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.


Anonymous 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.

Anonymous 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:

Anonymous 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.

Anonymous 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.

Anonymous 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.

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.