Like plenty of other people, I was duly amused to read John Derbyshire’s stinging review of his National Review colleague Ramesh Ponnuru’s new book The Party of Death. (Perhaps a way of restoring karmic balance in the wake of NR‘s decision to commission a review of their own senior editor’s book, which struck me as a bit weird.)
Less noted but almost as entertaining is Derbyshire’s backhanded apology at NR. Whenever he’d been queried about whether Ramesh might get “bent out of shape” at being negatively reviewed by a colleague, Derb announces, he nipped such concerns in the bud with the confident observation that: “Ramesh is a big boy–.He can take care of himself pretty well.” A few paragraphs later, though, he evinces regret, since as it turns out “Ramesh is much more bent out of shape than I anticipated he would be.” (In other words: “I just assumed he was a grown-up; I’d never have done it if I’d realized he’d get so pissy.”) This even though Derb “took pains” to praise the things he liked about the book—which is to say, it presumably would’ve been much worse had he not struggled, out of friendship, to find something nice to say. He even insinuates that, really, Ramesh ought to be grateful: With the press ignoring the book, the buzz probably moved a few copies!
All good clean fun with internecine squabbling. But I did have a niggling worry in the back of my head about the shape of Derbyshire’s argument, and two of the responses the review prompted— one by Ross Douthat, another from Ramesh himself—make me think I was right to worry. Here’s Ramesh:
Derbyshire wants to exclude both religion and reason as guides to the moral truth about abortion, euthanasia, and related issues. In their place he exalts feelings, and criticizes me as “creepy,” “frigid,” “pitiless,” “inhuman,” and, worst, an “intellectual,” for not going along. This is the anti-intellectual core of his essay. [–.] It is interesting—and of course gratifying—that the two leading criticisms of my book (Peter Berkowitz’s thoughtful review in the Wall Street Journal and Derbyshire’s intemperate essay) both attempt an escape from reason. This is nihilism. It is also laziness.
Ross sounds the same theme, and I see that Ramesh has repeatedly attempted elsewhere to contrast his opponents, who he casts as relying on some kind of raw intuition, with his principled and theoretical approach. And at least formally, they’re right: Pro-choice folks should not want to let themselves be cast as holding some kind of anti-intellectual “ick factor” position. But I think you can tease something better than that out of what Derbyshire’s saying. In fact, it reminds me a bit of G.E. Moore’s famous “here is one hand; here’s another” argument against epistemic skepticism. Moore said he had a very simple rebuttal to any philosophical arguments that we couldn’t know that an external world existed: He would hold out his hands and say “here is one hand; here’s another.” And since those are two external objects, we know they’re an external world. It sounds, of course, like a fantastically dumb argument—like it just misses the point. But Moore’s point was actually more subtle than that: The purpose of this little exercise was to serve as a reminder that any skeptical argument would have to rely on philosophical premises or intuitions. And (said Moore) it was unlikely that we should have greater confidence in the truth of those premises than in the reality of the world around us. Maybe that’s a good argument and maybe it isn’t, but it’s not as dumb as it initially sounded.
So here’s how I think we can read (or reconstruct?) Derbyshire: It is, on its face, pretty outlandish to claim that some cluster of ten or twenty cells with no recognizable brain—no hopes or memories, no plans, no sense of self, not even (in the early stages) a capacity for pain—is a person, just like you and me, and that destroying that insensate cluster of cells is morally on a par with killing one of us. It is, in fact, so outlandish that if you have an argument that seems to establish that this is the case, that’s a pretty good prima facie reason for thinking something has to be wrong with your argument. Similarly, while it is actually somewhat tricky to say exactly what is wrong with the ontological argument for the existence of God, I think a non-philosopher confronting it would be perfectly justified in declining to accept it—or at least deferring acceptance—on the basis of a sense that one can’t just logic a supreme being into existence that way, that it has the feel of a dodgy word game, even if it takes some doing to show where the trick is.
What’s valuable about the Derbyshire approach, at least as a starting point, is that it backs off from the familiar arguments involving theoretically freighted terms (as, for instance, when we let the ordinary way of talking about the value of “human life” when we mean “people” imbue a biological category with an unanalyzed moral significance) and get back to the sound gut reaction that it’s just sort of crazy to treat a mindless ball of cells as morally no different than your Aunt Hortense. Ideally, though, you do eventually go further and say what the problem with the argument is. Fortunately, I don’t think it’s all that hard to say what it is. So in another post later today—and with apologies to those of you who’ve read much of what I’m going to say scattered about in past posts—I want to look at the sorts of arguments Ramesh makes and say something about why they don’t work.