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‘Birth Is a Metaphysically Arbitrary Line’


Just last week, I quoted left-libertarian Will Wilkinson favorably on the bullying tactics of Planned Parenthood. I noted that Wilkinson was pro-legal abortion. Today I find out Wilkinson also thinks there’s nothing morally wrong with infanticide. In the course of a post on whether some of our opinions are so closely held that new data could never move us to revise them:

Abortion. This is far and away the hardest one. I favour legal abortion. I don’t think embryos or fetuses are persons, and I don’t think it’s wrong to kill them. I also don’t think infants are persons, but I do think laws that prohibit infanticide are wise. Birth is a metaphysically arbitrary line, but it’s a supremely salient socio-psychological one. A general abhorrence of the taking of human life is something any healthy culture will inculcate in its members. It’s easier to cultivate the appropriate moral sentiments within a society that has adopted the convention of conferring robust moral rights on infants upon birth than it would be in a society that had adopted the convention of conferring the same rights on children only after they’ve reached some significant developmental milestone, such as the onset of intelligible speech. The latter society, I suspect, would tend to be more generally cruel and less humane. This is just an empirical hunch, though I feel fairly confident about it. But I could be wrong. And I could be wrong in the other direction as well. If it were shown that societies which ban abortion, or which ban abortion beyond a certain point, exceed societies which don’t ban abortion in cultivating a “culture of life”, which pays off in terms of greater general humanity and diminished cruelty, I would seriously weigh this moral benefit against the moral cost of reducing women’s control over their bodies. Also, if it were shown that abortion tended to damage women’s’ mental and physical health more than forcing women to carry unwanted pregnancies to term, I would tend to look more favourably on restrictions on abortion, especially for minors.

This arguably puts Wilkinson to the left of — actually, making this a left/right thing strikes me as unfair — it puts Wilkinson further away from prevailing moral intuitions on personhood than even Peter Singer, whose argument Wilkinson seems to be cribbing. (Especially the bit about “intelligible speech” being a prerequisite for personhood. I’d better tell my friends who work with the severely autistic that they are wasting their time on a bunch of meat puppets.) Unless there’s some unelaborated premise I’m missing, it sounds like he’s endorsed a world where there’s nothing especially immoral about, say, the casual gassing of the neonatal room at St. Luke’s hospital. (Perhaps if infants aren’t people they’re at least property? And so their cold-blooded destruction qualifies at least as a property crime against their parents? But, now, if infants are simply property until they achieve certain arbitrary cognitive thresholds, I’m going to make millions birthing and growing a race of lobotomized, mute slaves! Oh, look, there’s the abyss gazing back at me.)

I’ve gestured at this point before, but I’ll restate it: The problem with Wilkinson’s thinking, and with bloodless, super-utilitarian political liberalism generally, is that its very data-obsession moral plasticity renders it a useless abstraction in the short term and a pernicious degenerative in the long term. That is, people who think like Wilkinson go about their business as if social orders are created and shaped in the salons of dilettante philosophers, wantonly discarding what Burke called the wisdom “of nations and ages” in an effort to rebuild a polity on pristine axioms denuded of the particular socio-functional history that made them relevant to an actual polity existing in time and space. In the near-term, this sort of stuff is so far up its own ass that it never really gets beyond coffeehouses and faculty lounges. But in the long-term, with generations to percolate and platforms with which to proselytize, it can seep into the character of a whole people. In other words, the mechanism by which social orders are actually created and shaped — the osmotic transmission of cultural norms Burke favorably called ‘prejudice’ — can import this very silly thinking about the way social orders are not actually created and shaped.

I bring this up because Wilkinson asks which is likely to be less “cruel” and more “humane”: the society that confers rights to pre-verbal infants or the one that doesn’t. He never bothers to ask the effect on a society’s cruelty and humaneness of the casual assertion, in the pages of the venerable Economist, that killing a neonatal baby is a morally neutral affair. My own reaction to that assertion is moral disgust and at least a prima facie conviction that the person uttering it is a moral degenerate. For now, the greater part of the American public is with me. But give the Will Wilkinsons time.

UPDATE: Wilkinson has urged me to “fix [my] post” because, as it stands, it is “misrepresenting” his “normative views.” He writes, “not only did I say infanticide is wrong, but that I also explained *why*.” I quoted the whole passage in the original post so that folks could see the context. In the bolded section Wilkinson indeed says that he thinks “laws that prohibit infanticide are wise,” but he thinks this because a society without such laws is likely to be “more generally cruel and less humane.” He also admits that this is an empirical matter about which he “could be wrong.” In other words, if data showed that a society tolerant of infanticide wasn’t necessarily less humane or more cruel than a society prohibiting it, he’d be willing to revise his views on the wisdom of such prohibitions. So, yes, Wilkinson does say infanticide is wrong, and does explains why: because of contingent facts that could have been, and may yet be, otherwise. That is all I intended to say, and sufficient to ground the rest of my argument. I did not thereby suggest that Wilkinson endorses infanticide full stop, but that he’s endorsed the proposition that there is nothing about the act itself, irrespective of its consequences, that makes infanticide wrong.

Now that I think of it, there’s a charitable way of rewriting Wilkinson’s argument that gives more force to his conclusion. He could take the relationship between cruelty and infanticide to be conceptual, not empirical. That is, he could argue that a society that condones the killing of infants on the grounds that they are not persons is necessarily, or by the very meaning of the relevant terms, a society that is crueler and less humane. If Wilkinson wants to avail himself of that argument, I’d welcome it. But then I’d ask him to think about why, if it is “easier to cultivate the appropriate moral sentiments within a society that has adopted the convention of conferring robust moral rights on infants upon birth”, it wouldn’t be easier still to cultivate those sentiments if we drew that “arbitrary” metaphysical line between personhood and non-personhood even earlier?