doesn't always have to coincide with morality precisely, though it should try to minimize the effects of bad behavior on other people so ethics is obviously a part of what makes a good or bad law.) But nothing about this means infanticide will always be okay. Mr. Brown gets this precisely when he says:

The equation of abortion with infanticide is central to the rhetoric of many anti-abortionists. It is something that most pro-choicers emphatically reject. For them, the moral justification of abortion lies in the fact that an embryo is not a human being, whereas a newborn baby is. The moral status of a foetus changes over time in the womb, and while there will always be arguments about when the change should be recognised, there is wide agreement that a time limit on abortion is morally significant.


Yes, precisely. So if an abortion is immoral one day before birth - as almost all of them would be - it's just as immoral a day later. From the snatches of the article I've read, it seems like Giubilini and Minerva go too far in this category, proposing that neo-infanticide is morally permissible if the family's financial circumstance changes. I think it's really reprehensible to kill a one-day old child because you can't afford to raise it. But that's not because it's a born human, but because it's much further along its path toward acquiring personhood than a fetus a few weeks after conception is. It would be equally horrendous to abort a fetus in the last day of pregnancy, and even if the law didn't call that murder, and even if I don't consider it morally murder (since the fetus/infant isn't fully human yet), it's still a seriously wrong act. In either case.

This answers Mr. Brown's concern about sex-selective infanticide. Of course it's immoral to kill a newly-born baby because you'd like a son rather than a daughter. But that has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that said daughter is now born. In fact, I'd go so far to say this kind of abortion is never permissible unless we're talking about a cultural situation where a daughter's life really will be miserable. In that case, maybe you could make a lesser of two evils argument. But even then, at the time the fetus/child distinction becomes an issue you've known (or could have known) the fetus was a girl for months. I can't think of a reason in the world why this claim, that gender-driven abortions should be permissible even in the latter stages of pregnancy.

My basic approach is that personhood doesn't fully attach until some time after birth, when the child can start making its own choices. But that it's also not an either/or situation, and the child and late-term fetus has some degree of personhood all along, always increasing, so the longer the pregnancy has gone on, the better a reason you need for an abortion to be moral. There are other factors involved, too, like whether the fetus has to take over someone else's body to continue living and whether other people will think of the fetus as a person even if it isn't one. (Killing a born child that others can see looks like a mini-person has to effect whether we think it's okay to kill other full persons, so there's a higher bar to meet there.)

It's a complicated issue, to be sure. But that's precisely why we need experts to think and talk about this issue. Just like we need Georgetown law students to be able to testify about sex and how our policies re: contraceptives impact their lives is necessary, if we're going to work out whether a certain law is just or not. Calling for a philosopher's death because they wrote a challenging article does make you like Glenn Beck, and not in a good way. With all respect to Mr. Brown, it just does. That's a line you just don't cross.

(Originally posted at LJ; please comment there.)

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