Most observers of Richard Dawkins are not surprised to hear that he has said something outrageous. More and more, even his fellow atheists are surprised when he says something sensible. The latest row is over his comments suggesting that people have a moral obligation to abort a child diagnosed with a defect (in particular, Down Syndrome). Again, even his fellow atheists were put off by this, since the party line on abortion it is morally neutral, and a woman can get one or not get one, as she pleases.
The reactions, from both foes and fellow travelers, imply that the crux of this issue is that Dawkins is being rude. From this perspective, there are certain things you don’t say in polite society, even if you think them, and Dawkins has found one of them (again). The problem, you see, is one of decorum and Dawkins’ irascible personality and a violated social contract.
Dawkins, however, insists that what he is saying “simply follows logically from the ordinary pro-choice stance that most [of] us, I presume, espouse.” He sympathizes with his critics, but notes that their point is “an emotional one not a logical one.” And oh, by the way, what he is saying is not in the slightest “advocating a eugenics policy.”
Never mind that he is rude. Is he wrong? He has invoked logic, implying that there are propositions, premises, and inferences not far back from his comments. Moreover, he expects that his own fans share these foundational views and is more than a little surprised that they have not taken them to their logical conclusions. And what views might these be?
We are fortunate in the case of Dawkins to know what animates him: his atheism, his Darwinism, and his hatred for religion and religionists. He perceives that he has an impartial, objective, scientific basis for these views. In his ‘apology’ itself he states explicitly that “my own moral philosophy [is] based on a desire to increase happiness and reduce suffering.” This is a utilitarian ethic which harkens back to Bentham, Mill, and arguably Darwin himself.
Excepting the hatred of religionists, may we now suppose that these elements are also what drives the “ordinary pro-choice stance”?
What would it be about a utilitarian, atheistic, Darwinist outlook that drives Dawkins to derive a logical conclusion from them related to unborn children diagnosed in the womb with a birth defect? What prevents his co-idealogues from following suit?
We will treat the former and leave the latter for a later essay.
Leave Dawkins out of it. The rest of us should be thinking about whether or not the worldview Dawkins is acting on is true.
It should not be terribly difficult to see how Darwinism might fuel the “ordinary pro-choice stance.” On this view, it is scientifically beyond all reasonable doubt that the human person has lately descended from puss. The notion that humans have some kind of intrinsic worth and dignity, cannot be more than mere fantasy.
It does not take a rocket science to see that if you believe that humans are nothing more than nature’s belch after millions of years of digesting, you will care very little about a tiny clump of cells. Indeed, you will care very little about very big clumps of cells, too. Big clumps of cells tend to fight back, however, so it’s best to extend your indifference to the ones that can’t, namely the unborn, newly born, the infirm, and the old. It is no great shock to discover that the ‘ordinary pro-choice stance’ is usually associated with euthanasia and assisted suicide, as well.
But the atheism plays a part here, too. With no Creator in view, if you determine at some point that you have been a little too cavalier with human lives, there really isn’t any great harm. There is the matter of one’s own conscience, perhaps, but it isn’t like there is anyone to answer to. In the end, we’ll all melt back into the cosmic sea of matter and whether any particular person lived or died won’t matter a lick.
There is a problem. Humans seem ‘designed’ to be moral creatures, that is seeking justification for their actions on a basis that extends beyond their own person, but atheism and Darwinism combine to render ‘morality’ a farce. How can substance be given back to our ‘moral sense’? Utilitarianism: the most good for the most people; the elimination and reduction of suffering, the highest good.
Utilitarianism has the added benefit of, in many cases, bringing to bear ‘scientific objectivity’ to moral questions, for it is in many cases possible to determine whether or not ‘suffering’ is taking place. This is fortunate, if the reduction of suffering is your highest guiding value. According to Dawkins, a human is not a person “before it develops a nervous system.” Not coincidentally, it is maintained that one cannot suffer before there is a nervous system, either. The presence or absence of a nervous system can theoretically be determined scientifically. In cases where science has shown that a human will suffer if they continue to live, then the moral thing to do is to prevent that from happening.
Is this indeed the underlying rational framework for the “ordinary pro-choice stance”?
I suggest that in broad strokes, it is. To defend that would require an essay far longer than I am prepared to pen right now, so instead I will put to the reader this challenge: if the above does not form the foundation for Dawkins’ claim to ‘logic’ what do you suppose does? And if it does, is he wrong? If he is right, and you share the same views, but find his assertions about their logical implications reprehensible, what does that suggest?
Bottom line: both friends and foes seem bent on reforming Dawkins’ social skills rather than addressing the substance of his argument. The message will be clear: “Believe what you want, but there are some things you just don’t say.” That is perhaps well and good for social tranquility, but with those who are engaged in influencing and carrying out public policy, honesty is much more preferable. These same will have gotten the message loud and clear: “If people find out why I’m really doing this, there would be a public outcry. I should just do it, and keep my mouth shut.”
Surely the reader can see how that is more dangerous than Dawkins spouting off on Twitter.
(I suspect it would be useful to understand that Dawkins is not alone in his assessment about what ‘logically follows’ from the “ordinary pro-choice stance.” There have been many who have made the same kind of arguments based on the same premises. They haven’t been cranks, either. Some have died, but others are still alive and well and even in power today. If it would be helpful for you to see that others believe that Dawkins’ logic is valid, and it is not just a matter of Dawkins’ sour demeanor and bad taste, you will want to read the optional part 2.)