Thursday, March 1, 2012

"Killing people while they're asleep should be no crime"

By Donald Sensing

Professor Norman Geras, the most respectable and likable member of the Left that I know of (we have exchanged a number of very cordial emails) responds to the proposal of academic philosophers Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva that there should be no distinction between aborting an  unborn child and killing a fully-born baby - a killing that G-M simply call "after-birth abortion" (link). The good professor takes it to its logical conclusion.

Killing people while they're asleep should be no crime

Provided, that is, that the killing is painless. I take this to be a logical development from the proposal of two philosophers, as reported here and here, that after-birth abortion - what you and I know as infanticide - is sometimes justified, if the interests of the parents require it. Like the foetus, so the argument goes, a newborn baby is not yet a person (though it is a potential person); so it is not in a condition to be ascribed a right to life.

I avoid the knotty question of what the criteria of personhood are (self-consciousness, capacity to reason, having a life-plan etc), and merely go on what the two philosophers whose view is under discussion here say when they say:
We take 'person' to mean an individual who is capable of attributing to her own existence some (at least) basic value such that being deprived of this existence represents a loss to her. This means... that all the individuals who are not in the condition of attributing any value to their own existence are not persons.
I put it to you, friends, that someone who is fast asleep is incapable of attributing basic value to her own existence, and therefore a prime target for being killed, without that representing any loss to her. You might say that she will again be capable of valuing her own existence when she wakes up, and I do not deny this. But it only means that, once a person - before she went to sleep - she has ceased to be that since dropping off, and is now only a potential person until she wakes up again, if, of course, she ever does - since we can justifiably kill her (as being an actual non-person) if it serves our interests to do so.

Again, you might say that the definition of personhood builds in a notion of continuity and duration, such that a sleeping individual may be credited with the capacities which the same individual has while awake. But what a convenient allowance that is. For somewhere between a quarter and a third of most people's lives their capacities are not manifest while they sleep but, like them, dormant; and yet they are acknowledged still to have them. That could cover anything between 20 and 30 years, without personhood being snatched from their sleepy selves by others. No, let them be bumped off when there's something to be gained by doing so - that's what I say.
Slippery slope? No, the idea that there should be no distinction between aborting an unborn child a fetus and killing a fully-born baby is no slope. It's a vertical plunge to the rocks of moral dissolution.

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