The recent kerfuffle over Richard Dawkins infelicitous Twitter post regarding Down Syndrome and abortion is a good example of why smart, thoughtful people need to be very careful when posting to Twitter, or talking on the Internet in general.
This most recent controversy originates from a variety of sources.
First, there is the fact that Dawkins has made a lot of enemies in the religious community who pounce on every perceived slip of the tongue. This is not to say that all criticism came from the religious community. A recent article in The Daily Beast shows that even professional philosophers and ethicists can pile on—and get wrong what Dawkins is actually arguing.
Of course, another problem is that Twitter, and sometimes other Internet communications systems, lack the proper forum for reasonable conversation or debate. It is tough to pack one’s thoughts into one hundred and forty characters. This is especially true when the communication was, according to Dawkins, not meant for general distribution.
This last point helps explain why so many non-followers have been thoroughly outraged while those of us familiar with Dawkins’s work were nonplussed by his comments. Those of us who have read and admire Dawkins’s trenchant views would never be scandalized by what he said about Down Syndrome fetuses, rape at knife point, or being fondled as a child.
I, for one, am convinced that Richard Dawkins is a decent and kind man, even when his language might suggest otherwise. What many perceive as emotional cruelty is, for those of us familiar with Mr. Dawkins, an attempt to be kind. He believes, as he has stated on numerous occasions, that human happiness should be our chief goal, both as individuals and as a society. In short, we should have the moral goal of the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. However, this type of human happiness cannot be achieved if people do not think right, so Mr. Dawkins is constantly striving to help us think more clearly about ourselves and the world around us, primarily through a good acquaintance with science.
Here is where we get to the true problem with Mr. Dawkins comment about Down Syndrome and the choice to terminate such a pregnancy. What Mr. Dawkins said makes perfect sense from his perspective because the fetus is not yet a “person.” So, terminating a fetus with Down Syndrome is a good choice. I emphasize the words good choice because there is a distinction between a good choice and a moral choice.
Let me illustrate with a simpler example, I could choose to get drunk tonight. Many people consider drunkenness immoral, but let’s say I do not. However, I choose not to get drunk tonight because I have an important meeting tomorrow and do not want to go into it hung over. Have I acted morally or have I simply made a good choice in light of my own circumstances? Knowing my motives the moralist would say, “No, you have not made a moral choice because a true moral choice means choosing to obey or violate a fixed moral standard.” This is an argument that Immanuel Kant would have enjoyed exploring with hundreds of pages of prose, but this is the internet so let’s cut to the chase.
If you notice my choice has all the components of the Down Syndrome dilemma. I have to make a choice now, that choice may or may not impact my future happiness, and there are some with very clear ideas about that present act being either moral or immoral.
At this point some of you will be saying to yourself, “But that’s totally different! We are talking about a human life here!” Okay, then let’s say the person referenced above is a heart surgeon and the important meeting they have tomorrow is a surgery. What do you think now?
Suddenly the choice not to get drunk because you don’t want to ruin your PowerPoint presentation becomes a potential question of life and death. Is it moral for surgeons to operate with a hangover? Well, it is definitely unethical, and it is very probably not a good idea. I think most of us would also agree that it is pretty immoral to take such chances with another person’s life. So, it appears to be the trifecta of bad decision-making. Can the same thing be said of terminating a pregnancy where Down Syndrome has been detected?
For those who believe that a lie is a lie, you know, the kind of person who is so honest they would tell the Nazi’s that Anne Frank is hiding in the attic, it would never be acceptable to terminate a pregnancy for any reason. Of course, most people reject such absolute moral thinking.
So, putting aside the absolute moralist’s view let’s ask the question again. Is it moral to terminate a pregnancy when Down Syndrome has been detected? Here is where I think Dawkins got into trouble.
Dawkins does not think it is immoral to terminate a pregnancy when the situation is such that greater suffering will ensue. In fact, to remain logically consistent Dawkins would have to argue that terminating this type of pregnancy before the fetus enters into “personhood” would be no different from getting a mole removed from your back. It is merely a medical procedure at this early stage.
For Dawkins abortion does not present a true moral choice until the fetus becomes a person or until one projects one’s self into the future. Of course, this is problematic on two fronts. When does a fetus become a person, and how can we know the future?
I do not think there is an easy answer to either question. If there were easy answers then they would not be moral dilemmas. However, I think the second question can be informed by asking a different question. For example, what if we could test for progeria, which causes far worse suffering than Down Syndrome? Would your moral opinion then change with the knowledge that bringing such a life to full term would lead to severe pain and suffering for the child, followed by an early death? As a potential parent, would you choose to watch your child develop atherosclerosis, arthritis, cancer, and cataracts, and then most surely die before their thirteenth birthday?
There were some during this debate who said that terminating a pregnancy because Down Syndrome is detected is tantamount to eugenics. Of course, they did not using the term correctly. They are also making light of the gut-wrenching decision to raise a child with a potentially crippling disability. This is all the more reason to keep these decisions in the personal realm and within the purview of medical doctors, not legislators and politicians.
As for Mr. Dawkins, I say, “Continue forward, my friend!” Those of us who know you best know what you mean to say. Do not worry about the controversies you are raising. It can only serve to discomfit the inflexible moralist, and encourage the pursuit of knowledge and truth among those who still have questions.