Friday, 22 August 2014

Professor Dawkins and the increase of the sum total of happiness

Poor Professor Dawkins has apparently caused a furore on twitter after tweeting, to a woman who said that she would face a serious ethical dilemma if she found she was pregnant with a baby who had Down's Syndrome, that she should abort it. He seems suprised by this. His apology, as reported by the Guardian, seems to be an apology for causing a riot rather than for what he actually said, claiming that those who objected did so from an emotional point of view, that twitter did not give him enough space to put his whole argument across and that because of this he left himself vulnerable to wilful misinterpretation.

However, the thing that really bugs me about this is that Dawkins claims that his response is totally down to logic. According to the Guardian, he wrote: "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." I take issue with this, and in fact, I am frequently irritated by people who claim that anyone who disagrees with them is arguing emotionally, and that they themselves are basing their argument purely on logic. 

  • If your morality is based, as Professor Dawkins' is, on a desire to increase happiness and reduce suffering you should presumably never say anything that might offend anyone because offense generates suffering, even if this is a subjective response. 
  • If you believe that this life is all there is, that there is no life after or other than this one, then the abortion of an unborn child would presumably decrease the sum total of happiness, seeing that without life there cannot be happiness.
  • If your aim is to increase the sum total of happiness rather than the happiness of the individual, and given the amount of great joy which those families express regarding their children with Down's Syndrome (and indeed their children without Down's) then presumably the termination of a child would not increase happiness and the reduction in suffering (given the absence of the child and the effects on the family) could well outweigh the non-increase in happiness.
  • Given that people who are objectively suffering can experience happiness, and that people who are happy can suffer, suffering and happiness are not necessarily opposed and therefore the aims to decrease the former and increase the latter may, in fact, be conflicting.
  • By extension of his argument that it is immoral to maintain life where there is suffering, all those who suffer from any illness, or indeed with the potential to suffer from any illness, however short or long term, should be exterminated because their existence may lead to their own suffering or the suffering of others.

Given the logical outcome of his moral framework, perhaps it is time to reconsider the starting point. If the outcome is outrageous and not what he intends at all, perhaps that is because some of his reasoning is based on an emotional understanding of happiness and suffering. 

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Eugenics, ante-natal testing and choice

Some time ago I blogged about testing for Down's Syndrome. Now, there is news about some other genetic disorders: namely Patau and Edward's sydromes. Like Down's Syndrome they are due to trisomy - where a person has three copies of one of their chromosomes instead of the usual two - caused by random genetic mutations. Like Down's Syndrome their risk increases with maternal age. And like Down's Syndrome they can both be detected by amniocentesis. Now, according to to this article, earlier testing will become available.
Now, women will be able to make important decisions earlier on, says the article. There is only one important choice that we are allowed to make, as women. Everyone tells us so. When we talk about women and choice we are talking about the choice not to. The choice not to have a child who is less than perfect, the choice not to have a child with less than perfect timing, the choice not to have a child who doesn't fit into our plans, our budget, our lifestyle. We are not allowed be radical, or make sacrifices (except of our fertility). Whilst screening for such conditions could allow a family to prepare for a disabled child, perhaps learn more about what their condition entails and engage with support services available before the baby is born, this is not what is implied. The fact that many unborn children with these conditions will not survive to full-term is a tragedy and I do not wish to negate the suffering caused by such events. But abortion is not the solution. It will not mean the baby does not suffer and it will not mean the parents do not suffer. Earlier testing will not lead to better choosing or better preparation or more research about why such things happen, it will only lead to more deaths as we gradually seek to eliminate every single inconvenience (and especially inconvenient people) from our world.

Saturday, 2 August 2014

We're all going on a summer holiday more mass for a week or two.

I have noticed, in recent years, a sharp decline in the number of families at mass during the school holidays. (This is anecdotal evidence: I have not conducted actual research.) Now, I realise that people go away during the holidays, but given the amount of elderly people in my parish, and the lack of Catholic churches in the area, there should presumably also be a counter-balancing influx of families visiting grandparents. What seems to be happening is that people don't go to mass in the holidays and certainly don't bring their children along.

I find this a bit odd.

I know people who struggle to get their teenage children to go to mass, especially with the competing demands of weekend sporting activities, but there does seem to be a prevailing idea that children (and adults) can be let off from mass attendance during the holidays. The problem with this (and I don't have children, so if you do and think I'm completely wide of the mark, ought to shut up etc etc) (aside from the whole of missing mass), is that this forms a link between school and church as concepts, presumably generating similar associations when the end of the holidays come and one has to go back to both of these ie school and church are both boring, we need breaks from both, they aren't necessary all year round and so on. Two of the three longer school holidays are based around Christian holidays, so it also seems slightly ridiculous to not go to mass at these times.

There are no holidays in the adventure that is Christian Life. There may be times when things are perhaps easier or harder, but we cannot, should not, do not get breaks from being Christians, whether from Monday to Saturday or during the school holidays. Being a Christian is not a job, or an activity, it is an identity: it is about being, not doing.