Archive | August, 2014

It’s high time Richard Dawkins read some philosophy

21 Aug
Richard Dawkins has recently claimed that a woman pregnant with a foetus with Down’s syndrome is morally obliged to have an abortion. Set aside for one moment whether or not he is right about this; and indeed whether or not he is right that God does not exist, or that religion is a form of child abuse. Even if all of Dawkin’s ex cathedra pronouncements about morality and metaphysics were correct a crucial problem would still remain: his arguments are terrible.
 
Let me just extract three straightforward problems from his part apology/part defence of his tweet:
 
1. Dawkins says that his starting point is a morality grounded in ‘a desire to increase the sum of happiness and reduce suffering’. This view is known as ‘utilitarianism’. First year philosophy students are often attracted to it until they learn about what seem to be pretty straightforward counterexamples, e.g. situations in which you would increase human happiness by killing one person and sharing her organs among give people needing organ donations, or by hanging an innocent man to calm a rioting crowd. Dawkins shows no awareness of these difficulties with the crude moral starting point he signs up to.
 
2. After saying that his position is grounded in a commitment to utilitarianism, he concludes in his summary that ‘what I was saying simply follows logically from the ordinary pro-choice stance that most us, I presume, espouse.’ There are two problems with this:
A. The argument he gives in his conclusion is completely different from the argument he gives prior to his conclusion (this is perhaps the comment I write most on my undergraduate students’ philosophy essays),
B. He is confusing what is permissible (i.e. what morality gives us the option of doing) with what is obligatory (i.e. what morality demands that we do). It doesn’t follow from a woman’s having a right to choose that she ought to choose the option that minimises human suffering. 
 
3. After having stated in the original tweet that it would be immoral for a woman not to abort, in his extended piece he claims that all he meant to say was what she ought to do if she shares his ‘personal morality’. In now becomes horribly unclear whether Dakwins is talking about ethics – what ought to be done – or just saying what he would do if he were in a similar situation. His talk of his opponents being ’emotional’ rather than ‘logical’ (a word he throws around so much that it ceases to have any meaning) would suggest that he is accusing his opponents of being objectively wrong in some sense, but then his reference of his own ‘personal morality’ (whatever that means) would suggest that he’s not meaning to say anything objective at all. It’s all a bit of a muddle.
 
If one of my students handed in work like this, they might perhaps scrape a D for effort.
 

There are a group of people who are paid by the state to spend roughly a third of their working life writing and researching ‘the Big Questions’ of ethics and philosophy. They’re called ‘philosophy lecturers’; a slightly misleading title as teaching is only one part of the job. Of course nobody is an authority on these difficult and controversial matters. However, there are skills which make public debate concerning them intelligent and informed, rather than crude and ill-thought out. Trained philosophers have the capacity to rigorously analyse arguments, and to tease out subtle implications. They have an understanding of logical fallacies: flaws in reasoning to which human beings are especially prone, but which can be avoided if one is careful. Academic philosophers spend many years reading a broad range of historical and contemporary human thought on their area of focus, and are able to draw on this in presenting their case.

I don’t want to sound bitter, but it’s frustrating when the crude stabs at philosophy by scientists like Dawkins and Hawking are taken seriously, whilst our most respected philosophers are given very little voice (although I’d be the first to admit that this is partly the fault of philosophers failing to reach out enough beyond academia). I am certainly not suggesting that only those with a philosophy PhD should be allowed to have opinions on ethical or philosophical questions. But if tax payers are going to pay a group of people to spend an awful lot of time thinking, reading and writing about ‘the Big Questions’, we might as well have our discussion of these matters informed at least to some extent by what they have to say.