Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

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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