Utilitarian Atheists Aren’t “Just as Moral,” They’re “Differently Moral”

Author Amy K. Hall Published on 08/23/2014

Christopher Hitchens used to insist that atheists were as moral as Christians, challenging, “Name one moral action performed by a believer that could not have been done by a nonbeliever.” But as I said long ago, the claim that “atheists are as moral as Christians” is meaningless if we’re operating under different systems of morality.

This week, Richard Dawkins was a perfect example of this as he set off a firestorm with his tweets about Down syndrome children. Here’s the interaction that set it off:

He said even more than that as he continued to defend his original tweet (including the regrettably true statement, “Apparently I’m a horrid monster for recommending what actually happens to the great majority of Down Syndrome foetuses. They are aborted”), but you get the idea.

Within Dawkins’s moral system, it is actually immoral not to abort a Down syndrome child. In his eventual apology for creating a controversy, he explained why:

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....

My true intention was, as stated at length above, simply to say what I personally would do, based upon my own assessment of the pragmatics of the case, and my own moral philosophy which in turn is based on a desire to increase happiness and reduce suffering.

So you see? Dawkins’s recommendation to “abort it and try again” was perfectly moral within his own system of morality. If nothing else, this incident has brought some clarification:

  • A system that adds up potential happiness, weighs it against potential suffering, and chooses to “increase the sum of happiness” (at least, according the reckoning of the person doing the adding and the weighing) kills Down syndrome children before they can be born.
  • A system that upholds the value and dignity of every human being regardless of his or her abilities or characteristics because we’re all made in the image of God protects, cherishes, and loves them.

There is no “just as moral” here; we’re differently moral. And as long as God gives me the ability, I will fight to convince people that the moral system built on our being made in the image of God is the true one.