The Personalist Project

The already-infamous article recently published by the Journal of Medical Ethics, defending the option of infanticide or "after-birth abortion" for pretty much any reason whatever—since, no matter how slight the reasons of the parents, "they will always trump the alleged interest of potential people" (the newborn babies) which "amounts to zero"!—is horrible not only because of its content, but also for the brazen, unembarrassed tone in which it is written. The authors clearly think that their position is perfectly respectable: controversial, to be sure, but as legitimate as any other that might be taken up in an ethical debate.

It is a deplorable side-effect of utilitarianism that no course of action, no matter how shocking and abhorent to our moral sensibilities can be ruled out from the start. Once ethics has been reduced to a mere weighing of consequences, it becomes irrational to eliminate an option before its advantages and disadvantages have been compared to those of all others. Everything ought be put on the table: infanticide, torture, pedophilia, bestiality, and so on. Nothing is deemed intrinsically bad or essentially shameful, and so nothing is beyond the pale. This sorry state of affairs affects everyone, including those of us who find such behavior too detestabe even to mention. We may well be compelled to discuss it in a rational, dispassionate, and polite way. Not to do so looks like intellectual cowardice, and leaves the impression that opposition is based on nothing more than prejudice and squeamishness.

All this has an effect on the moral imagination. It corrodes the natural moral sense, and impairs ethical judgement. As a colleague wrote in an unpublished paper on evil: "not only should we not commit evil acts, [but further] an important part of our moral development should be learning not to regard them as deliberative possibilities." (my emphasis) He then adds this quote by Raimond Gaita, who argues that "agreement about what is unthinkable is one of the things that constitutes a civilization":

Cultures are partly defined and distinguished by what is unthinkable in them—unthinkable not in the sense that no one ever thinks them, but in the sense that they are beyond argument; they are 'indefensible' because any serious attempt to defend them would show one to lack the judgment necessary for the proper exercise of reason on the matters in question.

Our civilization would be greatly improved if we could once again consider certain things as unthinkable. We would be both more ethical, and more reasonable.



Julian Savulescu, the editor of the Journal of Medical Ethics, has written in defense of publishing the article I mention above. What he writes is not surprising: not the article, but the fanatical and inflammatory reaction to it, is what's deeply disturbing. The authors and the journal have received lots of abusive email, and even death threaths. Savulescu list several comments from a website called "The Blaze" to show what he means, some of which are truly appalling and indefensible. I don't defend them.

Still Savulescu confirms the point I make above. He thinks there is nothing wrong, nothing at all disturbing, about the fact that two doctors openly advocate infanticide. After all, their arguments have been aired and defended before by "the most eminent philosophers and bioethicists in the world" in respectible journals and many other settings. It is not the Journal's business to "support substantive moral views, ideologies, theories, dogmas or moral outlooks, over others." Its task is to support "sound rational argument" and "freedom of ethical expression".

Savulescu sees what is wrong with some of the reactions to the article—who doesn't?—but is completely oblivious to the much deeper and more dangerous disorder masked as "proper academic discussion and freedom." Anything goes, as long as it is done in a respectable manner.

Here are two telling quotes from the piece, or you can read the whole thing here.

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.

Comments (13)

Katie van Schaijik

#1, Feb 29, 2012 8:14pm

Here's Jonah in the Corner today:

There’s so much that can be said about this, it’s difficult to know where to begin. Many abortion opponents in the 1970s argued that legalizing abortion opened the door to a slippery slope where people would start advocating infanticide. Such arguments were greeted by many pro-abortion rights activists as paranoid and extreme. But lo and behold, they were absolutely right. When you lift one taboo, it is difficult to plant a new one that everyone will agree on. Now the growing Peter Singer caucus is encroaching ever more deeply into the mainstream. It’s a disgusting, reprehensible and evil turn of events.


#2, Mar 1, 2012 3:45pm

It is here. Already. Over 40% of doctors and institutions involved in getting cadaver organs for children admitted that they consider mild retardation, minor deformities, even ‘attractiveness’ or family situation when deciding who will get these desperately needed organs. To put it in plain English, if your CHILD is funny looking and not very bright he/she may be what the Nazis called ‘Lebensunwertens Lebens’ or ‘Life not worth Living’. A California couple had to sue because their little child dying of kidney disease was mildly retarded and kept getting shunted aside into the ‘death’ line. Our little ‘Mengeles’ are here already and they don’t even know it themselves.
And now that a deformity (harelip) that can be easily corrected with surgery is detectable much earlier in the womb, married couples who WANT children are killing their imperfect darlings. The irony is that every medical advance in prenatal diagnosis is another death sentence!

