Saturday, March 03, 2012

Ethics is Public

The general opinion of mankind has some authority in all cases; but in this of morals it is perfectly infallible. Nor is it less infallible, because men cannot distinctly explain the principles, on which it is founded.
Hume, Treatise 3.2.9.

I thought of this when thinking of the recent controversy over the Giubilini-Minerva paper on infanticide. This is a dispute that goes well beyond two authors of a paper. Both authors are fairly young, and they were just doing what they were trained to do, and had no real thought for public or practical implications of their work. And one of the things that Francesca Minerva, in particular, has repeatedly said is that they were only writing for academics and that academics wouldn't have taken offense at the paper. I think she has unconsciously put her finger on the problem with modern bioethics: it's a relatively closed world, a bubble whose membrane is only semipermeable, in which people feel that they have the right to discuss ethical matters of profound public concern without any regard for the actual public whose concern it is. In the academic bubble you can chat in a seminar room about how killing disabled babies is permissible as an abstract principle; in the public arena no one can evade the notion that abstract principles have concrete effects, and in the public arena making the same argument is to classify yourself with some really nasty people as an enemy of humanity. And to some extent it really doesn't matter whether you think the public is right about this; you don't have to go all the way with Hume (I don't) to see that he has a key point here, which is that ethics cannot be discussed in a bubble shielded away from the general opinion of mankind, and that the Savulescus of the world, continually lecturing the public at large (as Savulescu, clueless as ever, is still lecturing everyone by means of Twitter) on the superiority of reasoned argument over abuse (despite being abusive himself and not putting forward much reasoned argument himself), have missed the point with their illiberal attempts to put the peasants in their proper place. Reasoned argument is generally superior to abusive rhetoric as a means of opposition, although it is worth noting that nobody, and I mean nobody, actually acts in such a way as to treat it as always superior. But setting aside the fact that the two can overlap, it is still true that when, in talking about ethical matters, you have touched the sort of nerve that leads to widespread abusive rhetoric, you should sit up and pay attention, because the mere fact that people are giving no distinct explanations, no precise articulations, no arguments laid out according to academic conventions, doesn't mean that they don't have a genuine point. It is too strong to say, with Hume, that such things are infallible; but it is certainly true that they should be taken seriously. And, more than that, that you can't discuss ethical matters as if they didn't have to be taken seriously. Ethics is not exclusively public, but it is public; you have to take into account the concerns of the public; if nothing else, this is the only way in which you can discuss matters of serious public interest while respecting the autonomy of all the people who stand any remote chance of being affected by the sort of thinking you are putting forward. This is a fault with the ethics community at large, and with the bioethics community in particular: professing to speak on matters of general interest to mankind, they shut out the general opinion of mankind as if it were something to be looked down on or ignored. One problem with this, of course, which we see here, is that the public doesn't actually have to put up with this behavior.

ADDED LATER: There's some discussion of this going on at Google's Australian version of this site ( Comments there don't show up at the primary site (


  1. alqpr1:29 AM

    Well put! I don't know the principals and haven't read the paper, so maybe I shouldn't have an opinion, but the whole thing does look like attention-grabbing to me. And I think that there is a serious moral question as to whether it is ethical to put forward difficult issues and "dangerous ideas" in a way that is more likely to inflame passions than to inform discussion.

  2. branemrys9:52 AM

    I'm inclined to take the authors seriously when they say they were just trying to contribute to a local and abstract discussion; and, if they did happen to be attention-seeking, I think they've probably learned their lesson. But you've grasped my meaning quite well: it's mostly a problem of the ethics of how ethicists deal with matters of intense public concern. I think the issue mostly highlights the more general fact that bioethicists in particular, and perhaps at least many ethicists generally, arrogate to themselves the right to talk about ethical matters however they please without even considering the moral concerns of others about how they are proceeding; it just happens that these two, by their bad luck, ended up being the ones who weren't able to get away with it.


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