Dawkins and Abortion as a Moral Mandate

Richard Dawkins recently suggested that it is immoral not to abort a pregnancy when we know that the child will have Down’s syndrome. His remarks have been broadly criticized as unphilosophical or incoherent or wrong (see also Turd Furguson’s post through which I learned of the controversy).

But Dawkin’s comments, whether or not they are correct, do not seem particularly difficult to defend as at least coherent within a utilitarian framework, given a certain set of assumptions. If fetuses have no moral worth (they experience neither pleasure nor pain); if individuals with Down’s syndrome either experience less well-being or cause others to experience less well-being than a healthy child (or if they create a net decrease in overall well-being); if we can know in advance that a pregnancy will result in a child with Down’s syndrome and we can abort the pregnancy at a lower cost in well-being than would be incurred otherwise; if all these things are true, then it is morally right to abort the pregnancy, and morally wrong not to.

The possibility perhaps highlights cracks in pro-choice arguments (consider whether similar moral issues are raised by a device that selectively eliminated prevented fertilization if it would lead to a child with Down’s syndrome), or in utilitarianism (consider the utility monster). But given certain assumptions, the syllogism itself is consistent.

More rigorous rebuttals would make this clear, as they would of necessity be in the form of rejecting the assumptions: either fetuses have non-zero worth, or those with Down’s syndrome are not net-negative contributors to well-being (whether relative to the status quo or relative to the expected well-being of a non-Down’s child). And while many critics are happy to do the former, it seems that at least some are uncomfortable with explicitly doing either, as either results in a challenge to fundamental parts of the modern secular world-view.

I want to point out I support making a second thread on this, I used multiple premises locked into a larger syllogism, wasn’t just about abortion, or the use of force, or moderation, but what lies behind it across a larger spectrum of society. I’ve already stated my initial views in the thread listed above (meant to be eye catching, uncomfortable, and controversial) but see validity in others needing to narrow it down, not everyone will take the argument in my direction. I would like to hear arguments in the narrower scope here to see what other possibilities can arise.

Thanks Turd. I found Dawkins’ comments interesting, but thought responding to them in your thread would derail the discussion you started with them there, which I understand to be more about the system’s response to comments like Dawkins’, rather than about the comments themselves (and premised on the idea that they are clearly wrong, an assertion I seek to explore here).

Now that is some serious philosophy.

Imagine then you are sitting around with the parents of kids like these ----> youtu.be/v1qtv7uKUlY <---- seeking out their own input on this as a moral issue.

And some are particularly outraged by another message here: that competition is not necessarily the best way to go about interacting socially.

But, then, as some folks might point out, these kids are, well, “retards”.

This does not seem to be the best way to approach a philosophical question. Many philosophical positions will be subjectively hurtful, but that is not a valid rebuttal to a logical argument. And even if we agree that a philosophical position is wrong, we can still examine it to find the sets of assumptions that, if true, would make it right. The point being that “some people wouldn’t like this conversation” (if that is indeed the point you’re making) is not relevant in the context of a philosophical discussion.

And, it should be said, parents of children with Down’s syndrome can make, as many others make, strong arguments against the assumptions that underlie Dawkins’ position. They could quite coherently respond to the moral issue of raising a child with Down’s in defense of their own actions – and presumably many people who do what Dawkins has called immoral have thought long and hard about their moral obligations in the face of their choice, and decided that their moral duty is in fact to bring the child to term.

Considering how far along we have come regarding children with Down Syndrome, how can we even know this for sure? and perhaps we’re basing our assumptions and subjective truths on how things were in the past.

I daresay that there are children and adults with Down Syndrome who just might cause others to experience more well-being than a so-called normal child.
They can be happy and productive, unlike many children without DS. It all depends on the individual…how he/she is nutured and loved, how he/she values him/her - self, has the will to grow and to learn.
We don’t really think that children with DS don’t have the capacity for the above, do we? especially based on the achievements in the here and now of those we know about.

