Some Responses to Giubilini and Minerva

I did mention last week that I’d post links to sites that mentioned Giubilini and Minerva’s paper as they crossed my radar; but it turned out very quickly that there’d be no way to keep up.  And, to be frank, a lot of the blogosphere’s response has been fairly scattergun outrage rather than dispassionate engagement with the paper, and directed at Giubilini and Minerva themselves rather than at the argument they put forward.  There’s been much more heat than light.

This is perhaps unsurprising, as considered responses are almost certainly going to take a while to materialise.  However, they have begun to appear.  Here’s the first that I’ve spotted; I’ll post links to more in this thread as and when.  And if any readers have responses on or SSRN that they’d like mentioning, or if anyone spots anything of interest, do let me know.

Charles C. Camosy (Assistant Professor of Theology,Fordham University, New York City): “Concern for our Vulnerable Prenatal and Neonatal Children: A Brief Reply to Giubilini and Minerva” via Practical Ethics.

Andrew McGee (Faculty of Law, Queensland University of Technology): “There’s no Good Argument for Infanticide” also via Practical Ethics.

Michele Loi (Università Vita-Salute San Raffaele): “After-birth Abortion: Why Should the Baby Not Live?” via

Ezio Di Nucci (Universität Duisburg-Essen): “Killing Foetuses and Killing Newborns” available here.


Some more links – this time a little more supportive of the paper’s publication:

Tauriq Moosa comments here, here, and here.

Peter Singer comments in this interview in the Chronicle of Higher Education.


Kenan Malik considers the paper and its reception here.

  • ezio

    here is another response:

    you may add it to the list, if you like.


  • Ta!

  • David Gillon

    ” And, to be frank, a lot of the blogosphere’s response has been fairly
    scattergun outrage rather than dispassionate engagement with the paper,
    and directed at Giubilini and Minerva themselves rather than at the
    argument they put forward.  There’s been much more heat than light.”

    If you only focus on the dispassionate replies, then how will you ever understand why people outside the bio-ethicist community have been so offended by the paper? I think that ultimately I'm more disturbed by the refusal to try and understand why disabled people are terrified by the arguments than by the paper itself, because that points to a problem in how we are regarded that stretches across the entire bio-ethics community, rather than simply facing the existence of a couple of researchers with deeply unpleasant views about my inherent worth. There are legitimate concerns here that stretch beyond the paper itself and it seems that the bio-ethicist community isn't interested in the consequences of their arguments for other people, never mind that we feel actively endangered by the arguments being made. Isn't that a cause for concern? Isn't that cause for being something more than simply dispassionate?

    My less than completely dispassionate response, for what it's worth: http://davidg-flatout.blogspot

  • Steve Petersen

    I suspect that the reason they only focus on the
    dispassionate replies is because they are not interested in replies from
    elsewhere, particularly as those other responses are uniformly negative, or “fairly
     scattergun outrage,” as the euphemism reads.

  • It makes sense to focus on the dispassionate replies because it’s hard properly to engage with the enraged ones.  I’d wager that comparatively few of the comments in the Massive Thread had actually read the paper; and a good number of the responses fused the content of the paper, the fact that it was published at all, and Julian’s manner of defending the publication.  They’re three radically different things.

    Moreover, it’s not enough simply to point out that some people were offended.  What’s required is some kind of analysis of whether that offence was warranted, and what difference that ought to make to conduct.

  • There’s no problem with negative comments – if, by that, you mean rebuttals.  The problem arises in relation to knowing what to do with responses that don’t really engage with the paper, based on what could be at best a cursory reading.  And there’s been a fair few of them,

    There’ve been some more disinterested comments – both in defence of G&M’s position, and attacking it (their position, mark – not them: an important difference).  But based on private conversations I’ve had, there is also a significant number of people who have not contributed to the threads here because (a) they don’t think it the right plance, and (b) it’s really not worth the effort given the disengagement of some commenters.

  • Steve Petersen

    If it is true that the problem, as you see it, arises in
    relation to knowing what to do with responses that don’t really engage with the
    paper (based on what could be at best a cursory reading), if you had reflected
    – at least momentarily – upon what response you might receive from publishing a
    paper that endorses murder, you may have been able to avoid this distraction.

