Category: Featured

Question of the Week 12/6/2017

It’s so easy for us all to get stuck in our social media filter bubbles, only hearing from people and sources that agree with us. Do you try to expand your horizons to encompass other perspectives, online or offline? How do you do it?


The person with our favorite answer will receive a copy of Brief Candle in the Dark by Richard Dawkins.

Want to suggest a Question of the Week? E-mail submissions to us at qotw@richarddawkins.net. (Questions only, please. All answers to bimonthly questions are made only in the comments section of the Question of the Week.)

Life Driven Purpose, pg 118

“I think “religious morality” is an oxymoron. Morality is morality, and qualifying it with the word “religious” does no strengthen it. It weakens it. (The same is true with the phrase “alternative medicine.” Medicine is medicine. Sometimes “alternative medicine” actually works, and when it does we call it “medicine.”) As I mentioned in the previous chapter, “religious morality” reduces human behavior to a monochromatic one-size-fits-all orthodoxy that is actually more dangerous than the broader humanistic principle of reducing harm. I think religion actually compromises moral judgment.”

–Dan Barker, Life Driven Purpose, pg 118


Discuss!

The Necessity of Secularism, 78-79

How do moral norms serve these functions? In following moral norms we engage in behavior that enables these functions of morality to be fulfilled. When we obey norms like “don’t kill” and “don’t steal” we help ensure the security and stability of society. It really doesn’t take a genius to figure out why, but that hasn’t stopped some geniuses from drawing our attention to the importance of moral norms. As the seventeenth century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes and many others have pointed out, if we always had to fear being injured or having our property stolen, we could never have any rest. Our lives would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Besides providing security and stability by prohibiting certain actions, moral norms also promote collaboration by encouraging certain actions and by providing the necessary framework for the critical actions of the “promise” – that is, a commitment that allows others to rely on me. Consider a simple example, one that could reflect circumstances in the Neolithic Era as much as today. I need a tool you have to complete a project, so I ask yo to lend it to me. You hesitate to lend me the tool, but you also believe you are obliged to help me if such help doesn’t significantly harm you. Moreover, I promise to return the tool. You lend me the tool; I keep my promise to return the tool. This exchange fosters trust between us. Both of us will be more inclined to cooperate with each other in the future. Our cooperation will likely improve our respective living conditions.


Multiply this example millions and millions of times and you get a sense of the numerous transactions among people that allow a peaceful, stable, prospering society to emerge. You also can imagine how conditions would deteriorate if moral norms were not followed. Going back to my tool example, let us imagine you do not respond positively to my request for assistance. This causes resentment and also frustrates my ability to carry out a beneficial project. I am also less likely to assist you if you need help. Or say you do lend me a tool, but I keep it instead of returning it as promised. This causes distrust, and you are less likely to assist me (and others) in the future. Multiplied many times such failures to follow moral norms can result in mistrust, reduced cooperation, and even violence. If I do not return that tool peacefully, you may resort to brute force to reacquire it.

–Ron Lindsay, pgs 78-79, The Necessity of Secularism


Discuss!

The Economist The Economist asks: Richard Dawkins

Anne McElvoy and Jan Piotrowski ask one of the world’s best-known evolutionary biologists whether science can guide us through a turbulent world of post-truth. Can there really be an objective truth, or will our existing biases win out?

An exchange on abortion

Richard Dawkins

24 Oct 2017

 

I had tweeted an invitation to attend lectures in various parts of Britain by Saba Douglas-Hamilton, who grew up among wild African elephants while her father, Iain Douglas-Hamilton was conducting his pioneering studies of their ecology and behaviour, and he and his wife Oria were fighting the poachers. Saba’s series of lectures is in aid of Save the Elephants, the charity founded by Iain, devoted to saving these magnificent animals from extinction (https://sabadouglashamilton.com). Among the responses to my tweet, the following two caught my attention, partly because of their irrelevance

 

 

 

 

 

Replying to @RightWingRebel

 

 

 

This little exchange reminded me of how extremely strongly people can feel about abortion, on both sides of the argument. It is a subject whose importance has been inflated out of all sensible proportion. For many it is the dominant issue that sways their vote, eclipsing things that really matter such as defence policy, economics, social welfare, health care, poverty, global warming and, indeed, conservation.

