Last week’s news about an article in the Journal of Medical Ethics endorsing the moral permissibility of infanticide created an enormous amount of controversy in BioEdge, to say nothing of the rest of the internet. Although the flames have died out in the popular media, debate is still smouldering among bioethicists themselves. The issue now is how bioethicists should engage with the public.
The authors, Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva, were shocked that that they had received death threats and hundreds of abusive emails. “It was meant to be a pure exercise of logic: if X, then Y…,” they said somewhat ruefully. Even Julian Savulescu, no media wallflower, was shaken by “the hostile, abusive, threatening responses” on an American blog.
Is there no internet access in the Ivory Tower? Spittle-flecked abuse is what happens on internet, no matter what the topic is. A friend of mine runs a blog on Tasmania soccer. Not a morally provocative topic, you might think, but he has to delete many comments because they are so scurrilous.
The real scandal here is not abuse, but that two utilitarians – of all people! – are contending that ideas should have no consequences. Isn’t bioethics a form of applied ethics? Doesn’t it aim to change the world? Peter Singer, who is the intellectual godfather of all the characters in this little drama, characteristically entitled his most influential book Practical Ethics.
It was said of mediaeval philosophers that they whiled away the hours debating how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. This is an absurd canard invented in the 17th century, but astonishingly, Giubilini and Minerva are angelology revivalists. “We are not policy makers, we are philosophers, and we deal with concepts, not with legal policy,” they pleaded. Could anything be more naïve? Immediately people become convinced that a course of action (eg, protecting whales, abortion rights, same-sex marriage) is ethical, they begin demanding it as a right. Ideas always have consequences. Sometimes very bad consequences.
Is there no internet access in the Ivory Tower? Spittle-flecked abuse is what happens on internet, no matter what the topic is.
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