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Friday, September 26, 2014

"...we seem to see..."

Part of the ugliness of the internet is that you see, not the "suffering humanity" of Goya's greatest scenes, but the grotesque inhumanity of individuals.

Case in point: this article at Salon, a very thoughtful and nuanced discussion of raising a child with trisomy 21 (after reading it, I don't even like to use the label "Down syndrome" anymore), couched in the context of the last Twitter firestorm Richard Dawkins set off (for which, as is pointed out here, he never really apologized.)  Most of the commentary argues that the world is better off without children born with trisomy 21, and that's why so many women are aborting fetuses where the syndrome is detected in utero.

I don't know that that is true, but I am skeptical of the claim.  Whether it is true or not is irrelevant, because it means most pregnant women are actually quite comfortable in Omelas, and would rather abort a child and replace it with another, than consider that child a unique human being.  The question of choosing abortion is not on the table here; the question is, why give birth to a child with a condition like trisomy 21?  And the bulk of the conclusions seems to be:  because it's damned inconvenient, which was Dawkins' argument.  The article at Salon provides a rejoinder to that assumption; but the ugliness is that the assumption is so deeply rooted few people commenting on the article take note of that.

They know what they know, and no facts are going to disturb their knowledge.

More telling, then, than the question of how one makes such a moral decision, is the question of what ethics one employs to make such a moral decision.  On that issue, no one wants to speak at all; except in this article at The Daily Beast.

The short version of the article is:  ethics is far more complicated than Dawkins imagines, and "logic" is not the stuff Mr. Spock uses to be unemotional and so reach a better conclusion than emotional humans.  For example:

In the apology Dawkins says, “Given a free choice of having an early abortion or deliberately bringing a Down child into the world, I think the moral and sensible choice would be to abort…I personally would go further and say that, 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….Having said that, the choice would be entirely yours and I would never dream of trying to impose my views on you or anyone else.”

Dawkins’ belief that we should maximize happiness and minimize suffering seems to be a moral theory known as “act-utilitarianism.” For an act-utilitarian, an action’s morality can, in theory, be demonstrated empirically. To discover if an act is moral or immoral, you simply measure the amount of happiness or suffering it causes. The more suffering an act causes, the more immoral it is; the more happiness an act causes, the more moral it is.
"Seems to be" is the telling phrase there, because Dawkins doesn't really have a coherent ethic here; rather like Potter Stewart's definition of pornography, Dawkins seems to know what's ethical when he sees it.  But the question of "amount of suffering" raises a critical point:  whose suffering are we considering?  The individual's?  The family's?  Society's?  The world?

Lest you think I exaggerate:
When you really try to understand what Dawkins is saying in his apology, however, you realize that his thoughts are not even fully coherent. He says that continuing the pregnancy is immoral because the child would better be off if she had never been born—but he provides no evidence for this, and it’s flat-out implausible that Down syndrome renders a life so wretched that it’s not worth living. Earlier in the same sentence Dawkins says he believes morality is based on increasing “the sum of happiness,” which presumably means the sum of everyone’s happiness. That is, an action is immoral when it makes the entire world worse off. If that’s true, and he has stated he thinks it’s immoral knowingly to give birth to someone with Down syndrome, does he think the mere presence of people with Down syndrome increases suffering in the world?
If you read the comments at Salon (and I don't advise it), you'll find that it is actually considered quite plausible that "Down syndrome renders a life so wretched that it's not worth living."  Which is precisely what the Salon article is countering, although to no avail with the crowd that knows what it knows and doesn't need to know anything else.  There, however, is Dawkins' argument in a nutshell:  the happiness of the world is diminished because of one child with trisomy 21, so it is immoral to give birth to such children.*

And apparently no small number of people are okay with that.  Which is kind of disgusting; not to mention wildly immature, since the first response to that kind of thinking is:  "The world doesn't revolve around you."

Dawkins, and a lot of the comments at Salon, justify the decision to abort a fetus with trisomy 21 on the grounds that everybody who is pro-choice (and so will have an abortion, if they choose) will decide to abort such a fetus.  Which is another monstrous display of self-centeredness:

It is...possible for someone to be pro-choice and think abortion is generally permissible, but not for certain reasons. He or she may think it immoral to terminate if the decision was based on the fact that a fetus was discovered to be gay, or predisposed to obesity, or dark-skinned, or female. Or disabled. Indeed, Dawkins is so far from the ordinary pro-choice stance that there is no major bioethicist or philosopher who would agree—without far more caveats than Dawkins provides—that the “moral and sensible” thing to do is abort if a fetus is diagnosed with Down syndrome.
I suppose Dawkins, or his supporters, would qualify the decision to abort based on genetic characteristics, to Down syndrome v. being gay, or female, or dark-skinned, on the grounds that the latter don't detract from the sum of the world's happiness, but trisomy 21 does.  Which, of course, is defensible:  if you have no ethics at all.

