Sunday 13 March 2011

Active killing versus letting die - abandoning of infants and incapable elders


My understanding is that natural law/ spontaneous human morality apparently accepts the action of 'letting die', under certain circumstances; and the qualitative distinction between letting die and actively killing.


From my reading of the anthropology of hunter gatherer tribes, it seems very likely that passive infanticide of newborns by a mother abandoning her baby, and also abandonment of chronically incapable elderly relatives, are regarded as morally acceptable actions under some circumstances

(although certainly very regrettable and an occasion of grief and mourning which may be intense and prolonged).


Indeed, as convincingly argued by Sarah Blaffer Hrdy in Mother Nature; infanticide by neglect or abandonment is probably the fall-back method by which humans (as a species) control the number of offspring (when the normal method of spacing-out offspring by the contraceptive effect of lactation has failed).

(Other mammals fail to conceive under stress, reabsorb the fetus while it is still in the womb and have other methods of controlling the spacing of offspring according to circumstances.)

The abandonment (leaving-behind) of chronically-incapable elderly relatives seems to be the norm among hunter gatherers and nomadic herders.


It also seems that these actions of passive abandoning and letting die do not elicit a spontaneous and almost-universal abhorrence among mankind in general - in the way that active killing of newborn infants or incapable elderly would elicit a spontaneous and almost-universal abhorrence.

(Which is not to say that this abhorrence cannot be overcome - it can be overcome. Humans can, under certain circumstances, actively kill infants and elderly relatives and can regard this as morally justified. Nonetheless, there is a spontaneous abhorrence of these actions.)


In practice, the abandonment of infants and elders means (so far as we can tell) all-but-certain death; and quite likely the horrible death of being eaten, perhaps while still alive, by predators or scavengers.

(But this fate would not be known for sure; and there may well be a hope of some fortuitous rescue or supernatural intervention, and the hope that this had in fact happened.)

This suggests that - for our ancestors, and probably spontaneously for all humans - the 'mercy killing' of infants and elderly relatives was probably perceived as being morally worse than allowing horrific suffering.


Note that I am stating this as a factual observation, and not in terms of the 'naturalistic fallacy' of 'what is, is right'.

But I think these facts need to form the basis of honest moral discussion.


I regard it as simply false to assume that abandoning and letting die of of the newborn and incapable elderly is something that humans, qua humans, find morally abhorrent.

And the prohibition of these acts of letting die or passive killing is more or less specific to Christianity. It was, indeed, one of the distinguishing marks that set apart the early Christians from those who surrounded them.

If, then, it is to be argued (perhaps, although not necessarily, by Christians) that humans ought not to commit passive infanticide or 'euthanasia' of the elderly by stopping active interventions etc; then the argument cannot (in my opinion) be based on natural morality, nor can it depend on a spontaneous abhorrence of humans qua humans for these actions.


It is also false to argue that letting die amounts to the same thing (morally speaking) as active killing; since spontaneous human morality recognizes a qualitative difference between these actions.

To abandon someone to almost-certain death is not the same as murdering them - according to natural law.

Spontaneous human morality says that neglect of a person even unto their death is not the same as purposive destruction of life.


Humans are not 'naturally' inclined to regard the prevention of suffering of loved ones as a higher moral imperative than the avoidance of oneself killing loved ones.

(An exception occurs during mental illness - specifically melancholia, when it is fairly common for a profoundly depressed parent to kill their family, then kill themselves, in order to protect the family from what is perceived as an unendurably miserable world.)  


If, then, an argument is to be mounted that (probably-) fatal abandonment of infants and incapable elderly relatives is morally wrong, then the reasons for this prohibition must properly be based upon Christian revelation; and not on natural law.

Following from this, there is no coherent, truthful and rational argument by which non-Christians can prohibit the passive letting die of (for example) infants and elderly relatives.


(Non-Christians might, nonetheless, wish to prohibit these actions; what I am saying is that non-Christians would have no coherent, truthful and rational arguments by which to justify such prohibitions.)



The Crow said...

"...non-Christians would have no coherent, truthful and rational arguments by which to justify such prohibitions."

If Non-Christian refers to atheists, then I would say that they have no coherent, truthful and rational arguments by which to justify very much of anything.
Without a baseline, what does one have for a reference point on anything?
Emotions are all that is left.

If you're looking for chaos, you came to the right place...

Anonymous said...

You seem to be implying that, absent revelation, a given act can be rationally condemned only if humans naturally find that particular act to be abhorrent.