Jules van Schaijik

#3, Mar 1, 2012 4:51pm

Dan, the content of your comment is so awful that it feels a bit callous to ask for a reference. Still, do you happen to have one for this admission by 40% of doctors and institutions?


#4, Mar 1, 2012 7:01pm

Sorry! I should have book marked it. It was a few days ago. You should remove the above if you wish.  I see what you mean.

Jules van Schaijik

#5, Mar 1, 2012 10:07pm

No no!  That's not what I meant.  I appreciate the comment.  I am asking for the reference only because it may come in handy some time.  In my ethics classes for instance.  Sometimes students have no idea where the opinions they have picked up lead.


#6, Mar 1, 2012 10:15pm

  I am overly emotional and should have studied and cross-checked the article more carefully before referencing it.  It seems suspicious to me now for a few small reasons. But...not at all suprising.   I couldn't Google it up again though I tried all diffferent sorts of code words. 

Josef Seifert

#7, Mar 3, 2012 10:37pm

Two opposite usages of the "logic of evil": It is perfectly correct that if you justify abortion, you justify infanticide. Defending abortion, you basically justify any killing of human beings: of the one year old, the five year old, the comatose, the Alzheimer patient or of just anybody that does not suit your fancy. But you can draw two opposite conclusions from this logic: either you examine the premise of your logical argument critically such that even the most perverted mind will perceive from these logical consequences how bad abortion and any deliberate killing of human beings is. Or you can stick to your defense of abortion and justify with ice-cold logic all the other killings which would indeed be justified once you assume the legitimacy of abortion. In other words, you can use the logic of evil in order to defend all kinds of further evils, or you can use the same logic to reach the point where even the most perverted mind will reject the originally accepted evil in view of its horrendous consequences.

Hopefully the infamous article’s perfect logic will lead many to use the logic of evil perfectly: that is in order to defend the good!

Jules van Schaijik

#8, Mar 3, 2012 11:07pm

Josef Seifert, Mar. 3 at 10:37pm

Hopefully the infamous article’s perfect logic will lead many to use the logic of evil perfectly: that is in order to defend the good!

That would be wonderful, but the tide is flowing the other way. Did you read the article in The Weekly Standard, entitled "Now They Want to Euthanize Children"? The first paragraph shows how this logic of evil has been working in the Netherlands:

FIRST, Dutch euthanasia advocates said that patient killing will be limited to the competent, terminally ill who ask for it. Then, when doctors began euthanizing patients who clearly were not terminally ill, sweat not, they soothed: medicalized killing will be limited to competent people with incurable illnesses or disabilities. Then, when doctors began killing patients who were depressed but not physically ill, not to worry, they told us: only competent depressed people whose desire to commit suicide is "rational" will have their deaths facilitated. Then, when doctors began killing incompetent people, such as those with Alzheimer's, it's all under control, they crooned: non-voluntary killing will be limited to patients who would have asked for it if they were competent.

And now they want to euthanize children.

Jules van Schaijik

#9, Mar 3, 2012 11:09pm

And here is more horrible news from the Netherlands: Dutch mobile euthanasia units to make house calls.


#10, Mar 3, 2012 11:18pm

This article by Andrew is my 'gold standard' for Catholic vs. Nazi ethics. The article itself is a 'thing of Catholic beauty'.


#11, Mar 3, 2012 11:26pm

Actually the above article is John Zmirak's

Josef Seifert

#12, Mar 4, 2012 12:10am

Dear Jules, I fully agree with you that the logic of evil is being used preponderantly to defend evil and you give a superbly horrible example of the logic of evil when it is serves the slippery slope. There are countless other such horrible uses of the logic of evil, such as a Lithuanian engineer’s newest invention of a “euthanasia roller-coaster” which gives people who want the die through euthanasia the most spectacular experience of their lives before dying: On their death-trip they will first, after wonderful experiences of horror and excitement, fall unconscious, and then will be deprived of oxygen and die a painless death, arriving dead at the end of the course.

 But I think you and I and many other people ought to appeal to the fundamental moral insights that can be illuminated by the logic of evil: and I do believe that some people, when they see that the logical consequences of their errors are drawn in theory and practice with diabolical logic, might come to see their error.

Josef Seifert

#13, Mar 4, 2012 12:14am

For example, some people might defend euthanasia of competent adults who cannot bear their physical suffering but oppose euthanizing their mother afflicted with Parkinson. They might defend euthanizing their retarded uncle but when the euthanasia roller coaster is put up in their backyard, they might reconsider euthanasia. And as human beings and as Christians who live by hope, we must always have the hope I expressed, and even if only a few will make a good use of the logic of evil, it would be wonderful to reach even in a single person such a result through a good use of drawing the logical consequences of evil. What else motivated your and Katie’s founding the Personalist project than this hope? Cordially, Josef

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