Over at the Chronicle of Higher Education, Tom Bartlett links to Peter Singer’s take to the controversy over a recent paper arguing for the ethical acceptability of infanticide. While Singer doesn’t offer anything terribly new or shocking (by his standards) in the way of moral argument, he does disgorge an interesting lament:
I expect that it is because the authors saw their article as a contribution to a discussion that goes back 40 years, that they [the paper's authors] were taken aback by the virulence of the reaction to it, and especially by the death threats they received. Of course, 40 years ago no articles were published online, and there were no pro-life Web sites, so since that time it has become much easier to stir up opposition to articles published in academic journals.
The moral status of newborn infants is a real issue, and it is proper for academic journals to publish articles that, like this one, discuss it in a serious and well-reasoned manner. People who wish to defend the traditional view of the sanctity of all human life should respond to the authors’ arguments, not by mere abuse. And it is ironic that some seek to “defend” the sanctity of human life by threatening to kill those who question it!
That last point, of course, is worth emphasizing, although few in the pro-life movement would disagree with it–the movement has been an almost entirely peaceful force working through prayer, argument, and cultural engagement . The few thuggish outbursts that have cropped up have come from ‘lone wolf’ individuals, and have been roundly condemned by the mainstream pro-life movement.
Nevertheless, what’s surprising about Singer’s response is not necessarily his position on infanticide (which, at this point, is well known), but the academic insularity it exudes. He appears to be genuinely bothered that a paper arguing there should be no ethical taboo against killing a newborn baby is fomenting “virulence” among the general public. If only the grown-ups who run academic journals were left alone to “discuss it in a serious and well-reasoned manner,” why, the controversy would be practically nonexistent.
These are standard academic tactics. And it must be admitted that this a perfectly valid defense mechanism in many circumstances–in fact, it cuts to the heart of a university’s very existence. If a certain critical distance cannot be achieved from the heated political and cultural issues du jour, education cannot truly occur. We need people and places where dispassionate assessment is a way of life. But this kind of distancing becomes problematic–even deceptive and malicious–when it’s deployed as a buffer against all comers, or used to shield truly insidious arguments from basic moral evaluation.
When proceduralism and the value of “discussion” triumphs over an ultimate concern for truth, these sometimes-noble words become small, bureaucratic dithering unconnected to reality, and drawing any kind of boundary becomes impossible. Thus even literal baby-killing, a surreal Swiftean punchline to common folk, becomes another legitimate possible “contribution.”
As noted before (here and elsewhere), the ethicists who published this paper are not members of any parliament or court, and no one expects the immanent legalization of infanticide. If anything, the attention the paper is attracting puts supporters of legalized abortion on the defensive by challenging their underlying rationale and highlighting the difficulty of classifying life as worthy or unworthy of protection. But what is at stake, at least right now, is a challenge about the validity of discourse. “Agenda-setting” is a term which refers to the media’s real power, and, in this case, it’s the academy’s prerogative, too. In 2006, a Harvard president was pushed out for statements that contained the vaguest whiffs of sexism. The president of Iran is no longer welcome to “engage” with Columbia’s campus. So why do some of the gatekeepers of academic discourse (Peter Singer, but also the editor of the journal, who has defended publishing the piece in much the same language) feel compelled to passively endorse this argument by granting it a much-coveted admission ticket to the hallowed hall of legitimacy?