But Is It Valuable? A Response to Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins apologized (sort of) for his tweets concerning his recommendation to abort a fetus with Trisomy 21, or Down Syndrome. In response to someone who would be unsure what to do if she were carrying a fetus with Down Syndrome, Dawkins said, “Abort it and try again. It would be immoral to bring it into the world if you have the choice.” Needless to say a firestorm erupted. Some objected that such an action fundamentally disrespects the humanity of the people with Down Syndrome. Dawkins initially replied with another tweet referencing Jeremy Bentham’s famous contention, “The question is not ‘is it human?’ but ‘can it SUFFER?’” Then others claimed that fetus’ can feel pain (at 20 weeks) to which he replied that if that matters, we should all be vegans. People didn’t understand what he meant, so an apology was written for not expressing himself very clearly.

In his longer reply, Dawkins backed off the strong moral claim, and made a weaker one: it might be immoral to bring someone with Down Syndrome into the world. He writes, “[I]f 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.” Weaker as it may be, it is no less confused. All that matters in a utilitarian calculus is the net balance of happiness over pain from the point of view of the universe, not the child’s. Be that as it may, Dawkins probably meant to say that someone is harmed if one is brought into the world with Down Syndrome (namely the person afflicted with Down Syndrome) and that this state of affairs could increase suffering and decrease happiness overall. But this weaker claim implies a stronger one that is far from obvious. Breaking down Dawkins’ argument, which is meant to motivate abortion, we can see why:

  1. If one is brought into the world with Down Syndrome, then one is harmed.
  2. One ought not be harmed unless the harm is unavoidable.
  3. The harm is avoidable.
  4. Therefore, one ought not be harmed.
  5. Therefore, one should not be brought into the world with Down Syndrome.

Even if we grant the questionable premise [1], there is no good reason to think [3] is true since the cause of Down Syndrome’s occurs at the chromosomal level. Dawkins thinks [3] is true, because abortion provides a way out. But since abortion annihilates the subject of harm, he is committed to the view that nonexistence is preferable to living a life with Down Syndrome. That’s quite a claim to make on behalf of others without any empirical backing. Furthermore, from the parental point of view, it seems empirical study should lead one to believe that it is unlikely that one will regret becoming a parent of someone with Down Syndrome. One might think that Dawkins should care about such evidence, being the tough-minded empiricist he claims to be.

Dawkins makes another confused statement when he says, “There’s a profound moral difference between ‘This fetus should now be aborted’ and ‘This person should have been aborted long ago’.” What this “profound” moral difference amounts to, is anyone’s guess. Suppose someone records Dawkins uttering “This fetus should now be aborted” at the time when abortion is an option; suppose further that the mother carrying the fetus ignores Dawkins and has the child anyway, and on the child’s thirteenth birthday, the recording is played for the child to hear by some crazed experimental philosopher. Should we expect anyone in this scenario to recognize the “profound” moral difference between “This fetus should now be aborted” and “This person should have been aborted long ago”? I highly doubt it.

Nevertheless, Dawkins thinks that the moral difference is found in the mushy category of “personhood.” Saying “You should have been aborted long ago” to a person is disrespectful; recommending the abortion of a non-person is not. This too is dubious. To suggest that this puts the profundity in the “profound” moral difference between the two statements not only smacks of sophistry, it also conveniently begs the question that personal identity does not attach to fetuses even in terms of morally relevant causal relations. Imagine hearing this: “I would not say to you, Person with Down Syndrome, that you should have been aborted long ago–that would be cruel; but I would say at the time you were a fetus, or better yet, when your fetal precursor existed, that ‘This fetus should now be aborted.’” That, if anything, is some very cold comfort.

The question, therefore, is not ‘Can it suffer” or “Is it a person?” but rather ‘Is it valuable?” As we have seen, there is nothing in Dawkins’ longer reply that comes close to affirming the value of human life afflicted with Down Syndrome. It’s not a surprise that parents of Down Syndrome kids are offended by this, though it is amazing how gracious (and powerful) their responses can be.

Oh, and maybe we should all be vegans.