the slightly more slippery slope

By Diogenes (articles ) | Jul 10, 2005

The competition was stiff today (see the posts below), but my vote for journalistic Souteneur du Jour goes to Jim Holt for his entirely contemptible article on infanticide in the New York Times Magazine. After the usual pseudo-historical softening-up barrage ("infanticide ... has been common throughout most of human history") we get a sham effort to examine both sides of the issue, in which science -- The New England Journal of Medicine -- carries the ball for the pro-infanticide position, and politics -- the Reagan administration -- for the traditional one. Here are Holt's concluding paragraphs:

The debate over infant euthanasia is usually framed as a collision between two values: sanctity of life and quality of life. Judgments about the latter, of course, are notoriously subjective and can lead you down a slippery slope. But shifting the emphasis to suffering changes the terms of the debate. To keep alive an infant whose short life expectancy will be dominated by pain -- pain that it can neither bear nor comprehend -- is, it might be argued, to do that infant a continuous injury.

Our sense of what constitutes moral progress is a matter partly of reason and partly of sentiment. On the reason side, the Groningen protocol may seem progressive because it refuses to countenance the prolonging of an infant's suffering merely to satisfy a dubious distinction between 'killing' and 'letting nature take its course.' It insists on unflinching honesty about a practice that is often shrouded in casuistry in the United States. Moral sentiments, though, have an inertia that sometimes resists the force of moral reasons. Just quote Verhagen's description of the medically induced infant deaths over which he has presided -- 'it's beautiful in a way. ... It is after they die that you see them relaxed for the first time' -- and even the most spirited dinner-table debate over moral progress will, for a moment, fall silent.

Got that? Moral sentiments -- mere emotions -- have inertia. Like unwanted elderly patients, they linger. They linger to give us that uneasy feeling that makes us reluctant to murder the innocent, even when it yields a net gain. Reason, on the other hand, bolstered by "unflinching honesty," sides with infant euthanasia.

Do not fail to notice Holt's sneer at what he calls "a dubious distinction between 'killing' and 'letting nature take its course.'" Far from being dubious, scrutiny of and judgment concerning the ends (goals, purposes) of the moral agent -- by means of which killing and letting die are seen as two radically distinct human acts -- is indispensable to the project of moral evaluation in the first place. Once you've dropped that distinction you're no longer talking about what's right or wrong, but only what you can get away with. As is the case with most of his profession, Holt will you get away with a lot.

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  • Posted by: - Jul. 11, 2005 11:29 AM ET USA

    Happy feastday, Benedictusoblatus! In secular Western societies, most health-care professionals won't openly discuss "supernatural truths like Original Sin and the Redemption". Also, there is no longer a consensus that Original Sin and the Redemption are truths. Many people (even me, who, intellectually at least, should know better — but my faith is fragile) find it hard to profit from suffering. In such cases, I think that preventing suffering is akin to avoiding the near occasion of sin.

  • Posted by: - Jul. 11, 2005 9:28 AM ET USA

    Human suffering is truly a mystery, but a beginning can be made to understanding it when discussion of supernatural truths like Original Sin and the Redemption is allowed. Without these ideas, the suffering of little babies (or any loved one) is insupportable; death itself is a cause of despair. Ample means to alleviate pain exist in modern medicine's arsenal. Doctors need to concern themselves with alleviating pain and not relieving suffering people of their lives.

  • Posted by: Fr. William - Jul. 10, 2005 9:01 PM ET USA

    Great points, once again, Diogenes. Do you think that one of the bishops in the USA will respond to this evil from Jim "lovin'-the-modern-day holocaust" Holt and the NYT, and their attempt to actually promote infanticide? Maybe there's a bishop out there who is willing to bring the New Evangelization into the lair of the Beast at the NYT... and write the Truth in an essay to the NYT... a millennial bishop willing to show Holy Boldness... Saint Josemaria Escriva, pray for us.

  • Posted by: - Jul. 10, 2005 8:47 PM ET USA

    G.K. Chesterton wrote an excellent essay on the moral distinction between suicide and martyrdom. The Church considers suicide as a grave sin, but she praises and canonizes martyrs. So what's the difference between voluntarily letting someone take your own life and taking it yourself? The difference is, WHO does the killing. In this case, either nature or a human can do the killing, and these people can't see the distinction. The end justifies the means.

  • Posted by: - Jul. 10, 2005 8:39 PM ET USA

    Logically and compassionately, Holt offers his cocktail party "solution" to one of the more nagging examples of the existential dilemma: justification of pain -- his, that is, not the infant's.

  • Posted by: - Jul. 10, 2005 7:06 PM ET USA

    Of course the same inhuman process of rationalization can be applied to end-of-life issues. What's so bad about just helping a terminally ill person end his suffering? Quality of life = slippery slope. Ending suffering = non-slippery slope. And who gets to decide when "ending suffering" justifies the death sentence? Why some "caring" professional with a bunch of letters after his/her name, of course. All done in an antiseptic, "compassionate" environment -- without a trial.

  • Posted by: Gil125 - Jul. 10, 2005 4:56 PM ET USA

    Diogenes, first please explain to me what you think the New York Times has to do with morality. You'd expect them to take the moral stance?

  • Posted by: John J Plick - Jul. 10, 2005 12:26 PM ET USA

    Unfortunately, Diogenes, this is a moment for the bishops... But one does tend to get that "General Custer" feeling at the battle of Little Big Horn. Where are they... and what are they waiting for? Waiting, no doubt, for us to get like Canada or the the Netherlands... then they'll start getting tough... and then we, a desperate Catholic remnant in the United States can praise them for how "courageous" they are. "Open your eyes!" "Carpe Diem!" and NOW, before you lose it!