What does a lower cost in well-being mean? I understand “lower cost” but I don’t understand lower cost in well being?

Who can really answer that question?
Would it be wrong to abort a pregnancy knowing that a child could still bring great joy to parents and could still achieve good things, unlike those who never achieve anything?
We are, after all, speaking of human beings, and none of us are perfect. No one knows what could be possible with a DS child, even though sure there would be more limits - but could be less limited compared to some of us.

Experiencing less well being or causing others to experience less well being - is that a good reason enough for aborting a child? We don’t even usually “abort” criminals for the most part - we throw them in prisons but we don’t abort them unless they’re really really evil.

I think that we need to be very careful in throwing things or people away because they’re viewed as less perfect or more special in a particular way.
What we are doing is considering our own needs, our own financial, emotional, psychological needs over the right of another human being to be born.
This is part of the human’s attitude - if something doesn’t work the way we think it should, if it doesn’t appeal to us in our view of what is good and human and “right”, we throw it away. We don’t see much value in it because basically we don’t see much value in ourselves.

If there was no doubt at all that a child being born would have absolutely no quality of life, not able to walk, talk, eat by his/her self, think, smile, laugh, perhaps not see or hear, then for me there would be no doubt in my mind - somehow for me the immoral thing to do would be to keep that child alive (for what life???) but that would have to be based on what was best for the child, not so much for the adult though of course in that scenario it would be heartbreaking for the parents.

Not everyone with Down Syndrome is retarded, at least as normal functioning goes, I’ve seen some in the military climb up the ladder in technical MOSs. Hardly saying they are the rule, but if a parent approaches their kid not as a total loss, give him candy and kids games for the rest of their lives, they won’t ever grow beyond that. Instead, you gotta pay very close attention to what still works cognitively in a child, and experiment, building on it. I know several in the special education field via Montessori, I do a lot of research trying to take basic mathematical formulas and tools developed around the world to apply to supplement my state’s GED program as well as high schools (we have a very high drop out rate, I was forced to in 9th grade). I have a good knack of seeing a laubach literacy student struggling with just the basics, and teaching them a alternative way… they can learn quickly. Teachers give up way too easily.

I think it was Harrison or Braxton County, West Virginia, two or three years back, a special education teacher has to leave for a while, and a substitute was sent in. She had a autistic child in the classroom, and the school secretary said "If he misbehaved, just grab him and hold him tight, and then restrain him.

Well, kid is autistic. He climbed up on a file cabinet, started throwing a tantrum. This substitute teacher, by herself, Yanks him off and grapples with him, then put him in restraints. He spends the rest of the day screaming, red faced.

Guess what? Not everyone in special ed are retarded, they just got behavior issues, and they went telling everyone. I found out about it when I was drafted into a Laubach group to represent my portion of the state from one of the representatives from that county. I became furious, screaming my head off… ended up having a long debate with a super-democrat in the group (chief dem in education apparently) and we had a long discussion about Autism. I then calked up my friend in a Jesuit University while in the court house, hunting down the state secretary of education… to me disbelief she told me it wasn’t a uncommon practice.

I about fucking blew my lid, pointed out it’s illegal to use coercive force on someone even I security, on a silently sitting protester, without two men on either side lifting (military doesn’t do this by the way, they will drop barb wire on you, like they nearly did to me during a mock protest- I was the last to be cleared cause I just sat down silently, stumping them trying to figure out how to deal with me on camera (fake news agency filming their actions for review)).

Secondly, there was very ify evidence that pressure really calmed them down, yes Autistic children respond to tactile information better (same with some schizophrenics)some and young children do respond to pressure in general, but you had to be a licenced psychologist to do that, or medically qualified to put a restraint on someone. My friend was a Ph.D in Special Education, but only a basic Bachelor in Plant Biology. Even she admitted she didn’t have a legal right to diagnose when a fit qualifies for pressing and restraint.

So in some schools across America, some autistic children are being squeezed by frustrated teachers, then restrained on some loose scientific testing that doesn’t advocate this approach in the classroom. I’m okay with a parent trying the squeeze, not a teacher not medically qualified… it will be exceptionally rare to find one.