  • But the point is that, though some reactions are measured, disinterested and parsimonious, that’s just one end of a spectrum – at the other end of which is a number of responses that rely on an active imagination or outright misunderstanding. The closer a response to that end of the spectrum, the harder it is to know how to address it.

    A couple of other things. First, the decision to publish had nowt to do with me. Second, it’d be intellectually indefensible to refuse to publish a paper simply because of the expected response.

  • Steve Petersen

    “… A couple of other things. First, the decision to publish had nowt to do with me …”
    You are, however, actively defending the decision to publish a paper endorsing murder.

    “… Second, it’d be intellectually indefensible to refuse to publish a paper simply because of the expected response …”
    You are mistaken. Such activity is obviously correct when the publication is disadvantageous. Endorsing murder is disadvantageous.

  • I’m prepared to defend the publication of a paper that examines even the trickiest issues in a dispassionate way, yes. What’s your alternative?

    I’ve got no idea at all what you’re yammering on about in your second point, though.

  • BellaDonna70

    You’re just wasting your time with Ian over here as I have been over in the paper’s comment secion. His bread is buttered through the auspices of the BMJ, the ultimate publisher if the paper.

    His purpose seems to be to defend the publication whatever the product.

  • One of the points of an ethics paper is to test ideas of what is indefensible, so pointing out that the conclusion is indefensible begs the question against its proponent. That a conclusion is contrary to moral expectations is not, in itself, a reason not to publish it.

    Now, I don’t see it as calling for anyone’s extermination – rather, simply as looking at the moral status of the neonate in comparison to the foetus. It happens to reach the conclusion that there’s no particular reason to preserve the life of the neonate if we would not preserve the life of the foetus.

    I’m deliberately trying not to express a view on whether or not I agree with the conclusion, and at what point (if any) I depart from the line of reasoning. Either way, I think it’s the line of reasoning that matters. A paper is only as good as the reasoning it displays.

    And this might help meet your challenge about publishing papers about killing gay people or whatever ethnic group a person happens to dislike: the difference has to do with a kind of appeal to Bayesian priors. The general context of the argument in the paper is one in which it is not unusual to accept the killing of a foetus for all manner of reasons; the extension here is to throw into relief the idea that having been born is nothing more than a matter of geography, and not morally relevant in itself.

    What is important for G&M – and it’s not an unconventional view – is personhood, which no newborn has. (Disability is not central to the concerns of the paper, as I read it.) But if personhood carries the weight, then any creature that is a person, regardless of size, shape. physical ability, species, or anything else would matter. So, although their conclusion might be surprising or unconventional, their priors are pretty straightforward.

    In respect of killing people for being gay or of a particular ethnic group, then the background is so extreme that – at the most charitable – you’d have to do one hell of a lot of arguing, and it’d have to be completely watertight. I don’t think that it’d be possible to generate a sound argument. Indeed, though perhaps not everyone would agree that personhood is necessary for a right to life, I think that it’s pretty well universally accepted that it’s sufficient, save for some very extreme examples. This makes it even harder to imagine your hypothetical sexuality/ race paper succeeding.

  • I stand by the idea that it’s very hard to see how it would be possible to engage with a response that is not dispassionate. Engaging with a claim, and with its critics, is basically about being sceptical, both about the claim and about one’s own position. Anything else is just shouting; and I’ve got better things to be doing than that.

    I also stand by the claim that it’s not enough simply to report offence. Noting offence may be anthropologically interesting, and may tell us something about the context of moral debate; but it is not, in its own right, morally weighty. Smith is offended; Jones isn’t; Brown is laughing. Ethics does not just report these: it tries to work out what is the proper response, and why. Neither does that amount to saying that anyone needs permission to take offence. It’s just pointing out that offence is, at most, one thing that might provoke debate.

    Nor will appeals to the law carry much weight, as far as I can see. We might hope that the law would be morally informed; but reporting what the law says is – at best – a risky strategy when wondering about what is permissible and what isn’t. Law’s claims are just as scrutable as claims from any other source.

