The column focuses on abortion, though the book also deals with stem cell research and euthanasia. On this last topic, I have some misgivings about what he has to say, but that may be the result of my not yet having adequately sorted out my own views.
To state what I take to be Ponnuru’s position most baldly, we are never entitled to say that life is not worth living. I know that aristocrats who believe in death before dishonor can’t hold that position, but many aristocracies historically countenanced infanticide. Are the two attitudes, one of which I admire and the other of which (to say the least) troubles me greatly, intimately and necessarily connected? If they were, then I think I’d be driven in the direction of what seems to be Ponnuru’s position.
What gives me pause, however, is martyrdom, which suggests, from a point of view that Ponnuru would presumably endorse, that mere life may be sacrificed, that there are things worth dying for. I should die rather than be compelled to live in a way that contradicts (what I understand to be) God’s will. What precisely is the difference between this attitude or view and that of the aristocrat? Both are dedicated to something higher than the "mere self," though the latter might merely be devoted, from the Christian point of view, to a collection of "glittering vices."
Here’s where I’m not sure about Ponnuru. Perhaps I missed something, or perhaps his approach simply didn’t call for him to address it. Does his argument against euthanasia from natural law or public reason overlook the possibility of martyrdom because that’s only justifiable on religious or revealed grounds, because (in other words) it’s not based on a political position? What, then, does he make of the person who says "give me liberty or give me death"? How is that, on non-revealed, publicly affirmable grounds, different from the opinion that a life marked by great suffering or debility is not worth living? Must we, if we are to oppose euthanasia, also deprecate dignified patriotic self-sacrifice?
I hope not, but I’m not confident that I have an argument for the latter that can’t also be deployed on behalf of the former.
Is there anyone out there who can point me in a fruitful direction?
Update: Ramesh Ponnurus reponse to my query is here. He carefully states that "defying tyranny" and "witnessing to...faith" are not choices for death itself, but rather look to a higher good, presumably also not merely a personal good. Would Cato the Youngers suicide, after failing to defeat Caesar count as defying tyranny, as opposed to dying in an attempt to resist tyranny, or could we regard it as "selfish," as there is no impetus there to be long-suffering?
What about Socrates, who chose to drink the hemlock, rather than escape? While one can understand his action in terms of accepting a just punishment or living up to his end of a contract, he is also quite explicit that, given his circumstances, the "mere life" he could lead while in exile wouldnt be worth living. How is this not "selfish"?