Do We Know Why We Are All Equal?

The forthright defence of the permissibility of "after-birth abortion" – infanticide – by two Melbourne-based philosophers in the Journal of Medical Ethics, edited from Oxford, has unleashed a firestorm of protest, at least among observers unfamiliar with the academic world of medical ethics where, disturbingly, the idea has long been deemed worthy of scholarly airing.

Debates on some of the associated controversies evoked by the article - the nature of academic freedom (here and here), or the gulf between the abstract speculations of philosophical ethicists and the powerful intuitions of most ordinary people - gathered pace rapidly but will no doubt quickly subside. But the momentous question which this furore thrusts upon us will be with for a long time yet. It is whether our culture can retain a morally serious and enduring commitment to what has long been its defining moral conviction, the equal worth of all human beings.

The gradual civilizational triumph of that conviction in the West was fed first by the Judeo-Christian belief that all humans are "created in the image of God" and later by the Enlightenment humanist doctrine of "inalienable natural rights". Such a conviction established the cultural foundations for far-reaching political achievements such as the abolition of slavery, anti-colonialism, international human rights law, race and gender equality, the containing of capitalist exploitation and the protection of children, the disabled and the elderly.

These extraordinary advances were originally premised on the radical belief that all human beings possessed inherent moral worth solely in virtue of their membership of the human species, irrespective of the degree to which they could actually exercise distinctive, although unequally distributed, human functions such as physical ability, sentience, rational self-direction or moral agency. The most fundamental human right, the right to life, was certainly erected on such a notion of inherent human worth. This was why Christians in the Roman empire opposed the pagan practice of child exposure for "defective" newborns. Were the right to life to come to depend on the vicissitudes of whether particular individuals could meet some (necessarily arbitrarily posited) functional threshold of physicality, sentience, rationality or moral agency, its intellectual grounding would collapse.

The authors of the three-page article justify the moral (not legal) permissibility of infanticide on the ground that while newborns are "human" they cannot be deemed "persons" unless they meet what is a profoundly contestable definition of "personhood", namely the capacity to "attribute to their own existence some...basic value such that being deprived of this existence represents a loss to them". And only if they qualify as "persons" do they possess the moral right to life. The implications are that there are both non-human species which qualify as right-bearing persons, but also categories of humans who are right-less non-persons, such as unborn and newborn babies, the mentally disabled and those with dementia. The conclusion drawn is that "killing a newborn could be ethically permissible in all the circumstances where abortion would be". For example: "to bring up [Down's syndrome] children might be an unbearable burden on the family and on society as a whole, when the state economically provides for their care. On these grounds, the fact that a fetus has the potential to become a person who will have an (at least) acceptable life is no reason for prohibiting abortion. Therefore, we argue that, when circumstances occur after birth such that they would have justified abortion, what we call after-birth abortion should be permissible".

A powerful rejoinder to this profoundly chilling line of reasoning is that it palpably offends against a near-universal human intuition to care for our own. Yet this is not finally conclusive since in some cultures, like ancient Rome, this intuition has competed with other "functional" ones such as that human worth is dependent on contribution to society. Philosophical arguments must therefore be deployed to contest the supposed logic of the argument. Charles Camosy has already posted an outline of one such argument on the JME website, appealing to an Aristotelian-Thomistic view of humans as "rational and relational substances". Protestant philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff proposes a parallel one in Justice: Rights and Wrongs, where he argues that human rights can only finally be grounded in a notion of inherent worth conferred by the love of God. It is equally incumbent on those who reject the Christian foundations of these two positions but who also wish to repudiate the case for infanticide to mount a compelling defence of inherent human worth not vitiated by a dependence on the vagaries of unequally distributed human functional capacities.

Fortunately the actual commitment of the majority of people in our culture to the human rights of newborns or any other of our most vulnerable human neighbours will not depend firstly on the cogency of any argument but on the sustenance of the primal human intuition to cherish our own. Yet twentieth-century European history shows that such intuitions, as well as the practices and public policies that respect them, can be fatally weakened over time – and "functional" ones lent dreadful credence – if arguments like those in the JME article are not powerfully refuted and replaced by a recovered vision of true human worth. Whether our culture is still committed to equal human dignity by the time our grandchildren qualify as doctors, lawmakers or academic ethicists will depend in part on whether those who exercise intellectual and cultural leadership today succeed in those tasks of refutation and recovery.

© 2012 Jonathan Chaplin
This article first appeared as a KLICE Comment in April 2012.