As for the misery of trisomy 21, perhaps we should ask the people involved:

Among 2,044 parents or guardians surveyed, 79 percent reported their outlook on life was more positive because of their child with Down syndrome…

Skotko also found that among siblings ages 12 and older, 97 percent expressed feelings of pride about their brother or sister with Down syndrome and 88 percent were convinced they were better people because of their sibling with Down syndrome. A third study evaluating how adults with Down syndrome felt about themselves reports 99 percent responded they were happy with their lives, 97 percent liked who they are, and 96 percent liked how they looked.
But they aren't increasing the sum of Richard Dawkins' imagined happiness, nor of his acolytes, so clearly they are wrong.  And regarding that reference to Mr. Spock earlier:

Among the people who, according to Dawkins, have misunderstood Dawkins, are “those 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.” Apparently, he thinks people who love someone with Down syndrome simply must be clouded by sentiment, and unable to see reason. But for an act-utilitarian, the emotions of those who know and love people with Down syndrome are not muddying the issue; on the contrary, they are crucial data points. These people are telling him what for some reason he does not seem to want to hear: that their happiness is increased with someone with Down syndrome in the world.
The gravest error in employing "logic" is in assuming logic invariably leads to truth, when logic itself makes no such claim.  Logic, properly employed, will eliminate error in reasoning; but it does not speak to the validity of the information employed.  The old syllogism that:  "All humans are mortal, Socrates is human, therefore Socrates is mortal" is a valid conclusion, but it is as valid as "1+1=2."  The numbers there are merely symbols, they are not statements of immutable fact (and are only valid in certain contexts.  In biology, 1+1=3, at a minimum, unless the female devours the male after copulation.  But in those cases 1+1 usually equals something in double or even triple digits.).  The syllogism doesn't prove that humans are mortal, or that Socrates is human; it simply establishes a valid conclusion from the words that might as well be symbols themselves (and in symbolic logic are merely symbols).  The reasoning may be sound, but is the outcome true?  Logic cannot speak to that.  And if emotions are crucial data points Dawkins simply wants to discard on the way to his conclusion, then what good is this intelligence Dawkins supposedly has?

And besides, Dawkins employs no such logic at all.  His ethics are incoherent and inconsistent.  He would undoubtedly argue that a female child does not subtract from the world's sum of happiness, but if that child is born into a culture which is barbaric to women, is the mother wrong to weep for the suffering she fears her daughter will undergo?  Would we consider that valid grounds for abortion in that culture?  Probably not, but are we any less barbaric because we consider children with trisomy 21 too much trouble to bother with?  Where, exactly, is the distinction in this ethical system Dawkins proposes?

None of this stops Dawkins' ardent supporters from saying he's right because, well, some people have no reason to live, and they know who they are.

Or something.  I dunno; it's all too depressing.....

*Conversely, if the misery of one child will make everyone else happy, Dawkins would be fine as mayor for life of Omelas.


Blogger June Butler said...

My great-aunt, who was one of the most beautiful people I knew, inside and out, had 10 children, the last a boy with Down's Syndrome. She said that the son with DS brought her more joy than any of the other nine. As I recall, the other nine were pretty nice people and turned out well.

Had he lived, my cousin would be my age, and, at the time, there was scant provision for education for children with DS. He went to school for a while, but not, I believe, through high school age. He was well-mannered, better behaved than many "normal" children, and displayed a sly, delightful sense of humor.

He seemed to suffer from the diseases of old age prematurely and died in his late 50s, but I would say his life was well worth living.

8:19 PM  
Blogger The Thought Criminal said...

I've known people with Downs Syndrome who were very nice people who were very happy and who were, as you say, loved by those who knew them. They hurt no one and that, alone, makes them far more good to the world than a number of people who Dawkins would probably not have ever considered as candidates for his form of eugenic abortion. James Randi comes to mind, though I wouldn't advocate that if there were a genetic test that could detect a James Randi in utero (don't know how to spell that, perhaps I should have been aborted) I wouldn't advocate that it would be moral to abort them as a matter of policy.

I've come to the conclusion that the commentators at Salon, Alternet, and just about any other place where mid-brow college educated people congregate are atypical of the general population. I have a strong feeling that they largely don't contribute to the general happiness of the world. I doubt that the typical commentator at the "Freethought" blogs do or the "Scienceblogs" or most other places.

This is the kind of thing that could cause me to write about neo-eugenics here and now.

9:21 PM  
Blogger Rmj said...

It is clear Dawkins equates "happiness" with "intelligence."

He'd no doubt agree with Holmes that "three generations of imbeciles is enough!"

6:35 AM  
Blogger Rmj said...

And I think Anthony is right, most commenters I encounter are not representative of the general population. I am grateful for the comments I get here from all the regulars (who else comments here? ;-) ) who remind me the general populace is far kinder and more humane than one might conclude from reading the internet.

6:53 AM  
Blogger alberich said...

