I hadn’t given a moment’s thought to picking up Romesh Ponnuru’s Party of Death, but after taking in John Derbyshire’s engagingly contrarian review-essay, "A Frigid and Pitiless Dogma," I have reluctantly decided to toss the National Review editor’s right-to-life polemic into my already bloated Amazon cart. For those who generally dwell above the din of partisan shit-slinging, Ponnuru’s book is being promoted as a conservative expose’ revealing how Democratic power-brokers exploit "Not just abortion-on-demand," but a raft of RTL issues — "euthanasia, embryo destruction, even infanticide" — all to the moral detriment of our great nation’s latent, life-loving ethos.
I know. I’m put off by the whole sordid spectacle. Especially when it’s punctuated with so much high-pitch beltway-baiting rhetoric. Really, I’d rather listen to cats fuck. And on a strictly visceral level, I confess I can muster nary an ort of concern over the plight of gestating tadpoles. Sonograms are about as interesting to me as radio static. Hell, I don’t even like babies. It’s like they’re not really people yet — just noisy, spitting, gurgling, larvae. When those bubbly cubicle girls chirp and fawn over their smelly little winston churchill pugs, my inevitable reaction is one of sincere and vaguely irritated bafflement. Show me a picture of your freshly plucked yellow flesh-ball, my proud parent friend, and I’ll be careful to regurgitate the expected niceties, but privately I’ll be wondering how far I could drop-kick the little fucker.
Does this make me a bad person? Yes, I think it does. But I’m no better where the specter of moribund infirmity enters the frame. When I conjure those media-ingrained flash images of poor Terri Schiavo, her vacant cow-like expression contorting in grotesque parody of some former countenance, the revulsion that wells in me is almost emetic, like a kind of existential indigestion. The lizard brain screams smash the bug, crush the shriveled, wriggling thing.
Worse is when the newsreels spiral back to acutely personal terrain. Like when I killed my mother. Which is to say, of course, when the assigned medical professional, in perfect legal consonance with a dying woman’s expressed and notarized wish, gave formal authorization for me, the beloved son and medical power of attorney, to wrest away the oxygen mask. To cut off the impersonal web of beeping, humming technoratis that had for days sustained her increasingly meaningless biological processes, thereby inducing unexpected paroxysms of struggling, gasping, desperate rebellion. I remember this struggle — her struggle — more than anything else; how it gave way to a slow churning descent that seemed nothing at all like sleep, until a trailing gurgle displaced anything resembling normal pulmonary activity. And I remember looking down upon the shrunken corpse of this woman for whom I once held such profound and conflicted respect, this woman who knocked off countless New York Times crossword puzzles (in ink) and professed to believe anyone could do the same — "it just takes practice." And I remember a strange swell of anger that overcame me as I thought: fuck that. Burn it. I don’t care. It doesn’t matter. Nothing ever did.
Such personal gestures, I am aware, come cheap. Yet beyond the morbid slideshows and public slogans, there will always be a point where our efforts at detached contemplation collide with brute reality. If you haven’t had an abortion, I’m sure you know someone who has. Maybe it was an old girlfriend, or your sister. And even if you’ve been spared the experience of watching a close relative fade into full-on dementia, one look at Terri’s gaping mug is enough to conjure the implications. And there’s always the chance that one day, you get to kill your mother. As reduced through the dumb show of political stagecraft, the philosophical questions surrounding life and death will seem oddly and eternally removed from the emotional, and often irrational, weight of our personal biases. This is important to understand.
Here 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.The RTL-ers would tell
me that these people, and the medical professionals who help them, are
all moral criminals, who have destroyed human lives. They support their
belief with careful definitions, precise chains of reasoning, and—I do
not doubt it—sincere intentions. Yet how inhuman they seem! What a
frigid and pitiless dogma they preach!—one that would take from the
living, without any regard to what the living have to say about it, to
give to those whom common intuition regards as nonliving; that would
criminalize acts of compassion, and that would strip away such little
personal autonomy as is left to us after the attentions of the IRS, Big
Medicine, the litigation rackets, and the myriad government
bureaucracies that regulate our lives and peer into our private affairs.
I choose to excerpt this passage in the first order because
it cuts so acutely to the quick of my let-the-heavens-fall libertarian viscera;
Derbyshire’s sincerity is unmistakable as he pits the messy, situational
complexities of life — real life — against the stark moral dicta extolled by RTL busybodies. And there is an
emotional resonance in his appeal that I refuse to ignore. As a matter of pure sentiment, I simply
don’t give a damn whether this woman or that or a million others abort
their tadpoles, and I am only too happy to raise my glass in the
aftermath. Nor am I inclined to cast judgement upon those who have the
misfortune of agonizing over the fate of blood-bonded breathing corpses. Through the dark lens of empathy, our carefully parsed legal formalities will seem perfectly meaningless.
