Monday, November 22, 2010

An Open Letter In Response to Stephen H. Unger’s Essay “Unwanted Newborns: A Painful Problem”

Dear Steve,

Your “Ends and Means” essays are always worth reading, and I appreciate being on your email list. I value the experience of being on the IEEE Society on Social Implications of Technology board with you for a time, and it has been a privilege to know one of the founding fathers of engineering ethics. It is with that same sense of collegiality and fair discussion which we shared in SSIT board meetings that I undertake to disagree with you regarding your latest essay, “Unwanted Newborns: A Painful Problem.”

I will first try to restate your argument as accurately as I can. Your analysis is basically an exercise in utilitarian ethics, and its underlying premise is that actions are to be judged according to whether they accrue to the greater happiness of people, and by the same token, whether they result in less unhappiness. Another premise is your definition of who counts as a person. In previous essays you have put forward the idea that murder is wrong mainly because it makes people afraid of being murdered, which is, among other things, a type of unhappiness. You draw upon this notion to examine the case of newborn babies who for various reasons (handicaps, disabilities, the unfitness or unwillingness of the mother) are not desired by their parents and are a potential burden on society. Because newborn babies give no evidence of fearing or even understanding death, you conclude that they cannot be subject to such fear. They are therefore exempt from the main reason you have previously put forward to justify society’s no-murder rule. You conclude that the government (or society) should defer to the persons most concerned—namely, the parents—in the case of unwanted newborns, and if the parents decide to kill the child (either actively by execution or passively by withholding treatment, medication, or food), your ethical reasoning tells you that such an act is not wrong, as difficult as it might be for all concerned.

Steve, if I agreed with your premises, I would have to agree with your conclusion because it follows logically from your premises. But your premises are mistaken. Here is how.

Your major misstep is to exclude newborn babies from the category of those with a right to life for the reason that they cannot (apparently) conceive of or fear death. This is in contrast to the approach favored by many right-to-life groups and individuals (including myself), which is to confer the right to life upon any biological entity that can be shown to be a human being at any stage of development or consequent stage of life. The latter criterion includes everyone from a just-fertilized human ovum all the way to a 100-year-old man in a persistent vegetative state.

There are important differences between these two criteria.

Your criterion is based on a behavior, or rather, the lack of a specific insight on the part of the baby which we deduce from the baby’s behavior: namely, the knowledge and fear of death. My criterion is based on physical evidence that can be easily and scientifically verified, e. g. by a DNA test to show whether the being in question is a member of the species Homo sapiens. This criterion essentially says, “If it is alive, and if it is human, then it qualifies as a person.” I think you will admit that applying my criterion is a fairly simple and straightforward matter that in most cases can be done by inspection.

But what about your criterion? Exactly when does a baby reach the age at which it can understand and fear death? Moreover, does this fear have to be active, or merely a potential fear? And how do you know whether it is present or not in any given individual? Must we develop an “awareness-of-death inventory” and administer it before legitimately taking a newborn child’s life? We are talking about an extremely serious matter here—the qualifications for membership in the rights-endowed human race—and it will not do to make unverified assumptions or generalizations. I hope you will not accuse me of undue levity if I say that I have known some teenagers who, at least by their behavior, showed no evidence whatever of the fear of death. Should they therefore be disqualified from membership in the category of humans, allowing us to kill them at will? Handicapped infants are not the only beings who can become a burden to their parents.

I find it ironic that you, who make no secret of your Jewish heritage, nevertheless contrast your position with that of the Nazi regime, which engaged in the killing of innocent human beings on a mass-production scale. I disagree when you say that adopting your idea to exclude newborns from the right to life will not lead to a slippery slope downward toward another Holocaust. Both you and the Nazi regime have already taken the first step: namely, the act of dehumanizing someone who most people would normally regard as a person.

