Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Richard Dawkins Says It's Good to Abort Down Syndrome Babies

I'll present this to my MCCC Logic students tomorrow night.

In August Richard Dawkins tweeted the following, causing an ethical firestorm:

“I honestly don’t know what I would do if I were pregnant with a kid with Down Syndrome. Real ethical dilemma. Abort it and try again. It would be immoral to bring it into the world if you have a choice.”

After Dawkins tweeted this a lot of responses came in. He gave a fuller explanation on his website:

“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.

Dawkins’s argument is:

1. Whatever increases the overall suffering of people is wrong. (Utilitarianism: “Right” means whatever gives most people the most happiness most of the time, and “wrong” means whatever gives the most people the most pain most of the time.)
2. Down Syndrome children increase the overall suffering (unhappiness) of people. (Happiness is diminished, suffering is increased.)
3. Therefore Down Syndrome babies are wrong (and morally can be aborted; i.e. it is "right" to do so).

How shall we view this argument?

Formally it is valid.

Premise 1 is a definition of Utilitarian ethics. If you are not a Utilitarian (as I am not), then we can reject the argument by disagreeing with premise 1 (by showing it to be false; therefore the argument is a bad one).

A number of the responses to Dawkins thought Premise 2 was false. These responses accept Utilitarianism but claim that Down Syndrome children do not decrease happiness and increase suffering. Philosopher Elizabeth Picciuto writes, against Dawkins’s second premise:

No empirical data support his claim that the birth of a baby with Down syndrome makes the world—or the baby—unhappier. In fact, all the evidence points to the contrary. “All he would have had to do was a quick search online,” observes Kohen. “The numbers don’t bear out what he says at all.” Indeed, as Kohen points out in a blog post, the numbers suggest the opposite. The vast majority of parents and siblings of people with Down syndrome believe their lives are better for it. The vast majority of people with Down syndrome also say they are happy with their lives. ("Richard Dawkins Would Fail Philosophy 101")

Side note: Note the influence of Utilitarianism, the default ethical theory of non-theists, on the idea that the goal of human existence is “happiness.”