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Knippenberg on Ponnuru on abortion

In this week’s TAE Online column, I explain why I think very well of Ramesh Ponnuru’s The Party of Death.

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 Ponnuru’s reponse to my query is here. He carefully states that "defying tyranny" and "witnessing" are not choices for death itself, but rather look to a higher good, presumably also not merely a personal good. Would Cato the Younger’s 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 wouldn’t be worth living. How is this not "selfish"?

Discussions - 5 Comments

Joe- It seems to me that there is a difference in your two scenarios. In the case of martyrdom, we consider the case of a life spent (rather quickly, as opposed to more gradually). That is, the martyr trades a long life for (what is perceived as) a valuable death. This strikes me as a promotive action (meaning that it entails a positive valuation of whatever is bought through one’s own death.)

But, in the case of Ponnoru’s argument (and I am not at all certain that I agree with him), euthenasia is based on an agreement that a life has no value, or, at least not enough to support its own continuation. This strikes me as substantively different from martyrdom, since the eithenasia death is more of a double-negative, with the end of suffering as the only meaning to be derived from it.

I think the relevant difference is the intent. With euthanasia, the euthanizer’s purpose is to kill, and the willing victim’s purpose is to kill himself. With martyrdoms, Birkenhead drills, and other instances of death before dishonor, it is not the victim’s purpose to die. It is their purpose to refuse to renounce their religion, to refuse to take spaces away from women, to refuse to perform a dishonorable act, etc. Obviously the person who administers the martyrdom has the intent to kill, but no one is trying to vindicate that person.

To the extent that the intent is to kill--Samurai ’death before dishonor’ entailing Seppuku, or Buddhist martyrs setting themselves on fire to protest things--than I think it would be wrong the same way that asking for euthanasia would be (though perhaps I could accept an argument that certain forms of seppuku or what not are really self-executed judgments)

In other words, I do not understand Patrick Henry to *really* be saying that if the British crown didn’t back off, he was going to commit suicide. I and most of his contemporaries would have been much less inspired. I understand him to be making (1) a rhetorical point about the value of liberty and (2) saying that the King couldn’t deter him by threatening his life; in fact, that it would be despicable to be so deterred.

You may be interested in St. Thomas More’s Dialogue of Comfort Against Tribulation, especially parts XVI & XXIV. And for poetic expression of the problem, see A Man for All Seasons, in which Sir Thomas chides his daughter Margaret for being too blithe to go to martyrdom, and he responds that his duty is to avoid martyrdom until it is plainly thrust upon him.

PS --Thomas More addresses the question of Cato in the dialogue on tribulation.

nice post, great responses

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