Act Utilitarianism….


Go here, and read about Dawkins and his arguments concerning children with Down Syndrome… 

Dawkins is using a strong version of Act-Utilitarianism to support his argument, in particular when he says:

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.

Dawkins reasoning is like this — utilitarianism is the theory that seeks to increase happines / decrease pain with every action.  Having a child with Down Syndrome means that both the parents and the child will have a life that is less happy than if the child had never been born.  Thus, bringing the child into the world is immoral.

Wow — just… well… wow — as you might imagine, I have a few things to say about that…

On the practical / empirical / applied ethics side of things…

1) Having an abortion is the woman’s choice.  She may choose to consult many other people (and, she should I think), but ultimately whether or not to continue ANY pregnancy is her choice.  

2) By this reasoning, dumb, ugly, poor and all kinds of other people also shouldn’t have babies.  That baby will be living a less than stellar life (according to Dawkins), and their parents will have all kinds of parenting challenges to face — so, the net-decrease in happiness entails they ought not reproduce.  To take it a step further, black parents in this country ought to think twice about bringing children into a world full of racism and hate.  Yea… got it.

3) It’s also empirically denied — it’s often the case that kids with Down Syndrome ARE happy overall — they have challenges, hard times etc.. but they also have lots of love, joy, and laughter — as do their families.  I can’t see that NOT having this level of love in the world is a good thing.  

On the theory —

1)  IF this is an acceptable application of Act-Utilitarianism, then Act-Utilitarianism sucks.  There are many things in the world that are more important than happiness — loyalty, having a good intention, being a virtuous person etc.  

2) Dawkins shows the weakness of Utilitarianism in general — because, what is or is NOT a happy life is very subjective.  Dawkins lives a very intellectual life, so not having that life seems horrifically bad– so bad as to make him conclude that such a life increases pain and not pleasure.  

What this really shows is the problem of limited information — and, when you’re making decisions based on utilitarianism, your information is always limited.  Dawkins doesn’t know the people I do — the families with toddlers who have Down Syndrome.  Imagine the regular toddler challenges, then add developmental delays and some pretty common medical conditions that go with Down Syndrome — and you have some pretty challenging parenting situations…. BUT, these families still have happy lives, as do their kids.  Thus, Dawkins’ lack of information caused him to make a conclusion that doesn’t hold when presented with accurate information.  



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