I told a autistic speaker about this after a event on autism… think he became a lawyer, he became shocked someone in our state still was trying that. Doesn’t occur to people that Autistics grow up and have the ability in any cases not just to live independently, but make a shitload of money. Some businesses actually want them for their unique abilities.

Problem is, we don’t have a approach for teaching each student by disorder. Its all in it’s absolute infancy, and normal kids who merely were neglected are presumed to be retarded early on… our screening approach is aweful. My mother didn’t teach me to talk (cause she was a crack head) so when I entered kindergarten and went into first grade, military decided I was retarded, sent me to a special disabilities school in Yuba County, California. It took them a very short time to realize I wasn’t retarded, just wasn’t taught to speak, I understood them quite well, and could produce better art than them. I was sent to a speech school, started to talk right, and was rapidly advancing in grades, leaped two, nearly three in one year. How? They discovered I was a excellent readers, and just let me read and write on my own… I have very few memories of being taught there, they realized I was a self learner, and wise enough to let me be. I worked out of a train car (literally two trains, wheels intact behind Yuba City Elementary, calked it Goldfield Elementary.)

I was the fastest long distance runner in either school, was running three to four miles per day, could do math freaken fast, excellent at geography. Just had problems with Rs and Ss, prone to sneaking off with girls on the playground and getting into fights.

You gotta carefully badge each student, figuring out what they are good at, and getting them to excel in that. You gotta figure out what they are horrible at, and try for alternatives when it exists. Most teachers aren’t aware this is even possible, there has yet to be a consistent understanding of what does what.

I will say now, that day of rage at the response to the autistic child being restrained has lead that Catholic institution to put more emphasis on ethics, and they explicitly come out now against restraints. They also use the movie Idiocracy as course material, probably the only university in America. So far, it’s the only institution of hirer education I’ve had any impact on.

I may of mentioned the autistic child back when it first happened on this site. I was seriously pissed. You do not gave to accept the prognosis of the doctors or society when it comes to learning disabilities. Explore, experiment, test. Don’t treat kids as restrainable, forgettable, removable lost causes, something to be merely dealt with. Its not the way forward.

I’m still working on a basic theory, producable in a large graphic chart (billboard size) for every major disorder… for teacher break rooms, so they can sit there looking for behavioral traints and teaching suggestions. Also want a basic index for every disorder, with known techniques and teaching aids you can use for each subject, per syndrome and disorder. Admittedly some will have a low glass ceiling, but others can advance much farther than we presume. I’ve seen people with down syndrome operate artillery… it’s pretty heavy in math… their patents didn’t give up. Kid grew up to make a good contribution to their society. God Bless Them.

In utilitarianism, there’s this idea of a sum total of well-being. Dawkins’ seems to be making the assumption that having a child with Down’s decreases that sum total, all else being equal (either relative to not having the child or relative to a non-Down’s child, it isn’t clear from context). I would also presume that having an abortion decreases the sum total, all else being equal. In theory, the decreases can be compared as ‘costs’ of the possible actions, and utilitarianism requires that we choose the one that ‘costs’ less.

Can we really know any of this? No, not really, but we can sorta kinda know. It seems like we can know that certain things make people sadder or less well than others (e.g. candy vs. acid-in-the-eyes). But our knowledge is pretty blunt, we would have a much harder time with very fine distinction (e.g. milk-chocolate-candy vs. dark-chocolate-candy). We can know in a specific instance, but maybe not in general.

There’s also the problem of knowing the outcome of a decision that will affect the future when we can only pick one direction. But even then we can know within some level of precision that there is a certain expected cost in well-being, which we can determine even if the outcome ends up defying that expectation.

I don’t mean to imply that it’s not ultimately a fuzzy moral calculus, but I think that is what utilitarianism requires here (and seems to be inherent in Dawkins’ position).

