Something happens to ethics when it becomes a specialty. It becomes professionalized, certified, rarefied. It becomes something besides ethics. It becomes expertise, not thought or depth so much as focus. Specialization sharpens the mind by narrowing it. As in medical ethics or legal ethics or business ethics. Or, to use a phrase cynics consider an oxymoron, the ethics of journalism.
The new science of ethicism shouldn't be confused with ethics any more than theology is religion. But it's a common enough misapprehension as professional ethicists take the place of ancient sages who taught ethics, not reduced its scope. You can tell exactly when this transformation takes place: when some qualifying prefix must be added to ethics. As in bioethics.
As with any other specialty, bioethicists develop their own jargon, their own code of conduct, their own preferred practices. And their own secrets. They become professionals. And as George Bernard Shaw noted in "The Doctor's Dilemma," "All professions are conspiracies against the laity."
By their prefixes ye shall know them. The prefix bio- lets us know that something besides ethics is being practiced here. The meaning of the word has been changed, its quality altered. Prefixes can serve as a warning.
It should have come as no surprise not long ago when the Journal of Medical Ethics published an essay by a couple of bioethicists who made a case for what they dubbed "after-birth abortion."
Only the innocent layman, attached to the plain meaning of words, and accustomed to thinking of ethics rather than bioethics, might think "after-birth abortion" a contradiction in terms.
Not so, these experts explained: "What we call 'after-birth abortion' (killing a newborn) should be permissible in all cases where abortion is, including cases where the newborn is not disabled."
It's a perfectly understandable position once you accept that abortion itself is ethically -- well, bioethically -- permissible for whatever reason. And not just to rid the world of those we call disabled, or who might not be of the preferred sex.
Now we get "after-birth abortion" -- a natural enough progression in the history of "abortion rights." The born, the unborn, why insist on the technical distinction between them? It's the same organism, isn't it? Why let the accident of birth determine an ethical question?
By now we all know what partial-birth abortion is: destroying a baby only halfway out of the birth canal. Why not post-birth abortion, too? It's a logical extension of the same principle. At least to these two bioethicists.
Only the less advanced, the less expert, who still think in terms of just ethics, might have trouble understanding this new concept. But it's only the next room of the nightmare.
What's the difference, do you suppose, between "after-birth abortion" and what used to be called infanticide? Is it just another word game, like pro-choice in place of pro-abortion? Since we've become conditioned to accepting abortion, as in "abortion rights," is "post-birth abortion" just a more acceptable way to sell infanticide? Maybe we're not talking philosophy here at all, but just public relations.
When this theory was met with a wave of revulsion from those without their sophistication, its authors explained: "We are really sorry that many people, who do not share the background of the intended audience for this article, felt offended, outraged, or even threatened. ... The article was supposed to be read by other fellow bioethicists who were already familiar with this topic and our arguments."
Oh, I understand well enough: When reason fails our experts, they fall back on condescension.
Here's the really shocking, still really revolutionary idea: that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, and among those is the right to life. That concept is not only a political principle but an ethical imperative. But it is no more a "self-evident" truth than it was in 1776, when it was declared.
That idea is certainly not self-evident to our contemporary ethicists. Note this article in a journal of medical "ethics." To borrow a phrase from George Orwell, it would take an intellectual to believe such stuff; no ordinary man would.
A few days after it appeared on the website of the Journal of Medical Ethics, this revealing, all too revealing, article had vanished. Or at least outsiders were no longer allowed access to it. When I tried to call it up again, it was gone. Right down the old Orwellian memory hole. It was now an un-article, closed off to us mere laymen. We might not understand. Its thesis might shock, and so it needed to be discreetly hidden away, to be shared only with select professional colleagues.
But just give the rest of us time. As each old ethical line is crossed, as each Thou Shalt Not becomes another Thou Mayest, each such advance becomes easier to understand, then accept. There was a time when abortion on demand was considered unacceptable, too, even a crime. We've just crossed another ethical line, that's all. What's the big deal?
There was a time when we looked down this slippery slope and shuddered. Now we find ourselves looking up. And fewer and fewer of us may shudder.