Desktop version

Home arrow Health arrow Arguments about abortion : personhood, morality, and law

Reductio Problems and the Conditions for Personhood

Infanticide, radical cognitive deficiency, and sedation

I begin with the infanticide reductio. As we have seen, a number of cognitive capacities-based criteria of personhood exclude fetuses from the range of morally considerable creatures only at the cost of seeming to exclude neonates and young infants as well. Rationality, linguistic ability, self-awareness, or possession of a ‘selfconcept’ are all traits that very early infants seem to lack. Michael Tooley’s theory which accords full moral status only to creatures in possession of a ‘concept of the self as a continuing subject of experiences’ is one clear example of a criterion of person- hood which, it seems, cannot extend full moral protection to neonates.[1] Neonates certainly do not appear to be in possession of self-awareness, and some accounts do not attribute that capacity to infants until a much later stage of development. The same is undeniably true of rationality or language ability. Consequently, when such traits are posited as necessary conditions for personhood, it is difficult to see how one can avoid denying the full moral status of human infants.

Some philosophers have responded to the infanticide reductio by encouraging us to think the unthinkable and question whether there are really rational foundations for the common belief that human infants have a moral status equal to that of born human beings. At the same time, it has been suggested that there are plenty of pragmatic and moral reasons to refrain from terminating the lives of infants, notwithstanding the fact that they may not possess a strong right to life. Both Michael Tooley and Mary Anne Warren have argued that the apparent moral repugnance of infanticide can be explained by a whole number of considerations that do not depend on it being true that neonates possess the same moral rights as persons.[2] Such reasons are typically consequence-based. They include, among other things: the effect of the neonate’s ‘emergence into the social world’ on other people who may have come to love him or her; the fact that infants whose biological parents cannot raise them are usually wanted by others who can; and the potentially corrosive effects that tolerating infanticide may have on other moral norms. This last consideration concerns the potential for moral slippage which looms when human beings so closely resembling (and so close to becoming) fully realized persons are treated as dispensable. Three-month-olds are not all that different from neonates, so perhaps attitudes towards killing them cannot remain unaffected when killing newborns is tolerated. One possible solution to this would be of course to stipulate an absolute cut-off point, as Tooley suggests would be appropriate fairly soon after birth, at, for instance, around one week of age. However, I do not believe a clear cut-off neutralizes the present concern about moral slippage, which simply points out that any toleration of infanticide will render it hard to maintain the appropriate amount of moral opprobrium towards the termination of slightly older infants. Reasons such as these, it can be suggested, may make it necessary to treat all infants as if they have strong moral rights even if they in fact do not.

These sorts of responses to the infanticide problem tend to be unsatisfying for a number of reasons. For one, many people will struggle to relinquish their belief that human infants have an inherent moral status equal to that of more developed human beings. For them, defending the prohibition on infanticide for any reason other than this is to defend it for entirely the wrong sorts of reasons. Doubtless there are many reasons to refrain from killing young infants, even if they do not possess a strong, natural right to life. But those who are repelled by the very suggestion that such a practice could be permissible do not have these contingent considerations in mind. They may even think that to condemn infanticide for these reasons (consumer demand for babies; the close resemblance of neonates to children, etc) is morally perverse.

Warren and Tooley’s defences of the general prohibition on infanticide also have the undesirable implication that if only all of these contingent considerations are lacking, there will be no other non-contingent reason left for refraining from infanticide in a particular case. Surely it is easy enough to construct a case in which a neonate is unwanted by anyone and where terminating its life does not risk other negative knock-on effects. Yet the powerful intuition against the permissibility of infanticide seems to apply as much in this case as in any other.

Further to these problems, some of the rationale Tooley and Warren provide for maintaining a general prohibition on infanticide seems to apply equally to late fetuses. Late fetuses also have a distinctly human form, so if this feature counts against destroying neonates, it presumably ought to count against destroying late- term fetuses in similar circumstances. Adoptive future parents will frequently be available for late fetuses as well, and treating late-term fetuses as dispensable might be morally desensitizing in much the same way as is killing neonates.

