by Elizabeth Picciuto
Richard Dawkins recently tweeted that knowingly birthing a baby with Down syndrome is immoral. That claim is not only offensive—it’s nonsensical.
Lately, Richard Dawkins seems to scan the world for sore spots, take a good poke, and revel in the ensuing outcry. A few weeks ago, he proclaimed that stranger rape is worse than date rape. Last Wednesday, he tweeted that if a fetus was diagnosed with Down syndrome, the mother should “abort it and try again. It would be immoral to bring it into the world if you have the choice.” Predictably, he was deluged with angry responses; as of this writing, he is still responding to critics.
During this latest battle, his most vocal opponents have been pro-life, but you don’t have to be pro-life to take issue with what he’s been saying. If you believe, as Dawkins purports to, that your moral opinions should be informed by empirical evidence and logic, then that alone is excellent reason to object to the totality of what he’s been saying.
Each academic I interviewed for this story—all of whom were critical of Dawkins’ recent Twitter comments about abortion—emphasized their admiration for Dawkins’ scientific and popular writings. There’s no question Dawkins is intelligent, so it’s not clear why, despite lacking a background in bioethics, he thought himself qualified to dispense advice on a nuanced bioethical issue.
Ari Kohen, associate professor of political science at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, maintains a highly entertaining blog devoted, in part, to terrible apologies—Dawkins’ non-apology apology among them. As Kohen points out to The Daily Beast, Dawkins never actually apologizes for what he said. He only apologizes for the Twitter-storm that followed.
In the apology Dawkins says, “Given a free choice of having an early abortion or deliberately bringing a Down child into the world, I think the moral and sensible choice would be to abort…I personally would go further and say that, if your morality is based, as mine is, on a desire to increase the sum of happiness and reduce suffering, the decision to deliberately give birth to a Down baby, when you have the choice to abort it early in the pregnancy, might actually be immoral from the point of view of the child’s own welfare….Having said that, the choice would be entirely yours and I would never dream of trying to impose my views on you or anyone else.”
Dawkins’ belief that we should maximize happiness and minimize suffering seems to be a moral theory known as “act-utilitarianism.” For an act-utilitarian, an action’s morality can, in theory, be demonstrated empirically. To discover if an act is moral or immoral, you simply measure the amount of happiness or suffering it causes. The more suffering an act causes, the more immoral it is; the more happiness an act causes, the more moral it is.
When you really try to understand what Dawkins is saying in his apology, however, you realize that his thoughts are not even fully coherent…
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