Wednesday, August 23, 2006

My review is up!

I've written what I think is the first liberal review of Ramesh Ponnuru's "The Party of Death." It's up right now at The American Prospect.


Sanpete said...

I learned of your piece at Lindsay Beyerstein's blog, which you helpfully provide a link to. Unfortunately, I didn't notice where she also gave a link to yours, so I posted the following over there. Thus you appear in the third person. It was so much easier to call you disingenuous in the third person. Here it is where it belongs, for what it's worth.

Neil's piece is very well written in most respects, but it seems disingenuous to me for him to present his views as though they are the common, common sense, or unproblematic views of ordinary people, liberals, or even the pro-choice. His arguments would more accurately be called "a" rather than "the" pro-choice position.

One issue that many ordinary folks, liberals and some pro-choice would have reservations about is his pragmatic approach to fixing moral boundaries such as what a person is. (This is especially evident in how he draws the line at birth.) Many people believe that such points are already inherent in an objective moral fabric of the world, and aren't open to our arranging as we see fit, as we do with the driving or voting age. I'll just mention one point that shows the importance of this issue. It is commonly argued that the mere reasonable possibility that a fetus is a person, morally speaking, is enough to act as though the fetus may be a person. Being a moral subjectivist, I happen to agree with what I take to be Neil's approach on this, but I don't see it as uncontroversial among ordinary people or liberals.

According to liberals and other ordinary people, the moral status of something depends on what mental capacities it has.

This too is controversial as applied here. It's true that most people have this intuition, but I don't think most people would agree that this is the sole or sufficient ground for determining what a person is. Common, substantial reservations grow around the mentally disabled, for example. This approach also invites a gradation of moral rights according to mental capacities, something Neil deals with only partially (no doubt for reasons of space). It also opens a huge challenge concerning animal rights, since many animals have more developed mental capacities than human babies do, but aren't accorded similar rights.

While I agree that birth is in some ways an advantageous place to draw the line of personhood, a strong case can also be made for viability (recognized as significant in Roe v. Wade), which is getting earlier and earlier when medical equipment is available, or even for a far later time when the capacities are presumably developed to a point beyond that of, say, monkeys (or dogs or dolphins).

It's in dealing with these problems that the draw of a position like Ponnuru's becomes more apparent.

Other points could be and often are raised in connection with Neil's arguments. I just give these as examples of how much more difficult the issues are than Neil suggests, even for the ordinary, liberal and pro-choice.

M/tch M/lls said...

Hey, Neil, enjoyed your piece.

Here's a link, to an Unfogged post I thought you might find interesting/useful, that I mentioned last night at Drinking Liberally:

Jay said...

Neil, Enjoyed your piece and found it by accident because you share a post on that date with another Indian-American friend of mine Subodh Chandra. Email me when you get a chance at I've recently taken over the leadership of the Indian-Amerian Leadership Initiative. Our redesigned web will have opportunities for bloggers which I hope you'll participate in and possibly lead. Hope all is well in Austin. Jay from Edwards country.

Progressive Traditionalist said...

I like your review, and I'm glad you've written it.
I like celery, too, even though it floats above my head like some poltergeist on the camshaft....

I wish you would stay away from the fictional characters argument. That one is more of a distraction.

Also, you present a woman's right to her body as an absolute right. This is false, and I feel it to be the wrong tack.

Griswald v Conn. states that couples have a right to birth control. Part of the Roe decision is that States have an interest in preserving life.

Also, sleeping people, or drunken ones, are not allowed to vote.

Maybe you could talk with a farmer sometime about at what point their crop becomes corn, or wheat, or cotton, or whatever....

jp said...

Nice review, Mr. werewolf. I've seen that pompous git on tv a few times and wanted to hurl things at him.

And I'm with you. I too think it's worse to murder a kitten--hell, or even a cat!-- than to extinguish an embryo.

Just re-read (of all things) *The Nanny Diaries* and noticed, more than before, the cruelty of the X's to the puppy in the last chapter. Granted, it hardly holds a candle to their cruelty to their own child, but the authors make the point that the puppy too is a sentient, even emoting being, capable of experiencing fear and hope and pain.

Anonymous said...

Read your piece, and then read Mr. Ponnuru's response:

I don't think you come out on top in this one.

Sanpete said...

Ponnuru's reply is measured and respectful, a tribute to how well written and measured your piece is, I think. His arguments are mostly just fine as far as they go, but I think he leaves some weak points.

One is that his view seems to require a peculiar metaphysical or spiritual view of the capacity to be human.

