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Jape on Derb, Ponnuru and Douthat; Some Remarks

Fr. Jape has some interesting remarks on the ongoing debate over Ramesh Ponnuru's The Party of Death between Ponnuru and Derbyshire as well as Ross Douthat's response to Derbyshire's review of the book.

I find Derbyshire's review to be a generally unconvincing mish-mash of critiques. He occasionally focuses on problems with the organisation or argument of the book, which is what you might expect a review to do, and then sometimes drifts to a general criticism of what he calls RTL (right-to-life), the "frigid and pitiless dogma" itself (though one gets the impression from everything Derbyshire writes that he has never met a dogma that he did not consider frigid and pitiless by dint of being a dogma), and some of the time latches on to moments of RTL hysteria so extreme (the Schiavo case) that even I, who would agree with the RTL folks 99 out of 100 times, find Derbyshire's description of many of the activists in terms of cultishness apt (and not in a good way!). He does not help himself when he claims that Michael Schiavo is a "decent man"--in the tragedy of that family, he may have had the better legal claim as guardian, the entire affair ought to have remained his own business and we all might give him the benefit of the doubt in what was undoubtedly an extremely hard situation, but surely the standards of decency will have to have fallen rather low for him to fit that description. It is a minor point, but it is this consistent tendency to aim low in moral standards that will leave even the seriously anti-liberal, non-universalist conservative cold.

Even if, on the other hand, I find Mr. Douthat's description of Christianity as an "abstract morality" vaguely horrifying and not a little bizarre and yet another example of the mistake of conflating Christianity with some scheme of universalist ethics, and even though I tend to side with Jape in preferring my authority of cult straight rather than watered down by the seltzer of liberalism (Ponnuru's alternative), Mr. Derbyshire cannot manage much of an argument extending beyond, "Don't Tread On Me" and the use of an uncharacteristically sappy appeal to let people live their lives (and by people Derbyshire means autonomous adults who can't be bothered by the monks and the schoolmarms). Thus Derbyshire says:

We likewise feel that an adult woman’s life, even a few months of it, is worth more than that of a hardly-formed fetus; and that the vigorous, usefully-employed, merrily procreating Michael Schiavo has a life, a life, more worthy of the name than had the incurably insensate relict of his spouse. Those like Ponnuru who think differently are working against the grain of human nature, against our feelings—yes, our feelings—about what life is. The life of a newly-formed embryo, or of a brain-damaged patient who has shown no trace of consciousness for fifteen years, is worth just as much as the life of a healthy adult, Ponnuru insists. Well, most of us instinctively but emphatically disagree, and no amount of argumentative ingenuity is likely to change our minds. Hearts, whatever.

This certainly has great appeal for autonomous man, which doesn't make it the least bit true, but if Mr. Derbyshire finds those preoccupied with these matters "a bit creepy" his unapologetic embrace of vitalism certainly has its own creepiness. He writes above that the RTL crowd is "working against the grain of human nature, against our feelings—yes, our feelings—about what life is." Derbyshire has not held anything back: "the grain of human nature" is what is empirically knowable from our experience, and his view of human nature is defined in vitalistic and sentimental terms. This is why sugar-coated moral theology, dressed up in the ill-fitting costume of Lockean rights, will always fail to convince, because this law of nature (especially as a scientific materialist will see it) does not have any account of why Derbyshire's notion of "the grain of human nature" is basically flawed and misunderstands the human predicament.

Without taking account of the effects of the Fall on human nature as we see it today, it is almost hopeless to convince a John Derbyshire that common feelings about what goes against "the grain of human nature" are more likely erroneous than not. Of course, everyone does have a conscience, but this has been darkened by the Fall and stands in need of illumination. To say that people determine what is moral by their feelings probably does describe fairly well how people reach their conclusions on these matters, but it also demonstrates that people are typically ensnared by the passions in making moral judgements and are making use of gnomic will, which does not reliably or regularly will the Good. To use these arguments would be to make specifically Christian arguments using the language of the Fathers in defining what a person is, what we owe to our fellow men and what God has commanded us to do. This might strike some people as impolitic, but it probably ought to strike Christians as the proper and obvious thing to do.

If we did this, we could, for example, return to discussing how the person only truly, fully exists in relationship with others, which might begin to undo a good deal of the conceptual damage in the abortion debate over whether the child is sufficiently "independent" of the mother to constitute his own person. A proper theological understanding that persons may be distinct and yet never entirely separate from each other might cause some to reconsider the entire shape of the debate, and it might cause still others to oppose abortion not because of violated "rights" but because of the sundering of relationships, violating the integrity of all people involved, that it entails.

Casting the entire argument in terms of competing rights, as "RTL" inevitably and really mistakenly does, has already let the horse of autonomy out of the barn, empowering the very logic of "choice" that brought us to our current predicament, and ultimately forces some external authority to adjudicate the competing claims of the rights of the different agents. RTL has mainly been aimed at trying to have the "rights" of the unborn child recognised and protected by law (and certainly I agree in the strongest terms with the practical goal of protecting the unborn from the ravages of abortion), but even once this is done the contest between the competing claimants will be profoundly uneven, as the unborn will always need advocates to affirm their "rights" against their immeasurably more powerful opponents. The recourse to rights language is a function of widespread aversion to thinking in terms of obligation--it would undoubtedly be less "effective" on the hustings to speak of the obligations women owe their children, for example, the obligations children owe their aged and infirm parents or the obligations men have before God, even if it would be more coherent as a moral argument--but the use of this language simply feeds the sense of autonomy and entitlement that talk of rights will produce.

Daniel Larison | June 08, 2006



Comments

Brilliant post. "A proper theological understanding that persons may be distinct and yet never entirely separate from each other might cause some to reconsider the entire shape of the debate, and it might cause still others to oppose abortion not because of violated "rights" but because of the sundering of relationships, violating the integrity of all people involved, that it entails." Well, you've certainly helped me to deepen my thinking about it.

Jason LaLonde | 06/08/06 14:50

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