Christopher Kaczor, in particular, criticizes Warren for failing to see that these putative reasons for abstaining from infanticide apply equally to late fetuses.[3] In fact, Warren does not disregard these equivalences, posing herself the question: ‘if protecting infants is such a good idea, then why is it not a good idea to extend the same strong protection to sentient fetuses?’[4] Her answer is that the same consequentialist-type reasons for protecting infants do not apply to late fetuses because of the repercussions of that practice for pregnant women. As she states, ‘it is impossible to treat fetuses in utero as if they were persons without treating women as if they were something less than persons’.n Put differently, Warren’s position is that although neither late fetuses nor newborns have the qualities which endow them with a fundamental right to life, there is little to be lost and much to be gained in general community welfare through protecting infants, but not by extending protection to fetuses, which would cause more harm than good for actual people.

While Warren’s position is not actually lacking in coherence, as per Kaczor’s critique, many will still find it difficult to accept that the equal protection of infants depends on contingent considerations such as the effect of infanticide on wider society and the desirability of orphaned children. The clear implication is that were it not for the fact that protecting infants is in the public interest, no strong innate right to life would bar the permissibility of infanticide. The problem is not that this reasoning fails to differentiate the situation of infants and late fetuses, but that, for many, an explanation of the wrongness of infanticide which is dependent on circumstances and culture will only show that something has gone wrong in the argument; specifically, it makes the impermissibility of infanticide depend on the wrong kind of moral considerations.

Moving on from the infanticide problem, cognitive capacities-based criteria of personhood can also have difficulty accounting for the moral status of the radically cognitively defective—born human beings whose psychological abilities do not meet the threshold of rational functioning or agency laid down by defenders of those criteria. Again, one response to this problem could be to concede that the severely cognitively disabled do not meet the conditions for personhood, although, as is the case with infants, there may still be many reasons, both moral and pragmatic, for valuing their lives. On one view, attributing moral status to such human beings that is superior to that of non-human animals whose psychological capacities are more advanced is just another example of ‘speciesism’—the privileging of human species membership for no morally defensible reason. For those who make such claims, it is not usually their view that disabled human beings should be valued any less than they actually are, but rather that we should revise our attitudes towards the non-human animals whose cognitive abilities are equal or superior—primates being a prominent example—and award those animals greater moral protection.^ Still, it is not easy for many to accept that cognitively deficient human beings lay claim to any less moral status than fully functioning ones, a seemingly unavoidable implication of cognitive theories of personhood. The speciesism problem is of course also a challenge for those who believe that human infants possess higher moral status than non-human animals with the same or higher levels of cognitive functioning.

Sleep and sedation present yet further problems for cognitive criteria of personhood, such as consciousness or the capacity for conscious desires. None of us are conscious during the times when we are asleep, or then able to form any desires, and people in reversible comas lack these traits now and for the indefinite future. If conscious experience, desires, or agency are necessary conditions for personhood, do we lose that moral status while asleep and gain it again upon waking? Do the temporarily comatose lack that status indefinitely? This is known as the ‘episodic problem’. There are also those who may lack the desire to live, or any desires at all, due to emotional disturbance, such as a teenager feeling suicidal after a heartbreak. Kaczor provides a different example of someone who achieves the Buddhist ideal of extinguishing all desires. On a theory which makes personhood status dependent on conscious desires or rational functioning, are such people excluded from the moral community? If cognitive-based theories of moral status cannot manage to ascribe personhood status to such people, then many will be reluctant to accept them. [5]

  • [1] Michael Tooley, ‘Abortion and Infanticide’ (1972) 2 Philosophy and Public Affairs 37.
  • [2] See: Tooley (n 7) 64 and Mary Anne Warren, ‘The Moral Significance of Birth’ (1989) 4 Hypatia46, 56-8.
  • [3] Christopher Kaczor, The Ethics of Abortion (2nd edn, Routledge 2015) 44—5.
  • [4] Warren (n 8) 58. n ibid 59.
  • [5] cf Jeff McMahan, ‘Our Fellow Creatures’ (2005) 9 Journal of Ethics 353, 358.
< Prev   CONTENTS   Source   Next >

Related topics