Infanticide, William Dembski and Stephen Pinker

Yesterday my wife, my son and I watched a lot (but not all) of the debate between William Dembski and Christopher Hitchens at PrestonWood Christian Academy in the USA.  Like all these debates it was rather unsatisfactory with neither speaker really responding to the other’s arguments and both making fairly obvious logical errors.  This is quite understandable when speaking live in front of a live audience and is a weakness of the format not the speakers.


But I want to pick up on one thing that Dembski said.  I don’t remember the exact words but it was to the effect that:


“Stephen Pinker justified infanticide by explaining that according to evolutionary theory it was good for the survival of the species”


As soon as Dembski said it we all three simultaneously exclaimed that Stephen Pinker almost certainly did not say that.  I don’t know which article Dembski was referring to – but a few seconds Googling produced this which presumably expresses Pinker’s views on the subject and might well have been the article Dembski was thinking of.  And, yes, of course it says no such thing.

This paragraph sums up what he says:


Killing a baby is an immoral act, and we often express our outrage at the immoral by calling it a sickness. But normal human motives are not always moral, and neonaticide does not have to be a product of malfunctioning neural circuitry or a dysfunctional upbringing. We can try to understand what would lead a mother to kill her newborn, remembering that to understand is not necessarily to forgive.


The article then goes on to examine some of the reasons why women sometimes kill their newborns and how those motives might have evolved.  At no point does it argue that killing newborns is therefore legitimate.


This a rather obvious example of a very common fallacy.  It confuses the cause of our moral decisions and judgements with the justification. We all make decisions that have moral implications.  Our assessments as to what is right and wrong and our success in doing what we believe to be right are a function of our individual psychology which is in turn a function of our genetic make up and our environment.  My liberal middle class Western European upbringing certainly influences my attitude to a wide range of issues including abortion, the environment, and the welfare state.  But, it doesn’t justify my attitude.


There is a separate discussion as to whether there is some universal objective justification that we can all refer to.  I don’t believe there is.  I have argued elsewhere that doesn’t mean that our moral judgements are trivial or cannot be backed up by strong arguments.  But in any case this should not be confused with the evolutionary and psychology causes of those judgements.


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