But this sentiment is at odds with much of modern secular morality. Many pro-choice positions rely on the idea that a fetus has no right to be born, that rights don’t attach until birth (or perhaps just late in pregnancy). Pro-life arguments make just this point: the human being developing in a mother’s womb has a right to life, and therefore the mother cannot choose to abort without violating another person’s right. I think Dawkins would reject this line of argument, and say that a developing fetus has no rights, has no moral worth, and aborting the pregnancy is without cost except in the form of the suffering of the woman.

This is relevant to the underlying premise that I take Dawkins to hold, that Down’s children are somehow more costly to society and are able to contribute less. The question seems empirical (to a degree, we can certainly measure economic effects, but perhaps not e.g. emotional, social, or communal effects). I doubt that Dawkins is very well informed about how much Down’s individuals can contribute (which is not to say that I am).

This reminds me of Temple Grandin’s autobiography, where she describes a contraption she built to hug people (and later cattle) as a way of comforting them. It was a machine she always wanted for herself, so she built it.

What’s morality or ethics?

Its the discussion the judge has with your defense attorney.

This is far far from accurate.
This attitude to Downs is so far out of date its medieval. Downs people are friendly caring and with minimal special attention in education are perfectly capable of living independent and what is more HAPPY lives.
The happiness that an average Downs person enjoys is worth twice that of any other human, and probably tree times any happiness that Dawkins would ever be capable of.
Downs used to be dumped in the local loony bins and much of their lives was spend suffering in and environment unsuited to them.
Thankfully these days a little extra effort in the early days and they now do really well. Because of their visual differences they have been regarded as stupid or disabled, when in fact all they have is a fairly mild learning disadvantage. But what they loose in learning they gain in good temperament, thought a slightly shorter life.
If net happiness is the concern of utilitarianism then they won hands down

Dawkins is a prick.

The final decision whether to terminate or not should be made by the pregnant woman, not a counsellor and definitely not a church.

Some animal mothers abandon offspring in favour of a single child. Pandas almost always have twins, but abandon one twin to the wild. The mother Panda makes her selection based on strength, choosing the baby panda she believes has the better chance of survival.

I will be honest and say I am not prepared to hold a forty year old adult/child’s hand every waking moment of my life ……. and if I did what happens to the this child/adult when I die.

If I had to make a decision whether or not to abort a child who had Down Syndrome. I would choose abortion. Every time.

The one and only time I agree with Richard Dawkins.

Point taken. And a point any number of folks here [moreno in particular] have been at pains to address with me.

On the other hand, my own approach here is always to ask those who grapple with “philosophical questions” by proposing “philosophical answers” to grapple in turn with any possible limitations that the “real world” might then impose on these answers.

For a scientist – Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins – to speak of a “moral mandate” relating to abortion would seem to suggest that science is actually able to assess such things in terms of a mandate.

And yet as you note above all they are really doing is coming to a particular conclusion based on the particular “set of assumptions” that they start out with.

As though, in other words, there are not other scientists who might commence instead with a different set of assumptions. And, in turn, as though science can then establish definitively which set of assumptions all rational men and women are obligated to choose.

Similarly, in my view, it works pretty much the same way for philosophers.

After all, how in the world can folks like Harris and Dawkins [and their philosophical equivalent] expect to be taken seriously without taking into account the sustained experiences of those who deal day in and day out with the actual reality of Down Syndrome?

As you note:

From my perspective [as a moral nihilist] science and philosophy should steer clear of embracing words like “mandate” pertaining to conflicting behaviors that revolve around conflicting goods. And, to the extent that they don’t is the extent to which I view them as just another rendition of objectivists.

Better instead to embrace one or another rendition of democracy and the rule of law. Here different political factions are ever battling it out to obtain and then sustain legislative agendas more conducive to their own moral values/ideal.

Though here of course I am, in turn, quick to point out the extent to which dasein and political economy will then come into play as well.

He got into a bit of a pickle on this one:
twitter.com/RichardDawkins/stat … 9577732096
“There’s a profound moral difference between “This fetus should now be aborted” and “This person should have been aborted years ago.””

