Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Richard Dawkins Down Syndrome Twitter Controversy: Is Morality All About Pleasure?

Richard Dawkins has ignited yet another online firestorm with a provocative Tweet about abortion and Down Syndrome (DS, or trisomy 21). It all started when a Twitter follower of Dawkins asked him (completely hypothetically) if she ought to abort a fetus if it were found to have DS in a pre-natal screening. Dawkins' reply was, "Abort it and try again. It would be immoral to bring it into the world if you have the choice."

Predictably, a stream of criticism, insults, and threats rushed in to Dawkins' Twitter feed. Parents of children who live with DS led the charge; one woman tweeted "I would fight till my last breath for the life of my son. No dilemma."

Dawkins and his supporters defended his terse response by saying that Twitter's 140-character limit constrained what ordinarily would have been a more nuanced and drawn-out reply. In a follow-up statement, Dawkins clarified his position: "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's 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."

There's already plenty of debate about whether Dawkins is correct to say that those who live with DS are condemned to a life of pain and misery, so I don't want to make that my focus here. All I'll mention on that topic is that this week a 16-year-old British girl with DS passed 6 General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) exams. I'm sure Dawkins' condolences go out to her family.

Instead, I want to focus on Dawkins' comment that his morality is based "on a desire to increase the sum of happiness and reduce suffering." Is morality really all about increasing happiness and reducing suffering?

The first thing to notice is how strongly Dawkins' definition of morality resembles one of the most basic concepts in Freudian psychoanalysis, the pleasure principle. Simply put, the pleasure principle is the unconscious drive to increase pleasure and reduce pain. In infancy, the pleasure principle governs everything -- infants poop, suck, gurgle, and eat to their heart's (or their id's) content.

Later on, the formation of the ego (the conscious, self-aware part of the mind) causes one to realize that it's not socially acceptable to pursue pleasure at all costs, and the ego starts to redirect these urges in other ways -- towards intellectual pursuits, athletic exercises, and interpersonal relationships. This is due to a contrasting drive to the pleasure principle, the reality principle, which is the ability of the conscious mind to assess the outside world and act upon it accordingly.

If all that mattered were increasing your own pleasure by following the pleasure principle, then there would be nothing in your psychology to stop you from stealing others' food off their plates, robbing them of their money, or forcibly having sex with them. But due to the reality principle, you can assess that the best way to get food, money, or sex is to ask for it, work for it, or pay for it (in no particular order, of course).

So, when Dawkins says that morality is all about increasing pleasure and limiting pain, he is saying that human beings should strip themselves of their conscious minds, forgo the reality principle, and instead subject themselves to the basic whims of the pleasure-seeking id. This is wrong. Morality does not spring forth from thoughtless intuition (something Dawkins relies on more and more in his comments). Rather, moral behavior is the result of careful deliberation. Instead of following the pleasure seeking id, Dawkins should advocate something more like the reality principle, which allows people to assess situations and make reasoned decisions.

Rather than going with the knee-jerk response to tell his Twitter follower (and, indeed, every woman in the world) to abort the hypothetical fetus, Dawkins might have taken a bit more time to consider his position before replying with something like: "I don't know. I'm neither a woman nor an Ob/Gyn." And look at that! Less than 140 characters.

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