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Reply #55

In the discussion thread: Are you a Doomer™? [View all]

Response to OKIsItJustMe (Reply #53)

Thu Apr 26, 2012, 06:55 PM

55. Interesting that you should quote Pinker

Why They Kill Their Newborns
By Steven Pinker

Killing your baby. what could be more depraved? For a woman to destroy the fruit of her womb would seem like an ultimate violation of the natural order. But every year, hundreds of women commit neonaticide: they kill their newborns or let them die. Most neonaticides remain undiscovered, but every once in a while a janitor follows a trail of blood to a tiny body in a trash bin, or a woman faints and doctors find the remains of a placenta inside her.

What makes a living being a person with a right not to be killed? Animal-rights extremists would seem to have the easiest argument to make: that all sentient beings have a right to life. But champions of that argument must conclude that delousing a child is akin to mass murder; the rest of us must look for an argument that draws a smaller circle. Perhaps only the members of our own species, Homo sapiens, have a right to life? But that is simply chauvinism; a person of one race could just as easily say that people of another race have no right to life.

No, the right to life must come, the moral philosophers say, from morally significant traits that we humans happen to possess. One such trait is having a unique sequence of experiences that defines us as individuals and connects us to other people. Other traits include an ability to reflect upon ourselves as a continuous locus of consciousness, to form and savor plans for the future, to dread death and to express the choice not to die. And there's the rub: our immature neonates don't possess these traits any more than mice do.

Several moral philosophers have concluded that neonates are not persons, and thus neonaticide should not be classified as murder. Michael Tooley has gone so far as to say that neonaticide ought to be permitted during an interval after birth. Most philosophers (to say nothing of nonphilosophers) recoil from that last step, but the very fact that there can be a debate about the personhood of neonates, but no debate about the personhood of older children, makes it clearer why we feel more sympathy for an Amy Grossberg than for a Susan Smith.

My point is that in many (most?) H-G societies there was no moral proscription against neonaticide. At worst it was seen as an unpleasant necessity. Reviewing the commentaries posted about the above article on the web is instructive in what it reveals about the state of this taboo today. The difference, as far as I can tell, is that the physical circumstances of the cultures have changed - there's more food and physical security available today. I would expect that if food supplies and security were to decline significantly, the immorality of neonaticide would fade to a distant memory. It would still be an unpleasant event, but unpleasant does not equal immoral.

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