I add in a footnote: “Disease, genetic defect, accident, and violence can of course block the development of this capacity in particular human beings, but these possibilities do not call its existence in those beings into question.”

He says the capacity is blocked, when physically it's apparent in at least some of these cases that the capacity has been destroyed. There are no natural conditions under which the capacity could be recovered; it may never have been there to start with. Possibly he believes the capacity is inherent in the DNA, but in some cases it's the DNA itself that's unable to develop full human capacities. His view seems to require that the capacity remain inherent no matter the physical condition, as it would according to some metaphysical or spiritual views. But physically or scientifically there is no way I can see to make his position work without stretching things quite a bit. Nor do I think he'll be able to give strong arguments for a suitable metaphysical or spiritual view to make it work. Such views are controversial for their own reasons.

What this means is that his argument for the rights of those with no remaining capacity, by normal standards, for normal human mental functioning is weak, seemingly working only for those who accept a certain controversial kind of metaphysical or spiritual framework.

Another commonly noted weakness of his argument is that it depends on according full, actual rights on the basis of partially actualized potential abilities. This raises various problems, including why full rights would exist on the basis of mere potential. Ponnuru argues (or appears to) that this view is called for where the right involved is sufficiently important or basic. In the matter of taking life there is no room for "error." He appears to be saying that we must give any being with human potential full right to life to avoid a possible mistake of the kind that can occur when we draw lines for prudential reasons.

The strength of this argument, if I understand it, and I'm not sure I follow this part of his piece, depends on how much weight we give to the mere possibility that an embryo or disabled human has a full right to life. If you think it highly unlikely, less likely than that a higher animal has a full right to life, say, or that a convicted man is actually not guilty of the crime for which you're willing to execute him, or any number of other cases where life is in the balance, then the argument is pretty weak. If you're agnostic about such things, though, it has some weight in all such cases. People who make such arguments should probably also oppose capital punishment and the killing of animals in conditions where we wouldn't kill humans.

There are also questions about where to draw the line of potential. It's often pointed out, for example, that a particular viable sperm, or a collection of sperm, along with an unfertilized egg or collection of unfertilized eggs taken together also have the capacity, under normal conditions, to form a human being. The arguments for not treating such a group in the same way as a fertilized egg in terms of capacity are fairly question begging or otherwise tenuous.

Such challenges arise for any argument that correlates potential capacities with actual moral status. Since even many pro-choice people do this routinely, with infants, for example, this isn't only a problem for Ponnuru.

Another point he doesn't mention (but may address elsewhere, for all I know) is how to deal with those who kill embryos, if in fact they have a full right to life. If so, it seems that those who kill embryos for purposes of fertility or by use of certain kinds of birth control, not to mention those who have abortions, are in fact guilty of murder and should be treated accordingly. This is a topic few with conservative views about abortion treat consistently.

I think anyone looking at the issues surrounding the right to life with full honesty will see that there isn't any clear way of resolving all the moral tangles, short of some religious revelation that just puts them aside. There's a tendency on both sides to treat their own views as more simple and firmly founded than they really are.

A.K. said...

Mr. Sinhababu:

Your article in the American Prospect contains some important--and, I think, fatal--flaws I'd like to point out. Let me cut to the chase.

1) You cite the fact that "pain perception is probably not possible until the 29th week" of pregnancy". You neglect to properly explain, however, just why it is that the ability to feel pain should constitute the sine qua non of human life. Ramesh Ponnuru points this out in his solid counter-rebuttal to your critique of his book on National Review Online (which I sincerely hope you've read). Kindly complete your argument before positing it as some kind of fait accompli.

My main problem with your case, however, lies in your comparison of the right to life with the right to vote. Mr. Ponnuru's rebuttal of your comparison of the right to vote with the right to live was rather half-hearted. Although he rightly retorted that “the right to vote isn't as basic a human right as the right not to be deliberately killed”, he didn't explain why, and although he really shouldn't have to, I think that doing so would have exposed the fatal flaw in your reasoning. So let me pick up his slack and take a crack at it.

You base humans’ right to life on “continuously variable mental quantities”. You assert that society already does this, citing the right to vote as your main example: “Two-year-olds don’t have the right to vote because they lack the required rationality, maturity, and political awareness. All of these mental qualities increase on a continuous scale. Testing everyone for these qualities before letting them vote is impractical and open to abuse, so we let people vote when their age allows us to assume that they have these qualities. Determining the beginning of the right to life may be weightier than determining the beginning of the right to vote, but there’s no obvious reason to do it in a radically different way.”