It’s hard to argue that the judgement that a foetus should (morally) have been aborted suddenly and retroactively changes upon the decision not to, such that the person it comes to be should not have been aborted as a foetus. I’m fairly sure that’s profoundly inconsistent.

Additionally, I know some people with DS and they’re happy, cheerful and (important to Dawkins) productive members of society. Their families had a harder time than most, which would have to be taken into account in a utilitarian calculus, but it comes down to the assumption one makes of the default utilitarian value of life.

If you hold it’s negative, you’re an antinatalist, fair enough, that’s clear. I think very many people would agree that a foetus that will have a short, agonising life, or one that will kill the mother to carry to term, is a fair candidate for abortion up to a late stage. Most people think that aborting a child on the basis of sex or eye colour is wrong - that there is some innate value in life that trumps subjective parental preferences that have little bearing on the happiness of the world. But on the continuum between those points, the Sorites paradox comes into play. Which side of the line is cystic fibrosis? Cerebral palsy? Congenital depression?

I know of someone who, at over 30, chose euthanasia for his chronic and crippling depression. He’d been deeply unhappy throughout his living memory, no therapies in all his decades of life had alleviated it (psychotherapy, pharmaceutical, surgical… nothing) and it was the choice of ensuring he had a peaceful death surrounded by family, or scraping him off a car park or train somewhere. It’s a different moral question, and one that’s deeply controversial in the medical world here, but a point he realised was how hard it was for his parents to know (or at least feel) that they should have never had him.

Living by a code which does the LEAST amount of harm and contributes to the GREATER good.
It’s a study which may cover the full color spectrum or at least black, white and many shades of gray, and more vivid or muted colors. Very seldom is it purely black or white though I may be wrong in this.

I totally agree with this - I can go along with it. It ties in, at least to me it does by my understanding, with what I said in my post about not knowing what’s possible, how far a child with Down Syndrome can come, and as I said, in this day and age, it’s pretty far, if the child is able to get all of the help he/she can…and there is so much available.

When I think of the remark…

THIS PERSON – I think of Hitler and all of the cruel barbaric despots who destroyed so many human lives…among them children… and it’s very possible or at least plausible that many of them were the unborn.

But I couldn’t say this UNLESS I absolutely knew the future. I could only say it in hindsight due to history but THERE IS NO HINDSIGHT insofar as the future of an unborn child with DS goes. There is only possibilities, good ones, great ones. For other unborn children who are unwanted, there are people out there who would love them, adopt them. But we’re in too much of a hurry to give up a few months of our lives to ensure perhaps that that future child might be the doctor or the scientist or the peacekeeper who would make such a difference in so many lives.

Sometimes I think that people just do not take the time to consider their options when it comes to abortion. They hear “pregnancy” or “Down Syndrome” and think all of the worse that can happen instead of including also the possibilities - thinking ahead, fantasizing about what COULD BE and coming to terms with whether they believe they could handle it or not.

Dr. Mengele, would you please stand up?
That may seem more than a bit harsh. I realize that things are not just black or white. There are people who are basically caring but are afraid and just can’t live in negative capability. Their unborn child with DS may just be too high a price for them to pay.
As I said, people are sometimes afraid to take a gamble though they can be quite capable of gambling away their bank accounts, their homes, even their marriages and the presence of their children in their lives but we’re afraid to gamble on the moral/ethical side with human lives, with humanity.

But again…I don’t think that we are capable of judging what is the least harm or greater or greatest good when we stand somewhere in the present moment — months before the future “present moment”.

A Shieldmaiden

That teacher would have lost her job if I could have had anything to do with it or at the very least, would have incurred many, many hours of community service and a strong seminar of how to “be” with special education children.

Even if you had ALL of the facts and came to realize that that child could have a fulfilling life - maybe one even more so than some?
Can you say beyond the shadow of a doubt that you would abort that child? Could you actually know this for sure - given all of the information out there? Of course, this is just a scenario here.

