I recoil in horror from the foulness of thee… Why Dawkins is wrong on #abortion #atheism

Head.  Desk.

It must be really difficult to be Richard Dawkins.  Each morning, he wakes up absolutely certain of things.  He is absolutely certain that the world around him is real and that anything for which he cannot find empirical evidence is not.  He is absolutely certain that only verifiable statements have truth values (except, of course, for the statement: ‘Only verifiable statements have truth values’ but that would just be obscurantist philosophers being silly).  He is absolutely certain that there’s a thing called secularism and that you need only be a wealthy, white, straight male in order to distinguish the secular from the religious.  He is absolutely certain that there’s nothing racist about hating on Muslims, nothing misogynist about excluding female perspectives if they do not accord with ‘strict logic’, and nothing to be gained in exploring the social sciences of hard sciences.  You theists should only engage with the best available science, but if you ask Dawkins to engage with the best available theology, you are mocked.

Of course, all of this assumes that Dawkins is even aware of the intellectual quagmire into which he’s been sinking for the better part of a decade.

Increasingly, I wonder if I have given Dawkins too much of the benefit of the doubt.  He recently took to Twitter to mansplain abortion to everybody and, well…

It didn’t go so well.

As is usual, the appropriate opening: I am pro-death.  I think that women have complete control over their bodies all the way through the process and there is no legal justification in protecting the baby from the mother at any point.  Late term abortions?  Go for it.

I am very much wedded to virtue ethics, spiced with a bit of good old fashioned Kantianism.  Morality is objectively true.  &c., &c.

Now let’s get to Dawkins.

With respect to those meanings of “human” that are relevant to the morality of abortion, any fetus is less human than an adult pig.

Oh…  Okay…  Whut?!

This makes absolutely zero sense.  Part of this suggests that there’s a spectrum upon which something might be considered ‘human’ and, upon this spectrum, is an equivalent position where one would find an adult pig.  Which spectrum is this?  Where does one find a copy of this spectrum?

Any sensible person would say that a pig is not at all human, yet a foetus is at least something like a human.  ‘At least something like a human’ is more human than ‘not at all a human’.

Dawkins (as we will see in a moment) is playing obscurantist word games with the word ‘morality’.  The definition of ‘human’ in his tweet is not a biological definition, but a moral definition.  Is there a moral definition of ‘human’?  No.  There’s a moral definition of ‘person’, but that wouldn’t be as trolltastic and Dawkins is nothing if not an attention-seeker.

The other word to look at here is ‘any’.  Any foetus is less (morally) human than an adult pig.  Dawkins will quickly back away from this claim into a weirdly pro-life position.

“Human” features relevant to the morality of abortion include ability to feel pain, fear etc & to be mourned by others.

Remember the word ‘any’ in his first tweet?  We are fairly certain that late term foetus are capable of feeling pain and fear.  When they are miscarried, they are mourned.  So we know of some foetus who are ‘more human’ (seriously, what?) than an adult pig.

But from where is Dawkins pulling this definition?  Why are those features relevant to being ‘morally human’?

The answer: Dawkins has stacked the deck.  We know medical conditions where people are incapable of feeling pain (CIPA) or sensing fear (certain damage to the brain).  But Dawkins doesn’t want a free-for-all on those people with atypical neural processes, so he includes the backdoor argument of ‘to be mourned by others’.  What this does is connect the individual to the social community.  You are ‘morally human’ if somebody will mourn your death.

Crazily enough, this opens the door to all kinds of vegan weirdness.  ‘My cow can sense pain, fear, and will be mourned by me.  It’s unethical to eat cows.’

Dawkins starts to suspect he’s burying himself in crazy, so sends in more crazy trains as cover.  First, he tweets a strawman about miscarriage.  It’s a nonsense tweet.  Then he brings out the big gun:

Yes, anything can be mourned.  If you are going to mourn your fetus, you are free not to have an abortion.

Mansplained like a boss, yo.  ‘You are only free to have an abortion if you are not in any way emotionally connected to the foetus.’

There’s an obvious counter example.  I think it’s morally permissible to abort a foetus if the child is disabled.  I can imagine being in a horrible situation where my partner is faced with the choice of keeping a foetus to whom she has grown extremely fond and of aborting the foetus because she does not believe it’s ethically correct to give birth to a child who will suffer the disability.  Dawkins is telling her that she is not free to have an abortion if she’s going to mourn it.

We should stop here for a moment.  I think Dawkins has half understood a conversation he’s had with A.C. Grayling and is trying to repeat it.  Dawkins’ buffoonish attempt to construct an argument really does sound like an undergraduate at the pub trying to appropriate their lecturer’s words.  Dawkins has not presented even a remotely sane argument here.

