Sunday, May 06, 2007

Well, that just about wraps it up for Dawkins

Given the historical preoccupations of this blog, I can’t very well leave Richard’s book without discussing what he has to say about abortion. This means that much of what I have to say will doubtless be tediously familiar to my readers. So you might want to come back next time, when I will have moved on from ‘The God Delusion’ to something else.
This also means that I have to start with an inordinately long quote. The quote begins after a brief discussion of the case of Paul Hill, who murdered Pensacola abortionist Dr John Britton and his bodyguard in 1994 and was subsequently murdered himself by the State of Florida.

Quoth Richard:

There are people who, because of their religious convictions, think abortion is murder and are prepared to kill in defense of embryos, which they chose to call ‘babies’. On the other side are equally sincere supporters of abortion, who either have different religious convictions, or no religion, coupled with well-thought-out consequentionalist morals. They too see themselves as idealists, providing a medical service for patients in need., who would otherwise go to dangerously incompetent back-street quacks. Both sides see the other side as murderers or advocates of murder. Both sides, by their own lights, are equally sincere.
A spokeswoman for another abortion clinic described Paul Hill as a dangerous psychopath. But people like him don’t think of themselves as dangerous psychopaths; they think of themselves as good, moral people, guided by God. Indeed, I don’t think Paul Hill was a psychopath. Just very religious. Dangerous, yes, but not a psychopath. Dangerously religious. By the lights of his religious faith, Hill was entirely right and moral to shoot Dr Britton. What was wrong with Hill was his religious faith itself. Michael Bray, too, when I met him, didn’t strike me as a psychopath. I actually quite liked him. I thought he was an honest and sincere man, quietly spoken and thoughtful, but his mind had unfortunately been captured by poisonous religious nonsense.
Strong opponents of abortion are almost all deeply religious. The sincere supporters of abortion, whether personally religious or not, are likely to follow a non-religious, consequentionalist moral philosophy, perhaps invoking Jeremy Bentham’s question, ‘Can they suffer?’ Paul Hill and Michael Bray saw no moral difference between killing an embryo and killing a doctor except that the embryo was, to them, a blamelessly innocent ‘baby’. The consequentionalist sees all the difference in the world. An early embryo has the sentience, as well as the semblance, of a tadpole. A doctor is a grown-up conscious being with hopes, loves, aspirations, fears, a massive store of humane knowledge, the capacity for deep emotion, very probably a devastated widow and orphaned children, perhaps elderly parents who dote on him.
Paul Hill cause real, deep, lasting suffering, to beings with nervous systems capable of suffering. His doctor victim did no such thing. Early embryos that have no nervous system most certainly do not suffer, And if late-aborted embryos with nervous systems suffer- though all suffering is deplorable- it is not because they are human that they suffer. There is no general reason to suppose that human embryos at any stage suffer more than cow or sheep embryos at the same developmental stage. And there is every reason to suppose that all embryos, whether human or not, suffer far less than adult cows or sheep in a slaughterhouse, especially a religious slaughterhouse where, for religious reasons, they must be fully conscious when their throats are ceremonially cut.


In the second part of this long quote, Richard tries to explain why in his ‘well-thought-out consequentionalist morals’, killing embryos (and foetuses) is okay, but killing Dr John Britton was not okay. In his case, how do these ‘well-thought-out consequentionalist morals’ distinguish between the two cases?

(1) Suffering of the Victim.
An embryo without a developed nervous system does not suffer, while a more grown human does. Richard does not take this argument very seriously, or else he would take much more care to distinguish between an early-aborted embryo and a late-aborted foetus with a developed nervous system. Instead of citing some experimental data on foetal suffering in animals and drawing a line at say, three months of gestation, where he can say, with Jeremy Bentham “No pasaron!”1, he throws in an irrelevant statement that foetal suffering is, at any rate, less than that of sheep in halal or kosher slaughterhouses. This is a complete non sequitur as far as logic goes. Emotionally, it is a different story, and I have long felt that the anti-choice movement will never be taken seriously unless we also take a stand against the ghoulish ‘choice’ of so many to gorge themselves on the corpses of slain animals. But it has no logical connection with the ‘they can’t suffer, so it’s okay to kill them’ argument. It is just there to provoke people’s self-interest: ‘Gee, Professor Dawkins is implying that if I oppose abortion, I ought to give up eating meat. But I don’t want to do that…”
Conversely, let us now consider the suffering of Dr John Britton. Is it really the fact that he can suffer that is important? Say if, instead of laying in wait for him with a shotgun, Paul Hill had waited until he was deeply asleep and then painlessly administered a lethal injection? Would the State of Florida have said, ‘Oh, that’s allright then, you can go on your merry way’? As far as I know, Paul Hill was a pretty good shot and John Britton’s death was actually pretty instantaneous and painless. If I went to Pensacola and tried to shoot an abortionist, on the other hand, I’m sure I would only wing them and they would come good in the end, after a whole lot of immediate pain and months or years of agonising physio. Yet, Jeb Bush would not connive at my judicial murder for the attempted killing of a doctor. Why not? They will have suffered a damn sight more.
I submit that ‘Can they suffer?’ is the wrong question. It is irrelevant to proper consequentionalist morals, since you can murder someone without them suffering and we still- quite properly- think this is bad.

