07 December, 2005

On Infanticide

[This was originally written for a grade in a Bioethics class with Stacey Welch. It is written in the style of "creative nonfiction", which presents nonfictional ideas, but does so with fictional stylized elements. In this case, I slightly misrepresent how much prior thought I'd given to infanticide before writing this paper, and act as though I hold or have held positions that I did not actually hold in reality. The argument itself, on the other hand, is presented truthfully.]


Don’t get me wrong; I dislike the thought of killing babies as much as the next man, but unless one examines one’s beliefs in detail, how can one ever know whether his or her beliefs are rational and logically consistent in the least?  It is for this reason that I have decided to do my bioethics paper on infanticide—it is, after all, one of the few subjects that I have very strong feelings for while simultaneously having never done any serious research on the topic in the past.  What better candidate for writing a bioethics paper on, then?  Not only do I get a chance to write an essay on a topic wholly relevant and important to the course, but I also get to research one of my long-held beliefs in order to verify whether or not it is justifiable.  (This is something that I believe all agnostics should do, simply as a matter of course.)  I simply could not pass this chance up.  I hope you will enjoy.  I certainly enjoyed writing it.

I should note, I suppose, that this paper is very far removed from what most would consider ‘formal’ philosophical writing.  But since philosophy has a history of nonstandard ‘hermit-crab-esque’ forms, I figure writing in creative nonfiction would be both fun and good practice.  (I hope to write for a much less formal audience one day—hopefully it is not too much of a pipe dream.)

So onto infanticide, then.  Before doing all this research, I thought, like most of my readers, I’d imagine, that it was one of the few things that you could easily get a lot of people to agree upon.  Surely infanticide is bad, I would think.  Most everyone agrees that democide and patricide and genocide is bad—but even those hold-outs who try for a better world through eugenics of one form or another could not possibly stomach infanticide.  The killing of infants very literally guarantees the innocence of the victims, and killing the innocent has a long standing tradition of being considered immoral.  From a purely psychological natural selection viewpoint, those societies which embraced the killing of innocents surely would not have outlasted those that shunned it.  Of course, those societies that recommended infanticide for certain infants who would be unable to pull their weight in terms of society itself would certainly be more than okay, but this is but a utilitarian viewpoint: the killing of an innocent infant is still wrong; it’s just that when weighed against the value of what it would take to allow such children to live, it turns out to be better for the world at large if the infant were to die.

But what I’ve learned in my research is that this preliminary investigation is just plain incorrect.  As it turns out, the killing of an innocent infant is not inherently wrong.  And unless the argument I’m about to present[1] fails to sway you to the same conclusion, then you, too, will be forced to admit that infanticide has no inherent negative connotation whatsoever.

Justification For Presenting The Argument

Firstly, let me rid you of any moral indignation you may have against infanticide as a rule.  Let us say that you think infanticide is wrong no matter what.  Given such a belief, do you wish to leave it as just a belief, or would you prefer to analyze it in order to see the belief’s strengths and weaknesses?  Even if you prefer it to be just a belief, wouldn’t a thorough understanding of it allow you to be better able to spread this belief to others?  Further, consider this: many times throughout history, man has been absolutely sure of things which we know now to be not so sure.  From the discovery of geometries apart from Euclidean, to the understanding of common senseless quantum physics as fundamental to reality, to the acceptance of Gödel’s theorem showing mathematics may never be complete, to the widespread knowledge that women are inferior to men, history is rife with examples showing that what may seem to be correct to our present-day senses may one day be shown to be completely backwards, once the realities of the situation are more fully understood.  So I recommend to you that you keep your mind open not only to argument, but to the fact that your lack of an argument says something inherent about your beliefs, even if you disagree with the findings I give herein.

Intrinsic Worth of Human Life

Now I will begin with the concept of the intrinsic worth of human life.  This is separate from the total worth of human life; if I run a farm and need a new farmhand, part of the worth of having a child will be to help with the farm.  But this worth is not intrinsic to the life itself.  The intrinsic worth is what is valuable about the life in and of itself.  It is the value of living.

