Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

McClay on Ponnuru

Mere Commentator Russell D. Moore calls our attention to Wilfred M. McClay’s excellent review of Ramesh Ponnuru’s The Party of Death. The thrust of McClays’ review is that Ponnuru’s rights-based absolutism is in many respects insufficiently attentive to the emotional basis of our relationships, not to mention to the prudential judgments and figurative appeals required by successful politics. In McClay’s view, Ponnuru’s book has some real strengths, but also some significant weaknesses.

Above all else, he contends, it’s not clear that Ponnuru correctly describes and confronts the real challenge we face:

It is this commitment to radical individualism, this aspiration to human mastery, the godlike mastery of the sovereign will of those living here and now over all they survey and encounter, the ability to control and dictate the terms of existence, that distinguishes the so-called “party of death.” Such an aspiration is perhaps most ominously figured, not in the abortion industry, but in a different prospect, about which Ponnuru has surprisingly little to say: the very real possibility that our biogenetic mastery will give us the power to replace human procreation with the willful arts of manufacture, remaking our condition by engineering human life and “hybrid” forms of transhuman life.

Ponnuru is downright enthusiastic about the prospect of deriving pluripotent stem cells, for medical purposes, from certain nonviable, manufactured, human-like “biological entities” that carry the human genetic code but are not human embryos. What is more, he is surprisingly disdainful of critics who find such a prospect morally troubling. What, one wonders, if his concern were less exclusively focused on the narrow question of what constitutes embryo-killing, and more broadly on the ways that our readiness to destroy embryos is but one symptom of a larger problem, the way in which our ever-expanding exercise of our scientific powers of manipulation may be causing us to lose all sense of nature as a source of normative values? Such thoughts might have led to a more guarded conclusion. This is not to render a judgment about the specific procedures in question, except to say that they may themselves not be entirely morally unproblematic, even if they seem clearly preferable to embryo destruction. But it is to indicate a way in which Ponnuru’s overriding concern with the politics of abortion, and with an argument based on the natural rights of the individual human being, tilts his argument out of balance, and makes his book far less illuminating than it might have been. Natural rights, after all, have no authority apart from the larger authority of nature.

If this last statement is true (as I think it is), then a return to nature would take seriously some of the considerations I summarized above.

But I can’t adequately summarize the whole of McClay’s rich argument, which you’ll have to read for yourselves.


Discussions - 8 Comments

Ponnuru has been lobbying for serious reviews--he just got one.

McClay" "...we are never entirely our own, and least of all in moments of profound dependency.

The energies that bind the family cannot be accounted for by rights talk. This is why merely drawing a bright red line of “rights” around the act of embryo destruction, desirable as that is in so many respects, does not really solve our problems. It is not at all hard to imagine a world in which a general desire to boost birth rates, in tandem with technological advances such as the perfection of the artificial womb, would lead governments to make liberal and even systematic use of frozen or “surplus” embryos to repopulate their declining countries. Such developments would fully respect the embryonic right to life, but it would do so in an otherwise ghastly way, by eliminating the need for childrearing parents, and indeed for the natural family itself. It is not the least bit far-fetched to imagine that the “snowflake babies” of today could become the “state babies” of tomorrow, absent a strong commitment to the idea that the individual right to life is not sufficient unto itself, and cannot be separated from our protection, in mores and in law, of the normative human context in which it arises. An emphasis on the inviolability of individual rights, particularly when it is offered without a similar stress on the actual institutions within which individual human lives come to fruition, oddly mirrors the very radical individualism it seeks to counter."

We have always had the taking of life ever since Cain & Abel. There have always been abortions, baby-sacrifice, human commodification as in slavery, mercy killings--but none of these ever changed the definition of life itself. We are now endeavoring to do just that in the laboratory. We are treading on ’ye are as gods’ ground.

Suppose we find that manufactured embryos don’t produce miracle cures, but only, say, a marginally better Viagra?

Or no cures at all; simply a superior floor polish? Will we build and destroy human lives simply to see our reflection in the kitchen floor? After all, we will already have established the principle that human life is merely a manufacturer’s raw material like lumber or tin.

"It would be ironic indeed if a position that insists upon assigning the full panoply of basic rights to every individual fertilized egg would have the unintended political consequence of making impossible a workable compromise that would confine abortion to the earliest stages of pregnancy, a positive development that most Americans would welcome."--That could also work the other way. For example, some would be content to stop at banning partial-birth abortions.

I’d also note that the (old) Jesse Jackson statement mentioned is quite compelling. And the Preamble echoes McClay’s family ties concern: " the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity..."

Perhaps McClay is correct that the ’Party of Death’-title is too off-putting and not quite accurate. But in an age when we have euphemisms for euphemisms, we’d better find a way to get clarity.

"The thrust of McClays’ review is that Ponnuru’s rights-based absolutism is in many respects insufficiently attentive to the emotional basis of our relationships, not to mention to the prudential judgments and figurative appeals required by successful politics."

I would add that that is what paleos have been saying forever. Rights-based absolutism causes more problems than it theoretically solves.

If what the party of choice wants most of all is the freedom to have sex without procreation...

And if what the party of life wants most of all is the protection of the right to life...

Then we await the day in which a bio-tech firm, let’s call it Solomon, Inc., will say, "We now have the technology to perform Removals, call them Abortions of Responsibility if you wish, by which we extract the 8-day-old human, and grow it to "birth" stage in artificial wombs. Thanks to the discovery of synthesized foods, fusion power, etc., it is a marginal cost upon society to raise these children in state-run orphanages, either to be adopted or raised entirely by the state. This will create service-sector jobs, eliminate the threat of demographic collapse, but most of all, it will resolve the impasse between the party of natural right to life and the party of natural right to choice. Every concieved child will have the right to life. And every conceiving adult will have the right to cede parentage to the state. If requested, all record of the Removal babies’ parentage can be eliminated."

