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June 03, 2006

If Ramesh Wants a Passing Grade, He'll Have To Rewrite His Response Paper

By Neil the Ethical Werewolf

Here's my old teacher Peter Berkowitz, in his review of Ramesh Ponnuru's Party of Death:

Invisible to the naked eye, lacking body or brain, feeling neither pleasure nor pain, radically dependent for life support, the early embryo, though surely part of the human family, is distant and different enough from a flesh-and-blood newborn that when the early embryo's life comes into conflict with other precious human goods or claims, the embryo's life may need to give way.

The beginning describes four differences between newborns and early embryos.  The first one -- invisibility to the naked eye -- isn't especially relevant to the moral difference Berkowitz is trying to draw.  If you suddenly shrank and became invisibly tiny, it would still be wrong to kill you.  The next two, though, are genuinely important.  Brains are necessary for humans to have minds, and as I've argued before, minds are necessary for any sort of moral status. We ought to prevent creatures from being in pain and promote their pleasure, so the inability of the fetus to feel these sensations is a big deal.  I'm less certain about the life support issue, but maybe there's some way to use it in an argument.

When Ponnuru responds to Berkowitz' post, what does he do?  He responds to the first point about the fetus being tiny, using it as the only "example" of a difference Berkowitz raises between newborns and embryos, and ignores everything else.  (The reason I'm not quoting him is that it's hard to quote the absence of a response.)

As it turns out, we have pretty strong intuitions about the moral significance of minds (see the linked piece above), and about the significance of pleasure and displeasure.  I happen to think that the goodness of pleasure and the badness of displeasure are revealed by a more reliable faculty than intuition, but we've got some intuitions here too.  If you haven't responded to these issues, you haven't responded to Berkowitz.  And maybe the reason Ponnuru refused to respond is just that no response is available, and Berkowitz is right. 

Having won a fellowship for next year, I'm not going to be a TA, so I'll take my chance to say this to Ramesh: If you want a passing grade on this assignment, you'll have to rewrite it and actually respond to the main arguments. 

June 3, 2006 in Politics of Choice | Permalink


Very good.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Jun 3, 2006 5:58:20 PM

The notion that a brainless collection of cells=a human being always strikes me as deeply dehumanizing. We aren't worth very much to someone who equates a discarded tampon and a human being. A woman has a brain, an embryo doesn't--that, taken with the fact that her bodily intergrity is also at stake, should make abortion rights a (pardon the pun) no-brainer.

Again, this is why abortion rights is such a contentious debate. It strikes right at the heart of anti-woman attitudes because abortion rights mean that the government has decided that actual women have full human rights. Fetuses can't trump women's rights and men certainly can't.

Posted by: Amanda Marcotte | Jun 3, 2006 6:14:09 PM

Since the whole concept of "rights" is rapidly becoming academic in the new Amerika much that doesn't make good policy may be promoted to repress the people. Too extreme ? O.K. Absolutely needless wars are, however, not a sign if compassionate and reasonable leadership to this cowboy.

Posted by: opit | Jun 3, 2006 10:24:01 PM

well certainly... since we're a nation of laws now.. (BS) and not a country of freedoms anymore. All of us are really just looking to turn our rights in for assurances at security. Bogus or not, at least the children wont be scared.

(and yes that is sarcasm)

Posted by: david b | Jun 4, 2006 12:47:13 AM

..now to make a post thats actually relevant to the topic. :p

You're correct that Pon. doesnt even address most of the arguments presented by Berk. I believe thats because the core of Pon's argument seems based on the idea that we should feel bad about abortion. He cites old fashioned common sense which he believes was the core of its illegality pre-Roe.

I think it could be argued that instead of common sense it was based more upon religious doctrine... but even if common sense was the base, this is the same 'common sense' that advocated the exposing of children until death, and thats after they were born, as an acceptable solution to unwanted pregnancy. After that was outdated came the ever-popular leaving the baby on the doorstep, or in any convenient waste receptical.

People with those arguements have some dreamlike utopic vision of the past that never was. Forgetting any of the inconvenient truths. Then they try to create rules that would chain us to that same fantasy.

That we should feel bad for an unwanted, anonymous, unthinking, parasitic, organism because it has the potential at human life is a stretch. What happens WHEN we can whip up a new individual with a few cells and a test tube, does every hair falling of the body suddenly attain citizens rights? This is rediculousness to the same degree.

To then say that the needs of that same undeveloped organism outweigh the needs and wants of a fully grown, thinking, independant and productive individual is just fetus worship taken to the extreme.

Posted by: david b | Jun 4, 2006 1:11:26 AM

In response to Amanda, do you really think that misogyny serves as the primary explanation for anti-abortion views and the contentiousness of the issue? I would have thought that a much bigger factor would be that it strikes at the heart of their religious views. They would not equate a lump of cells with a human being; they would equate human beings with immaterial souls. They would probably find our equating humans with anything as mushy and physical as brains deeply dehumanizing and threatening. How are these brains that decompose and whose organic material become incorporated in other entities, including other brains, supposed to survive death and be resurrected in heaven?

