Richard Dawkins on the ethics of Stuart Broad

Richard DawkinsIf you haven’t been following the Ashes over the past few days, you may not have heard about the mini furore created by Stuart Broad last week. Broad is a batsman for England who was caught out fairly and squarely, but refused to ‘walk’, leaving the decision down to the umpire. There has been a storm in an internet-cup about this – some siding with Broad, and others… not so much.

Richard Dawkins fell down in the ‘not so much’ camp. This is what he put on Twitter on Friday night:

For Dawkins, it was a non-issue. Ethics is ethics, cheating is cheating. There is no grey area.

He posted up subsequently:

And then:

He closed off by saying:

I’m sorry for quoting at length here, but I’d just like to pose the question: is Richard Dawkins being consistent here? Is it consistent on the one hand to say that we are basically gene reproduction machines with everything formed from within an evolutionary framework, and then to say we need to “rise above” Darwinism? What are the logical steps? I believe he has said in an interview that he is a passionate Darwinian when it comes to science, but passionately not Darwinian when it comes to ethics. I just can’t see how that follows.

In an interview with Peter Singer, it seems to me that the discussion on ethics is rooted around how humans are essentially animals. They may be a particularly advanced kind of animal, but basically humans are animals. That is our evolutionary heritage, therefore this is how we should be. Where this gets interesting is his views on infanticide (starting at 24:11). Dawkins states, unequivocally, that in certain circumstances he could see no moral objection to infanticide (if, for example, the child had an incurable disease and was going to die in pain).

So it seems that Dawkins likes to talk evolutionary ethics when it suits him, but when it doesn’t we need to “rise above” Darwinism. I just cannot comprehend the mindset of someone who, when faced with the question of infanticide says “I can see no moral objection”, but when faced with the question of a cheating cricketer thumps his hand on the table and says, “Come on, we have STANDARDS here people!!!”

I’m not sure what the evolutionary ethical perspective on what Stuart Broad did actually is, but Dawkins seems to be seeing ‘cheating’ as an absolute whereas human life is not.

I should make clear at this point (after learning from a discussion had on Twitter a few weeks ago) that I am not making the accusation that someone “can’t be good without God”. I’d just question whether it’s possible to define ‘good’ in a meaningful way without God.

If you enjoyed this post you might also like my post on Godless Ethics and Egoism.

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Posted on July 15, 2013, in Personal. Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.

  1. Phil, this is simply wonderful — you’ve done a fantastic job putting the conversation thread together and exposing the hypocrisy. This paragraph nailed it:

    I just cannot comprehend the mindset of someone who, when faced with the question of infanticide says “I can see no moral objection”, but when faced with the question of a cheating cricketer thumps his hand on the table and says, “Come on, we have STANDARDS here people!!!”

    Great, great job!

    • Hi Andy, thanks so much – it means a lot to know people are reading and appreciating what I write from time to time :)

      I should actually point out – Stuart Broad wasn’t even *cheating*. He was playing by the rules of Cricket, he just wasn’t being ‘sportsmanlike’.

  2. According to Dawkins and Singer infanticide is acceptable depending on the specific situation one is in. They certainly do not say that every infant ought to be killed or may be killed if you want to. They always give specific circumstances, although Singer is prossibly more relaxed than Dawkins They are simply following a personhood approach to ethics. Infants may not possess personhood but Broad does and therefore ought to act in certain ways because he is a moral agent whereas infants may not be moral agents because they do not possess personhood yet.

    Singer has been arguing this since the late 1970s and his work on animal liberation. Moral agents should operate within moral frameworks and be treated with dignity but those that do not possess personhood may not be treated with dignity. They are operating under a different standards framework than you.

    • Thanks for your comment Richard.

      “Infants may not possess personhood but Broad does and therefore ought to act in certain ways because he is a moral agent whereas infants may not be moral agents because they do not possess personhood yet.”

      That seems to fit with what they were saying and what I’ve read elsewhere, although I’m still unsure as to where this concept of ‘personhood’ and associated ethics comes from within a naturalistic, evolutionary framework.

      It seems to me that Dawkins and Singer are basically saying: evolutionary ethics is appropriate when considering an infant, but not when considering a grown adult. But why are they making this decision between ‘personhood’ / moral agents and non-personhood? It seems like an arbitrary line in the sand to me.

