Friday, 22 August 2014

Richard Dawkins’ dim utilitarianism: Down’s tweet

Hmm, well, I guess so. I mean, they don't live that long, and they laugh all the time

Thus spoke my friend Gustav when asked if he'd still want the baby should the amniotic fluid test on his (highly hypothetical) girlfriend show that the foetus had Down's Syndrome.

Richard Dawkins would not have approved of Gustav's stance. The professional basher of God(s) caused a storm in a tweet-cup yesterday as he via Twitter recommended a woman to abort her foetus if it was diagnosed with Down's. 

Dawkins has an unfortunate — or is it fortunate (all publicity is...)?  ability to create storms via tweets around this time of year. Last August, as Ramadan had drawn to a close, the Oxford professor slammed the whole Islamic world for having produced fewer Nobel Prize winners than Trinity College Cambridge. Although factually true, the churlish tweet seemed primarily intent on mocking Eid-celebrating Muslims.

Richard Dawkins. The tweeting atheist.

As for the Down'tweet this year, there is really nothing new to see here. Dawkins is just echoing that (early) 20th century tradition of extreme utilitarianism that made so-called ‘progressive’ intellectuals support eugenics — for the general good of society.

As Dawkins explained:

If your morality is based, as is mine, on a desire to increase the sum of happiness and reduce suffering, the decision to deliberately give birth to a Down's baby, when you have the choice to abort it early in the pregnancy, might actually be immoral

Be it George B. Shaw, John M. Keynes, Gunnar and Alva Myrdal, they all walked on that less edifying side of social engineering in the modernist age. The side that lauded eugenics as a way to improve public health and reduce public expenditure by stopping so-called non-viable individuals” — with undesirable characteristics and traits  from either reproducing or coming into being. All in the pursuit of decreasing the burden on society and creating a more sound demographic material (folkmaterial” in Myrdal's Swedish).

Even my beloved The Guardian was part of this strand. As David Kynaston writes in Austerity Britan 1945-1951, the then Manchester Guardian had doubts in the 1940’s about the setting up of the NHS since it: 

feared that the state provision of healthcare would eliminate selective elimination’ and thus lead to an increase of congenitally deformed and feckless people.

Today, The Guardian knows better. Dawkins should too.

       Stephen Green. Elected parish councillor 
       in Nuthall 2012, aged 47.
As someone who has worked closely with adults with Down's, I fully reject the validity of Dawkins' utilitarianism in this area. The joy that these peeps accord their surroundings is far more happiness-inducing than, dare I say, many a middle-aged Oxford professors'. Further, the insalubrious and facile argument that their existence is a pecuniary burden on society can easily be countered by the fact that (a) many adults with Down's have ordinary jobs and (b) the care they need obviously generates jobs for society.

What I told my dear friend Gustav? That, yes, people with Down's might laugh more than people with one less chromosome (hello, Mr Bentham!) — but reducing them to something as simplistic as that would be doing not only them but everyone in society a huge disservice.

People with Down’s are human beings who possesses and displays the whole panoply of human emotions and individual complexities that members of the so-called normal cohort of the population does (what is normal, anyway?) 

And today they can live a very full, happy and long life well into their 50's and 60's. The only prerequisite for achieving such a life is, as it is for all human beings, a lot of love and support.

Utilitarianism, move on and tell Dawkins the news.