Morality of infanticide



The Spartans had a tradition of discarding infants that were physically weak or deformed. When I was younger, I thought this practice is cruel and absolutely immoral. But nowadays I'm not so sure. In particular, I think to some extent, it may be actually merciful in that it spared those individuals living their life in the pain and humiliation of not being able to integrate into the society. After all, what is the point of living a life as a completely useless person no one respects or loves? In Spartan society, that was almost entirely based on one's ability to participate in military activities. Today it's different but there are certain cases where the situation is very much analogous. Is infanticide justifiable in any circumstances?

Daniel Li

Posted 2019-03-03T02:33:54.973

Reputation: 368

1Why would they be useless? Why would no one respect or love them? Why should people be treated like commodities? It's more ethical to refrain from procreating unless you are fully prepared for the worst. – Bread – 2019-03-03T02:44:02.113

Well you can assume a lot of things. But the reality is that certain conditions lead to incredibly hard life full of pain and misery. Why should someone live through this? It has nothing to do with utility etc. but quality of life. Imagine you can't join your peers to battle, can't start a family, etc. – Daniel Li – 2019-03-03T02:55:33.327

I'm not going to champion infanticide, but it is true that things were very, very different in those days. It's easy to talk about refraining from procreating, but did women always have a choice? The very fact that infanticide is such a hard choice makes me think twice before condemning people who practice it. I would like to know a few details and know what their options are before passing judgment. The situation is even dicier when we go farther back in time - say 20,000-100,000 years. – David Blomstrom – 2019-03-03T03:00:06.707

@DavidBlomstrom I'm sorry, but since I assumed it was a man asking about the ethics of infanticide, and since as you have pointed out the choice to procreate is often exclusively that of men -- my advice to refrain was directed at men. But let's assume that the women involved did (as often is the case) have choice in procreation. Then they too should refrain unless fully prepared for the worst. People should not be treated like commodities. Imho. – Bread – 2019-03-03T03:06:47.350

1Also I think it does no harm at all to condemn practices done by people whose names have long been forgotten. And it's perfectly fair to condemn unethical practices that may be currently in vogue. – Bread – 2019-03-03T03:09:27.253

@Daniel Li Life is hard and filled with pain and misery even under the best circumstances. But good people can love and respect everyone equally. People can have intrinsic value regardless of their abilities, and not everyone wants or needs to make war and babies. – Bread – 2019-03-03T03:17:45.223

@Bread - I would argue that global population growth is an argument against procreation, period. When you have a population of seven billion, a lot of people are going to live in misery. And the average modern human probably has far more choice in the matter than our ancestors did. – David Blomstrom – 2019-03-03T03:37:32.727

@Bread I cannot agree with your assessment. Life under best circumstances is beautiful and an absolute bliss whereas the opposite is so ugly and gruesome that most people can't even bear to think about it. And it is not possible for anyone but a saint to love and respect everyone equally and that's why some people receive so little despite living among "good" people. My argument is that it is probably mercy to terminate such a life when it is not yet fully conscious of its misery and is unable to (or on the other hand is forced to) terminate it itself much later. – Daniel Li – 2019-03-03T03:41:44.070

@DavidBlomstrom Of course. I'm just saying it's more ethical to refrain from procreation than to kill babies. – Bread – 2019-03-03T03:47:53.807

@DanielLi Then why speak of ethics? It's erroneous to assume that people don't want to live, in a supportive environment. Allowing them to live is certainly more supportive than killing them or making them feel they don't deserve to live. Hawking accepted the mantle of role model for disabled people, lecturing and participating in fundraising activities. At the turn of the century, he and eleven other luminaries signed the Charter for the Third Millennium on Disability, which called on governments to prevent disability and protect the rights of the disabled. What if he'd chosen to die instead? – Bread – 2019-03-03T03:55:07.120

I agree that one should be responsible to make his own decision of whether to live. After all, purpose of society is not to be merciful. But Hawking is a bad example. He was revered and loved because his brilliance in physics and in this sense he was very much able. Hate to say it but if that is lacking things might be very different. The situation is like an intellectually disabled Spartan soldier who is however fearless on the battlefield--it is not hard to imagine such an individual will be loved and respected by his comrades and thus find happiness and enjoyment of life. – Daniel Li – 2019-03-03T04:21:27.540

1Moral absolutism is largely discredited today, so yes, one can find some exigent circumstances where any moral norm might be (arguably) justifiably overridden. Spartan practice, however, was foolish in the long run, in addition to immoral. They had no way of predicting at birth what sorts of benefits "weakly" infants could bring into their society, and thus deprived themselves of a potential resource for growth. In the end, Sparta failed by the very standard this practice was meant to uphold. It lost the battle of Leuctra to the more imaginative Thebans and was reduced to a second rate city. – Conifold – 2019-03-03T09:00:48.687

