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Someone with whom I once did teacher training is now a fervent Catholic and blogger at his site. We have had many a strong argument on facebook, and recently he alerted me to this blog post to see what I thought. I am now going to critique his piece on abortion and Dawkins.

As you may have read, in recent days there has been a stonking debate about abortion here, which has really got to the nub of the abortion debate, philosophically speaking. Unfortunately, in Laurence’s piece, abortion is just simply taken as a sin on account of Catholic doctrine. Of course, I disagree for many reasons.

Apparently (I was unaware) Dawkins has recently urged someone have an abortion to get rid of a Down’s Syndrome child. What a difficult decision for sure (And for the record, after much careful thought, I would wager I would opt for the same).

Laurence starts off with the usual hat tip to the Moral Argument, followed by this rather blanket and naïve claim:

It has been said before by others that Richard Dawkins is in some ways a great gift to the Church because he keeps on revealing what atheism really is and the moral abyss of nihilism into which it leads. Others will say, in the face of such callous statements that this is not ‘my kind of atheism’ – because its not really humanism – and yet, ultimately, atheism denies to the one who disagrees with this opinion a logical right of reply because atheism denies an objective reality or objective set of moral truths grounded in divine revelation or even natural law. In atheism, there is no moral truth, only moral opinion.

This is interesting because most philosophers are non-theists and are broadly split three ways:

Normative ethics: deontology, consequentialism, or virtue ethics?

Other 301 / 931 (32.3%)
Accept or lean toward: deontology 241 / 931 (25.9%)
Accept or lean toward: consequentialism 220 / 931 (23.6%)
Accept or lean toward: virtue ethics 169 / 931 (18.2%)

And:

Meta-ethics: moral realism or moral anti-realism?

Accept or lean toward: moral realism 525 / 931 (56.4%)
Accept or lean toward: moral anti-realism 258 / 931 (27.7%)
Other 148 / 931 (15.9%)

Since only some 14.6% of the philosophers surveyed reported as theist (this is the biggest ever philosophy survey), this means that what Laurence is saying, as according to these philosophers, is apparently false. Despite what i personally think of moral truth here, it is abundantly clear that perhaps the most important discussion in philosophy is still far from being settled. And none of these choices require a God to make sense. This is something that I have written about in my chapter in John Loftus’ forthcoming book from Prometheus; that atheists are in a good position to morally judge Christians, since none of the major philosophical positions on morality require God, and none of the most adhered to positions are subjective, or “opinion”. In fact, only 27.7% rated themselves as non-realists.

Furthermore, in his comment about natural law indicates perhaps a lack of knowledge about the position.

Therefore, before the horror of Richard Dawkins’s opinion on the unborn child with Downs Syndrome, the concerned atheist has two places to go – to natural law – or to the God, for what else is there…

This is just naïve and demonstrably false. I suggest some reading around the subject of morality!

Can the confirmed atheist really say, ‘I am an atheist and I disagree with Richard Dawkins’? He can, of course, say it, since it is a matter of opinion, but ultimately, he cannot confront Mr Dawkins with a convincing logical argument that defeats the repellent point of view he has posited.

Er, that’s just ridiculous. This equates anti-abortionists as necessarily being theists who ground their morality in the same way Laurence does.

Laurence reports Dawkins as tweeting, “Abort it and try again. It would be immoral to bring it into the world if you have the choice.”

It cold, its brutal, its rational, its logical, its scientific. It was also the kind of reply that was not called for. Literally.

It turns out that Mr Dawkins is something of a patriarch! If it had been directed at me and I had replied, ‘Keep it for Heaven’s sake! It would be immoral to kill a child just because s/he had Downs Syndrome!’ how would she react?

“Abort it and try again”, is his reply. This is something of a command, is it not? Somewhat the inversion of ‘Go forth and multiply’. Next Mr Dawkins moralises to the woman.

This is an incredible set of statements. Whilst Dawkins has been lambasted for his dubious statements in the context of feminism, this is just ridiculous. Laurence, a man, tells one man off for a dogmatic claim on behalf of a woman, and then makes an even more dogmatic one on behalf of women! Simply beggars belief!

That’s right. Atheists can moralise, even though there is no objective moral authority but for ‘my considered opinion’ upon which the atheist draws.

Yawn. See above.

In an astonishing assertion, Dawkins insists, “It would be immoral to bring it into the world”. Note too, that the unborn child is an ‘it’. ‘It’ should not be allowed to exist. But who says so? By what authority does Dawkins claim that ‘it’ should not be allowed to exist? ‘Into the world’ he adds? Whose world is this? Our world? Or Dawkins-world? The Brave New World?

Who’s talking about assertions?!

What annoys me about the abortion debate in this un-nuanced form is the terribly dubious use of loaded language. A blastocyst is not a child! An embryo is not a child! Child destruction refers to an unborn “capable of being born alive”, and embryos at the stage of Down’s identification are far from that. These words are used to evoke emotional, non-rational, purchase.

The headings that Laurence uses are hilarious in their irony:

Judgemental atheists

In his and many other’s version of the (Catholic Christian) faith there is an incredible amount of judgement, Indeed, it is built into the faith! Laurence’s whole piece reeks of judgement. Unjustified judgement at that.

90% of unborn children with Downs are already aborted in this country, so Mr Dawkins touches on something of an open wound in British society. Are the 10% of parents who do not abort their child with Downs choosing a course of action that is ‘immoral’? Are they guilty? If so, guilty of what? Bringing ‘inferior’ human beings into the world?  Making the world genetically less pure? Who is inferior to whom? Can it be empirically proven that this is the case? Is that all we are? Walking genes?