Sure, one can only imagine that it’s a lot of hard work, can be heartbreaking but also rewarding but so is raising any child…


Adult life for individuals with Down syndrome has changed noticeably from just two decades ago. Opportunities to live and work independently in the community have greatly expanded for those with Down syndrome. This owes much to the more inclusive and comprehensive education IDEA promotes and to improved public attitudes towards disability. Today, there’s a nationwide network of independent living centers, as well as apartments that are group-shared and supervised for those who need this level of support. Training, education, and assistance are also available to eligible adults with Down syndrome through service systems such as Vocational Rehabilitation and Social Security. Adult life holds many opportunities for those with Down syndrome, so it’s important to plan ahead with optimism and vigor.

I’m just trying to show the other side of this coin.

You say this, but the claim I make is that “if all these things are true…”, and your rebuttal is simply a rejection of one of the things.

Assume for a minute that you’re wrong about how costly Down’s is. If it helps, let’s not talk about Down’s, let’s imagine a different syndrome, call it Carleas’ syndrome, which is more disabling, requires more resources to support, and which by assumption renders anyone afflicted with it non-contributing. If Dawkins’ comment were about Carleas’ syndrome, his comments might be hurtful to the family of those with Carleas’ syndrome, but they would not be incoherent or inconsistent.

I take Dawkins’ to consider Down’s to be more like Carleas’ syndrome than you do. (This view may be partly cultural: apparently individuals with Down’s in the US are more independent and more productive on average than those in Europe (probably because the US safety net is not as protective).)

This is an interesting claim, and problematic for utilitarianism (it is utility-monster-like). Let’s say we could induce Down’s in developing fetuses, does this claim require that we do? Or at least for as much of the population as possible, leaving a critical mass of non-Down’s individuals to support the rest of the population?

I doubt, though, that we can establish this with any reliability.

I’m sympathetic to lived-experience arguments, but I don’t think the fact that Dawkins has no direct experience of caring for a person with Down’s completely disqualifies him from discussing the moral implications of it. He can (and should) account for his ignorance in his reasoning.

As others have suggested, perhaps his is an error of fact and not of moral reasoning. And it may be that those who deal with the reality of Down’s have better access to the relevant facts than Dawkins does. But that doesn’t seem to necessarily be the case – especially if Dawkins’ argument is at all motivated by social costs, since lived-experience is not an ideal source of information about net social cost.

To use a Texas hold 'em poker analogy, it seems reasonable to say that the claim “I should fold this bad hand”, is different from the claim (after the ‘flop’) that “I should have folded this bad hand.” As Arcturus points out, once we know how a life turns out, it changes the meaning of the statement that we should have done something different. A bad hand can turn out to be good. We can say that, objectively, the hand was bad, it was a candidate for abortion, but that now that we know that it miraculously created a full house, it should not have been aborted. And a bad hand may turn out to be a bad hand down the line, but at least we’re saying something different down the line when we say we should have aborted the hand.

Does this undermine the pro-choice position? If a fetus just has no moral worth prior to a certain point in gestation (and ignoring the heap-defining problems in that claim), then abortion is OK for any reason and for no reason. But granting that fetuses have rights that can be violated is acknowledging an inherent moral worth, which justifies all kinds of restrictions on access to abortions.

Perhaps a better way is to base the criticism not on the rights of the fetus, but on the rights of the disfavored sex or eye color. One can lawfully refuse to buy a book, but to refuse to buy a book because there is a drawing a person of a certain race on the cover is wrong, and not because it violates the rights of the drawing. In a way, it’s wrong to reason that way, regardless of what action the reasoning motivates. I’m not sure that this is coherently utilitarian, but it does seem close to intuitive morality.

Question had to do with morality and ethics not the finer points of the constructed justice system run by the very wealthy or powerful.

I don’t know about you guys but I really like this trickle down authority where everybody at the top of the pyramid gets to create morality and ethics for the rest of us around the world in authorship. Fine human beings, all of them.