1I think that's a bit of a stretch. In the end, one Greek city-state triumphed over all the others, and Alexander the Great embarked on a rampage of conquest and pillage - hardly moral. After which, the Greeks were conquered by the Romans, who were hardly moral themselves. – David Blomstrom – 2019-03-03T09:51:57.067

1If you do not respect other's life, while do you think that other people will respect yours ? On what ground are you certain that your life is not "useless" ? – Mauro ALLEGRANZA – 2019-03-03T10:33:29.990

1@DavidBlomstrom True, but the point is not overall "morality", but rather the utility of this practice, and of the Spartan way of life that begot it, by the Spartan own standard. Sparta failed before Alexander overthrew the board, and made such assessments moot. And neither Athens, nor Macedonia, nor Hellenistic kingdoms, nor even Rome, with its similar military emphasis, reinstituted it. One can not stage experiments on history, but the indirect evidence speaks against its utility. For utilitarians this is enough to condemn it morally. – Conifold – 2019-03-03T10:36:28.133

It's intersting that the spartans did't kill infants, the left them out to die of exposure. Killing them would have angered the gods, so the spartans left it up to them if the child died. This kind of tinkering with natural selection is in the long term, foolish. Diversity is insurance against failure. Lets imagine there's a genetic condition which is unsightly but survivable. And somehow in future provides immunity to a deadly.pathogen. I don't necessarily think infanticide is imoral, but on grounds of genetics, it's very short sighted. – Richard – 2019-03-03T17:46:59.847

@Richard - Again, I'm not arguing in favor of infanticide, but you've got it exactly backward. Natural selection was a "natural" process before the advent of human technology. The Spartans were far more advanced than our distant ancestors and were fully capable of nurturing infants with severe disabilities. The situation is more extreme today, with countless people who couldn't survive without modern medical technology. I don't advocate killing the "unfit" to improve the gene pool, but arguing that we need the unfit to survive is a little strange. It certainly doesn't work that way in Nature. – David Blomstrom – 2019-03-03T20:26:07.780

@DavidBlomstrom Interesting point of view. Killing kids at birth gives them far less chance of surviving naturally than not killing them at birth, I know nature works that way. – Richard – 2019-03-03T21:04:34.880

@Richard - Seriously? I don't know if I'd call that a blatant fallacy or a bald-faced lie. You should study philosophy. – David Blomstrom – 2019-03-03T21:32:34.120



Ethicist Peter Singer defends infanticide in his books Should the Baby Live? and Practical Ethics. The following is an excerpt from an editorial in the Washington Post which quotes Singer's writings directly:

From "Practical Ethics": "Human babies are not born self-aware, or capable of grasping that they exist over time. They are not persons." But animals are self-aware, and therefore, "the life of a newborn is of less value than the life of a pig, a dog, or a chimpanzee."

Accordingly, from "Should the Baby Live?": "It does not seem wise to add to the burden on limited resources by increasing the number of severely disabled children."

Also in that book, Singer and his colleague, Helga Kuhse, suggested that "a period of 28 days after birth might be allowed before an infant is accepted as having the same right to live as others."

In "Practical Ethics," second edition, Singer makes clear that the parents, together with their physicians, have the right to decide whether "the infant's life will be so miserable or so devoid of minimal satisfaction that it would be inhumane or futile to prolong life."

As an example, he speaks of severe forms of spina bifida, which, he says, "can affect as many as one in 500 live births." He adds Down's syndrome, which also is not rare. Parents, by disposing of such infants, still may have a chance to have "another pregnancy, which has a good chance of being normal."

As you may imagine, these ideas are controversial. Christians, for example, have completely different notions of what constitutes a human person and also reject the utilitarian and consequentialist foundations of Singers' ethics. Advocates for the rights of disabled people also fear that Singer's arguments are dehumanizing and reinforce prejudice.

Brian Z

Posted 2019-03-03T02:33:54.973

Reputation: 769

2Maybe it is worth pointing out that Singer is advocating a minority position, even worse: Is almost the only prominent figure in philosophy with this position (which he himself developed). Especially arguing that ethics should orient themselves only at intrinsic properties of individuals without advocating intrinsic values (especially of life itself) is a unique feature of it as far as I am aware of. – Philip Klöcking – 2019-03-03T18:00:51.840

@rs.29 Nonsense, he was born in Melbourne and there is nothing country-specific in his position. – Brian Z – 2019-03-05T00:14:00.303

Dog born in a stable is a horse :D If you really don't care for a population of certain country, you would have no qualms in trying to persuade them to kill their children. It could be completely opposite if you do care for a population of certain country, because they are your blood relatives ;) – rs.29 – 2019-03-05T07:52:52.970


Infanticide, euthanasia, and the intrinsic value of human life

Your question focuses on infanticide but the considerations you advance in its favour show, or so it seems to me, that euthanasia is the real, the major issue here. Your infanticide is only a special case of euthanasia : that of terminating a life in the (supposed) interests of the euthanised because, on the grounds you specify, s/he 'cannot integrate into society' and hence is a 'completely useless person no one respects or loves'.

