Richard Dawkins ignited the Twittersphere once more, then went on to explain himself in more detail.
The source of everything is his Tweet seen on the right.
Which to my eyes is a simple, straightforward and true statement that in a rational world shouldn’t be worth much attention. But we don’t live in such a world. The problem here is that our attitude to procreation is still religious, due to millenia of indoctrination. Biologically speaking, however (never forget that Dawkins is a biologist when you argue about him) genetic recombination as it happens when sperm and egg meet, is not a divine act or pre-ordained fate, it’s simply an act of shuffling the cards so maybe in the next round (generation) your game will be better. And sometimes, the cards fall down. The complexity of the process is mindboggling, and that our failable, weak bodies can do it reliably in 99.9% of the cases is astonishing.
But what happens in the 0.1% of the cases where something goes horribly wrong? That is where people throw out words like “Eugenics”. How stupid of them, and how damaging to their cause, if they have one. Eugenics is the attempt of consciously controlling a populations genetic pathway, by choosing desireable features. But we’re not talking about blue eyes and blonde hair here, we are talking about a debilitating genetic defect. Nature makes mistakes, but it also eradicates them quickly. In a natural environment, animals with Down Syndrome don’t survive, period.
In humans, even in western society with health care and special treatment, DS reduces life expectancy by 15 to 25 years and the mental development of an adult with DS is about equal to that of a pre-teen child. With screening we have a choice. That is what morality is all about – choosing right over wrong, good over bad, even when our feelings tell us otherwise. The feelings of parents, of course, are not a good guideline here, because parents typically love their children no matter what. The feelings of religious people are misguided, because they base their world-view on wrong assumptions. Let’s ignore feelings altogether and check what is right and good. And for whom.
Three actors are involved in the decision. The parents, the child and society.
The child is where it is most tricky and assumptions are decisive. If we assume an embryo at a very early stage of development to be what it biologically is, abortion is easily the correct answer. Life with DS is not a full life, it is short and most of what makes a human human will forever be out of grasp of such a child. Moreover, if we assume that no couple makes an unlimited amount of children, giving a full life to another baby instead is clearly the right and good decision. If you can abort and make a new life instead, the whole decision is trivial. Unless – you are religious or spiritual and assume that the embryo is more than a growing bundle of cells, that for some reason the soul gets infused at some magical point in time before the consciousness develops biologically. In that case, of course, aborting the child and making a new one would deprive this one of its fate. But you have to be very religious to assume this is right and good, because otherwise depriving this one of its life is no better or worse than depriving the next one that would have been born instead if the parents tried again, but now they won’t. So in addition to being religious, you also have to assume a “master plan” kind of god, someone who for some reason enjoys creating a defect every now and then.
For the parents, the decision is a little more tricky and depends on their attitude. Caring for a disabled child is no fun no matter how much you love it, and considerably reduces your quality of life. In fact, love for the child is the only thing that makes such an ordeal bearable at all. Clearly, for the parents state of mind, sanity, health and enjoyment, aborting and trying again is the correct, good and right decision. Unless – they consider abortion immoral, evil and a kind of murder, which would stay with them and remain as a constant burden on their minds. Again, there is no more rational reason to consider an early abortion murder any more than, say, murdering thousands of sperm cells every time you ejaculate. Heck, even when you fuck only once and the woman gets pregnant, thousands of less lucky sperm cells go to their deaths.
For society, the decision is incredibly simple. Disabled people are a burden and their cost to society is higher than their contribution. In general. It is not really that easy. We do have some disabled people with considerable contributions – Stephen Hawkins for example. And caring for the disabled is a generally positive feature of society in that we can argue a kind and forgiving society is preferable over one that constantly does cost/benefit calculations. However – the first argument does not apply because it is incredibly unlikely that someone with an IQ of 50 will advance mankind in any way. Stephen Hawkins has an IQ of 160, and the disease that is destroying his body does not affect his mind. That is a crucial difference. Secondly, while a kind society can be assumed to be preferable, no society can survive an unlimited amount of kindness. Morality is not the same as giving short-term benefits to other people. Morality is exactly the question of giving someone a fish or a fishing rod. Morality is also the question of giving someone a fish once when he is starving, or every day because he’s learnt that you’ll give him a fish if he asks. Morality has to ask and answer the question of when to stop supporting as well as when to start. And the only rational way to answer that question is to see the benefits. Supporting those who had accidents or were unlucky in life is beneficial to society because it gives reassurance to all of us to continue contributing to society because we can expect it to care for us in return. Pre-teen children do not in general understand this concept. They will never contribute to society because the concept of society is still alien to them. In normal children, we accept this because it is part of becoming human. But do we need to accept it in someone who will never grow beyond this stage?
As society, the clearly good and right decision is to encourage abortion in such cases, while accepting the choice of those parents who don’t. Enforcing the preferred decision of society would step the boundary, this is where those who cry “Eugenics! OMG!” are right – but nobody made such a suggestion. We can say that “for society, this would be best” without demanding it is being realized by force. The kindness of society is exactly in not pushing for its optimal solution constantly, but allowing some leeway.
In summary, the answer given by Richards is spot on. It is a strong, solid suggestion of the right decision, without any compulsion. A society, or medical doctor, or stranger on the Internet who says “you should do X” is perfectly right when he has good arguments for his view, and in this case I believe I have shown that he does. The same society saying “do X or else” could be in the wrong. This is where Morality comes in – do we dislike X enough to punish it or not? Do we as society give ourselves the authority to do so? Or do we understand that life is complicated and there is a gray area of undesireable, but tolerable X?
And that, exactly, is where DS and other disabilities fall into. I do not think there is any sane person on this planet who would consider DS to be desireable. If we can prevent it, we should. As it is a genetic recombination defect, we cannot prevent it prior to conception. But we understand the whole part about creating new life is a bit tricky, so while making a human being suffer from DS for all his life is clearly evil, we’re bound by our innate psychology which makes us believe that doing evil is worse than letting evil happen by not doing anything. The lorry experiment all over.
Clearly, the rational choice is to abort and try again. To flip the switch and kill the fat man. But most of us are too afraid of choice, and would rather let nature, god or – let’s be honest – pure random chance take their course than make an uncomfortable decision.