Are philosophers morally responsible for the ideas they defend? The question arises out of the issue I discussed here on Thursday: whether infanticide can be justified on the same grounds as abortion, as had been proposed by philosophers Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva in an article in the Journal of Medical Ethics. The argument that it can be has provoked some outrage, to the point that one of the authors of the article has received death threats.
Dr Minerva, a research associate at Oxford while being based at the University of Melbourne, said the recent days had been "the worst in my life" after the article attracted widespread attention.
"This is not a proposal for law," she told an Australian news website. "This is pure academic discussion.
"I wish I could explain to people it is not a policy and I'm not suggesting that and I'm not encouraging that."
The issuing of death threats is indefensible in this as in other contexts. It's an elementary principle of freedom of opinion and belief that individuals have a right to explore ideas and arguments as they see fit, however disagreeable others may find these. If one doesn't like what someone says one is free to criticize it, as forthrightly as one pleases, but short of the threat of violence. Beyond this elementary principle, it is also a long-accepted philosophical tradition that practitioners of the discipline pursue truth and reasoned argument wherever these may lead, and if where they lead is to uncomfortable conclusions, then so be it. No philosopher should be threatened on account of what she thinks. Not even her job security, never mind her life, should be in jeopardy because of it.
Francesca Minerva's plea, however, that the article was 'pure academic discussion' and not a policy proposal - though one can sympathize with the sense of alarm that might have motivated it - is more open to question. She and her co-author further explain, in an open letter here, that the article 'was meant to be a pure exercise of logic: if X, then Y'. Starting from 'the definition of person introduced by Michael Tooley in 1975', they intended only to trace out its consequences as they saw them, without meaning to suggest that after-birth abortion (that is, infanticide) should become legal.
There is supporting argument for this line of thought by John Appleby at New Humanist. Philosophers, he says (rightly), often try out different scenarios, thought experiments, to test out different moral ideas and the relations between them. So 'Giubilini and Minerva are not necessarily calling for the slaughter of newborn kids'.
But I find the 'pure exercise in logic' plea doubly unpersuasive - at least as regards the article the two philosophers actually published, as opposed to what may have been secreted in their minds. First, from the opening abstract to the final conclusions the language used by Giubilini and Minerva is for the most part not at all hypothetical but looks like direct advocacy. Thus (the abstract):
Abortion is largely accepted even for reasons that do not have anything to do with the fetus' health. By showing that (1) both fetuses and newborns do not have the same moral status as actual persons, (2) the fact that both are potential persons is morally irrelevant and (3) adoption is not always in the best interest of actual people, the authors argue that what we call 'after-birth abortion' (killing a newborn) should be permissible in all the cases where abortion is, including cases where the newborn is not disabled.
Mark that: infanticide 'should be permissible' not just if abortion is, but in all cases where abortion is. It is claimed, moreover, that the article shows that fetuses and newborns don't have the same moral status as persons and that the permissibility of killing newborns follows from this. 'Showing' implies a claim of fact and not merely a hypothesis for the sake of academic argument. Readers should go to the article themselves to confirm that the abstract doesn't mislead about the content of what follows. This sort of thing recurs: 'we argue that, when circumstances occur after birth such that they would have justified abortion, what we call after-birth abortion should be permissible'. And from the conclusions:
It's fair, consequently, to say that in their open letter Giubilini and Minerva state no more than the truth of the matter when they acknowledge that the pure-exercise-of-logic, non-policy-recommendation character of their intention 'was not made clear enough' in their paper. Another way of taking this is that the paper was a piece of straightforward advocacy for the acceptability of infanticide in certain circumstances, but that they now wish to retreat from the view their paper put forward. And so much the better if they do now wish to do that.
if a disease has not been detected during the pregnancy, if something went wrong during the delivery, or if economical, social or psychological circumstances change such that taking care of the offspring becomes an unbearable burden on someone, then people should be given the chance of not being forced to do something they cannot afford [i.e. to let their children live].
Second, there is something more general to be said. Even at a remove from direct policy discussion, philosophers have to take responsibility for the ideas for which they argue. There are cases where a philosophical argument is simply of the form 'if A is justified, then B must also be justified, there being no relevant moral difference between A and B - and I, the writer, take no position on whether A or B is justified'. The proponent of such an argument can reasonably say he is not responsible for propagating the idea B. However, philosophers who endorse some principle, or type of conduct, or course of action, even if this is within abstract academic discussion and not part of a direct set of policy recommendations, must accept responsibility for helping to give currency to the ideas being argued for. Not to do so is pusillanimous and it is also feeble as a diagnosis of philosophy's role. The suggestion that their own activity is some sort of play-play, without any bearing on the world, does a disservice to the tradition of philosophy itself.
Philosophers, like everyone else, must be free to think and argue as they please. But the recognition of that right, and proper respect for the boundaries it creates, protecting them, like everyone else, against violence and the threat of violence, doesn't entitle any philosopher to protection from moral criticism or even opprobrium when he or she argues for positions that others find morally repugnant. To deny all responsibility for the views one puts forth is not a credible standpoint.