Richard Dawkins's critique of idealism and of 'all-or-nothingism' includes a critique of essentialism in ideas about personhood which is essentially a justification of abortion, one which incurs in some egregious abortionist sleights-of-hand under cover of dispassionate logical analysis.
Essentialism bedevils moral controversies such as those over abortion and euthanasia. At what point is a brain-dead accident victim defined as 'dead'? At what moment during development does an embryo become a 'person'? Only a mind infected with essentialism would ask such questions. An embryo develops gradually from single-celled zygote to newborn baby, and there's no single instant when 'personhood' should be deemed to have arrived. The world is divided into those who get this truth and those who wail: 'But there has to be some moment when the fetus becomes human.' No, there really doesn't, any more than there has to be a day when a middle-aged person becomes old. It would be better—though still not ideal—to say the embryo goes through stages of being a quarter human, half human, three-quarters human... The essentialist mind will recoil from such language and accuse me of all manner of horrors for denying the essence of humanness.
There are those who cannot distinguish a sixteen-cell embryo from a baby. They call abortion murder, and feel righteously justified in committing real murder against a doctor—a thinking, feeling, sentient adult, with a loving family to mourn him. The discontinous mind is blind to intermediates. An embryo is either human or it isn't. Everything is this or that, yes or no, black or white. But reality isn't like that.
(Richard Dawkins, "The Dead Hand of Plato", in Science in the Soul (2017) 290)
Now this is a self-defeating analysis, or a self-consuming artifact if you prefer. A curious example of the 'mind infected with essentialism' that it is supposed to be denouncing. The passage really needs some close reading and deconstruction, as it exhibits a degree of bad faith and one-sidedness which is all too typical in the current abortionist Zeigtgeist—I hope we can at least agree that abortionism, i.e. not just the toleration but the public promotion, the subsidizing, and the active defense of abortion as a moral good which should not be attacked or criticized is one of the hallmarks of current Western ("progressive") ideology and political practice. Dawkins's passage is one such defense of the legitimacy of abortion, under the pretense of criticizing the opponents' arguments as allegedly simplistic and essentialist. Note it is not the abortionists' (the "pro-choice" as the euphemism goes) arguments that he is trying to refute or denounce as based on logical fallacies. It is only one side, and you know which one it its, that rests its case on logical fallacies. As to Dawkins, he is not of course an abortionist, he presents himself as just a dispassionate observer of the presuppositions used by people while they present their arguments—and look which side is using lopsided arguments!
Essentialism bedevils moral controversies such as those about abortion and euthanasia. And there is no way it can ever be purged out of them, because our very way of thinking is essentialist in that it works with concepts, which are defined by their essence, not by the essence of their contraries... At what point is a brain-dead accident victim defined as 'dead'? Well the victim is a person, and a person's brain may be 'dead'—well not really DEAD you know, but failing to generate conscious or significant brain activity—while the person is not dead, because a person is a social identity, and to define or decide at which point that social identity is dead, ay, there's the rub, this is something no scanner can decide. You can forgive essentialists and relatives to be confused, anxious and distressed when the dead person's body is alive, not very much alive but certainly alive. Much of this no doubt Dawkins gets, though sometimes he is surprisingly callous to common human understanding of respect and ceremony, for instance in that egregious video where he discusses with Peter Singer whether you might be justified in eating human corpses as 'roadkill'. And now we get to abortion, where callousness gets more support from current practice and politics: At what moment during development does an embryo become a 'person'? Only a mind infected with essentialism would ask such questions. The rhetoric of the phrase shifts the attention from the problem of personhood, deflecting it to the question of the moment, concentrating the logical attack on the absurdity of there being any one moment, one given second when personhood is suddenly generated. Dawkins does a curious argumentative trick here: on the one hand and on the face of it he of course defends the notion of gradualism etc.—but on the other the drift of his argument seems to deny the problem altogether: "as there is no ONE moment, there is no moral question and the whole discussion is absurd—only a mind infected with essentialism would ask such questions. The embryo's an embryo, not a 'person', and that's it. Only minds infected with essentialism would attribute ANY qualities or dimensions of personhood to an embryo". Which is of course fallacious. First because the embryo becomes a fetus which becomes a baby. And then because a person being a social construct, the construction of the construct begins of course before the full-fledged person acquires citizenship rights, and quite often before birth, depending on who does the construction. "Only a mind infected with essentialism" would fail to see that there are no black and white positions to discredit here. Actually I do claim that this is part of what Dawkins claims before unclaiming it: An embryo develops gradually from single-celled zygote to newborn baby, and there's no single instant when 'personhood' should be deemed to have arrived. Note however that for some constructivists like Peter Singer —and Dawkins too seems to be sorely tempted by this anti-humanist position— this phrase might also mean that