In most cases, the value of living is always positive.  The question, then, becomes: where does the value of living remain positive?  The best way to answer this is to look at a few specific cases.  Consider a tree.  What is the worth of a tree?  Obviously, in today’s ecologically-centered thought, there is much worth in the life of a tree.  But what is its intrinsic worth?

What makes this question so difficult to answer is that we aren’t really sure what it would be like to be a tree.  But Descartes’ malicious demon aside, we can certainly know some things about being a tree—or at least know what we don’t know, and utilize Ockham’s Razor to come to a decision about what it must be like to be a tree.  Firstly, trees have no brain, no central nervous system, nor any system of nerves at all.  They have senses, certainly, but their interpretation of their senses seem nonrational in any way we choose to look at it.  Certainly, this is not to say that trees are definitely not rational, but the evidence we have seems to indicate no self-knowledge.  And, assuming we’re all okay with using evidence to support conclusions despite Humean inductive problems, this is enough to say that a tree has no intrinsic worth of life.

This is a strange conclusion to come to, though I’ve noticed it is for different reasons with different people.  Some are inclined to say “Of course!  Did you actually think the lives of trees had intrinsic worth?”, whereas others remark that they had always just assumed that the lives of trees had intrinsic worth, merely because of the fact that they are alive.  Of course, we could counter this line of argument by simply asserting that life itself has worth, but Ockham’s Razor[2] does away with that very nicely—why assume life has worth when you can just as easily have that it didn’t?

So, if it isn’t life itself that gives worth, but instead something that we humans have, yet trees do not, then what is it?  The clinching factor for deciding that the lives of trees do not have intrinsic worth is its apparent inability to see itself as itself over some period of time.  Whereas we value our lives for being able to see that it is indeed our lives, a tree is apparently unable to do the same.  Hence, the intrinsic value of their lives has no worth.

The first answer to the question of where the value of living remains positive would then seem to be with those beings that recognize themselves as beings over a period of time.  But this is not a wholly sufficient answer, though it definitely seems to be a necessary condition.  If a being does not have the quality of recognizing itself as a being over a period of time, then it cannot possibly value its own life—after all, you cannot value what you yourself do not know you possess.[3]

Even though this quality is merely a necessary condition, and not a sufficient condition for where the value of living remains positive, I feel that it is an appropriate for the sake of this argument to accept it as equivalent.  My reasoning for this is simple.  If the correct decision between two options is unclear, and one decision encompasses the other decision in scope but adds additional imperatives, then it is best to decide upon the more strict option.[4]  Now, we have a necessary condition, but not a sufficient condition.  We must choose what we will consider as equivalent to where the value of living remains positive.  Any possible options for equivalency must include the necessary condition we’ve already found.  So if we must decide between options, where one option is the necessary condition by itself, and every other option is the necessary condition plus additional stuff, then it is best to decide upon the option consisting of just the necessary condition.[5]

But our definition is a bit too narrow here, as the intrinsic worth of the life of a sleeping man does have positive value, though he may not be recognizing himself as a person during his sleep.  (Or, if sleeping is not far enough removed for you, consider a comatose man.)  We must add in the disclaimer that beings who once had the aforementioned quality still qualify as having positive value, unless they are in a state where they will definitely not have the quality ever again in the future (such as when the being is dead).  All beings that have this quality (and all its clarifications) I will call persons.

Negative Worth

So far, we have assumed that the intrinsic value of life is always positive, but it is clear with a little thought that sometimes it is not.  There are many debilitative diseases which are wholly incurable given current technology, and suicide among persons with such problems is not exactly rare.  The concept of rational suicide, if accepted, shows clearly that sometimes the value of living is negative.  In such cases, it would be wrong not to kill such people.  I will go into detail on this topic with a very specific birth defect which, in the most serious of cases, is a significant cause for alarm.