If we are ever to have a productive dialogue with them (not that I think we ever will), it seems we must have the proper understanding of what is ultimately motivating their views. If you want to attack their views on abortion, attack their religion!

Posted by: Ku | Jun 4, 2006 7:28:14 AM

I'm in conservative country - for here - and it's reported that CMA ( Same as AMA, just different country ) protects the right of physicians to make the call on the necessity of an abortion on an individual basis over a statutory rule. Since they're rather insistant, there's some doubt their moral position could be successfully challenged.

Posted by: opit | Jun 4, 2006 10:43:30 AM

Ku, one of the major turning points in my thinking about what motivates the anti-abortion movement was the Missouri legislature's decision to end state funding for birth control. All the major anti-abortion groups opposed the funding. Concerns for fetal life or fetal welfare can't be what motivated them here, and neither can concern for the fetus' soul, since birth control is as good as abstinence (which they support), as far as souls are concerned. The best explanation of all this seems to be that many anti-abortion activists are motivated by a desire to punish promiscuous women.

Certainly, different people will be motivated by different things, and I don't doubt that there are a few people whose concerns are as you describe.

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Jun 4, 2006 11:23:07 AM

Thanks Neil, when you put it that way, it does make it sound more plausible. Of course, it is possible to be against promiscuity without being a misogynist; again, most would probably be motivated by religious considerations. So, one question I would have then is whether there is any indication of a double standard. Are there, for instance, comparable policies that would "punish" promiscuous men that they fail to support?

Posted by: Ku | Jun 4, 2006 12:25:12 PM

Ku, I've looked high and low for serious abortion opponents who aren't highly invested in "traditional" gender roles. Abortion is, rightly or wrongly, seen as a way women escape being trapped into their god-ordained submission to motherhood. That a lot of women who have abortions already have children doesn't seem to factor.

It does well to wonder why religious traditionalists are so assured that sperm is what brings souls to eggs if they aren't invested in the idea of male dominance.

Posted by: Amanda Marcotte | Jun 4, 2006 1:05:20 PM

"Ku, I've looked high and low for serious abortion opponents who aren't highly invested in "traditional" gender roles."

Well, Sebastian Holsclaw (Obsidian Wings, commenter at CT, DeLong and elsewhere) is gay and passionate, even extreme in his opposition to abortion. His position on contraception I think is related to abortofacience(?).

IIRC, he is pragmatically very conservative on most other issues (i.e., would like to reduce gov't but will compromise; favors Iraq but wants tax increases for more troops). But not very religious or socially conservative on the other issues, like ID or prayer. I have no reason to think he is not generally a feminist.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Jun 4, 2006 4:30:53 PM

Correction to the above, since the dealbreakers on "feminist" can vary:I have no reason to believe Sebastian Holsclaw is highly invested in traditional gender roles.

Can Men Be Feminists ...Lindsey Beyerstein, with a long thread

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Jun 4, 2006 5:21:30 PM

Well if he's invested in believing lies rather than give women their full rights, I'm wary. Contraceptives are not "abortificants".

Posted by: Amanda Marcotte | Jun 4, 2006 9:15:56 PM

I could go look up SH's position on contraceptives over at ObsWi. I may have mistated it. We don't like each other much. SH hates Bush and is not a good Republican, but wants judges who save the babies.

How about Andy Sullivan?

Doesn't matter, I am on record as disliking all discussion of viability and fetal rights. I consider it irrelevant for matters of law.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Jun 4, 2006 9:55:42 PM

Also, Ku, we could easily show that postulating the existence of a soul changes nothing by itself. No part of the Bible conflicts with the claim that the soul enters the body when the brain starts working. Even Catholic "Saint" Aquinas said something as close to that as makes no difference.

Posted by: Omar K. Ravenhurst | Jun 5, 2006 1:08:13 AM

..any indication of a double standard

Well I dont know how much of a conscious choice it has been, to believe its a conspiracy is a bit tinfoil for me. But you can take a look at support for viagra as a potential piece of any doublestandard. Obviously if nothing else lots of little decisions have for some reason 'happenned' to work out this way.

Insurance supports it, many HMOs provide it in the plan. Any complaints from groups working on 'conscientiuous objector pharmacist' type laws bring up only items like planB but never anything like Cialis or Viagra. Only after legal harassment have insurance plans started to support birth control for women even though Viagra has been supported from its introduction.

Lots of little things like these are awful suspicious.

Posted by: david b | Jun 5, 2006 3:46:34 AM

Village Voice columnist Nat Hentoff is another pro-lifer who's never come across as being invested in traditional gender roles, either.

Posted by: Constantine | Jun 5, 2006 4:09:15 AM

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