Tuesday, August 26, 2014

A Response to Richard Dawkins [Clinton Wilcox]

This article will be a continuation of my previous article, which you can read here. Richard Dawkins recently sent a barbaric tweet regarding his belief that it would be immoral not to abort an unborn child with Down's syndrome. He recently wrote an article to clarify his position, which you can read here. His article is entitled Abortion and Down Syndrome: An Apology for Letting Slip the Dogs of Twitterwar."

In this article, Dawkins is able to go into more detail about his position. Twitter, with its 140 character limit, is not conducive to good, in-depth dialogue. It's really not beneficial to try to engage in any meaningful conversations via that particular social medium. This is just the latest in a long list of examples that prove as much. However, in the article Dawkins repeats the fact that most mothers who are pregnant with children with Down's syndrome abort and most doctors recommend it. This may be true, but it proves nothing. If abortion is immoral, then it makes no difference whether most people do it or most experts recommend it.

Dawkins expanded his thoughts on the matter, which you can find in the linked article. His thoughts on the matter are misguided, however. He asserts that given a free choice of having an early abortion or deliberately bringing a Down child into the world, the moral and sensible choice would be to abort. But why is this? How can you possibly make this argument and not draw out the logical implications that we should kill children with Down's syndrome who are already in the world because it would be better to be dead than to have Down's syndrome? Dawkins' position is ultimately nonsensical because there is already a Down's child "in the world." She is in her mother's womb, and her mother's womb is in the world. Dawkins is arguing that this child, who obviously exists, doesn't exist until the magical moment of birth, and then for some reason it should be considered too late to do anything about the child with Down's syndrome.

Dawkins says that his morality is based on a desire to increase the sum of happiness and reduce suffering, but this doesn't seem to reflect reality. Should we go to hospitals and kill all the suffering people in the hospitals? I would guess that Dawkins would say no. But why? If we have a moral obligation to reduce suffering, then we should kill all suffering people (assuming we can't end their suffering through medication and surgery). If Dawkins would say that these people should be given the choice, then his position fails because these children with Down's syndrome are not given a chance at life. And while Dawkins may be concerned about what the parents want, children with Down's rarely, if ever, want to die because of it. In fact, children with Down's syndrome are some of the happiest children you'll ever meet. Why should we let the parents play God and kill them just because the child would be an inconvenience to them?

Dawkins ends that portion with the slogan of moral relativism, "I would never dream of trying to impose my views on you or anyone else." Yet this is the same person who says that atheists should ridicule religious people "out of their faith." His claim is hollow. Plus, I think we are entirely justified in trying to force our views on others if we're trying to save lives. Should we prevent parents from abusing their born children, or should we allow them to, saying that we should not impose our views on them?

Responding briefly to Dawkins' five points:

1. The "prevailing medical opinion" is meaningless when it comes to ethical issues. The prevailing medical opinion in Nazi, Germany was that the Jews were subhuman and should be exterminated. If prevailing medical opinion calls for something immoral, it behooves us to oppose it.

2. I already responded to his misguided assertion that we should increase happiness and reduce suffering. In the tweet, he was not saying what he "personally would do." He said "it would be immoral to bring it into the world if you have the choice." In other words, people of virtuous character would not allow their unborn child with Down's syndrome to live. This is heartless and cruel, not worthy of consideration in the life of virtue.

3. We do, indeed, have to be careful with the Holocaust analogy. The analogy being drawn is that "majority rule" does not excuse unethical behavior. You must prove that abortion is not immoral before saying that we should listen to the majority opinion.

4. Dawkins seemed to misunderstand this point. His argument actually is that we should not bring someone with Down's syndrome into the world. I agree that if you're going to make a "designer baby" (which is unethical in itself), then it would be wrong to give them Down's syndrome. But what Dawkins is talking about is killing a child already in existence with Down's syndrome. If he disagrees and tries to argue that there is no child "in existence" yet, then he is advocating eugenics, on par with someone saying that "we should not give anyone Down's syndrome," so we should kill this fetus and try again for a healthy one.

5. He asserts there is a fallacy. "The Great Beethoven Fallacy," he calls it (and yes, I have read The God Delusion -- his points on abortion really are not worth responding to). There is no fundamental difference between "we should abort this fetus now" and "you should have been aborted long ago." If you're saying that Down's syndrome fetuses should be aborted, you are actually saying "you should have been aborted." There is, however, a difference between "we should kill you now" and "we should abort this child before they are born." Some philosophers, like David Benatar, make a distinction between bringing someone into being and taking someone out of existence. Nevertheless, through all stages of pregnancy, there is a human being there. Dawkins has not made a case that one exists only when "personhood" is established. Dawkins hasn't even told us when personhood should be established. So his thoughts on the matter should be rejected as nonsensical, since you can't justify an action by treating someone who exists as if they don't.

Richard Dawkins tried for some damage control with this article, and I don't believe he has succeeded. He didn't come off quite as abrasive, but he is still espousing a barbaric position, one he doesn't seem to understand is barbaric. I have heard that scientists are closer to curing Down's syndrome, and that is great. But Down's syndrome is not a death sentence, and it does not mean a life of misery.


  1. I don't think anyone disagrees with you on how vile Dawkins's views are. But I can't say that I'm surprised. Americans have been playing god with having kids, trying to control every aspect of the process that we can. You have people doing things like genetic counseling, with the goal of preventing the birth of children with disorders. One just can't be surprised when some are more aggressive in pursing that goal, like the 90% of women in the UK who abort them. The day will come when we are able to design our babies in a test tube. And the exact same people that are shocked by Dawkins's views will be shocked again. I just wish people would see that there is this connection between birth control and abortion.

  2. Paul, you are stretching very far to get from a wide term such as "birth control" to abortion. The connection would only exist if you could show that people who use non-abortive birth control are invariably supporters of abortion or become so down the road. No such connection exists.


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