  • David Gillon

    “I stand by the idea that it’s very hard to see how it would be possible to engage with a response that is not dispassionate.”

    G+M have quite literally scared people, you may be able to set the concerns raised aside and insist on dispassionate discourse, those of us who aren’t ethicists, and whose right to equality, and life itself is called into question by the paper, may find it much more difficult. It’s the same problem I had with Professor Boyds certainty disabled people would be able to produce a counter-thesis that would pass peer review for publication in JME – disabled people are being told they only have a right to object to a paper calling their right to life into question if they do it on the ethicists terms. It’s like the scenario at the opening of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, where the humans are told they could have objected to the demolition of Earth, but they would have had to do it at Alpha Centauri.

    “I’ve got better things to be doing”

    Perhaps you do, but the ethics community has ignored this issue for too long, and that is, frankly, unethical (at least as non-ethicists define the term). Ethicists keep arguing disabled people are a lesser form of life, disabled people are understandably put out about that. Shouldn’t the ethicist community be attempting to enter into dialogue with the disability community? Or is our sole role to be your theoretical punchbag?

    “It’s not enough simply to report offence”

    So our opinions don’t matter and can be ridden over roughshod? Again that seems to meet the layman’s definition of unethical behaviour. Every company in this country is required, by law, to have a grievance procedure, and to treat grievances, particularly ones where someone has been offended on equality grounds, seriously. That’s the ethical standard the rest of society operates to in their professional lives, can you explain to me why the ethics community is excused?

    “Neither does that amount to saying that anyone needs permission to take offence.”

    Yet you have just said that taking offence is not worthy of your consideration. If we can’t get the ethicists to acknowledge that we have a right to be offended by what was said, and to expect a response to our concerns, then doesn’t that amount to exactly the same thing in practise?

    “Nor will appeals to the law carry much weight”

    And yet they do in every other aspect of society. Why is ethics immune? Why should non-ethicists consent to ethics being immune from normal standards of behaviour?

    To be frank it seems you’re treating us as lab-rats, and discounting our opinions just as the opinion of rattus rattus might be discounted by a biologist.

    Ultimately, your position seems to be that ethics stands above the law or any normal standard of behaviour, and that if there are negative consequences for people because of what an ethicist says, then they only count if the ethicist says they do.

    I’m beginning to find the ‘ethicist’ label deeply ironic, because it seems that the ethical consequences of your actions are the things you are least interested in.

  • David Gillon

    “Disability is not central to the concerns of the paper, as I read it.”

    But it is specifically used as one of the core examples, and the paper explicitly claims that a quite minor disability devalues a life sufficiently to justify infanticide.

    It doesn’t matter that the paper makes a wider application of the idea, disability is where policy-maker’s minds will be drawn, and where there is the greatest risk of the paper being carried through into implementation. In fact it’s argued it has already been carried through into implementation in the Netherlands.

    “In respect of killing people for being gay or of a particular ethnic group … I don’t think that it’d be possible to generate a sound argument.”

    Yet you think it is possible to generate a sound argument for killing people over  disability. Do you see my problem here?

  • Steve Petersen



    Yes, I see what you mean. Now that you’ve brought that to my
    attention, I finally noticed that Ian’s just the web site employee – of course
    he’ll defend whatever his corporate masters dictate, up to and including
    murdering babies. I don’t know how I missed it earlier!

  • Steve Petersen

    David Gillon,


    While he uses a “lack of personhood” claim here to justify
    killing infants, you should feel honored.
    Ian was presented with the “killing members
    of a group for being members of that group” criticism of the paper in another
    comments area on this ‘scholarly paper’ and he didn’t get around to responding
    to it.

  • That’s not quite the point, though. The argument could stand without using disability as an example, I suppose. But, like it or not, disability is one of the major factors in deciding to terminate a pregnancy; and so if an example is going to be offered about the extension of the principle, it would be the most obvious one to use in this context as well.

    I do see your point; but it seems to speak to a slightly different claim – one that is about foetal life just as much as neonatal life. Fair enough: but in that case, your premises are different from those of the paper.

  • Ha! We agree on something, even if it is only that the Faily Mail is pretty vile.