personhood never actually arrives along this process, because personhood will be slowly and gradually constructed as the individual grows up and becomes socialized, mentalized, educated, culturized.... and that newborn babies are actually less of a "person" than a fully socialized Great Ape. That is, Dawkins's phrase means, in the wider abortionist context, both things: that a newborn baby (or the same baby, unborn ten minutes before) both is and is not a person. Birth itself as a rite of passage through dire straits is of course the basic "moment" of acquisition of personhood, especially in cultures that have developed a notion of the dignity or the sanctity of human life. But these rituals, these beliefs and these dignities and sanctities tend to be played down by relativists like Singer or Dawkins. Or indeed by many current defenders of 'free abortion'—note that these self-styled 'feminists' systematically shun the issue of whether it is legitimate or ethical to abort fetuses of six, seven or eight months. It is with a puzzling single-mindedness that this issue is avoided, then declared a non-issue, then, in the last line of defense, "YES, I DO JUSTIFY AND WANT TO SUBSIDIZE WITH PUBLIC FUNDS THESE END-OF-TERM ABORTIONS, TOO, YES I DO SINCE YOU INSIST THAT I MAKE MY POSITION CLEAR. WE DO JUSTIFY AND DEFEND ALL ABORTIONS. ABORTO ES SAGRADO". I'm being black-and-whitist here myself, but honestly I haven't seen much in the current 'pro-life' field to make me put the issue otherwise. The world is divided into those who get this truth and those who wail: 'But there has to be some moment when the fetus becomes human.' No, there really doesn't, there really doesn't. A fetus is NEVER among the humans who count for the abortionist frame of mind. It may be a female fetus, but "it/she" is definitely not a girl, or a woman. Indeed, it may be a human fetus BUT IT IS NOT A HUMAN. That's where the drift of our thinking goes. It is not a human because we don't want it to be a human, or a human-in-process, or a half-human, because we don't want to have a half-problem or a half-wrongdoing or a half-subsidy for those abortions. (Because everyone knows that abortions should be fully subsidized for the welfare and protection of women, excluding aborted half-women, we're speaking here of women who choose, ethical courageous women who won't allow biology to interfere with their lives, and who are certainly never manipulated by men into choosing abortion). In sum, there needn't be a day when a fetus becomes a human, any more than there has to be a day when a middle-aged person becomes old.
It would be better—though still not ideal—to say the embryo goes through stages of being a quarter human, half human, three-quarters human... would it? Would we (abortionists) then admit that we are destroying a quarter human, a half human, a three-quarters human...? Fat chance. The essentialist mind will recoil from such language and accuse me of all manner of horrors for denying the essence of humanness. There are certainly some logical horrors here, as I have tried to show. And there are most certainly unspeakable horrors going on in the abortionist clinics, subsidized with your money and with mine. As to the essence of humanness, there is not, of course, one essence beyon dispute. And that is why you cannot dismiss it as a pseudo-problem, or assume in your arguments that the "pro-life" arguments about the humanness of "unborn babies" or of "viable fetuses" or "abortion survivors" are irrelevant or nonsensical or Trumpist.
There are those who cannot distinguish a sixteen-cell embryo from a baby. I doubt any such people exist. One could also argue that there are those who can distinguish an eight-month unborn baby from an eight-month biological residuum whose removal is to be simply accepted and not frowned upon... perish the thought, it should be subsidized and praised! The invidious exaggeration of the example, the "all-or-nothing" balancing of Dawkins's example between a sixteen-cell embryo and a baby with all its diapers and connotations contradicts the whole problematic issue of transition and development. And it dismisses the whole ethical quandary of abortion as a pseudo-problem created by minds so Bible-Belted and so obtuse that they cannot "distinguish a sixteen-cell embryo from a baby". These are the kind of people whose views should be dismissed in an Enlightened republic, and we've seen of late how this is done. It is not coincidental that Dawkins is himself an obtuse and unreliable Trump-hater of the most simplistic kind—as are so many academics.
They call abortion murder, and feel righteously justified in committing real murder against a doctor—a thinking, feeling, sentient adult, with a loving family to mourn him.
Now you see, all those people with their Bibles and their Belts, and their Guns, THEY SHOOT DOCTORS, DON'T THEY? The hundreds of thousands of abortions performed every year are put on a balance with the extremely rare event of an abortionist doctor being shot by a fanatic. Who would doubt, from the drift of Dawkins's argument, that pro-lifers support, as a rule, the shooting of sentient adults, or, indeed that they would shoot doctors themselves if they had their way? It is "they" who do call abortion murder. But abortion is never murder, according to Dawkins's drift. There's no transition there—in that one case, we are well justified in applying the discontinuous mind, to keep our concepts clear.
And to end with one more jab at Dawkins's tendentious rhetoric. I'll just note that there are in the world all kinds of thinking, feeling, sentient adults, with loving families to mourn them. And some of them —a tiny minority, mind— are callous, cruel, selective killers, those who get the job done —the everyday agents and journeymen of the banality of evil. A discontinuous mind is much to wished in these professions. But their loving families' voluntary blindness, or their own, does not justify or dignify the disgusting and immoral work they are paid to do.
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