      • Although I am more familiar with Singer’s ethics than Dawkins I think they would both disagree with the comment that their use of the concept of personhood is arbitrary.

        Ethics involves the identity of values on which to shape your choice of actions. Whilst I hold to a theistic source to values they hold to an evolutionary one. If one reduces evolutionary theory to the idea that life moves from simple forms to more complex forms over time then value can be given to those that exhibit the most complex forms of life/higher forms of life. Any specific life form has no intrinsic value in and of itself only value from possessing characteristics which indicate it is a higher form.

        For Singer and Dawkins, personhood, is the label they use to group these characteristics. One characteristic being self awareness another the capacity to relate to others, also self control.

        From their point of view there is a logic to how they ascribe moral value and I guess they would say their approach is no more arbitrary than a theistic approach.

        If you are living on campus and bump into Dan Strange say hi from me!

        • Thanks Richard.

          “From their point of view there is a logic to how they ascribe moral value and I guess they would say their approach is no more arbitrary than a theistic approach.”

          I think you’re right. Their approach to personhood and moral values does leave me with a number of uncomfortable questions, for example what you do with people who have severe mental impairment for whatever reason. Once you say that someone doesn’t have any intrinsic value just for being human, then someone only has value for what they can contribute.

          I don’t live on site but I will say hi to Dan next time I see him! :)

          • Jaron E. Ferguson

            ‘Personhood’ is a tricky label when basing one’s entire philosophy on science. Self-awareness cannot be quantified or measured by any reasonable method using external observations. For some argue that a mirror test proves some animals are self-aware, though the observations are not conclusive and cannot be applied across an entire species. If self-awareness can only be measured within or by oneself, should not then the natural, default assumption be that all animal life is capable, even presently maintains, self-awareness?

            Thus, the belief that only more complex forms are ‘Persons’ is shown to have its basis in faith (belief without measurable, external evidence) rather than in science: I have no way of proving my theory, but I choose to believe it is true anyway. A philosophical response to a scientific question is not reasonable, the Darwinist ridicules the religious man who believes the universe was created by God. Ironically, the Darwinist is blind to his own hypocrisy.

            However, the capacity to relate to others and self-control were listed as other indicators of ‘Personhood.’ Do not all animals relate to others in some fashion? A wolf treats its mate differently than other members of its pack, differently from other wolves they encounter, differently than its prey, and differently still from humans. Such relation to others, responding in varying ways depending on needs and desires and threats, is typical of human behavior (simply observe the worlds of academics, politics, or business to see how true that is).

            These varying responses are evidence of self-control as well. A wolf will kill another wolf wandering in its territory, not wishing to share space or game with a competitor. However, the same wolf cares for its offspring and helps to protect other members of the pack from harm. A woman invests in her friend who supports her, but she also treats another woman with hostility because they are both vying for the same promotion in the office.

            It may be admitted that humans often interact in more complicated ways than animals. Conversely, humans often seem to operate on some baser level than many ‘lesser’ creatures. People who submit to peer-pressure–to riot violently, to bully a child, to steal digital music, to lie in public, to cheat in a sporting match because ‘everyone else is doing it’ –have they ceased being self-aware because they no longer think as an individual? Because they do not exercise self-control, are even Persons anymore? By not properly relating to others, is their Personhood forfeit?

            Who makes that decision.

            And that is the real question: Who?

            According to this pseudoscience/pseudo-philosophy, only complex individuals are ‘Persons.’ But if we cannot measure or determine what makes a Person, the natural conclusion is that only a more developed, more complex Person with greater understanding and better tools can make that determination.

            Thus, a philosophy such as this is useless and nonsensical without Deity.

          • Thanks for all this Jaron,

            Your comments are informed and raise appropriate concerns about the concept of personhood. However I would always caution using the word useless to describe a theory that many people are very happy to employ to frame their moral coding; clearly it is of use to them. Peter Singer’s compassion for animal life and fellow human life goes far beyond most christians I know and he puts his words into action in the lifestyle he has chosen to adopt. It would be very hard to call him a hypocrite using his theory. He himself would argue that animals possess degrees of personhood and so we should treat them with far more respect than we currently do. Teh concept of personhood is not limited to the species we call humans.