Myelomeningocele (spina bifida cystica) is a birth defect occurring in as many as one out of every hundred births (in areas with diets lacking in folic acid).  In the more severe cases, the child will be permanently paralyzed from the waist down and lack control of bowels and bladder.  In 90% of cases, a condition known as hydrocephalus occurs simultaneously with myelomeningocele, where excess fluid accumulates in the brain, resulting in mental disabilities.  In the worst cases, although the technology to allow these children to grow past their teenage years does exist, the paralysis, incontinence, and mental disability can never be overcome.  Their lives are filled with pain and discomfort, requiring around 40 major surgeries to prevent curvature of the spine, and other abnormalities, all before their teenage years.

The only way to decide if such a child’s life has positive or negative worth is to ask them—we cannot possibly know without getting into their heads, which is impossible.  But if we know that an infant, who is not yet a person as per our definition, is to lead a life so rife with misery and suffering, and will have to do so with mental disabilities making incapable of enjoying intellectual pleasures aside, why should we shoulder such a burden upon them?  Certainly, if their lives have positive extrinsic worth, then they should definitely live.  With parents to love them and take care of them, much can be said of the value of their life in a positive way.  But if they lack all extrinsic value, then who in their right mind would force such a child into existence?

Current Practice

Most NICU (neonatal intensive care unit) physicians have already thought long and hard on this point, seeing as how they have to deal with it every day.  One is quoted by Peter Singer on infants weighing less than 500 grams: “We generally keep them warm and let them expire by themselves.  These are not viable babies, and it’s crazy to do anything more.”  The accepted term of the medical community is to “let nature take its course”.  It is another name for killing.

The records on how many current physicians use the method of “letting nature take its course” with patients is unclear, simply because a method for keeping track of such statistics is currently unavailable.  But given the percentage of how many severe cases of myelomeningocele survive past the first week, it may be that as many as 80% of physicians use this method of legal killing in order to relieve the suffering of the infant.  When I first heard this number, I was simply astounded; realizing that infanticide, as a current practice, is not only defensible, but actually does occur was wholly enlightening to me.


There are many possible objections to the line of argument presented in this paper.  First, one might argue on the definition of personhood.  After all, by the definition given here, a significant number of humans do not qualify as persons (such as anencephalics, fetuses, and brain dead comatose victims), and an even more significant number of nonhumans end up actually qualifying as persons (such as dogs, cats, cows, and pigs, to name a few).  But before you discount our definition of ‘person’ just because you do not like who it includes or excludes, remember that once it was considered obvious that women are not really persons, and before that it was differing races that were not really persons, and before that it was barbarian non-Greeks who were not fully persons.  Better to proceed by logical argument than to merely assume an answer based upon one’s preferences.

Another objection might be to say personhood and having an interest in life are wholly separate.  But given how we arrived at our definition of personhood (as equivalent to the necessary condition for having an interest in life), this objection merely reduces to not liking the usage of the word person in this argument.  As a reply, I submit that such an objector should cross out all references to “person” in this essay and instead change them to “qwerty”.  Now personhood and having an interest in life is wholly separate, and I cannot imagine a further objection to linking qwerty with having an interest in life.

A stronger objection might be made on religious grounds.  To such an objector, I have no ready reply, other than to point out that they could equally object to Galileo for saying the Earth revolves round the sun, or to Newton for noticing the inverse square of the distance relates to the strength of gravity upon another object.

It is the strongest objection that I leave for last, precisely because I feel that it is strong enough to make the rest of this paper be taken with a grain of salt.  This is the objection by extreme deviation from social mores.  Such an objector might say: “Your argument is all well and good, but we should not allow it to change our opinion of infanticide in polite society.  What the prohibition on infanticide does is keep such doctors who practice it on a regular basis in check—every time they are forced to make the decision to ‘let nature take its course’, it takes a toll upon them, and causes them to make such a decision only as a last resort in the most extreme of circumstances.  Were infanticide to be considered inherently amoral, then such decisions would be easier for physicians, and it might cause mistakes and missteps to be made which would not have otherwise have occurred.  As such, it is best for the community at large if it is continued to be believed that infanticide is immoral.”  To such an objector, I have no reply, mainly because I am just such an objector.  Nevertheless, it is clear that this objection does not change the fundamental thrust of this paper’s argument, but merely its implementation in the real world.