Perhaps that should be where it ends. Yet the agitation that lingers as I revisit these narratives with a spirit of detatched intellectual humility is such that I realize I have literally no idea what it all means.
The point already lost is that while my — our — moral intuition may skew from
bitter experience and a jaundiced wordview, there is yet reason to
pay consideration to the arguments advanced by those oddly insistent
voices, "cultists" in Derbyshire’s acerbically phrased estimation,
professing — contriving, deducing, whatever — a peculiar ethical
fealty to the transcendent value of human life. However the recited case histories, in their particular and implacable
horror, may stab in affront to our sense of dignity and moral order; however sharply the reel of images may pique our collective
sense of primeval injustice, I am not so easily assured that my cultivated
indifference and reflexive assent can be reconciled with an order of right that
allows me to tip my glass in the first instance. The questions that
remain, I submit, are more properly addressed through the light
of rational, ethical inquiry. This takes effort and practiced disinterest. Because once you venture past the platitudes and palaver, ethics
is a bitch.
If my legally asserted right against aggression logically implies an
analogous right for these protoplasmic blobs and vegetative zombies, then
perhaps that is where the chips must fall. And I should acknowledge my
drinking partner as the criminal she is. Bottoms up.
To his dubious credit Derbyshire disdains to reveal any specific flaw in the "careful definitions" and "precise chains of reasoning" favored by the RTL votaries, preferring instead to rest his rejection of their arguments on the more cynical — a term I invoke with no pejorative intent — edifice of what might be described as a kind of pragmatically rooted ethical skepticism. The power of rational thought, laudable though it may be, is by Derbyshire’s account too easily exalted beyond practical application. "My own estimate of the power of reason," he avers, "…is, I am willing to bet, a lot smaller than Ponnuru’s—it is, I think,
smaller than that of anyone I have ever met—and I am sure that poor
beleaguered reason needs all the help it can get."
(Ponnuru, who, I should mention, has responded to all of this, is less charitable, characterizing Derbyshire’s position as rank nihilism.)
Given Derbyshire’s well-earned reputation as the most astute and outspoken Darwinian gadfly to emerge from the slum of modern intellectual conservatism, I sincerely doubt that his perspective could be couched in classic utilitarian terms. More likely, I suspect his stance arises from the appreciation of an evolved moral sense lurking somewhere in the inchoate machinery of human nature. Such a predisposition — about which evolutionary psychologist Robert Wright has written to popular reception, and about which the political philosopher Larry Arnhart has written with careful eloquence — probably comes to civilized order through myriad and complex socio-cultural guideposts, until our mammalian sense of fair play and reciprocal justice is grandly reified through democratic institutions, through common law jurisprudence, and the lynchpin of religion.
When we peer beyond this rich heritage, attempting to glean categorical bases for moral conduct, Derbyshire seems to imply — and again, I’m speculating — that we inevitably succumb to the folly of philosophers. So perhaps nihilism is the right word after all. If there truly is no there there, no natural right, no underlying structure transcending the intricate but ultimately fictional props of our long-evolved construction, then the void that peers back might beg our practiced deflection.
Or, contrary to Derbyshire’s implicit and unworried resignation, perhaps the specter of ultimate futility is all the incentive we need. I may prefer not to play behind a Rawlsian veil, but I do appreciate the gesture. And even as I am inclined to reject any naturalistic fiction undergirding the Lockean clockwork of individual rights, the ultimate failure of reason to derive rock-bottom moral verities can be viewed as an invitation. To try harder. To course out moral assertions on their own terms, and take on the hard work which Derbyshire would just as soon avoid — the work which the RTL cultists, for all their obtuseness and sentimental biases, have at least endeavored to take seriously.
Evolved moral intuition is a good start, I think, providing as it does a framework that resides within our common nature as sentient beasts. But a rational order thrives on rigor and consistency, inaccessible though the finer points may be to the opiated multitude. We may well be endowed with some preliterate notion of territorial right or even property, for example, yet it is only by means of a higher order of induction that we can begin to make sense of something as commonplace as money or contractual exchange. Sanctions against theft and murder may likewise be rooted in some crudely based sociobiological sense of fair play or simple repugnance, but a penal code arises through the systematic and nuanced application of first principles. Thus our contemplation of such hard cases as those forming the fixture of Ponnuru’s attention may resist common understanding. And the emotional ambiguity we bring to the table may prove more obstructive than productive.
