Richard Dawkins and the problem with focusing on abstractions and hypotheticals over the concrete
So Richard Dawkins has stepped in it again by talking about the decision to abort a pregnancy after a positive test for Down’s syndrome.
@InYourFaceNYer Abort it and try again. It would be immoral to bring it into the world if you have the choice.
— Richard Dawkins (@RichardDawkins) August 20, 2014
This understandably offended a lot of people who have chosen to go forward with these pregnancies, because the implication is that they are immoral people for refusing to abort. By framing it this way, Dawkins basically made it impossible to have an intelligent and thoughtful discussion about this, even though some of his later tweets—pointing out that such abortions are not eugenics and pointing out that most DS pregnancies are aborted—are accurate enough. But watching all this spool out, I realized that the real problem here is that Dawkins, and a lot of his defenders who like to think of themselves as above-it-all rationalists, has fallen for the notion that it’s somehow more intellectualized, lofty, and rational to talk about these Deep Moral Questions and Great Social Taboos in terms of hypotheticals and abstractions.
But having been a journalist whose work crosses into these territories a lot, I’ve come to realize that valuing the abstract over the concrete, while fun for an undergraduate philosophy 101 class, is actually a trap when it comes to talking about real world issues that affect real people. It all too often ends up obscuring rather than enlightening. I find that it’s actually much more useful to talk in terms of lived experiences and empirical data—something Dawkins, as a scientist, should agree with. In fact, I often find that reactionary sorts love to try to drag conversations away from concrete examples and data-driven discourse towards abstractions and hypotheticals, specifically because it allows them to make sweeping generalizations that just so happen to reinforce the social hierarchies they prefer.
That was part of my problem with the rape tweet dust-up that Dawkins waded into. Dawkins was trying to assert that one can use hypothetical sexual assault situations as thought experiments that allow us to categorically rate some rapes as worse than others. I find such a “thought experiment” silly. Why would you need to do that? In what context is it more valuable to know how you feel about hypothetical rapes than the lived experiences of actual victims? Certainly not in the court system, where the details of every crime are carefully laid out and measured to determine what kind of charges will be brought (or should be anyway), and there’s no sweeping generalization of what kind is “worse” than others. Certainly not when you’re talking about what kind of help survivors need, where again, the nitty-gritty of what actually happened to them and how they personally reacted makes a mockery of the idea that we can categorically rate rapes. A “thought experiment” that results in categorically declaring stranger rape worse than acquaintance rape, for instance, falls apart the second you start to think about crafting victim response and realize that some acquaintance rape victims straight up need more help than some stranger rape victims, and vice versa. There’s just no quick-and-easy thought experiment that will ever matter more than these kinds of specifics.
And so it is with the question of abortion and DS pregnancies. Dawkins wasn’t even talking about DS when all this started, but about Irish polices regarding abortion rights.
Ireland is a civilised country except in this 1 area: //t.co/i2PqFf6fYL You’d think the Roman Church would have lost all influence.
— Richard Dawkins (@RichardDawkins) August 20, 2014
And some anti-choice nut busted out the DS gambit:
@RichardDawkins 994 human beings with Down’s Syndrome deliberately killed before birth in England and Wales in 2012. Is that civilised?
— Aidan McCourt (@AidanMcCourt) August 20, 2014
This is a classic derailing tactic, and the reason it works—and worked on Dawkins—is because it’s about trying to bait you into an abstract debate about whether or not it’s right or wrong to abort a hypothetical DS pregnancy. And, unable to avoid talking in abstractions and hypotheticals, Dawkins walked right into it.
But if you ground yourself in the concrete details of these issues and consider the lived experiences of people who get a DS diagnosis and have to make that determination, you’ll find that your reaction to this gambit is very different. It becomes clear that the anti wants to argue about abstract moral questions because what he doesn’t want to discuss is the actual policies pushed by anti-choicers. If you stop, calm down, and think, “What are the policy issues being debated here and what role does this argument play into it?”, you realize this anti-choicer is full of shit. I know, because despite all the DS-specific hand-wringing that anti-choicers engage in, they have ZERO interest in forwarding policies that actually tackle this specific question.
Take this asshole that helped bait Dawkins, for instance. He’s defending a blanket ban on abortion. That has nothing to do with his purported concern that DS fetuses are specifically targeted. You often see this with anti-choicers. They want to debate the reasons women get abortions—the more abstract, the better!—but the actual policies they push rarely address those reasons, except in a few cases like threat to women’s health or rape. If they’re actually worried about why women get abortions, they’d be talking about policies that address those causes.
Once you piece that together, the emptiness of the DS gambit becomes clear. If you’re really worried about DS abortions specifically, then you wouldn’t waste your time advocating for a ban on abortion. You’d want to ban prenatal testing for DS. That’s a much more specific and effective strategy, since there’s no reason to know unless you want to keep the abortion option open. But you will rarely hear an anti offer that option—and they will never seriously float it as a policy idea like they do restrictions on abortion—for one simple reason: They don’t give two shits about their purported belief that aborting DS pregnancies is “eugenics”. They want to keep the option to abort those pregnancies available to people who have the means to travel or to pay for discreet abortions and simply shut that option off for people who don’t have those means. You think that women who get DS diagnoses in Ireland don’t abort? Of course they do. They just go to England to do it. This anti was baiting Dawkins in pure bad faith. All this becomes clear the second you start talking about the nitty-gritty policy realities of abortion and prenatal testing.
There is no need to go down the rabbit hole of debating the morality of aborting a hypothetical DS pregnancy, not when there are real world people making that decision every day. Most do—Dawkins is right about this—but some don’t. I bet if you sat down with all those people and talked about why they made their decision without getting all judgmental up front, you’d find that most of them had very good reasons for their decision, whatever it was. Maybe some didn’t feel they had the resources to care for a disabled child. Maybe some had experiences with people with Down’s before and felt they could handle it, and, more importantly, wanted to. That’s why abortion bans are such a bad idea, because they take a scorched earth approach to what is actually a very individualized decision.
Anti-choicers want to erase the individuals and their unique needs and desires, because if you start to talk in terms of real people, those individual decisions become far more sympathetic. That’s why they love dragging this discussion away from real women’s lives into the realm of the abstract. But I recommend not taking that bait and instead focusing on real people making real decisions. Hopefully this is a lesson Dawkins will learn after this debacle.