Hopefully my argument (influenced mainly by Peter Singer) has been substantive enough to at least make the reader think, if not enough to convince.  Viewing infants as non-persons whose right to life stems more from continued existence of pleasure and freedom from pain than because their lives have positive intrinsic value is definitely a strange viewpoint, but even strange viewpoints should be considered if they are well argued for.  My only hope is that this paper has been well argued enough.    (c;

For reference, I used the following in preparation, research, and in collecting data for usage in this paper:

  • Ethical Issues in Aiding the Death of Young Children, by H. Tristram Engelhardt, Jr.
  • Avoiding Anomalous Newborns, by Michael L. Gross
  • Examinations of Arguments in Favor of Withholding Ordinary Medical Care from Defective Infants, by John A. Robertson
  • Euthanasia: Emerging from Hitler’s Shadow, by Peter Singer
  • Is the Sanctity of Life Ethic Terminally Ill?, by Peter Singer
  • Justifying Infanticide, by Peter Singer
  • Practical Ethics, by Peter Singer
  • Life-and-Death Decisions in the Midst of Uncertainty, by Robert F. Weir

Particular attention was given to Practical Ethics, by Peter Singer, without which this paper would not have been possible.

I should start with a few definitions before I actually begin the argument, just to make sure everyone’s on the same page.  Feel free to refer to these notes as you’re reading.

  • Infanticide is the killing of infant humans by adult humans as a continued practice.  It does not refer to single occurrences, nor does it apply to nonhumans.
  • Infants are human children ranging in age from just after birth to forty-five days after birth.  I realize this is nonstandard usage, but the argument fails to apply if the usual age range is included.
  • Ockham’s Razor, as used in this paper, refers to the recommendation of one choice over other choices, where: all choices are equally plausible, no choices explain more than any other, and the recommended choice requires less assumptions than any of the others.
  • The intrinsic worth of life is the value of a life to the being living that life.
  • A person is a being with a positive intrinsic worth of life; for the purposes of this essay, a being that recognizes itself as a being over a period of time or at one point did so in the past with high likelihood of doing so again in the future.
  • To let nature take its course means to allow a being to die when the capability to save that being is available.  It is the most commonly used legal method to kill human beings.

I should probably note here my own reservations about utilizing Ockham’s Razor.  I don’t feel that a principle regarding the likelihood of certain scenarios being above others simply due to their lack of assumptions holds much water.  But however blunt I think Ockham’s Razor might be, it is a necessary tool for much (if not all) of science, and should thusly not be avoided while I simultaneously type this essay on a computer; to do otherwise seems a bit hypocritical of me.

This does not mean that beings without this quality have worthless lives; it merely means that the worth of their lives is not intrinsic; it is in relation to some other thing.

In other words, if it is unclear as to whether cursing or cursing with the Lord's name is the wrong thing to do, then it is best to not curse at all, since that way you're guaranteed to be correct in either case: you won't ever be cursing with the Lord's name, nor will you ever be cursing at all.

The assumption here is that we will treat differently those who have a positive intrinsic value of life than those without.  By making our decision to choose all those with the necessary condition, it is absolutely impossible that we will leave any beings out that do have a positive intrinsic value to life, even though it is certainly possible that we will be including beings who have the necessary condition but lack the sufficient conditions that we are unable to find.

06 December, 2005

Worthy of Attention: Infanticide

[This essay was intended to be published as a Worthy of Attention article on the Panangelium.tk site. However, the site shut down before it was published. I am publishing it here on the date that the essay was initially drafted; had it been published, it would have first been edited and likely would not have been posted for another couple of weeks from this publishing date. Note that ideas from this article were used in On Infanticide, a paper that was submitted for a grade in a bioethics class.

Peter Singer is one of my favorite authors.  He ranks right up there with Stephen Jay Gould, Howard Zinn, Charlie Kaufman, Orson Scott Card, and Douglas Hofstadter.  So when the chance came up to write a book (or movie) review for my Deviant Behavior class, naturally I was quite ecstatic.  I have so many favorite writers (both for film and book format), and I was sure that any that I'd choose would be great--so how did I come up with Peter Singerahead of all others?

