Wednesday, June 07, 2006


There's an interesting item, with thoughtful comment, at Darwin Catholic regarding Ramesh Ponnuru's new book, Party of Death. Apparently, Peter Berkowitz and John Derbyshire have found the pro-life argument too logically coherent, grounded in some sort of inappropriate rationalism. Feelings can be reasons, too, they say: if I feel that a fetus is important, then it is important; but if I don't feel that it's important, then it isn't.

You can get an idea of what a deep thinker Peter Berkowitz is from this excerpt:
Mr. Ponnuru insists that the embryo's unique genetic structure creates a bright line separating a "party of life" from a "party of death," that the right to abortion is indistinguishable from a license to infanticide. (On this last point, as Mr. Ponnuru notes, the famously extreme Princeton ethicist Peter Singer agrees, while defending both.) But bright lines do not always exist--in law, ethics or politics. That doesn't mean that lines cannot be drawn; they can indeed, carefully, responsibly and defensibly. But they may be neither brightly obvious nor rigidly predictable. They may even shift over time, affected by the kind of debate to which Mr. Ponnuru has made such a forceful contribution.
One can see why Mr. Berkowitz is not a huge fan of logical lines. But at least he's mildly sympathetic. Well, maybe. But whatever--Mr. Derbyshire's sympathies can be inferred from the title of his piece: "A Frigid and Pitiless Dogma." Why avail oneself of reason when sensationalism will do? His first sentence:
Can Right to Life (hereinafter RTL) fairly be called a cult?
Happily, he allows as how we don't actually have a "F├╝hrerprinzip" here in the pro-life movement, but that does not take the edge off of our committment to "a structure of perfect logical integrity." If sensationalism won't do the job, there's always condescension:
With polemical skills and intellectual firepower of this order, it is possible that RTL might break out from its natural habitat in student chapters of the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception to attain real influence in the land.
Well, he's a writer, not a thinker. We must be patient with him. When he thinks of the so-called "Party of Death", he is moved by compassion:
I see a woman who, having missed her period and found herself pregnant, has an abortion, comes home, downs a stiff drink, and gets on with her life. With her life. Here I meet a man whose loved wife has gone, never to return, yet her personless body still twitches and grunts randomly on its plastic sheet, defying years of care and therapy. Let her go, everyone begs him, and his own conscience cries; and at last he does, whichever way the law will permit. Here I find a couple who want a lively, healthy child, but who know their genes carry dark possibilities of a lifetime’s misery and an early death. They permit multiple embryos to be created, select the one free from the dread traits, and give over the rest to the use of science, or authorize their destruction.
Nothing wrong with his moral sentiments, but one does wonder where this idea that subjective experience ought to dictate the rules by which everyone else ought to live their lives. The irony, of course, is that folks such as Derbyshire appear to think that they are the ones who are being reasonable, and that it is the "pro-life cult" that is trying to "legislate morality". But just insofar as folks like Derbyshire are willing to let folks be killed simply because they "see a woman" who wants an abortion--well, the mind boggles. If one has a mind: it is not so clear that everyone does these days, at least not a functioning one.

There are some who appear to think that laws against abortion are somehow an interfering with someone else's life ("with her life"), rather than a protection of an innocent human's life. It's almost as if they would argue that laws against slavery are an interference with property-holders' lives ("with their lives") rather than a protection of oppressed humans' lives. And the only explanation that they can come up with for why they think this, is that this is how "it appears" to them, this is what "seems best"--to whom? To them. In short, we must conform to their way of viewing the world rather than to our own, and yet we are somehow the ones who want to legislate morality. There is no appeal to the harm principle or any other rational criterion to get them off the hook: even the bogus appeal to "liberty" falls flat insofar as their way of viewing the world sacrifices the lives of innocent humans who never get to enjoy any of this alleged "liberty" that comes from letting people do whatever they like.

This kind of anti-intellectualism is not at all uncommon these days, but it is a little more perplexing when it comes from those who like to pose as intellectuals. You'd think they would at least be able to put on a good show.


Tom said...

This kind of anti-intellectualism is not at all uncommon these days, but it is a little more perplexing when it comes from those who like to pose as intellectuals.

In Derbyshire's defense, he does admit that his is "an un-intellectual — all right, anti-intellectual — voice."

Scott Carson said...

In Derbyshire's defense

And what a compelling defense it is, too.

Apollodorus said...

Well, ethics is non-cognitive anyway, right? Really, it would seem that at least some case could be made for permitting early-term abortions in some circumstances -- I mean to say that people should be able to make an argument to that effect, not necessarily that it will be a successful one. What baffles me is that people so often just do not make one at all, and even more so that people try to pretend that being completely irrational about these things is somehow a superior way to approach the matter.

As someone who was pro-choice for most of his life and only fairly recently came to a different judgment, I can appreciate the sympathies that move pro-choice people. I still have them. I remain very uneasy about the idea of banning all abortions, and I am dissatisfied with arguments to the effect that people who get pregnant by accident should simply accept the consequences of their mistakes and deal with it -- though of course I am even less satisfied with the argument that they should just have abortions! I find myself frankly overwhelmed by the number of obstacles that stand in the way of a good solution to the problems that drive people towards abortion in the first place, and usually give up in face of the complexity. But what I do not do, what I can not do with any honesty, is pretend that the practice of abortion is consistent with belief in real human rights. Of course, I am often skeptical about those, too, but I am not willing to actually deny them.

Most people who are pro-choice aren't willing to deny human rights, either. There do exist pro-choice people who base their position on reflective arguments, but they are the minority (then again, so too are pro-life people who base their position on reflective arguments rather than, say, religious dogma). In most cases, I think, the recognition of how complex a question it must inevitably be leads to the conclusion that morality is just not black and white, just too complex to capture in rational discussion. There may be something philosophically to be said for that sort of particularism, but most people are not motivated by such concerns. The kind of bewilderment that people face is of a different sort, and something that we ought to appreciate -- the difficulty of making decisions is one of the reasons why we do moral philosophy in the first place, right? What is not nearly so understandable is that the people who are the loudest about the right to an abortion make no attempt to move beyond that bewilderment, and even go so far as to suggest that attempting to go beyond it is somehow cold-hearted.

My wife, who is working on a project having to do with the history of libraries in the state of Texas, was recently reading a master's thesis from 1923 in which the author, after pages of milky, laudatory prose about her favorite governor of Texas, went on to praise his genius in devising the system of segregated railway cars in order to solve problems that had arisen because of race tensions. That he did this before anyone had yet to think up of Jim Crow laws made him even more brilliant. She explained this in a way that made clear that she did not find it particularly problematic; she expected her audience to recognize her claims as obvious. The fact that people can think of themselves as so reasonable in the process of defending such blatantly racist policies ought to make clear why we all need to be even more critical and reflective about our beliefs instead of trying to legitimate our prejudices by appeal to emotions.

Thus concludes my sermon to the converted.

Scott Carson said...

I couldn't help but think that this was a pretty good assessment of "The Derb." Apparently "The Derb" thinks so, too.

And I have to say that, as a description of conservatism, it is not very compelling. That is, I myself do not see conservatism, as a movement, quite the same way that "The Derb" apparently does.

Tom said...

And what a compelling defense it is, too.

Well, it's certainly a focused defense....