Neonates, Persons and the Right to Life
Page (Edgar)
Source: Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 1988-9; pp. 165-178
Paper - Abstract

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Author’s Introduction

  1. The main aim of this paper is to work towards an answer to the question 'Is there a generally overriding reason why normal healthy human neonates (new born babies) must not be killed?'. This question cannot be kept apart from the morality of killing human embryos and fetuses and killing non-human animals. To be clear about any of these it is necessary to examine notions such as the right to life and intrinsically wrong killing. Consequently, much of the paper will be concerned with the logic of these notions.
  2. Most people would probably say that neonates, or babies, must not be killed because they are human beings. But many philosophers argue that being human is a biological fact without moral significance. It is a question of whether neonates are persons, they say, for this is the morally significant notion.
  3. Various definitions of personhood are on offer in terms of rationality, self-consciousness, agency, capacities for thought, communication, friendship and so on. The differences between them are not important for my purposes so, for convenience, I shall take a definition in terms of self-consciousness to be representative, or an acceptable shorthand, unless otherwise stated.
  4. On this definition, neither neonates nor babies count as persons because they are not self-conscious beings. On the other hand, some non-human animals are self-conscious beings and do count as persons.
  5. Most people untouched by philosophy would probably say that babies are persons and that non-human animals such as chimpanzees are not. They might think therefore that it is a misuse of language to say that chimpanzees are persons. Further, they might think it a moral sleight of hand to say, on the basis of the definition, that neonates or babies are not persons and therefore that it is not wrong to kill them; or that some non-human animals are persons and therefore that it is wrong to kill them. Many people find it difficult to accept that a normal adult chimpanzee, being a self-conscious being, has a greater moral claim to life than a healthy human neonate does.
  6. Michael Tooley argues in his book Abortion and Infanticide1 that 'person' is a descriptive term the definition of which must be guided by consideration of 'what properties a thing must have in order to have a serious right to life' or what properties 'suffice to make the destruction of something intrinsically wrong'.
  7. Tooley pays little attention to the differences between it being intrinsically wrong to kill something and it being wrong to kill something because that being has a right to life. Indeed, he argues that properties that give something a right to life also suffice to show that it is intrinsically wrong to kill it.
  8. There are important differences between the two notions. I shall argue that it does not follow from the fact that it is intrinsically wrong to kill something that it has a right to life and, conversely, that it does not follow from the fact that something has a right to life that it is intrinsically wrong to kill it.
  9. We must therefore be open to the possibility that neonates and, for that matter, adult human beings must not be killed because they have a right to life and not because it is intrinsically wrong to kill them; and that some non-human animals must not be killed because it is intrinsically wrong to kill them and not because they have a right to life.



In-Page Footnotes

Footnote 1: I haven’t got this, but have a paper of the same title: "Tooley (Michael) - Abortion and Infanticide".


Text Colour Conventions (see disclaimer)

  1. Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2017
  2. Mauve: Text by correspondent(s) or other author(s); © the author(s)



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