If you study the memoirs of former concentration-camp guards, you will find that their need to view the prisoners as cattle, vermin, raw material for soap—anything other than a fellow human being—was critical to the guards’ ability to continue the heinous work in which they were engaged. Once they admitted to themselves that the naked, trembling body before them embodied a soul just like theirs, the game was over, and there was nothing left to them but suicide, desertion, or insanity.

Once you make membership in the human race dependent on any manifested ability and not on objective physical facts, you have crossed a critical line, and the rest is merely details. Whether you specify the ability to fear death, or to say “Heil Hitler” or “Hail, Caesar,” or integrate sin(x) dx, or anything else, you have fundamentally changed the category of qualification from that of physical nature to that of performance or behavior. To qualify as human, one must not simply be human, one must do something that is regarded as characteristic of humans. Exactly what activity is used as a criterion is secondary.

Even if you and I were to agree that a performance-based qualification for human rights should be adopted, the one you choose is problematic in the extreme. You cannot prove that babies do not fear death in the same way that I can prove by a DNA test that a baby is human. The idea that babies do not fear death is a speculative conclusion based on the lack of evidence to the contrary. And as most scientists would agree, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. While newborn babies cannot talk and therefore cannot communicate the essence of their experiences to us, no one except newborns has any idea of what it is like to be a newborn, any more than I have an idea of exactly what it is like to be a wombat or a gerbil. Who knows but what any unpleasant experience, from hunger to the sight of an unfamiliar face, is more terrifying to an infant than facing a firing squad is for an adult? Certainly some babies scream as though it is.

Your failure to follow out some of the implications of your logic leads you to make some unguarded statements that, on examination, turn out to be little more than hopeful wishes rather than reasonable bases upon which to erect a system of ethics. For example, in discussing your principle that murder is to be avoided because it causes the fear of death in others, you write, “Nobody should have valid cause to worry that they might at some time in the immediate, or even remote, future be deprived of their lives.” You probably had in mind an unwritten supporting clause, namely, “deprived, that is, by the intentional actions of others.” But Steve, every one of us has valid cause to worry that we might at some time in the future be deprived of our lives. So far, the death rate among humans is 100%. The art of living consists largely in resisting the despair that continued contemplation of our deaths will induce. And there are two main ways to fight this despair.

One way is to philosophize. And philosophizing is anything but an exact science. One reason that different philosophers reach such a variety of conclusions about any given moral issue is that they begin with different assumptions. And while many given philosophical systems can be made internally consistent, each must begin from assumptions that can only be granted or denied, not argued about logically unless the participants share a deeper basis of assumptions on which their argument is based.

There are many moral philosophies that deny it is permissible to kill newborns. The fact that your particular line of reasoning concludes the opposite simply expresses the fact that you have chosen a different set of assumptions than other moral philosophers have. But having chosen those assumptions, you can go on about the business of life knowing that you have at least made an effort to be logically consistent. And until death puts an end to all philosophizing, your philosophy can provide you with a guide to moral action.

The other way humanity has found to combat the despair of the contemplation of death is through religion. You mention religion, or rather “religions” toward the end of your essay, but after admitting that most world religions do not condone “neonaticide,” you say that because we in the U. S. live in a pluralistic society, religious scruples about killing newborns should not be imposed on those who do not subscribe to them. So your ultimate response to religious arguments against killing newborns is to claim political immunity from such proscriptions.

How did it come about that you live in a society which respects your right to dissent from the beliefs of a religious majority? The founders of the United States wisely saw that a coerced religion is really no religion at all. They valued religion too much to make it compulsory. They left citizens responsible only to God, or their own consciences, with regard to religious belief, and prohibited the governmental establishment of religion, as well as any law preventing the free exercise thereof. Why they did so is a matter of some historical complexity, but an important contributing factor was the then relatively new idea in Protestant Christianity that faith in God was a matter for individual inquiry and decision, rather than a government-imposed requirement.