If there is a central flaw in Derbyshire’s essay, it may be that he fails — or refuses — to apprehend a crucial distinction between ethical rigor and dogmatic certainty. While he entertains the limited plausibility of slippery-slope arguments (generously positing a mechanism in the case of euthanasia), his slapdash treatment of the subject betrays a peculiar disinterest in the fundamental importance of consequentialist arguments raised by RTL advocates and ethical philosophers. Derbyshire’s blanket assertion that social taboos tend to be "robust," even if true, downplays any moral context that might beg a more careful and preemptive delineation of potential implications.
His casually invoked example is telling. "Anglo-Saxon cultures," Derbyshire submits "are, I believe, in a minority in
having a taboo against the eating of horseflesh; yet our regular
consumption of pork, lamb, and beef does not seem to be pushing us down
a slippery slope towards hippophagy." By framing his skepticism with an analogy that neatly avoids the sum and substance of human moral conduct, Derbyshire aims to brush aside if-then arguments as largely casuistic prattle; but while concerns over dietary taboos (cannibalism arguably notwithstanding) may fail to warrant special attention, this is surely not so clearly a matter of cultural prohibitions being firmly entrenched as it is a matter of simple ethical priority. We don’t worry about the slippery slope that could lead us to dine equine because horses, in the scheme of human affairs, don’t matter that much.
The bioethical issues surrounding human life are of a different cloth, demanding more cautious analysis precisely because the potential for unchecked harm, however remote in the particular, is of grave importance in the skein of ethical inquiry. It is because our moral intuition is subject to emotional ambiguity and caprice that the effort becomes worthwhile. It feels good to lynch the landlord, after all. It feels right to steal when one is hungry. Loath as I am to countenance a Randian phrase, sometimes it pays to check your premises. Sometimes our guts lead us astray.
Derbyshire’s implicit defense of the "untidy, relativistic, and hypocritical realities of human social life" against the "abstract principles" upon which the intellectually inclined segment of the RTL movement ostensibly rests their case may qualify as realistic, but I fear the underlying cynicism of his position leads literally nowhere. For all the rhetorical flair and disarmingly judicious consideration with which his review-essay is crafted, I fear Derbyshire’s objection of RTL arguments amounts to little more than reflexive grumbling.
The grumbling reaches its nadir as Derbyshire chides Ponnuru, in a manner more reminiscent of boilerplate liberal cant, for the ostensibly secular phrasing with which he advances his argument:
The philosophical passages strictly follow the Golden
Rule of religious apologetics, which is: The conclusion is known in
advance, and the task of the intellectual is to erect supporting
arguments. It would be an astounding thing, just from a statistical
point of view, if, after conducting a rigorous open-ended inquiry from
philosophical first principles, our author came to conclusions
precisely congruent with the dogmas of the church in which he himself
is a communicant. Yet that is the case, very nearly, with Party of Death. Remarkable! What
if, after all that intellectual work, all that propositional algebra,
all those elegant syllogisms, the author had come to the conclusion
that abortion was not such a bad thing after all? I suppose he would
have been plunged into severe psychic distress. Fortunately there was
never the slightest chance of this happening.
Cognitive dissonance may be a bitch, but the implication here is cheap and probably fallacious. First off, the business about open-ended inquiry rings hollow. Put simply, ethics is not science. When an argument is presented, however disingenuously, in terms of propositional logic arising from moral postulates — in this case, I gather, in terms of Lockean principles of self-ownership — the pretense of empirical disinterest has already been forfeited. One may reject the underlying premises or question the inductive trajectory of their application, but a good-faith opponent does not switch the deck. Derbyshire may well be correct to suspect Ponnuru’s ostensibly secular posture, but it does not follow that his method is covertly apologetical, with the show-stopping implication of extra-rational circularity following. As long as the grounds of discourse are fashioned in rational terms, they should be engaged in like form. Derbyshire would prefer to avoid the whole messy business because he thinks it’s a fool’s errand.
At this point, I should mention that I write as a convinced and intractable atheist. Better make that anti-theist. Chalk it up to lack of imagination or some genetic glitch in my constitution, whatever you want. It’s not so much that I never met a god worthy of belief; it’s that I find the very idea of God — in every shape and flavor I’ve yet encountered — to be logically unintelligible and epistemologically corrupt from the start. Supernatural intelligence? Does not compute. Omnipotence? Omniscience? Cosmic teleology? I simply have no idea what such concepts mean. Strike that: I am quite confident they are meaningless. The same holds for the full range of extra-existential spooks in the metaphysician’s grab bag, including natural rights. You might as well ask me to bow before a square circle. There’s simply no spell to be broken.
