The Personalist Project

Accessed on July 15, 2020 - 12:33:50

The negative effects of ‘thinking the unthinkable’

Jules van Schaijik, Feb 29, 2012

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 As a colleague wrote in an unpublished paper on evil: "not only should we not commit evil acts, [but further] an important part of our moral development should be learning not to regard them as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.