Yes, there is.

Voting is a positive act that human beings choose to engage in before the fact. On the morning of election day, I can choose to either drive down to the polling station, walk into the voting booth, mark an "x" on the ballot and drop it into the ballot box—or not. I can choose to engage in this activity, freely and entirely of my own volition. However, in order to do so in a responsible and credible manner, society rightly requires that I meet certain qualifications first—namely, that I display a certain minimum level of rationality, maturity and political awareness.

What this means is that I have to EARN my right to vote. It doesn’t come to me simply by virtue of my status as a human being; I have to demonstrate the capacity to exercise it wisely and responsibly. That, and that alone, is the rationale for restricting the right to vote only to those who are fit to exercise it. Though you dig not deign to state this explicitly, Mr. Sinhababu, based on the entirety of you argument, I imagine you would agree. (If not, correct me if I'm wrong, because this is the foundation for the core of my rebuttal.)

The problem, then, with your comparison of the right to vote with the right to life is that no one can likewise “earn” the right to life. Why? Because no one deliberately “chooses” to become alive the way one can choose to vote. To be alive is not a premeditated decision to engage in a specific form of behaviour. A sperm cell does not “choose” to fertilize an egg cell. A zygote does not “choose” to develop into an embryo, nor does an embryo “choose” to develop into a foetus, nor does a foetus “choose” to be born. Likewise, from cradle to grave, the natural processes by which a human being remains alive are not a matter of choice. A person does not “choose” to breathe; nor does one “choose” to make one’s heart beat or to make one’s brain send all the appropriate signals to the body’s organs to keep them functioning so as to stay alive. Mind you, a person can choose to end those processes—that is, one can choose to cease to exercise one’s own right to live. However, an individual has no choice whatsoever over whether he or she comes into being or not in the first place.

What does this mean within the context of this debate? Its principal ramification is this: Because life is not something one can choose for oneself before the fact, one cannot “earn” or “not earn” one’s right to life, in the way one can “earn” or “not earn” his or her right to vote. There is no elective dimension to becoming alive; therefore the idea of somehow being "qualified" for life the way someone can be "qualified" to vote is absurd. A woman who has been rejected at voter registration time can choose to educate herself to the point at which she has attained the level of maturity, rationality and political awareness that is required for her to be allowed to vote. Otherwise put, as stated earlier, she can earn her right to vote. A preborn—-indeed, a preconceived—-child has no such option. Therefore, to establish “criteria” for determining whether a human being has the right to live is a completely and fundamentally different concept from establishing criteria for determining whether a person has the right to vote. To vote and to live are not mutually analogous. Comparing the two rights is, to resurrect that tired old cliché, comparing apples and oranges.

Indeed, almost no other human or civil right under the sun is truly comparable to the right to life. Every other right human beings exercise is fundamentally the same as the right to vote. The right to free speech, the right to marry, the right to bear arms—-these are all examples of premeditated behaviour, actions which an individual chooses to commit before the fact. The act of simply living, however, is never premeditated; it is quite simply a state of being, fundamental to the human condition, into which the individual did not enter by choice in the first place. One could very well call all the other, more conventional rights “active” or perhaps “behavioural” rights, while the right to live would better be referred to as an “existential” right—-in fact, the only existential right, at least so far as I am aware.

Simply put, voting is a deed; living, however, is not. Because the individual in question can choose to do—-or to eschew—-a certain deed, the right to do the deed can be earned; because one cannot choose life for oneself, the right to live cannot. This is why—-or at least party or largely why—-“the right to vote isn't as basic a human right as the right not to be deliberately killed,” as Mr. Ponnuru correctly riposted. And that, in turn, is the fatal flaw in your case, Mr. Sinhababu. You seem to contend that society allows individuals to exercise their fundamental rights only when they prove that they have the mental capacity to do so responsibly. In the case of every single fundamental right known to man except one, you may very well be right. In that one case, however—-the crucial case of the right to live, to exist—-you are quite wrong. That, Mr. Sinhababu, is why your stab at proving that not all human organisms are persons with rights misses the mark entirely.

Anonymous said...


Your utilitarian argument oozes self-serving philosophy. Indeed, when God is not the source of truth, the capacity of consciousness, more particularly, your ability to do as you please (seek pleasure and avoid pain) becomes paramount. Christians call this sin as it seperates you from God and places you in the position of God.

You may wish to view a current article about one who discovers the truth of God and science a little each day.