Thursday, March 01, 2012

On Savulescu's Response in the JME Controversy

There has been a recent dust-up over this article in the Journal of Medical Ethics arguing that infanticide is acceptable, and, indeed, is acceptable under any circumstances under which abortion would be acceptable. Since people in general, and possibly especially Americans, don't like the idea of medical ethicists advocating the killing of babies, and the abstract for the paper is actually pretty blunt about it, as soon as people started becoming aware of it they began to make their displeasure felt.

The JME then published on its blog a response by Julian Savulescu, which I find remarkable for its utter weakness. Savulescu says:

The Journal does not specifically support substantive moral views, ideologies, theories, dogmas or moral outlooks, over others. It supports sound rational argument. Moreover, it supports freedom of ethical expression. The Journal welcomes reasoned coherent responses to After-Birth Abortion. Or indeed on any topic relevant to medical ethics.

This is not even a coherent claim. If the Journal doesn't "specifically support substantive moral views, ideologies, theories, dogmas or moral outlooks, over others" it can't "support" freedom of ethical expression, because the support of freedom of ethical expression a substantive moral view. And, indeed, the argument with which Savulescu ends his comment, in which he tries to suggest that all the critics are really the ones at moral fault, gives away the store by making the Journal's decision depend on some rather substantive moral assumptions. But more than that, this is not a claim that could even be made coherent. It is true that publishing an article advocating infanticide does not mean that the Journal is saying that infanticide is morally permissible; but it does mean that the Journal is saying that advocacy of infanticide is morally permissible, and that arguments advocating infanticide, if they meet certain criteria incidental to actual content, may permissibly be given the additional credibility that comes with being published in an academic journal. This is one of the things that gets people's hackles up, though.

When he gets to the end, though, his argument turns from weak defense to near self-parody. It's not the implicature of the Journal's publishing such an article that is the problem, Savulescu says, it's everybody taking offense at the idea that killing babies is a morally acceptable topic for medical ethicists to treat seriously. Those people are "fanatics," those are the people who are indicative of a deep moral disorder in the world. Why? Because opposing the legitimacy of infanticide as a topic for a medical ethics journal is opposed to the values of a liberal society. One has to wonder who Savulescu thinks such an argument could possibly persuade; surely he sees that he has just conceded what many of the hate-mailers had been saying, that the Journal gives arguments a higher moral value than the morally protected status of babies?

And no one is going to be taken in by it, anyway. What Savulescu has just assured us -- quite explicitly -- is that as far as the JME is concerned every topic is up for grabs as long as it meets certain criteria that don't address content. The JME, in the interests of "rational engagement", would, Savulescu has just assured us, gladly publish arguments for the mass euthanizing of Jews or the sterilization of blacks as long as they were clever arguments based on "widely shared premises." Surely he has to have seen that this sort of argument isn't helping his case, nor does it actually put him and the other editors on the moral high ground, nor does it obviously make them champions of liberal values -- which Savulescu has, again, already said that the Journal does not support anyway, since it supports no substantive moral outlooks over any others.

I don't have a huge problem with the article itself; one has to put up with a lot of such nonsense masquerading as reasoned argument if you're an academic, and the discernment and prudence of editors are, while not completely missing, very, very fallible. But I do find myself rather annoyed that the editor of a major ethics journal could think he could get away with such a tin-eared and poorly reasoned defense. This argument is a genuinely incompetent patchwork.

(I actually kind of wonder if Savulescu is simply going out on his own in the defense, or if the editors for the JME actually selected him to speak for them, because with his background -- he has argued in other contexts that killing is justified as long as potential victims are more likely to receive certain kinds of benefits because of it, and also argued that some laws preventing eugenics are too liberal and that the human race needs to practice eugenics more assertively to survive -- he is simply not the right person to be the public face of the Journal of Medical Ethics on this particular topic, and his being so raises the real risk of this blowing up even bigger than it is.)

Another of the editors, the one actually responsible for the decision, shows up in the comments and gives a less objectionable -- certainly a more competent response. He also manages to punt on every single ethical issue that could be raised about the legitimacy of topics, though, by simply appealing to peer review; and as some of the commenters go on to point out, "peer review" is not really an ethical justification at all, nor does it shield the Journal from any ethical criticisms about the decision to publish, nor does it give the Journal any immunity from ethical blowback from the community at large.

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