(2) Suffering of the Victim’s Friends.
Richard points out that John Britton had ‘…a devastated widow and orphaned children, perhaps elderly parents who dote on him.’ All of these people will obviously feel real suffering at his loss. But if this is the consequentionalist reason not to kill him, then what about people who have no friends? Is it more permissible to knock them off? I have seen this argument seriously advanced with respect to animals (e.g., C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain) but so far as I know, only facetiously with respect to humans (e. g., S. Abernethy, A Call for the Vivisection of Orphans). Does the argument that it was wrong to kill John Britton because people were sad about his death imply that if I were to distribute lurid details of his crimes beforehand to millions of members of my militant anti-abortion group2, so that his continued existence caused them suffering and they were really happy about his death, then it would be okay? I think, probably, no.

(3) Loss of Potential.
Richard points out that John Britton had ‘…hopes, loves, aspirations, etc.’ What does this mean? It means that if he had not been killed, chances are he would be enjoying his retirement now. He might be writing really splendid novels, like Sheri S. Tepper. He might be out playing golf in the wonderful Pensacola sunshine. He could be travelling around the country in a campervan, or sitting in front of the TV doing Sudoku. These are all things he could have been doing that have been brutally and unfairly taken away from him . Chances are, he would have been doing something that pleased him and enriched the universe in some way. He is not; his life has been cut short with his potential unfulfilled, and that was why it was wrong to kill him.
That is also why it was wrong for him to kill those embryos and foetuses.

The only way that a consequentionalist defense of abortion can be maintained is to suddenly introduce an absolutist distinction: to make into an unbridgeable chasm the difference between an expressed hope and desire and a potential hope and desire. For, if those embryos John Britton killed had not been killed, they too might now be playing golf or sitting in front of the TV3. There is very nearly as good a probability that they would have gone on to do these things as there was that John Britton would go on to do them. The only difference is the difference between the seen and the unseen: we saw a great deal of John Britton’s potential unfold; we did not see the potential of those embryos and foetuses unfold, because their lives were brutally and unfairly taken away from them. The consequence of the killing of those human individuals is that they were denied the whole of the life that we other human individuals take for granted, and if ‘consequentionalist morals’ do not consider that as a valid consequence, I think they need another name.

Note that this discussion has not mentioned God. It has not mentioned religion. It has not even assumed the existence of an absolute morality. It is based purely on what we all, intuitively, understand to be so bad about premature death. To my mind, it is a well-thought-out consequentionalist morality eminently suitable for theist and atheist alike.

And I am now done with Richard’s book.

1: Assuming for the moment that Jeremy Bentham was Spanish, which he wasn’t.

2: I am not really the mastermind of a militant anti-abortion group with millions of members. This is a hypothetical.

3: Or robbing convenience stores, to pre-empt Marco pointing this out.

6 comments:

Marco said...

I don't really have anything to add, except that freakonomics treatises abortion way better than Dawkins, without feeling they have to make a moral judgement of it. Also the "factual" description of abortion in freakonomics as a "grisly form of contraception of last resort", is the reason it typically happens.

Dawkins' morality is shown to be distinctively not self-consistent. It doesn't appear to phase him. Science is what requires self consistency, and he appears to think that normal rules of logic are inapplicable to moral issues.

winstoninabox said...

Your best post in this series.

Thank you for taking the time to write your thoughts about the book. And thanks for giving others the chance to comment about your thoughts.

Dr. Clam said...

Hey, it appears that the guy who invented the card game "Once Upon a Time' has also posted a post with this title. But I seem to have been first by a few days. Woot!

Da Simonster said...

Hrmm..I don't recall writing that particular treatise, but it sounds like me. Are you certain it was meant to be facetious?

Dr. Clam said...

It was a relatively short communication you made back in the James Cook days, I believe. I *thought* it was facetious at the time, but on sober reflection, who would miss those orphans, anyway?

armando said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.