This makes no more sense than limiting science to facts we can directly observe, or mathematics to equations which we intuitively know are true. (We spontaneously understand that 1 + 1 = 2; we do not spontaneously understand that 44086 + 21047 = 65133.) It ignores the whole process of moral reasoning.

Bruce Charlton said...

@wmjas - well... in this post I am arguing with almost everyobody!

Secular people are always using 'its the same thing' type arguments, yet the basis of secular morality is utilitarian (what makes huumans happy, or causes suffering), and if 'universal' human emotion says two things are different, then that is the bottom line, and those things *are* different.

Having spent more than a decade working on the moral implications of evolved psychology (and eventually acknowledging, with common sense, that there is no such thing!) - my main conclusion was that evolved psychology cannot not form a basis for a true morality; but at a pragmatic level one had better recognize and understand what are the spontaneous responses to a situation - in order to take this into account. One needs to know whether the moral system is pushing with, or against, the grain of human behavior.

Humans regard killing and letting die as different, they regard humans as different from animals, relatives whom they have lived with as children as different from other people and so on.

A true utilitarian would - if sincere - take these distinctions as a basis for morality - rather than (as they almost always do) trying to argue them away.

Christians, on the other hand, often argue against, say, allowing chronically incapacitated people to die, without referring to divine revelation and using purely utilitarian 'slippery slope' type rational arguments - on the implicit assumption that by describing the action starkly they can rely on people's universal 'natural' revulsion to carry the argument.

(With an implication that if you do not feel a natural revulsion, you are a moral monster)

But there probably is no such natural revulsion; no sense of absolute prohibition (as there is for first degree incest, for example; and as there may be for direct and active killing of loved ones) - only a strong reluctance.


Bruce Charlton said...


Christians also frequently base their arguments on an assumption that prevention of suffering is, or ought to be, primary (for example in focusing on the degree of suffering of a fetus subject to abortion procedures); yet this is not a Christian argument - indeed it is an anti-Christian argument.

When a prohibition is distinctively Christian it should be defended on specifically Christian grounds; grounds that argue, or at least assume, the truth of Christianity. But in mainstream discourse, specifically Christian prohibitions are typically defended on utilitarian grounds, and even worse, these utilitarian grounds are often (as here) untrue.

There are other situations where morality depends upon the reality of the immortal soul, which is not a specifically Christian belief but shared with many other religions. Indeed, many aspects of religious morality are 'rational' (common sensical) inferences based on the reality of the immortal soul (rather than being 'laws' given by revelation); however, these would be validated - if not by 'universal' human psychology, by the 'universal' behaviour of religious adherents - and would be correlated with the devoutness of adherents.

Such moral principles would *not* have the characteristics of a 'discovery' made by professional philosophers (on the lines of the recent claimed 'discoveries' about morality made by atheist 'animal rights' philosophers - such as Peter Singer. Arguments which claim, that is, to have discovered that the 'universal' distinction made between humans and animals up until the past recent decades was a logical error, previously unnoticed or only noticeable by modern, professionally trained philosophers. In implication - all humans until recently were wicked or corrupted, but a few modern philosophers have eluded corruption or somehow otherwise now become better people than previous generations, and can perceive a higher morality.)

So Christians use arguments based on false assumptions; and indeed anti-Christian assumptions - which is either deviously dishonest or incompetent.

Daniel said...

Mr. Charlon,

The last point you make in your last comment is something that I have found to be an incisive weapon when cutting through modern delusions.

Both with myself and with my more intelligent friends, I find it worthwhile, when considering an ethical or philosophical dilemma, to raise the question of Chesterton's "Democracy of the Dead."

To put it bluntly: "So we are certain, we friends sitting over beers, that we have discovered something that (basically) all humans living throughout human history — both our own ancestors and people in lands far distant — never discerned? We are the smart ones, miraculously, and they were all of them deluded, throughout all time?"

Of course this is the basic assumption of all radical modernism. Of course one generation can improve upon the morality of the previous one, by finer and finer application of the eternal moral law (Lewis's "Tao"). But wholesale rejection of ancient ways smacks of ridiculousness, not to mention arrogance.

In fact, I often wonder if it is the sheer, arrogant audacity of the liberal move that makes it so powerful. It's like calling the sky black on a sunny afternoon. Calling it "cerulean" might invite debate as to whether perhaps it might not be better described as "azure." But if you say, "It's black!" loudly enough, many people will start to doubt their own two eyes.

Keep up the great work, please.