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Category: Ethics

Richard Dawkins Part 1: The Worth of a Human Life

It is nearly 48 hours since the latest furore surrounding Richard Dawkins. There are two things I have noticed over the last couple of days [I started to write this as one posts but it’s got a bit long, I’ll do a second post*]:

The world has divided into three camps:
1) Those who are ardently opposed to Richard Dawkins
and looking for any excuse to blindly oppose him.
2) Those who are ardent supporters of Richard Dawkins and will blindly follow him wherever he goes.
3) Those who were largely ambivalent to Richard Dawkins but find this particular excursion into the philosophy of human morality repugnant.

In the third group there are many who are parents of children with Down’s Syndrome who are keen to stress that their daughter or son’s worth can’t be measured by their contribution to society. There are people with Down’s Syndrome who read his comments and find that they themselves are being viewed as worth-less to society.

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We have as a society moved in the name of progress to view people as commodity. A person’s worth is increasingly seen by those who govern as the “contribution that they make to the economy”. By someone such as Professor Dawkins a person’s worth is measured by how much can be contributed to the things he personally values, i.e. Evolutionary Biology. This is why he values those with Aspergers as being worthy of life.

This whole ‘scandal’ has been an opportunity for personal reflection. I come from a family in which Down’s Syndrome and Asperger’s are quite prevalent along with other kinds of “special needs”. I have been looking around my family and imagining this “lens of worth” with which to view the world. Which of my relatives are worthy of life and which ones are not? My uncle recently passed away as a happy and fulfilled pensioner [and the sentence shouldn’t need to continue with the words ‘with Down’s Syndrome.’ That should be enough!] The grief in our family was and is tangible. The life, the shared experiences, the jokes that were shared together in thick Scots accents left a huge impact upon us all.

As a foetus, I was screened. I was weighed and found not wanting. This is actually untrue. My mum says that she went along with the screening because she was told that she had to because of the risk but that there is no way she would have terminated the pregnancy. The decision was already made. My life would have worth whether an academic, a prince or a pauper, whether Asperger’s, Down’s or – whatever it is that I am despite my lack of labels.

[*edit – I started writing about the press and the way they report some individuals as individuals and some as representative of their group but it was too depressing. Not sure I’ll bother with part 2.]

Wealth and Poverty

Last week I blogged about the growing gap between the rich and the poor. I also mentioned that wealth is only wealth if it is compared to poverty. If we are all millionaires, a million quid isn’t worth anything. This article brings home a terrifying statistic.

A new report from Oxfam on Monday. It warned that those richest 85 people across the globe share a combined wealth of £1tn, as much as the poorest 3.5 billion of the world’s population.

Astonishingly, 85 people have the combined wealth of half the planet’s poorest. How long can this stockpiling of wealth go on before the whole system collapses? When 85 people have 95% of the worlds money?

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The Big Benefits Row

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I’m always cutting edge and up to date, never several days behind.  No no no.

I recorded The Big Benefits Row the other night because I’d had a bad day.  A well informed individual from the local area was using Facebook to inform everyone that Foodbanks were just a way for “trendy, dogooder, left wing, anti government Christians” to “feel good about themselves”.  Having given real examples of real lives from the food drop in and St George’s Crypt, it was clearly going around in circles as “all money for the homeless is spent on drugs and booze”. I did not really fancy The Big Benefits Row:  The clue is in the title,  more of the same.

If I’m honest, I turned it off after Edwina Currie.  I grew tired of Edwina Currie and Katie Hopkins’ plum accents shouting down the regional accents of the “poor people” and refusing to let them speak.  It was exhausting to watch.  Like watching a pack of dogs tearing a puppy to pieces in a dingy cellar somewhere in the East End of London as a sweaty man takes screwed up five pound notes from a baying crowd whilst going on about the savings he’ll now make on Winalot.  So I turned it off.

Growth and Inequality

Last night I watched QI and it was all about happiness.  The wonderful thing about QI is that every 30 seconds you have your perceptions challenged.  You look at the TV and say “Eh, what, really“?

What made me do the double take last night?  Stephen Fry said that there is a 10% wider gap between the rich and the poor since John Major’s government.  In the long history of humanity, that is a staggeringly small time frame – it is within my lifetime!  It was so startling that it made me start looking things up.  Surely there can’t be such a gap between the have’s and the havenots.  As you can see in the video above, what we perceive to be the distribution of wealth in the UK is very different to the reality.

We live in a world of finite resources and wealth is a relative term.  For there to be “rich”, there need to be “poor” because wealth is a relative thing.  If we all win the lottery tonight, bread will be sold at £10.50 a loaf in the morning.  In my wallet I have a meaningless piece of paper (financially): a million Zimbabwean Dollars, worth less than a single penny.  In reality it is one of the most meaningful pieces of paper I have because it illustrates that “wealth” is only “wealth” if it is relative to “poverty”.

There has been a lot of research into the current discrepancies between public perception about benefits and the reality.  Perceptions are much more powerful than facts as people tend to view anecdote and narrative highly if it is told to them by people they trust.  It came as a great surprise to the last person who told me about “all the scroungers claiming benefits” when I pointed out that he was the only person in the room receiving any benefits.  He clearly didn’t see himself as being a benefits claimant.

‘Our data poses real challenges for policymakers. How can you develop good policy when public perceptions can be so out of kilter with the evidence? …First, politicians need to be better at talking about the real state of affairs of the country, rather than spinning the numbers. Secondly, the media has to try and genuinely illuminate issues, rather than use statistics to sensationalise. – Hetan Shah, executive director of the Royal Statistical Society