Debate on the paper by Feitosa et al.


Debate sobre o artigo de Feitosa et al.



Fermin Roland Schramm

Escola Nacional de Saúde Pública Sergio Arouca, Fundação Oswaldo Cruz, Rio de Janeiro, Brasil.



The morality of infanticide at the crossroads between moral pluralism and human rights culture

The article Bioethics, Culture and Infanticide in Brazilian Indigenous Communities: The Zuruahá Case defends the idea that the morality of infanticide must be viewed in its specific cultural and social context, since in the case in question the newborn only begins to exist socially if the mother accepts it, and if it has not only a biological life, but a cultural identity, without which the new being would be no more than "a socially dead being" (p. 856). Thus, based on this symbolic-imaginary inscription, the actual practice of infanticide would be morally justified, considering that for the Zuruahá community, "If a child is born with physical defects or without a father to protect it, there is no reason to live because life would be excessively heavy for this child, for its family, and for its people" (p. 856). In short, infanticide among the Zuruahá must be inscribed in the people's Weltanschauung, which includes moral norms that are distinct and different from others around it. But, accepting the arguments that lend legitimacy to Zuruahá infanticide logically questions the "universal nature" of human rights, according to which "infanticide is considered to be a crime against human rights" (p. 862), and one can assume "at first sight that it is imperative to be against it" (p. 862), but thereby running the risk "of imposing imperialistic and centralist logic under the pretext of ethics and law" (p. 862).

Obviously, the practice of infanticide is morally controversial if one compares: (1) the set of values from the tradition that abolished it - represented here by the National Campaign for Life and against Infanticide and the case of the two Zuruahá infants removed from the village to avoid their deaths and (2) the view of what we could call contemporary morality, which is essentially secular, pluralist, and without canonic morals accepted by all, represented here by the defenders of Zuruahá identity and its practice of infanticide in the name of respect for differences. At first glance, the two views appear antithetical, since the former does not allow infanticide in any case, while the latter allows it in specific cases. However, taking a closer look, the latter is more subtle, since it appears to allow at least two types of stances towards the complexity of a morally plural world. The first of these is respect for the prevailing value systems in the various moral communities existing in society or country - as in the case of Brazil, characterized among other things by a "a very wide diversity of Indian peoples" and "many tribal groups that live with minimal contact outside the group, or even in complete isolation, [maintaining] very little or no relationship with Brazilian national society" (p. 853) and in which traditional practices like infanticide persist.

The main potential critique of this stance (respecting the differences and beliefs of the various communities constituting a country) is that it results in a moral relativism which would virtually rule out any possibility of shared values, such as those represented by human rights. As such, these rights are universally applicable and explicitly include the right to life and implicitly encompass the prohibition of infanticide. Moral relativism also implies the impossibility of even valuing behaviors and thus leads to amorality. However, moral pluralism is not necessarily a synonym for moral relativism, since the former implies respect for cultural differences and their existing value systems, which is quite different from amorality, which does not imply any respect whatsoever. Indeed, the latter type of stance implies establishing agreements in order to resolve a moral conflict such as that posed by infanticide, as long as the moral agent external to the community has sufficient understanding of (and respect for) the values that allow infanticide, which can be viewed as a necessary condition for dialogue to occur. This dialogical stance - defended by the article's authors - belongs to the field of procedural ethics of discussion - developed by Apel and Habermas - and essentially consists of real attempts to find (on the symbolic level) agreements between conflicting actors and value systems, but presupposing that the conflicting parties admit a priori that they wish to reach an agreement (also known as a transcendental condition in any dialogical confrontation); the principle of informed consent by all conflicted parties, whom are morally and cognitively competent, and, I would add, the principles of charity, which pressuposes that all the parties "are playing fair". As the authors write, in this case "it is essential to have the deepest possible knowledge regarding the culture of the people with whom the dialogue will be established" and "prior manifestation of interest in establishing this dialogue," otherwise "the ethical debate will give way to the violence of the law of the strongest" (p. 863). The Texan bioethicist Engelhardt Jr. summarized this condition of moral agent in the contemporary, secular, and pluralist world quite well, stating that "there are no decisive secular arguments to establish that one concrete view of the moral life is better morally than its rivals, and since all have not converted to a single moral viewpoint, secular moral authority is the authority of consent (...) the authority of the agreement of those who decide to collaborate (...) without fundamental recourse to force" 1 (p. 68).

In other words, the authors approach the arguments for and against infanticide as it relates not to societies which, as stated by Agamben, consider the "sacredness of life, which is invoked today as an absolutely fundamental human right in opposition to sovereign power [over life and death]" 2 (p. 91), but to communities in which, as the authors contend, "[infanticide] has always functioned as a means of birth control and even as a mechanism for adapting human life to adverse conditions of survival in certain hostile environments, especially under jungle conditions"

(p. 854). In the latter, there would be "good reasons" for infanticide, such as "the mother's inability to devote the care and attention required for yet another child; the newborn's capacity or incapacity to survive within the physical and socio-cultural environment into which he or she was born; and the preference for one sex over the other" (p. 854). These reasons, with perhaps the exception of the third, may in fact be sustained by the concept (central to evaluating the morality of human practices) of "quality of life". According to Mori, this concept is the principal characteristic of the bioethical paradigm, in which "morality is a social institution, consisting of values and norms which, in various historical circumstances, guarantee (...) the necessary social coordination to ensure an adequate level of 'quality of life'" 3 (p. 102).

In conclusion, in taking a stance between morality and moral pluralism, the authors contend that "an alliance with the more fragile elements of society is an essential precondition for establishing the basis for developing the process of dialogue" (p. 862). Thereby, "respect for otherness needs to be ensured and the sole purpose of the whole dialogue has to be the community's welfare" (p. 862-3). The argument is polemical, but pertinent.


1. Engelhardt Jr. HT. The foundations of bioethics 2nd Ed. New York/Oxford:  Oxford University Press; 1996.         

2. Agamben G. Homo sacer. I. O poder soberano e a vida nua. Belo Horizonte: Editora UFMG; 2002.         

3. Mori M. Il caso Eluana Englaro. La "Porta Pia" del vitalismo ippocratico, ovvero perché è moralmente giusto sospendere ogni intervento. Bologna: Edizioni Pendragon; 2008.         

Escola Nacional de Saúde Pública Sergio Arouca, Fundação Oswaldo Cruz Rio de Janeiro - RJ - Brazil