Further, it says nothing about duty to protect which Dawkins himself has used on a number of occasions in his theodicy: ‘God could prevent a murder but He does nothing to stop it.  Therefore, God is not omnipotent or God is evil.  Therefore, God doesn’t exist.’  Dawkins can’t pull that munted rabbit out of the hat and then abort it the second it’s inconvenient.  What is the moral duty of the community to prevent murders?  If we know that a murder is going to happen, do we have an obligation to do something to prevent it?  This is a problem for Dawkins (and not for me) because Dawkins has said that preventing a murder when you can is intuitively a moral obligation but wants to turn the act of abortion into a private matter between a woman and her foetus.  If you are pro-life, you are not just pro-life for your own foetus; you are pro-life because you think that all foetus deserve protection.

Back to Dawkins’ tweets:

My criterion for “relevant to morality of abortion” is standard consequentialist morality.  Opponents follow absolutist morality.  Simple.

The opposite of ‘consequentialist’ is not ‘absolutist’.  Dawkins is attempting to smear opponents: ‘Oh, you’re just an absolutist.  My absolute nonsense is anti-absolutionism.’

Further, it’s not ‘standard consequentialist morality’.  If that denotes anything, it denotes ‘rule consequentialism‘ which Dawkins has not described.

First, ‘human’ is not a moral category so ‘my definition is standard consequentialist morality’ is completely nonsensical.  It’s like somebody saying: ‘My definition of “tennis” is standard quantum physics.’

Second, we’ve already seen why it wouldn’t be ‘standard’ consequentialist morality.  Although I think consequentialists are incorrect, I don’t think consequentialists are stupid.  Dawkins’ criteria are stupid.

Worse, a non-absolutist consequentialism can result in a pro-life stance.  Indeed, a lot of pro-life arguments are consequentialist, examining the overall utility and good in protecting defenseless foetus against being terminated.  We see this often: ‘Abortion stops the foetus from maximally enjoying their life.’  No absolutism needed.

Confusingly, Dawkins’ argument relies on an absolutist definition of ‘human’ (by which we should all think he means ‘person’).  A human is a creature which can feel pain, experience fear, and will be mourned by others.  Why are these the criteria?  Because Dawkins is using an absolutist definition of human/person.

The next dozen tweets or so are old man crazy ranting.  He returns to the land of coherency with this strange nugget:

Unlike many pro-choice friends, I think that fetal pain could outweigh woman’s right to control her own body.  But pig pain matters too.


Dawkins’ argument is contingent on our understanding of foetal pain not changing.  If we discover that you don’t need brains in order to feel pain — or, rather, if we discover that you don’t need a brain in order to feel pain on the same level as an adult pig… wtf — then Dawkins’ batshit argument leaves open the door for abortion to be morally impermissible.  Further, Dawkins’ argument explictly excludes the right of a woman to have a late term abortion, which is cray-cray.

A woman is eight months pregnant.  She is in a loving relationship with a man whom she intends to raise the child.  A freak accident results in his death and she has a severe mental breakdown.  It is flatly immoral to say to the woman that she cannot terminate the pregnancy just because Richard Dawkins thinks that the foetus’ ‘pain’ outweighs the mother’s quality of life.

Any good argument in favour of abortion will not be contingent on quirks.  We simply do not know how a pig experiences pain.  We don’t know what it’s like to be a pig.  We hazard a guess that the experience is similar to our own, but there’s no real evidence that it is.  You can’t see subjective experience on a brain scan.  An adult pig might experience fear and pain in ways far beyond our own capacity — it would be odd if Dawkins thought that this meant it was okay to start killing other people willy nilly.

In short, he doesn’t know.  He’s making it up.

But it sounds sort of sciencey.  Like ‘evolutionary psychology’, it has all the right words there to make you feel like this is a rational argument.  ‘Yeah, I’d eat pigs.  Pigs are less morally human than me.  Foetus are less morally human than pigs.  Abortions are great.’  But there’s no coherence to the argument.  How could something be ‘less morally human’?  Why do pain, fear, and ability to be mourned matter?  Why is it a private affair and not something which should concern the moral community?  Why do women lose control of their bodies?  Dawkins doesn’t have an answer to any of this because Dawkins hasn’t really thought about it.  This is him looking at the world and deciding that whatever he intuits must be factual.  You know, like a lay-theist does when they look at the world and see that it’s ‘designed’.

In conclusion, pop-atheists really need some new role models.

Quick Post: No, seriously… What is this ‘Open Letter’? #atheism #misogyny #wtf #racism

I’m writing up a post on another issue and happened to come across this ‘open letter from the secular community‘.

