People who are familiar with Popehat know that free speech is one of our favorite topics, and that we're frequently advocates for robust and vigorous defense of freedom of expression.
So it would probably shock you if I said we should have a serious discussion about whether people who utter controversial viewpoints ought to be executed summarily, either by the state or, failing that, by private actors.
There's a time when it would have shocked me, too. I would have said that even controversial speech — even speech that I view as advocating flat-out evil — should not be met either with violence or threats of violence, and that to host and encourage a debate on killing people for unpopular speech — to take the proposition seriously — would be wrong.
But then the Journal of Medical Ethics convinced me that I was being illiberal, disordered, and fanatical to think that there's something wrong with cheerfully hosting a serious debate on such a proposition.
So — so tutored by the Journal of Medical Ethics, and by its editor Julian Savulescu, I open the matter up for liberal, ordered, non-fanatical debate: should authors Alberto Giubilinil and Francesca Minerva, ethics professor emeritus Kenneth M Boyd, and Journal editor Julian Savulescu be summarily executed over a Journal of Medical Ethics article arguing that infanticide is morally correct? If the state refuses to execute them summarily, is it just and proper for individuals to take action to execute them? Should we research, and post, their home and business addresses and phone numbers and email addresses to facilitate their execution if our discussion yields a moral consensus? If we applied traditional religion-based moral arguments or utilitarian moral arguments, could one frame a valid moral argument for executing their entire families to deter others from similar behavior? What traditional ethical and philosophical arguments can be brought to bear one way or the other?
Understand, I'm just trying to start a moral debate. Giubilinil, Minerva, Boyd, and Savulescu and their supporters can join in and contribute and oppose the views articulated in this debate, if they aren't too disordered or illiberal or fanatical.
This starts with the article by Giubilinil and Minerva, "After Birth Abortion — Why Should The Baby Live?" Here's how they summarize that article in the abstract:
Abortion is largely accepted even for reasons that do not have anything to do with the fetus' health. By showing that (1) both fetuses and newborns do not have the same moral status as actual persons, (2) the fact that both are potential persons is morally irrelevant and (3) adoption is not always in the best interest of actual people, the authors argue that what we call ‘after-birth abortion’ (killing a newborn) should be permissible in all the cases where abortion is, including cases where the newborn is not disabled.
More specifically, Giubilinil and Minerva argue that it should be permissible to kill an infant after birth — not only if the infant is disabled (as certain others have argued), but if the infant would be a burden:
The alleged right of individuals (such as fetuses and newborns) to develop their potentiality, which someone defends,8 is over-ridden by the interests of actual people (parents, family, society) to pursue their own well-being because, as we have just argued, merely potential people cannot be harmed by not being brought into existence. Actual people's well-being could be threatened by the new (even if healthy) child requiring energy, money and care which the family might happen to be in short supply of. Sometimes this situation can be prevented through an abortion, but in some other cases this is not possible.
They dismiss adoption as an alternative to killing infants, explaining that the potential that adoption will cause trauma to the birth mother outweighs the interests of the infant, who is merely a potential person.
Apparently this article drew some attention. Some dismissed it as trolling, some dismissed it as a Swiftian argument against abortion. Others took it at face value, and offered criticism, and even abuse and threats. Editor Julian Savulescu was defensive and indignant, seeing the criticism as an indictment not of calm discussions of infanticide, but of modern intolerance as a whole:
Many people will and have disagreed with these arguments. However, the goal of the Journal of Medical Ethics is not to present the Truth or promote some one moral view. It is to present well reasoned argument based on widely accepted premises. The authors provocatively argue that there is no moral difference between a fetus and a newborn. Their capacities are relevantly similar. If abortion is permissible, infanticide should be permissible. The authors proceed logically from premises which many people accept to a conclusion that many of those people would reject.
Of course, many people will argue that on this basis abortion should be recriminalised. Those arguments can be well made and the Journal would publish a paper than made such a case coherently, originally and with application to issues of public or medical concern. The Journal does not specifically support substantive moral views, ideologies, theories, dogmas or moral outlooks, over others. It supports sound rational argument. Moreover, it supports freedom of ethical expression. The Journal welcomes reasoned coherent responses to After-Birth Abortion. Or indeed on any topic relevant to medical ethics.
. . . .
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.What the response to this article reveals, through the microscope of the web, is the deep disorder of the modern world. Not that people would give arguments in favour of infanticide, but the deep opposition that exists now to liberal values and fanatical opposition to any kind of reasoned engagement.
Savulescu went on to criticize the racist nature of some of the criticism. That strikes me as morally and ethically judgmental, seemingly in contravention of the Journal's mission of being open to such views, but never mind that.
Kenneth M. Boyd, emeritus professor of medical ethics, left a comment defending his decision to help publish the paper:
Satisfied by the reviewers’ reports and my further editorial review that the paper was of sufficient academic quality to be published in the Journal of Medical Ethics, and being charged with making the decision as an Editor with no conflict of interest in the matter, since unlike my fellow-editors in the relatively small world of international academic medical ethics I have never met the authors, and indeed personally do not agree with the conclusions of their paper, I decided that it was appropriate to publish it in the interest of academic freedom of debate.
It has subsequently been suggested to me that people whose lives might have been ended by ‘after-birth abortion’ were this legal, might be deeply offended by this paper. If that is the case I am sorry, but I am also confident that many of these people are equally capable of mounting a robust academic reply to the paper which, again subject to peer-review, the Journal of Medical Ethics will be very willing to consider for publication.
Again, my inclination is to condemn threats against people based on their free expression of controversial ideas. My inclination is to say that even opening a serious dialogue into whether ideas should be met with violence is to endorse that monstrous concept, and to chill unpopular expression. My inclination would be to revile and expel, if not delete by moderation, commenters at Popehat who argued that "anyone who says that should be killed," or words to that effect. My inclination would be to recognize that I am not the state, and that as a private actor, I do not have an obligation to host serious discussions of monstrous ideas like "people who say unpopular things should be killed," thus normalizing and encouraging them. That's consistent with our five years of free speech analysis and advocacy.
But Julian Savulescu and, to a lesser extent, Professor Boyd have convinced me that I am being small-minded in this. I am guilty of what Savulescu calls the "deep opposition that exists now to liberal values." I'm prejudging that people won't come up with cogent, reasonable, morally defensible arguments well-grounded in philosophy for exterminating Savulescu, Boyd, Giubilinil and Minerva, and possibly their families and colleagues. I see now that I have been embarrassingly close-minded, illiberal, and obsessed by bourgeois values. I offer my humble apologies. I will try to do better, and follow the example of the Journal of Medical Ethics.
So: what do you think? Should they be killed? If so, what are the moral implications of rifle shots vs. IEDs or poison or shoving them in front of buses? Robust moral debate awaits.
Last 5 posts by Ken White
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