Questioning Dawkins’s Utilitarianism


I would like to follow up Stephen White’s post about Richard Dawkins’s tweet to the effect that abortion would be the moral choice for a woman who knew she was pregnant with a child with Downs Syndrome.

Facing a lot of criticism, Dawkins revised and extended his remarks–as they say–in a later blog post.  Here is the more sophisticated, longer version of what he said his advice to such a mother would be:


“Obviously the choice would be yours. For what it’s worth, my own choice would be to abort the Down fetus and, assuming you want a baby at all, try again. Given a free choice of having an early abortion or deliberately bringing a Down child into the world, I think the moral and sensible choice would be to abort. And, indeed, that is what the great majority of women, in America and especially in Europe, actually do.  I personally would go further and say that, 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 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 I agree that that personal opinion is contentious and needs to be argued further, possibly to be withdrawn. In any case, you would probably be condemning yourself as a mother (or yourselves as a couple) to a lifetime of caring for an adult with the needs of a child. Your child would probably have a short life expectancy but, if she did outlive you, you would have the worry of who would care for her after you are gone. No wonder most people choose abortion when offered the choice. Having said that, the choice would be entirely yours and I would never dream of trying to impose my views on you or anyone else.”

Since Dawkins admits that his view is contentions and requires further argument, I’ll try to raise a couple of questions about it.

  • Dawkins says that his morality is based on a “desire to increase the sum of happiness and reduce suffering.”  Dawkins says elsewhere that his aim is to bring logic to bear on the moral choices we face.  But is it really logical, is it really rational, to base moral decisions on considerations that seem to be objective but are not in fact?  Dawkins suggests that if we are logical, we’ll make a decision that increases the sum of happiness and decreases the sum of suffering.  For this to be a rational or logical operation, there needs to be a clear, objective way of measuring the sum of happiness and suffering.  I don’t think that Dawkins or anybody else has such a method at hand.  He really has only his own subjective opinion that somehow the world would be happier without people with Downs syndrome in it.  Many of the people who know people with Downs syndrome, however, say that such people are happy and contribute to others’ happiness.  In view of this information, Dawkins’s view seems less like a logical analysis than a projection of his own emotions on others.
  • Dawkins also suggests that on the basis of the morality outlined above, it might be immoral to permit a person with Downs Syndrome to be born, from that standpoint of that person’s own welfare.  This is even harder to understand than the claim that we can measure the sum total of happiness and suffering.  How could it increase the happiness of a person with Downs Syndrome to be killed before being born?  Is the life of such a person one of unremitting misery, such that the total cessation of life is to be preferred?  Nobody who knows anything would suggest such a thing.  Does the life of such a person involve a combination of happiness and suffering?  Of course, but that is true of all human lives, which Dawkins presumably does not think should be cut short before they can get out of the womb.  Does Dawkins mean that the suffering in the life of a person with Downs Syndrome outweighs the happiness he or she experiences?  How could he possibly know that?
  • Even if it were true that the suffering of a person with Downs Syndrome exceeds his or her happiness, why would we not conclude from that that we should make some effort to increase such a person’s happiness, rather than canceling both the happiness and the suffering by stopping the life of such a person before he or she can be born?
  • Finally, notice how Dawkins, in the course of his justification abortion for people with Downs Syndrome, shifts from what is best for that person to the burdens to be borne by the parents who will care for that person.  Does this shift reveal the real agenda here?

The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of


About Author

Carson Holloway is a political scientist and the author of The Way of Life: John Paul II and the Challenge of Liberal Modernity (Baylor University Press), The Right Darwin? Evolution, Religion, and the Future of Democracy (Spence Publishing), and All Shook Up: Music, Passion and Politics (Spence Publishing), and the editor of a collection of essays entitled Magnanimity and Statesmanship (Lexington Books). His articles have appeared in the Review of Politics, Interpretation: A Journal of Political Philosophy, Perspectives on Political Science, and First Things. He is a regular contributor to the online journal The Public Discourse. Holloway was a 2005-06 William E. Simon Visiting Fellow in Religion and Public Life in the James Madison Program at Princeton University. He received his Ph.D. in political science from Northern Illinois University in 1998.

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