It has happened again. First there was Peter Connolly, and now there is the case of Daniel Pelka, both children tortured to death by their mothers and their mothers’ “partners”.
In the case of Peter Connolly, much opprobrium focused on the social workers who should have prevented his death but failed to do so; in particular the unfortunate Sharon Shoesmith got the blame. People always look for someone to blame, but in these cases surely the blame must lie with the perpetrators, though important questions must be asked about all those professionals who saw signs of abuse but who failed to save the child. Daniel was at school: his teachers saw he was starving, we are told. That raises questions.
But the questions about the failures of “the system” may serve to mask some other more profound questions that we would rather not face. The system exists to deal with emergencies; but how do these emergencies arise? Both Daniel Pelka and Peter Connolly were living with men who were not their biological fathers. No doubt sociologists can fill us in on this one, but the implication of this seems clear: children are more likely to be mistreated in such a family set up than in a traditional one.
However, immediately one thinks of Mick and Mairead Philpott, who were actually married in a Catholic church; and one notes that in all three cases, the perpetrators were Catholic or from Catholic backgrounds.
To kill any child is an unnatural crime; one is supposed to nurture and look after children, who cannot, after all, survive, without adult care. To kill one’s own child is particularly unnatural. Here I am invoking the concept of natural law, which many contemporary commentators tell us is an outdated and outmoded concept, and one that has no sound basis anyway.
Well, against the current of modern philosophy, I believe an “ought” can be derived from an “is”: if you are a mother, then you ought to act as a (good) mother. In so far as modern philosophy has denied any sense of moral obligation as derived from the reality of things, they have laid the foundation for these crimes. We abandon the natural law at our peril.