Immoral Morality

In a good illustration of just how thick people who are intellectually gifted can be, the well-known biologist and militant atheist Richard Dawkins recently offered his opinion that Down syndrome children would best be prevented from being born. “It would be immoral,” he wrote, “to bring it into the world if you have the choice.”

“It”? 

The dehumanization says it all.

Professor Dawkins’ judgment of birthing a developmentally disabled child as “immoral” stems from his belief (shared by another famously mindless professor, Peter Singer, who also advocates euthanasia for severely handicapped infants and elderly) that an act’s morality should be gauged entirely by whether or not it increases happiness or suffering.

Mr. Dawkins’ comment drew considerable fire, as well it should have. Some of those who assailed the professor for his — let’s here reclaim an important adjective — immoral stance focused on the factual error of his creepy calculus. Two psychology researchers wrote, for example, in something of an understatement, that “individuals with Down syndrome can experience more happiness and potential for success than Mr. Dawkins seems to appreciate.”

In fact, 99% of respondents to a survey of those with Down syndrome (yes, 99%) report that they are happy with their lives. Moreover, 88% of older siblings of people with Down syndrome reported feeling that they are better people for the fact.

Then there were those who addressed Mr. Dawkins not with statistics but with experience. Like Sarah Palin, whose son has Down syndrome, and who generously offered to “let you meet my son if you promise to open your mind, your eyes, and your heart to a unique kind of absolute beauty.”

There is no question that families raising Down syndrome children face many challenges, medical, emotional, educational and societal. But anyone who has embraced that privilege — and anyone, for that matter, who has experienced the innocence of Down syndrome children or adults, whose guileless and endearing personalities can be awesome — understand how much more perceptive the much-maligned Mrs. Palin is than the much-celebrated Mr. Dawkins.

Truth be told, though, offering statistics or personal experience about the wonder of Down children is really beside the point — the most important point, namely, the inherent folly of the Dawkinsian understanding of happiness.

Those of us who are naturally happy are very fortunate. And all of us are to aim at serving Hashem with happiness (Tehillim, 100:2). But happiness is not tethered to tranquil or easy lives; many people who face adversities unimaginable to those of us who live relatively comfortable, untroubled lives are nevertheless happy. 

Edifying is the famous story of Reb Zusha of Hanipoli, the impoverished, long-suffering but joyful Chassid who, according to the famous story, received two esteemed guests at his dilapidated home. They told him that they had asked the Maggid of Mezeritch how one can bless Hashem as the Mishnah (Berachos 54a) directs, “for the bad just as for the good,” and that the Maggid had sent them to him.

Puzzled, he responded: “How would I know? He should have sent you to someone who has experienced suffering.”

Happiness doesn’t happen; it is achieved. And its achievement is not tied to ease or fun or lack of adversity. It results from recognizing that life, ultimately, is about meaning. True meaning, that is, not some imagined or invented meaning. Life’s meaning that comes from serving the Divine. That concept may be imponderable to atheists like Richard Dawkins or Peter Singer. But it is the reason for human existence, for the bestowal of free will on the subset of creation we call men and women.

Down syndrome, as it happens and as we should always remember, is hardly the only condition “out there.” There are other disabilities as well, some or all of whose sufferers Messrs. Dawkins and Singer may consider unworthy of the world as well. Only they’re not. 

Consider, for example, those who have “23 chromosome pair syndrome,” which is invariably fatal. Sufferers are susceptible to a host of maladies, including heart disease, high blood pressure, asthma and numerous forms of cancer, and are likely to suffer bouts of mild or more serious depression over the course of their lives. 

They are also prone to headaches, nosebleeds, painful joints and broken bones. And, at some point, they can become so disabled that they require others to care for them. 

The syndrome happens to be quite common. 

Indeed, it’s ubiquitous. 

It’s what we call “normal” human life.