Our new paper Beyond infanticide: How psychological accounts of persons justify harming infants has finally been published in The New Bioethics journal. Written by Daniel Rodger, the PA, and Calum Miller, it consists of a reductio ad absurdum argument against certain philosophical definitions of what it means to be a person.

Definitions of persons are important in ethics, because unlike our everyday idea of what a person is, here persons are those entities to which we assign high moral value. This includes granting certain rights, such as the right to life. In the abortion debate, this is crucial – if fetuses are persons and have a right to life, then obviously justifying their death is very difficult (J.J.Thomson attempts to do this in her seminal paper A Defense of Abortion).

Psychological accounts of persons require certain cognitive capacities for recognition as a person, such as self-awareness and being able to value your future. If you don’t satisfy the criteria, you aren’t a person – in fact there is no you. Fetuses definitely don’t satisfy the criteria, and so this is commonly used to argue that abortion is permissible, as they don’t have a right to life.

One problem for psychological accounts has been long recognised – infants don’t satisfy the criteria either. Self-awareness is typically not reached until perhaps 18 months of age, and being able to value your own future, even longer. The implication is that if abortion is grounded on fetuses not being persons, then infanticide is likewise permissible. Of course, there are many pragmatic reasons why infanticide should not be allowed, but it is nonetheless a troublesome implication of psychological accounts.

Some ethicists have bitten the bullet and accepted that some limited form of infanticide should be legalised – Peter Singer for example. Famously,  Giubilini and Minerva argue that in all circumstances abortion is permissible, infanticide is also permissible. Given the growing acceptance amongst ethicists of infanticide, the reductio has become less persuasive.

In this paper, we seek to re-establish the reductio by pushing it beyond infanticide, discussing other ‘pre-personal acts’ that psychological accounts also imply are permissible. These include organ harvesting, live experimentation, sexual interference, and discriminatory killing. We argue that our very strong intuitions against the permissibility of these pre-personal (and horrible) acts allow us to re-establish a comprehensive and persuasive reductio against psychological accounts of persons.

Here’s a quote from the conclusion of the paper:

many contemporary defences of abortion depend on denying foetuses (and often infants) the status of personhood on the basis of psychological accounts of rights, value and personhood. If, as we suggest, those accounts are made implausible by the reductios described above, defenders of the permissibility of abortion will have to appeal to alternative arguments





One thought on “Beyond Infanticide

  1. Stop the presses. “if fetuses are persons and have a right to life, then obviously justifying their death is very difficult”

    Right there. If people buy into this fiction, legal fiction, that one can be a human being and NOT be a “person” (for purposes of rights), and thus have no human and/or civil rights, they cannot be reached by logical argument.

    The fallacy is this false dichotomy of human being versus “person”. When you debate these folks, why give legitimacy to their fallacy? On, I see, you have to because the courts have taken this fallacy and enforced it from on high.

    Perhaps, the larger issue here is: Why do we allow jurists to be the final arbiters of right and wrong?


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