    That that newspaper is treating the G&M paper in a certain way tells us little, though; and I don’t think that its coverage isn’t nearly as neutral as you indicate. (And, “neutral for the Mail sets the bar quite low…) The first few paragraphs are all shock-horror stuff; the slightly more nuanced part comes much lower down. This is a problem, though, because there’s empirical evidence to show that people very rarely read beyond the first few paragraphs of a newspaper story, and if they do read on, the do so less attentively. (See on this.)

    It’s worth noting, too, that much of the story’s physical space is big photographs rather than actual analysis; and of those photographs, two follow the bog-standard Mail tactic of going “Look! Pretty ladies!”.

  • David Hunter

    FYI Iain isn’t an employee of the JME – he is an employee of the university he works. But nice way to jump to a conclusion. Full disclosure – we get a tiny honorarium for our contribution to the blog, but given that at least in Iain’s case it probably works out at about 1 p per word I doubt it clouds his judgement too much…

  • Two other things worth adding. First, the JME’s editors have no control over what happens on the blog. When it started out four years ago, we were asked to write about articles in the journal now and again, and reminded not to libel anyone, because that’s expensive. Beyond that, there’re no directives that we have to follow.

    Second: this comment-nesting is really annoying. I’ll see what I can do to remedy it.

  • Gee whizz.  A person didn’t get around to providing comments in a blog discussion?  STRING HIM UP!

  • Steve Petersen

    It turns out that both Ian and Dan are paid for their
    efforts here. Needless to say, Dan is fiercely defensive of Ian. See no evil,
    hear no evil!

  • Steve Petersen

    Is this your way of being dispassionate?
    Not only
    have you not responded to the “killing members of a group for being members of
    that group”, you have also dodged the “potentialities” bullet by not responding
    to that also.

  • I will have Dan and Ian fired, just as soon as I find out who they are. Maybe you know something I don’t.

    In the meantime, as is clear from what David and I have said, we do get a (very) small fee for running the blog; but there is no editorial control over what we say, or how often we say it. Blog content is completely under our control.

  • If you mean B70’s potentiality argument, I freely confess that I have no idea what it’s supposed to show. But, since potentiality arguments don’t work even when they’re clearly mounted, I’m not too worried.

    And, let’s face it: it’s a blog, and neither David nor I has any duty to respond to each and every post. We both have proper jobs, with all the teaching, marking, and admin that that entails, and which is (and ought to be) the main call on our time.

  • Ultimately the details of the presentation don’t matter, it’s the fact it’s there at all, in a paper which has already primed its audience over the course of several years to loathe people with disabilities as fakes, frauds and scroungers, at a time when major disability charities are saying that this tide of anti-disability stories in the Mail and the like are directly leading to a massive rise in disability hate crime (Scope’s CEO spoke directly after me when they raised the media and hate-crime story on R4’s lunchtime news show a month or so ago). There are real world consequences to papers like G+M, and when disabled people suffer in the street as a result, forgive me for suggesting it might just be the ethical thing for your profession to address that issue.

  • (It’s impossible to read this board when the nesting gets to deep, so I’m popping this back up to the top level)

    So because my argument can also apply to foetuses I can’t use it to address a call to allow the killing of disabled people after birth?This just seems like yet another way to wriggle out of addressing the ethical dilemmas that arise from ethicists choosing to use a group of real people to illustrate their arguments around personhood. AIUI you have explicitly agreed that disability is not afforded the same protection by the ethics community that is provided to ethnic, sexual or religious groups. Now isn’t that a huge ethical issue in itself? How can any paper on the subject have value, when you haven’t addressed the special pleading that the entire debate revolves around.And when you refuse to address that special pleading with the social group it is being used to condemn, then can’t you see that they might very well feel justified in having serious concerns with the professional ethics of your profession?Medical ethics was used to justify the killing of disabled people under Aktion T4 in one of the worst war crimes of all time, yet the medical ethics community is still using disabled people as its designated punchbag when it comes to debating who really counts as human. It does seem that the lessons of history haven’t just been not learnt, but that the medical ethics community is dancing around with its fingers in its ears singing ‘I can’t hear you’….