As I have said many times before, God loves abortion. Most implanted eggs spontaneously and naturally abort. God could design it otherwise and God could stop it. But doesn’t. Since he is apparently all-loving, it must serve a purpose. So God is instrumentally using the death of unborns for a greater good. That is EXACTLY what pro-choicers argue for. It is deliciously ironic. And really, I have never seen an argument that comes close to refuting this.

And then there is this nonsense. I would like to be nicer, as Laurence asked me for my opinion kindly, but this is just rampant nonsense:

And yet can the ‘nice atheist’ confront Mr Dawkins with anything here to say, ‘You are totally wrong’? Not really. An entire army of atheists can stand up and say, “What a deeply unpleasant thing to say!” But logic does not have to be pleasant. Logic, as Richard has said in his ‘apology’ does not need to take account of feelings. In the ‘law of the jungle’, feelings, remember, are for wimps. We are talking here about the ‘survival of the fittest’. We’re talking about the quality of the ‘human species’. For this we can thank Darwinism.

I just don’t quite know where to start. So I won’t, much. Suffice to say that feelings and emotions are part of life and get factored into many a logical argument. In fact, consequentialism is often defined in terms of, you know, happiness, or lack of pain.

Most atheists argue from a point of empiricism. Yet empiricism doesn’t offer to Dawkins any evidence that it would be immoral to bring a child with Downs Syndrome into the world. That is a value judgment. It is not even scientific, unless science imposes a set of human values on the human race and then calls those values science, beyond reproach.

Do you have any evidence for this? How about inductive observations about pain, consciousness and sentience? How about the rather startlingly obvious facts that most pro-lifers are keen to attack people considering abortion, but rather lacking in offering help (financial or otherwise), fostering or concern for those who they convince to have their babies, or by offering to take those would-be abortions, Down’s or otherwise, off their hands. Pro-life indeed. Only in argument, not in action.

Much of the rest is about Down’s and moral difference between such foetuses and neurotypicals. Of course, to most in the argument, this doesn’t matter. Both are foetuses without sentience, feelings, emotions, pain etc. They are not human beings with personhood.

As Andy Schueler brilliantly pointed out, if a fertility clinic was burning down and you had the choice to save a nurse or a box of blastocysts, who would you save?

The answer is obvious, and should tell you a lot about the intuitive understanding of moral value of each life.

What much of this relies on is the Catholic tradition of potentiality, taken from Aristotelian philosophy. A zygote is a potential human, and therefore is accorded human rights. As Jeffrey Reiman states:

The seeming plausibility of the idea that he same continuous essence arises from conflating two different definitions of same continuous entity . On one definition, a thing is the same continuous entity if it has the same continuous essence; on the other definition, a thing is the same continuous entity if it is a physically continuous entity. If we stick to the first definition, the same physically continuous entity can undergo essential change and become a different entity as a result. If we stick to the second, the same physically continuous entity can undergo essential change.

…On the first alternative, though a fetus is physically continuous with an adult person, the fetus is not ipso facto the same entity as the adult person and thus not ipso facto a person. Onn the second alternative, though the fetus is the same entity as an adult person, it does not thereby have the same continuous essence and thus, again, is not ipso facto a person. Notice, too, that either of these alternatives removes the mysterious claim that fetuses can be (substantive) persons though they lack the traits of (substantive) personhood.

Now, if an entity’s moral status depends on its essential nature, then since physical identity does not entail essential identity, physical identity does not entail moral identity either. If, on the other hand, an entity’s moral status depends on its nonessential properties, then since physical identity is compatible with changes in nonesorsential properties, it follows as well that physical identity does not entail moral identity. Since an entity’s moral status must depend on either its essential nature or its nonessential properties (or both) , it follows generally that physical identity does not imply moral identity.

Moreover, there are good reasons to believe that human beings’ moral status can change profoundly with changes in their nonessential properties.” Abortion and the Way we Value Human Life p. 81-2.

The real nub of the potentiality debate comes here:

This talk of the fetus’s genetic blueprint will suggest to some a different tack, namely, that what is valuable in the zygote is a potential human child or adult. The fetus, even at this early stage, is a potential person, a potential bearer of moral rights. Thus, for example, Burleigh Wilkins holds that the fetus has a right to life “from the very early moment of conception because it is a potential person.” 23 Such claims appear to commit what Joel Feinberg has called the “logical error” of thinking that one can “deduce actual rights from merely potential (but not yet actual) qualification for those rights. What follows form potential qualification …are potential, not actual, rights; what entails actual rights is actual, not potential, qualification. As the Australian philosopher Stanley Benn puts it, ‘A potential President of the United States is not on that account Commander-in-Chief (of the US Army and Navy).'”24 (p.60)

This idea that there is some continuity of essence throughout the developmental stages is problematic.

This undermines the claim that the newly conceived zygote is even a potential human being.” p. 66

He then goes on to take Aristotle’s ides to task, concluding,

…talk of newly conceived zygotes as potential persons reflects a subtle anthropomorphism read into what are simply mechanical processes. If this is correct, the potentiality argument should finally be laid to rest as a relic of ancient biology.

Back to the rather simplistic approach of Laurence, where abortion is just evil, end of…

H goes on to make a meal of for comparing atheists with eugenic Hitlers: well, what an insult. But it isn’t really worthy of comment, just empty invective lacking of any rational substance.

So that’s what I think. But he doesn’t really value atheist opinions anyway.

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Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...