Feb 19, 2010

odious little argument, breathtakingly fallacious

I have cut pieces from this short article from Feb the 3rd. Sorry for any copyright issues. I’ve had it around for a while and now I have time to insert my responses in a nice shade of blue. I apologise for the nastiness – Richard’s, that is. The main point is that it's more complicated than allowed for in the brief article from RD and his exaggeration is offensive. His article is in response to what seems a very mild pro-life advert screened during the "Superbowl" in the US.

Richard Dawkins:

I gather that Tim Tebow is extremely good at football. That's just as well, for he certainly isn't very good at thinking. Perhaps the fact that he was home schooled by missionary parents is to blame. ...
Versions of the Great Beethoven Fallacy are attributed to various Christian apologists, and the details vary. The following is the version favoured by Norman St John Stevas, a British Conservative Member of Parliament. One doctor to another:
"About the terminating of pregnancy, I want your opinion. The father was syphilitic. The mother tuberculous. Of the four children born, the first was blind, the second died, the third was deaf and dumb, the fourth was also tuberculous. What would you have done?" "I would have terminated the pregnancy." "Then you would have murdered Beethoven."
It is amazing how many people are bamboozled by this spectacularly stupid argument. The claims are indeed false and I apologise for the gullibility of some well-meaning Christians in perpetuating it. There are however many cases with names and achievements less impressive than that of Beethoven, whose lives were/are nonetheless important. Richard reads his heroes’ (e.g. Peter Singer’s) writings on the topic uncritically and then amps them up; perhaps as he would have his fans do regarding his own. Setting aside the simple falsehood that Ludwig van Beethoven was the fifth child in his family (he was actually the eldest), the falsehood that any of his siblings was born blind, deaf or dumb, and the falsehood that his father was syphilitic, we are left with the 'logic'. As Peter Medawar, writing with his wife, Jean Medawar, said,
"The reasoning behind this odious little argument is breathtakingly fallacious . . . the world is no more likely to be deprived of a Beethoven by abortion than by chaste absence from intercourse."
If you follow the 'pro-life' logic to its conclusion, a fertile woman is guilty of something equivalent to murder every time she refuses an offer of copulation. If you made a habit of following Richard’s logic … well, first you’d be some kind of logic denier, second you presumably wouldn’t care hugely about meta-societal issues like this and thirdly you wouldn’t think much of the value of humanity over and above, say, chickens (our-man-(previously)-at-Oxford's actual speciality, originally at least; not, strangely enough, that his promoters make much of it.) Incidentally, 'pro life' always means pro human life, never animal life although an adult cow or monkey is obviously far more capable of feeling pain and fear than a human fetus. Oh, right, so it's the ability to feel pain and/or fear that indicates moral worth. If you're ever sedated Richard, just keep one hand locked-down tight over a kidney or your liver or whichever other body part seems most likely to be snatched; your future interests or capabilities will not be of concern. But the profoundly un-evolutionary (it’s a bit like being un-American, unhelpful or maybe unchristian, just way worse) –he actually means non-scientistic, but I’ll set that upside down and laugh at it later nature of this terminology is another story and I'll set it on one side.

Religious apologists are unimpressed by this kind of argument as, it seems, are most with brains and training who have thought about it, they say, there is a distinction between snuffing out a life that is already in existence (as in abortion) and failure to bring life into existence in the first place. It's not a distinction that survives analytical thought, however. Richard is an expert in analytical thought. Unlike (nontheist) Don Marquis. Look at it from the point of view of Tim's unborn sister (let us say), who would have been conceived two months later if only Tim had been aborted. Admittedly, she is not in a position to complain of her non-existence. Coming into existence in the first place is a usual prerequisite for being wronged. But then nor would Tim have been in a position to complain of his non-existence, if he had been aborted. You need a functioning nervous system in order to complain, or regret, or feel wistful, or feel pain, or miss the life that you could have had. This makes little sense. How can any dead person “miss the life they could have had,” given Dawkins’ views? Further, what counts as “functioning” – is minimal function sufficient? Presumably not, or else abortion would be kinda problematic! But if we want more, we’ll probably have to exclude some people; neonates, those in (even very temporary) comas (or perhaps those asleep or unconscious when murdered, as they couldn't mind at the time) and those with brain diseases or mental disability. Dawkins and his friend Singer might not care, but most ethicists seem to, perhaps because they’re aware of the history of central Europe in the 1930s and beyond. Unconceived babies don't have a nervous system. Nor do aborted fetuses. As far as anything that matters [ooh, ooh – I know this one; wasn’t that ‘the selfish gene’?] is concerned, an aborted fetus has exactly the same mental and moral status as any of the countless trillions of unconceived babies. This is bullshit. Not only is it extremely offensive to me (which could have some relevance, as it indicates that I at least place a value on these lives), but very few ethicists would accept this hyperbole. An aborted foetus has the exact same status as nothingness? No moral status? So I can use a stock of them in engine fuel or floor or toilet cleaners and no-one’s allowed to get upset? (An unnamed secular ethicist apparently listed the first two as things which foetal tissue could not be used for; not sure of reference) As mental status seems to equal moral status, your dead Grandma is out of luck too; the gold teeth are coming out and then we can auction off whatever’s left, along with plenty of people (oops, I mean ‘objects’) in rest homes and the like. At least, that is true of early abortions, which means the vast majority. Later ones are generally only (at maximum) allowed to be eaten, e.g. fried in butter – but the developing intestines can be used to clean the floor if you like.
The fact that the Tim Tebow advertisement is a load of unthought-through nonsense is no reason to ban it. Imagine the consequences of banning unthought-through nonsense. Just imagine! That would infringe our valued principle of free speech. All the result of atoms jiggling around in the brain of a ‘higher’ ape. The best that the rest of us can do is point out, to anyone that will listen despite our lack of money The RD Foundtn for Reason&Science had a spare ₤180k last year. Yes, I checked. to pay for such advertisements, There are others not short of money when it comes to promoting abortion; Planned Parenthood in the US for example that it is nonsense. As I have just done.

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