By contrast, history shows that governments based on an explicitly atheistic philosophy have no compunction about defining humanity in almost arbitrary ways, and in terminating those whose right to life has been revoked by their failure to meet certain requirements for behavior, or descent, or income level, or almost anything else you care to name. In adopting a policy such as the one you urge, the U. S. government would be endorsing the idea that personhood depends on an aspect of intellectual capacity, not on the simple fact of being human. Of course, the Roe v. Wade decision arbitrarily deprived millions of unborn children of the right to life, but the fact that opposition to that decision and its consequences is as strong now as it was thirty years ago shows that many U. S. citizens disagree with the arbitrary removal of the right to life simply because the life in question is inconvenient or painful for others.

Steve, I value my memories of the many times that you spoke your mind regardless of the consequences, and made a positive difference in the way engineering ethics is discussed, debated, and practiced. It saddens me to see you apply your great abilities to a moral problem and come out on the wrong side. While I do not have much hope that my words will persuade you to change your position, I would like to think that my respectful opposition to it is in the same honorable tradition that you yourself have established.

Yours sincerely,

Karl Stephan

Sources: Stephen H. Unger, Professor Emeritus of computer science and electrical engineering at Columbia University and author of Controlling Technology (1982), one of the earliest engineering ethics textbooks, posts his “Ends and Means” essays at, where his latest essay “Unwanted Babies: A Painful Problem” can be found.


  1. [Bad english expressions;excuse me]
    Dear Karl Stephan,

    This open letter about Infants right to Life, and Stephen Unger position about it, has been of a great reflexion to me and reinforces the high respect that I have to your job as an Engineering Ethics authority (excuse my poor english)

    I completely agree on your arguments,specially on the physical human identity as the only valid criteria for qualifying as a human being. I have just started on reading those articles of Mr. Unger and found unaccurate his analysis of fear of death as a distictive point in personhood. I think that, by living now in a country with one of the highest rates on intentional homicide -Venezuela-, our common experience on violence episodies and well known to us persons being killed every year, strikes us not only on the fear of being murdered ourselves, but on two other pains that Mr. Unger doesn't consider. One is the pain for the individual person's departure. The other is the pain of knowing such a degradation on humanity being carried among us. Cruel killing of violators happens almost every time one of them crosses inner gates of Venezuelan prisons, sometimes with mutilations and more than 60 shots. It hardly can happen to me. But it hurts me in my dignity because they are human beings. Same happens with Newborns and Fetus. Being murdered hurts our human dignity and threats our ethics foundations as a society.

    Thank you very much for this and many other articles.

  2. I understand and accept your position regarding the right to life of a fetus, however I would like to point out that there are other logic-based identifiers of what it is to be "human." Obviously, it is necessary to begin with DNA - but while necessary, is it sufficient? My answer would be "no."

    One example: hypocephalic infants have no brain, although they may have a complete brain stem.

    A second: a large proportion of conceptions result in spontaneous miscarriages during the first month (some estimates are as high as 60%). It is a primary cause of "late" menstrual periods and is usually a result of the ovum failing to adhere to the uterine wall, or failing to penetrate it sufficiently.

    A third: there is a type of mis-development of a fetus (the name escapes me at the moment) where tissues and organs grow almost randomly, producing an object that is genetically (but by no other definition) human.

    Again, in circumstances of brain death where the brain function has clearly ceased (myths to the contrary notwithstanding) the person has already died, regardless of whether or not the body continues metabolic function.

    If a genetically human thing has _no_ brain function, it is not a person. Understand that this is a pass/fail test, not a point on a continuum. I have known many wonderful people with brain disfunctions of many kinds (and some annoying ones as well), and in any circumstance where there is any doubt the balance must be "presumed a person." But there _are_ circumstances where there is no doubt.

    There is no doubt with ordinary infants, either: they are people. In fact, they are not only persons, they have personalities - as anyone who has spent time with more than one can attest.