post by Paul Kelleher
Bill and I have already posted some "meta" comments on the controversial paper by Giubilini and Minerva that purports to prove that infanticide is permissible in cases involving all the same reasons that would've made early abortion permissible. I noted that even if philosophical argument seems airtight, we can have commonsensical reasons to doubt the conclusion (and to believe there must be something wrong somewhere with the argument). But I actually don't think that G&M's argument is airtight. Instead, I think we can point to some real gaps in their reasoning.
Here is their argument as I understand it. Quoted parts come straight from the paper. Everything else is intended as a faithful reconstruction of their argument.
- "A necessary condition for a subject to have a right to X is that she is harmed by a decision to deprive her of X."
- Full-fleged persons are harmed when their aims or life-goals are thwarted.
- Fetuses and newborns don't have aims or life-goals.
- So fetuses and newborns cannot be harmed in the goal-thwarting sense of harm.
- However, fetuses and newborns do in fact have the potential to form life-goals.
- But "in order for harm to occur, it is necessary that someone is in the condition to be harmed."
- Fetuses and newborns are not in fact in the condition to be harmed in the goal-thwarting sense.
- Therefore, "there is no harm at all" when a fetus or newborn is killed (assuming it is done painlessly).
- "Therefore, the rights and interests of the actual people involved should represent the prevailing consideration in a decision about abortion and after-birth abortion."
- "Among these interests, we also need to consider the interests of the mother who might suffer phychological distress from givign her child up for adoption."
- Therefore, "if the interests of actual people prevail, then after-birth abortion should be considered a permissible option for women who would be damaged by giving up their newborns after adoption."
Assume for the sake of argument (but only for the sake of argument) that G&M's argument from 1 to 10 works perfectly. That is, assume that it is only the interests of actual people that matter in deciding whether abortion and infanticide are permissible (and of course that the mother's interests are relevant). Does it follow from this that no one else's interests are relevant? It does not. And G&M never argue that other people's interests and feelings about infanticide are irrelevant. All they claim is that a woman may be so distressed by adoption that she'd rather kill her baby. They don't even take pains to argue (as they must) that being driven to choose infanticide by post-partum distress really is in the woman's interests.
So the leap from 1-10 to conclusion 11 is a HUGE leap. The gap that must be traversed includes arguing that the mother really would be better off in some circumstances if infanticide would occur, and that other people's interests and feelings about infanticide can never, ever, ever trump a woman's desire that the newborn die. (If other people's feelings about trees and wetlands can justify protections of them, why not feelings about newborns?) M&G do not do the work to close this gap. They are therefore not entitled to their very strong conclusion #11.