If You’re Happy Could Science Know It?

by Graham Veale

Alas, most of the English speaking is now aware of Richard Dawkins’ infamous tweets on the morality of abortion after pre-natal screening for Down’s Syndrome. Alas and alack, few will be aware of his more considered musings, which were offered by way of apology on his website. There, Dawkins argues 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.

Of course, Dawkins bases the likelihood of a person’s happiness on a list of medical facts.

Down Syndrome, or Trisomy 21, results from the presence of an extra copy (or partial copy) of Chromosome 21. Symptoms vary but usually include characteristic facial features especially eye shape, abnormal growth patterns, and moderate mental disability. Life expectancy is reduced, and those who survive through adulthood often need special care as though they are children. Parents who care for their children with Down Syndrome usually form strong bonds of affection with them, as they would with any child. These feelings are sincere and mutual…Screening for the chromosomal abnormality is normally offered, especially to older mothers who are more likely to have a child with the condition. When Down Syndrome is detected, most couples opt for abortion and most doctors recommend it.

However, some questions are too important to be left in the hands of scientific experts; the definition of a happy life is one of them. The problem is that we cannot capture all the subtle and layered meanings of “happiness” through experiment, quantification and detailed observation. We cannot measure happiness in terms of “pleasure” or “preference satisfaction.” It is simply impossible to weigh and then compare a bewildering variety of experiences. How do we measure the pleasure a cup of coffee? Is it more or less pleasurable than a walk on the beach? Is it better to enjoy Mozart or Picasso? Dickens or a sunset? There is no unit which could capture these values.

Some might suggest that we measure the satisfaction of preference or desires instead. The greater the number of preferences an agent has satisfied, the happier that agent will be…


If You’re Happy Could Science Know It? – Saints and Sceptics