Infanticide: the difference between academia and actuality

The media is a strange beast. After two professors of Philosophy at the University of Melbourne re-hashed an old Peter Singer argument about infanticide, they found themselves in the middle of a localised storm of indignation, caused largely by people missing the point so comprehensively that neighbouring points began to cower in fear of being hit.

The article, written for The Journal of Medical Ethics, made the distinction used by pro-choicers of life and potential life. Their rejection of the right to life of merely potential life is the crux of the argument. The professors suggest, as Singer has before, that the standards for life as opposed to potential life are not met by newborns; things such as self sufficiency, self-awareness, complex thought. In these terms, they believe that infanticide (or “after-birth abortion” as they call it) is as ethically permissible as abortion.

Now, here’s the important bit: they don’t actually want to kill babies. The article serves to highlight the vague and often arbitrary manner by which we decide if something is alive or not. It criticises the dismissal of potential life, and the suggestion that to terminate it is ethically valid. It is designed to provoke thought, and raise an issue that the authors think is important. They do not actually want to kill babies. They definitely don’t want to kill babies. This is worth repeating until people start listening.

Nevertheless, the ill-informed, grumbling mob that is The Internet rumbled into gear, firing off comments in dire need of a spell-check and, unfortunately, death threats. In a double-swoop of stupidity, people both failed to understand the point of the article and the nature of philosophy. Even the bloggers at The Guardian took a break from rubbing themselves in lentils and touching themselves to Vivaldi (or whatever the trendy Guardian dig is at the moment) to register their disgust. Andrew Brown’s article expressed surprise that the authors weren’t expecting the level of abuse they did. It’s almost as if they thought people would realise they didn’t want to kill babies!

I have no intention of confronting the actual philosophical basis for the article. In a way, it doesn’t matter. It may be logically sound; it may not. Either way, it is an academic text, applying premises borrowed (perhaps selectively) from the key proponents of the alternative argument, and working them into a conclusion. It is not an incitement to infanticide. It is not a moral threat. It is there to encourage thought – but it seems to have done almost exactly the opposite.


  1. “The article, written for The Journal of Medical Ethics, made the distinction used by pro-choicers of life and potential life.”

    The article is actually about “personhood”, not “life”. I’m sure you knew this and have used “life” in this article to mean “personhood”, but without pointing this out it merely confuses the issue further. A newborn baby is clearly alive; it has a life. A dog is clearly alive; it has a life. But it is not clear that either have “personhood”, based on the standards you mention. And as such, it is not clear that either have a “right to life”, even though they both have a life.

    I agree with your overall point; philosophy does and should be allowed to discuss arguments and encourage thought without everyone fearing that such arguments will inevitably lead to immediate implementations in public policy.

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  2. Yep, you’re bang on, sorry about that. Lax terminology aside, I’m glad you think the rest’s sound.

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