            There is plenty of debate over the criteria that determines personhood but disagreements and objections in and of themselves do not automatically rule out the theory as being correct. However it does suggest the theory is not as watertight as perhaps some think.

            I think you are correct to suggest that militant atheists use some of these theories without appreciating that the belief framework behind them is based on suppositions that can not be shown to be true to the extent they seem to claim.

            I have had students write 4,000 word essays on fish and personhood and also dementia and personhood with some interesting comments considering neither were Christians. They themselves saw the limitations of the theory. This year another is considering dolphins and their moral state.

          • Jaron E. Ferguson

            Useless and nonsensical should it be called when a moral system does not clearly differentiate between right and wrong, good and evil, truth and lies. ‘Degrees of personhood’ is only another way to say ‘One may treat another human as a person when it suits him.’ Likewise, by that argument, because of the use of animals for food, labor, and entertainment, many could claim humans should be used in a similar fashion, and cannibalism and slavery would then be acceptable within the moral code. After all, humans have the majority of the same DNA as cows, so really it is just varying degrees of bovinehood.

            Many people subscribing to a moral code does not make it right. Truth is not Wikipedia. When a so-called system of morality contests that the destruction of uniquely individual, innocent human life is acceptable, someone should challenge it and call it ‘nonsense.’ Eugenics is based on this same line of thinking. Nazi Germany utilized similar theories to claim other humans were not people. Abortion murders thousands of children daily.

            With so much at stake, I will be damned before someone’s Political Correctness and misplaced sensitivity silences my challenge to a false morality. Civil discussions would be welcome. But when has genocide been civil?

            As for the Christians you claim to know, I suggest finding better friends. It has been my experience as a formerly bitter person that people tend to surround themselves with others who agree or otherwise confirm one’s already established opinions. Christians, as a whole, are no better than any other people group. The difference is that the true Christians are willing to admit they have failed their own moral code–that they need God for that reason. And I could make a broad generalization about atheistic, humanistic, naturalistic, or relativistic students and professors I have known and their lack of compassion or charitable efforts, extending that assumption across their ‘brethren in the faith,’ but that would be unfair and untruthful.

            I would question the validity of the faith of those militant Christians in the same manner I question that of atheist hypocrites. Should not both groups be recognized by their consistency and character? Should not the system be challenged when a group no longer recognizes the relevancy of these traits?

            To quote Thomas Jefferson: “Question with boldness even the existence of a god; because, if there be one, he must more approve the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear.”

          • You certainly cover a lot of ground in your comment Jaron. I have no wish to defend a personhood approach to ethics, to me it is similar to Romans 1, worshiping the creation not the creator but one also must be careful not to build a straw man when engaging with it.

            ‘Degrees of personhood’ is only another way to say ‘One may treat another human as a person when it suits him.’ wrong – if someone has personhood then you are duty bound at all times to treat them with dignity.

            likewise your comment about ‘…use of animals for food, labor, and entertainment..’ is misdirected sue to humans possessing personhood. Writers on personhood want to raise standards of care for animals not lower them for humans.

            It is not about DNA – that would be a biological understanding of being human not personhood.

            Many people subscribing to a moral code does not make it right – true but it is a reality we encounter in our daily lives and therefore have to engage with it. The same argument could be used against Christian ethics.

            When a so-called system of morality contests that the destruction of uniquely individual, innocent human life is acceptable – clearly you need to also reject events in Jericho etc in the OT (all I want to do is make sure you use language carefully)

            If you reject personhood because of extremist positions, such as the Nazis, then you also have to reject Christianity because of extreme positions some have taken such as murdering those who perform abortions etc.

            I like your quote from Thomas Jefferson and fully support it.

            My context is a multi-cultural, multi-faith liberal society which protects my right to hold the views I hold and gives me permission to dialogue with alternative positions. ‘I will be damned before someone’s Political Correctness and misplaced sensitivity silences my challenge to a false morality.’ Not sure if you are referring to me in this but I want people to listen to me rather than turn off when I talk at them, dialogue seems to work for my context but polemics may work in yours.

            And with that I will turn off myself as I go off on holiday.

            I look forward to reading future posts Phill

          • Thank you, Jaron, that’s a very helpful comment.

            Once I think you get inside the worldview of the naturalist / atheist, you see just how inconsistent it is.

            Now if only there was an easy way of getting people to actually realise that!

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