One word: infanticide.

Last summer, you see, I spent my afternoons on the lawn in front of the Washington Monument reading Peter Singer's Writings on an Ethical Life, a compilation of some of his previous works, most notably from Practical Ethics.  Reading Singer's book gave me a singular frame of mind--usually, philosophy does much to make me think, but it is rare to find cogent arguments presented for ethics in particular, precisely because it so difficult to arrive at soundness from cogency when dealing with fields such as ethics.  So as I read Singer, I felt a deep kinship between his words and my thoughts, not because I had thought such things before (in point of fact, I really hadn't), but because his words were actively convincing me that his viewpoint was the correct one to take.  He convinced me so well that now, but a few months later, I can actively say that I fully agree with Singer on many of the issues he brought up in Writings on an Ethical Life.  It is one such viewpoint that I felt most fully epitomized the concept of deviant behavior (so much so that the topic alone caused me to choose Singer over Kaufman, whom I think would also have made for a good paper), and it is on that topic that I plan to write this paper: infanticide.

As a philosopher, Peter Singer is attempting to create a viewpoint for understanding moral issues that is both consistent and follows from premises that he believes all men will admit as obvious.  I am reminded of the story of Descartes, where he finds a copy of Euclid's Elements lying open at Proposition 45.  There he reads how to construct a parallelogram equal in area to any given rectangular figure with a given rectilinear angle.  Unbelieving that this could be possible, Descartes is referred to Proposition 44, which he also disbelieves.  So he flips back further and further, at each point disbelieving what is written, and yet following the dependencies of Euclid's logic.  Until finally, he arrives at the initial axioms, and exclaims aghast: "So it all must be true!"

In the same way, Singer attempts to give initial axioms which cannot be disbelieved, even in the face of very strange deductions, and then he attempts to construct an ethical system which follows from these initial conditions.  Hopefully, I will be able to reconstruct his argument in this essay.  I will start with a few premises which I hope will be immediately accepted.

  • First, that it is wrong to discriminate against one individual and for another on the basis of criteria which has nothing to do with the decision at hand.  (To decide against a minority applicant in favor of a non-minority applicant for the sole reason that they are a minority applicant is not ethically justifiable.)
  • Second, that the ending of the life of a person has negative value.  (It is wrong to kill a person in every non-teleological ethic.  Even if a teleological ethic is used, the ending of the life of a person is assigned a negative value in all circumstances.)
  • Third, that if the correct decision between two options is unclear, and one decision encompasses the other decision in scope but adds additional imperatives, then it is best to decide upon the more strict option.  (If it is unclear as to whether cursing or cursing with the Lord's name is the wrong thing to do, then it is best to not curse at all, since that way you're guaranteed to be correct in either case: you won't ever be cursing with the Lord's name, nor will you ever be cursing at all.)
  • Fourth, that Ockham's Razor is true.  (Given two equally plausible explanations where neither explains more than the other, and where one explanation requires more assumptions than the other, then it is best to more easily accept the explanation that requires less assumptions.)

Singer's first point is that of the definition of the word "person".  Historically, the word 'person' has had many different meanings.  There was a time when some humans were given the distinction of being called persons, while other humans (whether they were called barbarians, slaves, or women) were considered 'less than a person'.  So it is difficult to give an accurate definition.

One wants to give all humans the benefit of the doubt, but this goes against our first premise.  If we do not have a good definition of person, then why exclude nonhumans from our list of potential persons?  The question is: what makes a person a person?  That they are human is insufficient.  If an alien were to ring your doorbell, and you were to open your door, see that it was an alien, and then promptly shoot it with your gun, would you not feel bad about it afterward?  And it would not be because you had shot some non-person thing, but instead you would feel bad because you would have shot a person.  Obviously, the status of being Homo sapiens is not identical to the status of personhood.

