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With a tweet that spawned a thousand Ricochet threads, Richard Dawkins really stepped in it last week.
The would-be avatar of all things atheist then issued an “It’s-not-me-it’s-you” style apology soon thereafter; this said more about the man’s venal nature than his underlying argument. Unfortunately, people’s first instinct seemed to be to prove Godwin’s Law in the first iteration of the argument in their haste to denounce Dawkins and his admittedly tactless 140 characters.
This is demonstrative of the fact that any given thought which is much more complicated than “Ate at Chipotle. Was delicious!” which you’re considering transferring from your brain to Twitter should probably just stay there.
Due to this truncated thought being exposed to the cold examination of millions of critical eyes, the accusations started at “eugenics” and predictably devolved from there. Perhaps it helps to start with definitions:
eugenics / noun
1. the study of methods of improving the quality of the human race, esp by selective breeding
I certainly don’t think that Dawkins’ underlying intent was to advocate for a ruthless cull of the gene pool of untermensch – I think he was artlessly making an appeal to a form of utilitarianism, which has already been expressed by the greater public by the fact that around of 90% of parents who receive the prenatal diagnosis of Down’s Syndrome in their fetus choose to do precisely what Dawkins had the temerity to point out: abort and try again. For that reason alone, I think we can set aside any nefarious intent on Dawkins’ part. Even if there were, it certainly isn’t Dawkins himself who is personally responsible for these individual actions, and I seriously doubt his ability to influence the public at large anyways.
This isn’t eugenics in the sense that there is a centralized authority who is making decisions about who gets to live, breed or die: this is a Hayekian, emergent-order phenomenon, where parents are making decisions they believe to be in their interests. They are doing what they’re doing because these potential babies are failing to pass the market test which these parents are imposing. Nobody has to tell these parents what to do; they’re doing it themselves.
This has been possible thanks to the same kind of technological advancements that have made our lives cheaper, more efficient, and with more choices in so many other fields. Applied to reproduction, people have significantly more agency, up to and including how many children they have, when they have them, and those children’s quality of life. Yes, I chose that term intentionally, because the reality is that even breeding (just like dating) at this point acts like a market and is subject to incentives which can be measured.
Why do many people react to the decision to have children as though it were a market? Because people have choices. Starting largely with advent of cheap and easy contraception, people could choose to delay or specifically time when they have children, because the decision have a child has immense consequences in today’s world. A recent study emerged which pegged the average cost of raising a child to the age of 18 at $245,000. That’s $13,600/yr or $1,134/mo; one heck of an investment. There are economies of scale as the number of children goes up, but the initial cost is rather steep. This cost also assumes the fact that the child is cognitively normal and doesn’t have any extraordinary physical handicaps. What justifies this cost? The answer of course is that people place a value upon their children which is higher than the cost of the investment, but that value is not infinite.
What about those other children, the ones who are not cognitively normal or do have extraordinary physical handicaps? According to links provided by Down Syndrome Help, the cost of caring for a child with a severe cognitive disability throughout their life is about $3.2 million. Needless to say, this is a cost which most people blanch at given the fact that they may not earn that much money in their entire life. As a result of this immense cost, and the perceived loss of quality of life that people anticipate as a result of having to provide lifelong care for an adult child, people frequently avail themselves of the opportunity to “Try again” for good or ill.
I imagine that this line of reasoning has a lot of readers choking on their coffee in their haste to denounce me as a ruthless and evil person bent upon the pre-birth destruction of each person whose net contribution to society is less than $0. Rest assured, that is not the point of this, so let me lay my cards on the table.
As a matter of principle, I am personally opposed to abortion, especially abortion of convenience, or ex-post-facto birth control. If you question my commitment, I should say that — against my better judgment — I married my ex-wife rather than see her carry out her threat to abort my daughter at the behest of her mother. I want to head off immediately any line of argument from any person who thinks that I “lack empathy” or “disrespect the lives of the innocent.” I made my choices, for good or ill, and I have lived with them.
I also have never been given a choice like the one that many people face when given the moral quandary of how to proceed with a potential child who is either going to be very sick or debilitated. I can’t say that I would have the moral fiber to withstand such a choice, and I’m glad that I never had to. It is equally obvious to me that given the choice between two tragedies that the evidence points to the fact that the vast majority of people prefer the outcome which they feel they have control over and benefits them both in the short and long term.
Placing myself in that position as a conservative, I could imagine my principles being tugged in two different directions. My personal commitment to preserving the rights of this potential person is opposed by my desire that people should contribute positively to society. While I can certainly guarantee that my contribution to society through my children, taxes and work will far exceed what I use, I am also certain that if I had a child with those sorts of cognitive disabilities or handicaps that this balance would flip. Add to this that because I don’t have the resources to completely cover the costs for that person, I am perversely incentivized to not abort that child precisely because I would not have to bear the costs which that child would impose, because they end up being collectivized through our social welfare system.
Unfortunately, I think conservatives are pinioned between these two mutually exclusive positions: on the one hand, we don’t want people to abort their children; on the other, we want people to bear personal responsibility for their choices. Rigid adherence to both principles would require of people that they simultaneously carry to term all children (no matter how sick) and to then bear any and all costs of that decision (no matter how crushing). I don’t feel like it is logically consistent for us to require both of people — and it certainly smacks of a sort of high-handed disregard for accident — when having children is frequently made at the margin.
As an acolyte of Thomas Sowell, I am convinced of the truth of the “Constrained Vision” of human nature and resigned to the “Tragic View” of life. That means that frequently in life we are faced not with choices between “Good” and “Bad,” but more frequently “Bad” and “Worse.” This is one such situation.
Where the rubber meets the road on this is in our expression of public policy. Any fair appraisal of government’s role when trying to balance the bad and worse while looking at contraception and abortion should tell you that the technology which gives us power over when and how to bring life into the world is a Genie which cannot be completely stuffed back into the bottle. We can no more do that than we can undo the technological advances of online dating, for good or ill.
To do so would empower the government to a degree where I believe conservatives would be deeply uncomfortable if it were any other aspect of life. Imagine if you would a flat, government-enforced ban on abortion. How could we ensure compliance? Perhaps women should provide monthly evidence of menstruation, with failure to provide such evidence initiating a pregnancy investigation, resulting in mandatory monthly checkups to ensure that a potential fetus has not been aborted? If that woman is pregnant, what happens in the event of miscarriage? Must the coroner be dispatched to ensure that a wrongful death has not occurred? And what happens if such a determination is made? This scenario quickly descends into madness or a police state. Conservatives should disavow policies that would grant the government such power.
So what can we do?
The best we can hope for at this point is containment. That means we should engage in moral persuasion rather than pursue broad public policy remedies. Coupled with the the realization that, just because you or I wouldn’t make a particular decision regarding how we would order our affairs given an extraordinarily difficult set of circumstances, that such a decision is not universally agreed-upon and we might just make some progress.
If you or I would struggle with what to do — even given a strong moral compass — keep in mind that it’s no less hard for other people who are also balancing a panoply of interests, and do not view their situation as a monopolar moral calculation. I’m not qualified to make up those peoples’ minds for them a priori; none of us is. Liberty can be abused, but empowering the government to impose our will can also work at cross purposes to the rest of the Conservative agenda.