Friday, August 22, 2014

Richard Dawkins on Down Syndrome and Abortion

In case you haven’t heard, Richard Dawkins is in the headlines again for (surprise!) saying something dumb. This time, he made a remarkably insensitive comment about the moral imperative to abort fetuses with Down Syndrome (hereafter DS). Naturally, there was a huge backlash, followed by an explanation by Dawkins and the predictable internet bickering between the offended and his devotees. The initial story is here. His response/apology is here.

I won’t be saying anything here about his initial statement, nor about the moral or political issues surrounding abortion generally. That is not the purpose of this blog. Instead, I want to look at a statement Dawkins tweeted in defense of his original claim (i.e. that it’s immoral to bring a DS child into the world), as I find it philosophically interesting. He says this:
There’s a profound moral difference between “This fetus should now be aborted” and “This person should have been aborted years ago.”
This is an interesting claim to me, and I was at first unsure what I thought about it. If it puzzles you too, then what follows is my attempt to think through it.
I should also caution you that I am here considering this question like I would any other philosophical issue, and that as a result there may be a certain coldness to my discussion. Please do not take this to imply anything about my own position on abortion, or people with DS, or anything else. I simply want to know if Dawkins’s latter claim, just quoted, has merit.
In his apology, he expands on this point a little:
[There were some] who took offence because they know and love a person with Down Syndrome, and who thought I was saying that their loved one had no right to exist. I have sympathy for this emotional point, but it is an emotional one not a logical one…I combated it in a tweet as follows: “There’s a profound moral difference between ‘This fetus should now be aborted’ and ‘This person should have been aborted long ago’.” I would never dream of saying to any person, “You should have been aborted before you were born.” But that reluctance is fully compatible with a belief that, at a time before a fetus becomes a “person”, the decision to abort can be a moral one. If you think about it, you pretty much have to agree with that unless you are against all abortion in principle. The definition of “personhood” is much debated among moral philosophers and this is not the place to go into it at length. Briefly, I support those philosophers who say that, for moral purposes, an adult, a child and a baby should all be granted the rights of a person. An early fetus, before it develops a nervous system, should not. As embryonic development proceeds towards term, the morality of abortion becomes progressively more difficult to assess. There is no hard and fast dividing line. As I have argued in “The Tyranny of the Discontinuous Mind”, the definition of personhood is a gradual, “fading in / fading out” definition. In any case, this is a problem that faces anybody on the pro-choice side of the general abortion debate.
So is this difference really morally significant? Here's the state of affairs we're evaluating:
At time t1 action a is morally permissible (or even obligatory), while at time t2, a is morally objectionable.
We want to know first if this is a consistent possibility in the case of aborting a DS fetus, and if so, if it is a plausible moral hypothesis. Here a is the action of aborting a fetus with DS, t1 is some time before birth, and t2 is some time after the fetus has grown to a sufficient age to grant it personhood (on Dawkins’s schema).
So what are the relevant differences between the fetus at t1 and the person at t2? Right away, we see the major one: personhood. Presumably, this property is acquired at some point in the childhood of the DS fetus. There is also the accumulated experience of the DS child, as well as the accumulated experience of its parents (as well as any siblings), whose lives are irreversibly altered by the experience of raising the child, rather than aborting it. Lastly, there is the potential effect on society that the DS person may have, whether positive or negative. There are probably other relevant differences, but this is enough to be getting on with.
Now, it may be that these last three differences (accumulated experience of the child and the family, and social effects) are only significant insofar as they affect the outcome of the initial personhood question. I.e. they may be just a more detailed way to say the same thing: “The DS fetus acquires personhood after birth,” and “The DS fetus has experiences and affects the lives of others after birth” may be equivalent. But it is important to note that this is an open question. I for one don’t know if personhood is anything over and above a subject’s conscious experience and the effects the subject has on the experience of others. That is an important metaphysical question, and it requires a great deal of careful thought. I can tell you that there is no consensus on the matter among philosophers.
It is also important to note that even if we grant that personhood is reducible to effects on conscious experience, this does not settle the question for us whether Dawkins’s claim is plausible. This is because while it would allow us to discount the experience of the DS child at t1 (since the fetus presumably is not conscious), it would not allow us to discount the effects of the fetus on the consciousness of its family members at t1, whose experience is already altered by the existence of the fetus. And for all we know, this may be sufficient in itself to affect the personhood of the fetus, and so affect the moral valence of action a.
Another thing to consider is whether a at t1 (let’s call it a1) and a at t2 (a2) can really be said to be the same action. Dawkins’s claim is that deliberating about a1 is morally different from deliberating about a2. Thus, he seems to assume that thinking about aborting a fetus before it happens is significantly morally different from thinking about aborting the same fetus after it has grown into an adult. But is this right? It is, after all, the same fetus we’re talking about. The only relevant difference is that the person considering a2 has the benefit of hindsight, and can consider all the experiences in the life of the DS child. But Dawkins himself wants to disallow such “emotional” considerations in deciding the question of the moral permissibility of a. As he says,
I have sympathy for this emotional point, but it is an emotional one not a logical one.
He later adds:
I do not for one moment apologise for approaching moral philosophic questions in a logical way. There’s a place for emotion & this isn’t it.
So it seems Dawkins is constrained to admit that the action under consideration is the same (i.e. the abortion of a particular fetus), regardless of when that action is considered.
So this leaves us with the following possibilities: either personhood is reducible to experience or it isn’t. If it isn’t, then it is possible that the DS fetus is a person. If it is so reducible, then it is still possible that the DS fetus is a person. Hence, for all we know, the DS fetus may be a person at t1, and a1 is therefore morally ambiguous. But if a1 is possibly the termination of a person, and a1 and a2 are identical, then a is morally ambiguous no matter when it is considered.
So on reflection then, it seems that Dawkins’s claim is without merit. He is guilty both of begging the question of personhood (since to say that a is objectionable at t2 and not at t1 is to assume that the fetus is not a person),* and of inconsistency in his use of emotion (i.e. he wants to say that appeals to one’s experience with DS persons are emotional and therefore prohibited, but he must rely on such appeals to say that considering a2 is significantly morally different from considering a1).
So whatever the truth is about the morality of aborting a DS fetus, Dawkins’s defense of his insensitive claim (that considering this question before and after the fetus is born makes a significant difference) fails.
Of course there is something right about Dawkins’s point, and that’s simply that it would be morally repugnant to tell any living person that they should not have lived. This is why, I think, Dawkins’s defense has an initial ring of plausibility. Nonetheless, if Dawkins’s preferred moral theory is correct, it may very well still be true that that person should not have lived, even if social convention dictates that we not tell them that to their face. To remain consistent, Dawkins will have to admit that, yes, it would have been morally better—i.e. there would have been more pleasure and less pain overall—if those living with DS had been aborted.
I’ll leave it to the reader to decide whether Dawkins was fairly castigated.
* This is of course assuming that the moral permissibility of abortion tracks personhood. I think Dawkins would grant this, so I’m not going to try to defend it.

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