Logic, properly employed, will eliminate error in reasoning; but it does not speak to the validity of the information [...] it is as valid as "1+1=2."  The numbers there are merely symbols, they are not statements of immutable fact (and are only valid in certain contexts.  In biology, 1+1=3

I.e. The truth value of 1+1 is 2 depends on what the definition of + is (as well as, I cannot resist pointing out, what the definition of is is). Not only does the result of a logical inference depend on the (experiential) information you explicitly put into your reasoning process, but it also depends on the assumptions and worldview implicit in the definitions you use and even the particular logic (modal, fuzzy, classical, etc) you use.

Yes, I majored in math and my research touches on issues of (statistical) inference. Why do you ask? Of course scientists who study genetics should also understand these points but as people like Dawkins show, they oftentimes don't.

8:32 AM  
Blogger Rmj said...


Thank you. You are quite correct. My example depends upon a confusion of terms. The distinction is in languages. Same word, different usages in specific fields.

9:02 AM  
Blogger The Thought Criminal said...

I know of geneticists who would say that Dawkins knows nothing about actual genetics, his ideas about them being decades out of date and not particularly deep at that.

In answering a question of what he'd ask aliens who had just landed on Earth for the first time, Richard Lewontin once, making a clear reference to Dawkins, said that he would ask them if they could distinguish between a set and the element of the set (if I remember the subtle point he was making after all of these years).

I've done my own analysis of his most famous adapative fable and found out that it doesn't pass muster even on the basis of old fashioned arithmetic.

1:53 PM  
Blogger Rmj said...

I've come to think of Dawkins as a person famous for his popularized ideas, not famous for his science.

Einstein, to pick the most obvious example, was famous for his science. He never wrote a popularized version of the Theory of Relativity.

Dawkins is famous for his books, on science and atheism. If he understand genetics as poorly as he does general reason and philosophy of religion, I see no reason to regard him as anything but a buffoon.

8:16 PM  
Blogger rick allen said...

"He never wrote a popularized version of the Theory of Relativity."

In fact he did. It was published (in the English translation) as "Relativity: A Clear Explanation that Anyone Can Understand." I've read it. I have to say, his title was way optimistic.

I don't necessarily disagree with what has been said in these comments, but they seem to me to answer only half the issue. Professor Dawkins has advocated the abortion of pre-natals with Down's Syndrome because of the pain and misery they bring with them into the world. I think that everyone has made the important point that they often bring joy and happiness and blessedness.

But that still leaves the main argument unanswered, that we should take out those who, for whatever reason, will bring pain and sorrow (regardless of whether Down's Syndrome fits the bill). I suppose I want to add that, even if we know that a child will bring such things in his wake, we ought not to eliminate him for that reason. Parenthood brings many joys and many sorrows. There is no calculus of such things. In the past it has been assumed that the bond of parent and child is such that the child has an absolute claim to life, to nurture and to affection. The replacement of those ties with a weighing to achieve maximum net "happiness" strikes me as terribly inhuman, apart from any religious questions involved.

10:33 PM  
Blogger Rmj said...


Quite so (and thanks for the correction; that's one I was not aware of): Dawkins speaks, first and foremost, as someone who has never raised a child.

The very idea that life is to be ended if it doesn't produce enough happiness is a ridiculous one, to me. It is part of the reason I'm not comfortable with societal support of euthanasia: because who is to say what is intolerable for another person?

I just heard a story about French soldiers returning from WWI with grievous facial injuries (because they stuck their heads above the trenches, and the face was an obvious target), injuries so bad people in the streets fainted at their appearance.

Perhaps such a thing could happen today, but we've seen so many distorted features and grotesgueries in the movies that we have quite a different expectation of what is "horrific." Likewise, real human suffering was once so accepted people thought little of it, accepted it as the general lot of being alive, and moved on.

Of course, modern medicine has made some suffering easier to prolong: people with injuries that leave chronic pain, injuries repairable but pain that is unstoppable. But how we weigh one against the other is not an immutable law of nature, as we imagine: it is largely a product of social awareness.

Dawkins imagines raising a child with Down syndrome to be too great a burden to bear; but why? Based largely on false information, but grounded in the idea that suffering of that type should be eliminated. For the sake of whom, though? Dawkins, so he doesn't have to think about it? Society, so it doesn't have to think about it? The parents? The unborn child?

Whose suffering is it, anyway?

6:57 AM  
Blogger alberich said...

Thank you. You are quite correct. My example depends upon a confusion of terms. The distinction is in languages. Same word, different usages in specific fields.

However, no doubt that Dawkins similarly confuses usages in his "arguments". Indeed, Dawkins' "ethical" logic is only as good as the definitions, axioms and mode of reasoning his implicit assumptions about what constitutes ethics motivate him to use. What "ethics" means for Dawkins may be something very peculiar and hardly ethical by any other definition.

And, FWIW, I am not entirely against confusion of terms: I cannot imagine, for example, a good portion of midrash without it. And what is Rabbinic Judaism without midrash? Indeed, the very etymological root of "symbol" is a throwing of concepts together: thus arguably without confusion of terms there is no reasoning of any meaningful sort in the first place.

2:02 PM  

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