What, then, does it take to be a person?  One required condition, Singer argues, is that the being feels that it is the same being from one moment to the next.  Surely, we would not assign personhood to anyone who lacked that quality.  If a being is unable to distinguish itself continuously from one moment to the next, and (further) has never in the past been able to distinguish itself continuously from one moment to the next, then that being is definitely not a person.

While Singer only gives a necessary condition for personhood, and is unable to furnish a defendable sufficient condition, by our third axiom it is clear as to whom we should consider persons: at the very least, we should consider all beings who have the necessary condition for personhood to be persons.  Although we will probably end up including a few nonpersons in our list of what is considered to be a person, we will at least not be excluding any potential persons from our list, and that is what is most important.

(It should be noted here that this list happens to include many nonhuman animals, such as dogs, cats, cows, and pigs.  It is for this [among other] reason[s] that I am vegetarian and an aspiring vegan.  Furthermore, I have quite serious thoughts on fructarianism, which many find to be particularly ludicrous, but whatever.)

So now we have clarified our second axiom by choosing an appropriate meaning for 'person', even though we could not find the exact definition of the term.  Where, then, does Singer go from here, and how does any of this mumbo-jumbo relate to infanticide?

As it turns out, it relates pretty darn directly.  Infants, by our very broad and quite generous consideration of terms, are not persons.  As such, we need a separate rule to say that it is wrong to end the life of an infant, or else we may end up admitting that it is not inherently negative that an infant die.  (Keep in mind here, that this is not an argument that the death of infants is not generally negative--of course it is negative--but that its negativity arises not from the inherent value assigned to the death of an infant in general, but instead to mitigating circumstances: the potential of the infant to turn into a person at some future point, the desires of the parents and family who may want the infant to live very much, the need of a beginning society to have as many new children as possible, etc.)  But by axiom four, inserting yet another premise is unacceptable when we could equally admit the negative value of most infant death to mitigating circumstances.

Of course, at this point, Singer argues, we might say that all of this is but pedantic nonsense, and is totally useless--for why in this day and age would infanticide be even considered?  But it turns out to be far more relevant than any of us might like to admit.

The field of bioethics, it turns out, constantly has to grapple with the inconsistency of infanticide being generally considered immoral by the public, and yet regularly practiced by physicians in the heat of neonatal care.  The standard phrase used in the medical community is "letting nature take its course".  According to one NICU physician, stating hospital policy on infants weighing in at less than 500 grams: "We generally keep them warm and let them expire by themselves.  These are not viable babies, and it's crazy to do anything more."  In most severe cases of Myelomeningocele (spina bifida cystica), which occur in as many as one out of every hundred births in areas with diets lacking in folic acid, physicians are genereally relieved when the infant has a complication.  Because then they may recommend to the parent that they "let nature take its course", so the infant may die at a young age.  When an infant with severe myelomeningocele doesn't have a complication, then it is cause for worry; such children are generally completely paralyzed, with severe brain damage due to hydrocephalus.  Modern technology is able to keep such children alive up to their preteen years, but they always live with severe pain and discomort, which when added to paralysis, incontinence, and intellectual disability is enough to cause most doctors to hope for a complication to arise during the infant stages so that they may recommend "letting nature take its course".  This is, no matter how one looks at it, legal infanticide.  (In point of fact, the vast majority (~80% as of Singer's 2000 publication date) of the worst cases of spina bifida cystica are not given life-saving treatment.)

Singer argues that infanticide, as practiced by physicians today, is wholly justifiable.  Though it seems strange and 'out there' at first--it certainly is a prime candidate for "deviant behavior" if I ever saw one--infanticide has a fairly good justification as told by Peter Singer.


This is just to inform you that updates on this journal have been suspended for the time being. While I may or may not update this journal in the coming months, rest assured that I will, as always, update my LiveJournal account regularly. Please visit http://www.livejournal.com/users/EricJHerboso for further access to the thoughts of a man you likely care nothing at all about.

Oh, and don't think I'll neglect reading my Xanga subscription just 'cause I've stopped posting in it. (c;