Fortunately, the nihilistic limbo that remains is an open book. And for me there was never any answer but freedom. If we’re doomed to live and die, we may as well breath all the way down. Or strive in defiance. It may be an existential gambit, but it’s the one I have chosen. Yet while I freely concede that my libertarian impulses are ultimately but a preferential expression of temperament, that doesn’t mean that all rules are off. To the contrary, with the theologians at bay and no recourse to some higher arbiter of right, we’re left with logic and ethics and the cold light of science. Which should be more than enough.
It is from this perspective, and emphatically against my emotional impulses, that I have approached, and found myself at various times and to various degrees persuaded, by a certain body of secularly framed right-to-life — more accurately, anti-abortion — argument. If you begin with the non-aggression axiom, the corollary postulate is a universal negative right against unprovoked harm. The question follows perforce as to where and how such right, as derived or asserted, will inhere. If you value consistency and strive for a clean and logical (frigid and pitiless?) system, then the hard cases need special delineation. To my mind the storm over euthanasia never gets much mileage in such an ethical scheme because end-of-life issues seldom involve the initiation of force and because the underlying problems are in practical terms soundly addressed through living wills and other contractual instruments in which the affected parties, having been of sound mind, have at least had the opportunity to make their wishes known.
Such is not the case with abortion, where the question of deadly harm is paramount and where the question of consent — for the preborn whatever-it-is — never enters the frame. Where abortion is at issue the necessary rational question will always concern the moral status of the fetus; if the fetus is a person, then the default assumption should be that it — he, she, whatever — enjoys the same right against harm as any other person; if the fetus is not a person, then the burden rests on fashioning a consistent explanation of when and how personhood arises in a manner that logically excludes fetuses while consistently applying to the teeming masses whose umbilical cords have been snipped.
If you begin with the idea of individual rights, and you take your premises seriously, this is where you end up every time. And there’s a lot at stake. So you round up the contending demarcative criteria — viability, MRI data, birth, etc. — and you soon find that for all the scientific certainty with which the distinctive metrics are buttressed and posited, the philosophical problems of consequence and consistency keep insisting their way back into the debate. This is what happens even — and perhaps especially — when the analysis proceeds without reference to supernatural doctrine.
Years ago, when I thought I had it all figured out, I penned a dilettantish essay for the old print version of The Hoover Hog in which I attempted to articulate a reluctant pro-life position. In that essay, called "Fetal Fallacies: A Libertarian-Atheist Argument Against Legal Abortion" (which I’ll gladly send to anyone who asks), I drew heavily from what I still consider to be an important body of independent scholarship put out by a marginal outfit called Libertarians for Life (and by the way if you’re inclined to delve deeper than present adumbrations permit, I strongly recommend dipping into the LfL archive; it’s full of surprises).
Prompted in part by Ronald Bailey’s scientifically informed writings on the abortion and related topics, I have since come to question certain points of my original position. Without going too far astray, I will mention that Bailey is in especially good form in his application of reductio ad absurdum arguments over the nature of somatic cells versus embryos in light of emergent technology, an approach that has the merit of at least addressing RTL arguments distinguishing between potential and actual bases for personhood and concomitant rights. The problem is that while Bailey and other RTL critics are good at pointing up qualitative distinctions and logical pitfalls that seem infinitely reasonable upon a first glance, they tend to be less convincing in addressing the underlying questions of human agency that assume primacy in any debate over abortion and rights.
Still, without wading any further into the bioethical vicissitudes I promised to avoid (important though they are), I will admit that my position has slowly shifted to one of cautious agnosticism, and I may be prompted to revisit and revise my residual pro-life sentiments as the dialectic between science and ethics assumes more sophisticated form. But the first order principles of self-ownership and non-aggression are not easily dethroned.
Having begun this post by stressing the importance of the emotionally
imbued and very human ambiguities at the core of Derbyshire’s
skepticism, I have nevertheless attempted, in short order and without appeal to religious authority, to defend the foundational bases for the more rigid and abstract approach favored by Ponnuru and the RTL cult. If my
preoccupation with axiomatic consistency is somehow misplaced or in
error — or pointless, as Derbyshire seems to imply — I should prefer to be presented with a clear argument as to why
this is so. It may be that my concern over moral reconcilliation and
the logical structure of individual rights can be brushed aside like
the plate of untouched horsemeat at the center or Derbyshire’s
slippery-slope sophistry. Or it may be that the practical freedom I value will turn out to be paradoxically incompatible with a an ethical system structurally conceived in terms of individual rights. As a matter of conscience, it would certainly be easier to sign on with the utilitarians and play it as it lays.
I just want to know for sure, and preferably through