In America, however, there is a non-technical obstacle to this solution: the existence, by our post-Griswold jurisprudence, of a right to privacy that by my lights prohibits all govt. coercison over the decision to either have or to not have(i.e. contracept or abort) progeny. (Paul Seaton, help me out here if I’m wrong.) This "not have" aspect of the right to privacy must vanish if we ever establish a right of the concieved human to life. But it is not impossible, if Removal becomes technically possible, that in the future twists and turns of our politics and jurisprudence, the "not have" aspect of the right to privacy would be pared down simply to the right to abandon responsibility for and parental claim to the concieved human.

My own view is that the criticism here has some force but is fuzzy. The real problem is with "analytical natural law" or the "new natural law" of Finnis, Robby George etc. It shares with Lockeanism an indifference to NATURAL human ends. So: Finnis makes the error of criticizing, say, contraception as analogous to murder rather than to adultery. And there’s too much emphasis on what abortion does to the baby at the expense of what it does to the (naturally nurturing and loving) woman who has one. There’s also too little attention to "the problem of technology," which includes, of course, the growing tendency to turn procreation into manufacturing. After all, reproductive cloning that did not waste (kill) embryos is really no offense agains the right to life, and it’s unclear to me why Ramesh would be against it.

I probably should mention that I suspect I’m 95% behind Ponurru here, and likewise don’t think one can avoid rights-talk on these issues, but this post is prompting my thought in strange ways.

Peter, it really seems to me that since human status begins at conception, human rights to life AND liberty apply there as well. That is, one has the right not to be frozen. That is, if we were to pass an amendment tomorrow assigning 14th amendment rights to every USA-concieved human, suddenly SOMEONE, that is, the U.S. government, would be obliged to provide for all those frozen "snowflake babies" to be born, I guess via a mass program of funded surrogate motherhood. But do we also have a natural right to be parented, either by our biological parents, or some means/persons provided by the state?

However, if one goes the old-time natural law route of focusing on natural wrongs, and natural duties, then perhaps one avoids problems like rights-bearing snowflake-babies.

I’m about 90% with RP. And my point was a supplement or broader context to rather than rejection of his view. And there are other problems: Locke apprently thought reason pointed in the Greek/Roman direction of "exposing" etc. "malformed" babies etc. and all in all it would be judicial imperialism of a new sort to say that the 14th Amendment by in some Zuckert/Arkes sense constitutionalizing the Declaration extends rights protection to embryos. On the other hand, the Robby George point that there’s no RATIONAL argument based on the KIND OF BEING we are that could exclude embryos while, in a rights-based egalitarian way, protecting human beings or individuals as a class. From this view we have to admit that IVF, esp. the way we use it in Amrica, is monstrously unjust. Robby is more rational than Locke on what is implied in the idea of rights-based egalitarianism. And I’m noticing that evangelicals etc. are getting much more sophisticated in absorbing this rational argument, and their opponents are relying more and more on sentiment: Embryos don’t look like babies etc. So in saying that there’s something to Bill McC’s view, I’m not about to say that Robby and the evangelicals are wrong to say that there are two rational positions--Theirs and Peter Singer’s (which would allow you to be pro-choice until around the age of two and deny rights to anyone who’s not self-conscious--such as you grandfather with late stage Alzheimer’s or your severely retarded kid). All in all, the downside of McClay’s article is that he should have wondered more about that the fact that reason is on our side. The snowflake baby dilemma is solved by prudence: There’s been no human order without unacknowledged monstrous injustice, and the "abolitionist" quest for perfection can be at the expense of what can really be done. And a Christian knows that God will take care of those little babies anyway.

True, one could accept the Arkes and R. George argument about where a rational delineation of the rights-bearing human has to begin, (so that all other positions on this ’abortion’ issue undermine ALL natural rights thinking because they lead to Singer or worse) and accept your prudence argument regarding the snowflake babies. Thus, their argument is not undone by the "If you hold that, you must be for govt. birth/rearing of all the IVF leftovers" objection, although that objection does show us that there are limitations to natural rights-thinking, which is McClay’s most salient point. I agree that McClay’s is too close to being a "curse on both houses" sort of argument, and is cavalier about the natural rights position.

Why the conservative insistence on the need for a natural rights approach? Rhetorical question. I think I know the answer. Conservatives before the new school were very aware of the problem with rights talk.

The emotional appeal, before the modern individualistic rights based age was clearly that the parents, esp. the mother, had an obligation to the child, born and unborn. That is why pagan Hippocrates prohibited abortion in his Oath. The emotional appeal of choice and freedom and consequence free recreational sex is an entirely recent phenomenon. So isn’t there more to be gained by attacking the rights based individualism at its base.

I am little moved by concerns that rejecting rights based arguments will lead to Singer style infanticide. In fact, too much of the defense of a rights based approach is this sort of appeal to the slippery slope. I am plenty concerned that rights based appeals will enshrine in America such ideas as a right to a job, a right to affordable housing, and the like as it has in Europe. I don’t think this is an appeal to the slippery slope. It is an observation of what has already demonstrably happened.

Rights based appeals are behind the sanctification of choice that is causing us a problem. Here is perhaps not the time to fight fire with fire.

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