This is not to say (1) that to regard euthanasia as justifiable in certain circumstances - an issue on which I withhold my opinions - means that one supports infanticide but (2) I can't see how on the basis of your case for infanticide, you can avoid extension of infanticide to all cases of euthanasia where life is terminated for the benefit of the person euthanised on the grounds you specify.

Also, since Spartan infanticide involved no consultation with the children involved, it was involutary infanticide, which translates across to involuntary euthanasia where consent does not apply.

I fully accept that you do not advocate involuntary euthanasia across the board - or possibly, at all. My point is that I do not see how, on the logic of your argument for involuntary infanticide, there is any logically stopping point to prevent your argument's justifying involuntary euthanasia if (IF) on your grounds it justifies involuntary infanticide.

Note that this is not a 'slippery slope' argument. I am not suggesting that one thing will lead to another in the matter of killing other persons. I am deducing the logical implications of your argument - such as I take them to be.

My answer to your question is, then, a hypothetical : infanticide of infants whose lives are 'pointless', who have as some might say no quality of life, is justified if involuntary euthanasia on the grounds of your argument is justified. I said I would keep my own opinions back. I cannot but add, however, that I do not think a person's, an infant's or other's, pain, illness or disability as such makes their life 'pointless'. Nor do I see why they should not be 'respected or loved' and in that sense 'integrated into society'.

This has back of it, I suppose, a view of human life as having intrinsic value - of a human life as being 'pointful', or capable of being so, even in extremely disadvantageous conditions; and as attracting love and respect regardless of pain, illness or disability. What I've said does not logically depend on this view but fits well with it.

Infanticide and the extrinsic value of human life

A quite different view is possible and has been historically influential at a philosophical level. This is that the person, the individual, has no intrinsic but only instrumental or external value as part of an organism.

The state or society as an organism

H.J. McCloskey refers to organicists who argue that

if the state is an organism [which it is on this organicist view: GT], it is therefore both ontologically higher and more valuable than its parts, and such that the parts can be understood and valued only as parts of their organic whole, and, further, that the whole, being an organism, cannot be a means or instrument to some further end. (H. J. McCloskey, 'The State as an Organism, as a Person, and as an End in Itself', The Philosophical Review, Vol. 72, No. 3 (Jul., 1963), pp. 306-326: 307.)

Organicism comes in varieties. J.M.E. McTaggart argued vigorously whatever the case may be for regarding Hegel as an organic theorist - not, he thinks, the most accurate label - Hegel did not hold that persons have value solely as parts of an organic whole. But the view that McCloskey outlines has been held; and someone who holds it might regard as 'social surgery' (Collected Essays, Oxford: Clarendon, 1935.: 152) the removal of defective parts through infanticide or other means.

The view of human life as having not intrinsic but only instrumental, external value may not sit comfortably with prevailing Western values but it has a philosophical pedigree and so cannot be neglected here, whatever may be thought of it.


F.H. Bradley, Collected Essays, Oxford: Clarendon, 1935.

H. J. McCloskey, 'The State as an Organism, as a Person, and as an End in Itself', The Philosophical Review, Vol. 72, No. 3 (Jul., 1963), pp. 306-326.

J.M.E, McTaggart, 'The Conception of Society as an Organism', Studies in Hegelian Cosmology, Cambridge : CUP, 1901.

Geoffrey Thomas

Posted 2019-03-03T02:33:54.973

Reputation: 34 276


One might (without taking a side) also add that the question of whether it is morally permissible or not runs parallel to the question of whether the value of human life is intrinsic or extrinsic/relational. The Spartan - pragmatic - take, which (i.e. letting infants that seem week or are disfigured die) was, in all fairness, common up to the modern age and still is in areas where there are shortages of food and/or water, suggests a belief in the latter.

– Philip Klöcking – 2019-03-03T12:00:04.483

PK : thanks for the tip. I've revised my answer. Best - Geoffrey – Geoffrey Thomas – 2019-03-03T14:29:46.163


Is infanticide justifiable in any circumstances?

This is just a cost benefit evaluation.

For example can you afford to raise the kid ? Maybe not, as happens in fairy tales hansel & gretel, Hop-o'-My-Thumb where adoption doesnt seem to be an option.

But reality beats fiction, in some extreme situations cannibalism occurs (most famously R v Dudley and Stephens).

There is nothing radically special about killing kids as opposed to adults. And so you could've asked to the same effect "is murder justifiable in any circumstances?".

Manu de Hanoi

Posted 2019-03-03T02:33:54.973

Reputation: 394