Long story short, pop-atheism has a serious problem smack bang in the middle of the ‘movement’ (in the bowel sense).  Because pop-atheism relies so heavily on intuition and the assertion of a particular viewpoint as the default rational perspective, it absolutely cannot deal with the concept of plurality.  Plurality is anathema to pop-atheism.  There’s One True Rationality, One True Logic, and, therefore, One True Culture — a secular culture.

But nobody can work out what a secular culture is, so we get ‘Take our current culture and delete anywhere it says the word “God”‘.

Feminist philosophers, of course, have a lot to say about this sort of buffoonish stupidity.  Even the fundamental concepts which pop-atheists consider default rational: the building blocks of logic, for example, aren’t value-neutral.  When this is pointed out, a lot of very angry white guys who are pathologically incapable of grappling with criticism lash out.  Pop-atheism is openly misogynistic and definitely not a safe space for anybody who’s a white guy.  I’ve been in face-to-face conversations with pop-atheists where I have been very fortunate to have several thousand years of privilege behind me — it’s much harder to shout down somebody who is quite accustomed to living in an ivory tower.  I know others from different backgrounds who just straight up refuse to engage with pop-atheists.

Thus we get to the ‘open letter’ which is… strange.

The principle that women and men should have equal rights flows from our core values as a movement. Historically, there has been a close connection between traditional religion and suppression of women, with dogma and superstition providing the rationale for depriving women of fundamental rights. In promoting science and secularism, we are at the same time seeking to secure the dignity of all individuals. We seek not only civil equality for everyone, regardless of sex, but an end to discriminatory social structures and conventions – again often the legacy of our religious heritage—that limit opportunities for both women and men.

Unfortunately, the discussion of these issues has suffered from the same problems that plague online discussion in general—although arguably to a greater extent. Some blogs and comments actually exhibit hatred, including rape threats and insults denigrating women. Hatred has no place in our movement. We unequivocally and unreservedly condemn those who resort to communicating in such a vile and despicable manner.


Here are some things that we plan to do to make our online secular community a place where we can exchange ideas and views instead of insults. We hope that others may also find this approach useful.

Here are some things that we plan to do to make our online secular community a place where we can exchange ideas and views instead of insults. We hope that others may also find this approach useful.


Go offline before going online: pick up the phone. 
When you hear that an organization or member of our community is doing something that you think is wrong or bad for the community, call and talk with them, find out what they are actually doing and why they are doing it. If you don’t have a phone number, send a private email and arrange a time to talk. So much of the time there’s more to the story, and talking to another person on the other side of the issue can help us more fully understand the situation. Plus, a phone call makes it easier for people who are making mistakes to change course, because they aren’t on the defensive as they would be after being called out publicly.

Wait… what?  Just what?  So if you’ve got somebody being a misogynist jackhole, the correct response from the woman being attacked is not to respond with anger, indignation, or any of the other perfectly legitimate responses; she should consider how the jackhole will respond to being criticised.  We need to make the community a safe space for jackholes.

Dial down the drama.
It’s tempting to overuse inflammatory and derogatory rhetoric. It gets attention. We should be cautious about using this tactic within our community because of the long-term damage it does to relationships and morale. When critiquing people within our community, everyone should remember that our goal is to persuade our allies to see our perspective and modify their opinions. Insults don’t change opinions; they harden them.

There’s some weird definition of ‘insult’ being used here.  If I call somebody a racist jackhole, is that an insult?  What if they are being a racist jackhole?  What if I point out their racism without using the word ‘jackhole’?

As it turns out, insults do change opinions.  Ad hominem (in the sense of ‘insult’) is a powerful and important pedagogic tool.

Help others along.
We should remember that we weren’t born knowing the things we know now. To get to the reasoned conclusions that we’ve reached, we learned by reading, thinking, and talking with others. When we encounter someone espousing a view we think is based on lack of knowledge or experience, we should remember that we have all held ill-informed views. We should cultivate patience and try to educate instead of condemn.

There we go.  Don’t condemn the racist, misogynistic mouthbreathers in the atheist community.  We all need to sit down very patiently and explain to them why being racist, misogynist mouthbreathers is a bad thing.  And if they don’t listen, then we need to try harder.  It is our role to educate these halfwits and to consider how it must feel to be an ignorant spunkerchief.

Importantly, there is no declaration within the letter that the responsibility not to be a turd rests with the turds.  This letter is not about making it a safe space for everybody: it’s to render the natural, sensible, and appropriate response to such cockery as illegitimate.  Pointing out the nasty underbelly of the atheist community is divisive and there’s no room for divisiveness.  It’s similar to Andrew Bolt’s: ‘People of colour are being divisive when they declare that they are people of colour.’

Seriously.  These pop-atheists are just the worst people.

That is my reasoned conclusion.