I have redacted the name of the second tweeter because it seems to be her real name and I don’t wish to embarrass her. I have no such compunction with “RightWingRebel”, who hides behind a pseudonym. But both tweeters seem to me misguided.

I’ll briefly consider the second tweeter and her reply to RightWingRebel. Her argument is the commonest one offered by the pro-choice side. The embryo, she says, is “part of a woman’s body”? Well, it’s a point of view but not one likely to influence “pro-lifers.” They will simply disagree with her presumption, and the question cannot be settled by any objective test. It depends what we mean by “part of.” She’s right if we define an individual as that which is enclosed within one body. But if we define an individual in other ways, the embryo is most definitely a separate individual. Much better to oppose “RightWingRebel” and his type by deploying a different set of arguments which, it seems to me, nobody could thoughtfully disagree with.

So, let me turn to RightWingRebel’s reply to my tweet. It reeks of speciesism. An elephant is a mere “animal” while an unborn person is human. But the elephant has a highly developed nervous system and is beyond reasonable doubt capable of feeling pain. Indeed there is no reason to think an elephant feels pain any less acutely than adult humans do, let alone human embryos. There is even suggestive evidence that elephants feel grief, mourning the death of friends and relatives.

We don’t know whether human embryos can feel pain. But it’s safe to say an early embryo before the nervous system develops can no more feel pain than a pumpkin or a beetroot. If later embryos with nervous systems can suffer, the level of pain of which they are capable must be far less than that of a full-grown elephant with its massive brain. Presumably not even RightWingRebel thinks an embryo can mourn like an adult elephant; or like a human mother who had longed for a baby and is grief-stricken when she spontaneously miscarries, as happens distressingly often; or suffer like a woman forced to give birth to a baby that she never wanted.  

What other arguments might RightWingRebel, or someone of similar intellectual calibre, deploy? The embryo may not be capable of much yet, but it has potential. By killing it you are depriving a potential person of future life. Yes, and in exactly the same way a woman is depriving a potential person of future life every time she refuses unprotected sexual intercourse when fertile. So much for the “potential person” argument.

The “slippery slope” argument has a little more going for it. If we allow the killing of embryos, mightn’t some logic-chopper pop up and say the following: “The baby immediately after it is born is indistinguishable from immediately before it is born. So if you allow abortion, are we not on the slippery slope to infanticide?”

It isn’t hard to answer the slippery slope argument. Pro-choice advocates aren’t talking about late abortion. The question only arises if the life of a mother is imperilled and doctors have a straight choice between saving her and saving the baby. Only a more than usually dogmatic Roman Catholic would ask a doctor to kill a mother to save her baby. All decent people were shocked when, in 2012, Savita Halappanavar died in an Irish hospital because Catholic doctors refused her husband’s pleas to save her life by ending that of her baby (although they knew the baby was going to die anyway). Even the collective of Irish bishops had second thoughts in the wake of Savita Halappanavar’s tragic death.

By the way, Catholic insistence on “personhood” beginning at conception can be demolished by an amusing tease. Confront your Catholic bishop with a pair of identical twins (they split after conception, of course) and ask him which one got the soul: which twin is the “person”, which one the zombie.

The abortion issue bulks too large in many peoples’ minds. Voters have gone so far as to declare that the only reason they voted for an otherwise unconscionable candidate was his opposition to abortion. Otherwise decent people have gone so far as to murder a doctor because he performs abortions. Such murderers sincerely believe in their own righteousness. They go to their punishment rejoicing in the expectation of a great reward in heaven.

You can sort of see how these people could come to their warped conclusion. They honestly and sincerely believe that abortion is murder. The right way to answer them is not to say that a woman has a right to do what she likes to a part of her own body. They will simply deny the premise and accuse her of murder. The right response to people like “RightWingRebel” is show them they are being illogical, speciesist and – oh dear – really rather stupid.