1.2.03


PROFESSOR CRISPY LOSES IT

The new semester has left me little time for the life of the mind. But once again the local email discussion list has goaded me into action. This time, someone posted a column on affirmative action by Crispin Sartwell, a professional philosopher whose work I read with occasional interest and amusement. This time I was interested, but not amused.

Sartwell says that this is what conservatives believe about affirmative action:

(1) “[T]here is a hierarchy of human quality [or merit], and in principle we could rank Americans from 1…to 275 million…and hence determine their just desserts.”

(2) “[H]uman merit can be measured by...SAT scores.”

(3) “There is a hierarchy of institutions, and where you end up in this hierarchy determines your prospects as well as defining your essential value as a human being.”

(4) “Affirmative action is tantamount to apartheid or Jim Crow, and those who oppose it have assumed the mantle of Martin Luther King, who said that people should be judged by the quality of their characters and not the color of their skin. The advocates of affirmative action are bigots who are asserting race privilege.”

He concludes: “if we're going to have this debate, it had better rise to a higher level, because so far the arguments against affirmative action have been dishonest, vicious, and fallacious. Come up with something better or shut up.”

* * * * * * * *

Sometimes, when I read stuff like this, I wonder why I even try to participate in public debate. What’s the use? It simply doesn’t seem to matter what you say. Your opponents won’t listen to you. They don’t think you’re worth listening to. They would rather argue with some imaginary evil demon of their own creation. And they expect you to play along with their tawdry fantasy. Who needs it? Who needs to be smeared and shat on so that self-deceiving ideologues can preen in public?

Many conservatives have thought and written about affirmative action. Some of their arguments are stronger, some are weaker. But none have argued for (1), (2), or (3) above. Not one, not ever. The reason is simple: because they do not believe such things. Not one, not ever. Sartwell provides not a single quotation in support of his vicious and calculated slander. He can’t. There aren’t any. He names six names: George Bush, John Ashcroft, Anne Coulter, Andrew Sullivan, Michelle Malkin, Pat Buchanan. Not the names I would choose to represent conservatism on this issue, but let that pass. Even granting his list of enemies, he has no case. If you doubt me, do your own research. I have. All six are innocent as charged. They do not say such things because they do not believe them. Sartwell is lying. He has allowed ideology to turn him into a liar.

Or is it ideology? Maybe it’s money. Maybe he just figures that this is the sort of thing editorial page editors will want to buy. I hope that’s not it.

And what about (4)? Many conservatives do indeed argue “that people should be judged by the quality of their characters and not the color of their skin.” And they do indeed believe that affirmative action, as actually practiced, often violates this principle.

Here is Sartwell’s rebuttal:

“[T]he whining of people who have been oppressors for centuries should be the occasion for summary execution. That black people have been enslaved, lynched, exploited, despised, impoverished, imprisoned is actual injustice. That Suzy Creamcheese has to go to Michigan State instead of Michigan because Michigan admitted a black person with lower SATs is nothing. Really. Nothing. If you make these things equivalent in your arguments, you are either being entirely disingenuous, or you are so deluded in your privilege, your empty rhetoric, and your slavish worship of institutions that you have become deeply evil without noticing it.”

Now this is rather like arguing that Palestinians on the West Bank have no right to complain about the Israeli settlement policy because, after all, the Holocaust was worse. It is a weak argument, and it does not become any stronger because Sartwell throws around words like “disingenuous,” “deluded,” “empty,” “slavish,” and “evil,” and suggests that those who feel differently from him are “whining” and ought to be shot.

I have never mistaken Sartwell for a subtle or careful thinker. But I used to think he was an honest one.

18.1.03


THE SAD THING

The local community email discussion list has been buzzing with antiwar hysteria lately. The usual nonsense: this is all about oil, etc. I was trying to mind my own business and stay out of it. I mean, who has time? But when somebody posted with approval John Le Carré's London Times column (see below) I just lost patience and wrote up a reply. Another afternoon, gone forever. For what it’s worth, here’s what I said:

There’s quite a bit of publicly available information about the Bush administration’s Iraq policy and the reasoning behind it. What it all comes down to is this:

(1) There are lots of terrorists in the world who would stop at nothing to slaughter as many American civilians as they possibly could.

(2) There are a few “rogue” states which share the terrorists’ attitude toward America and which also possess, or are trying to acquire, weapons of mass destruction. These states include Iraq, Iran, and North Korea.

(3) If the terrorists ever got together with the rogue states, they might well pull off an atrocity even worse than 9/11—for example, a smallpox epidemic, or a “dirty bomb” in downtown Washington, D.C.

(4) Given the limitations of intelligence gathering, if we wait for conclusive proof of particular plots before we act, sooner or later the bad guys will succeed. But that cannot be allowed to happen. Therefore, we must adopt a proactive approach.

(5) In the first place, we must hunt down and kill or capture terrorists. Unfortunately, to do this effectively we may have to relax some of our usual civil liberties protections (but only very slightly—nothing remotely comparable to FDR’s internment of Japanese Americans during World War II).

(6) In the second place, we must intimidate or overthrow the leadership of the worst of the “rogue” states. In some cases, that may mean preemptive war.

(7) North Korea already has nuclear weapons, and the regime is clearly mad enough to use them. So we must tread very cautiously there.

(8) Iran is riven by internal dissent. The mullahs may well fall of their own accord. So hands off—for the moment, at least.

(9) Iraq, on the other hand, is a proven aggressor that does not yet have nuclear weapons, but is actively trying to acquire them. It is weak enough to overthrow at relatively little risk to ourselves. A successful war there would also have a chilling effect on lesser threats like Syria, the Sudan, the PLO, etc. Moreover, the human rights situation in Iraq is so dreadful that a war of liberation would actually help Iraqi civilians more than it would harm them (just like in Afghanistan).

Now obviously there are debatable points in this line of thought. What are the potential benefits of any given relaxation in civil liberties? Are they worth it? How must our moral outlook change to accommodate preemptive war? Is that a change we want to make? What will a war cost in innocent Iraqi civilian lives? What will it take to give the Iraqi people freedom and prosperity after Saddam Hussein is gone? Are we prepared to pay the price? Would a successful war in Iraq be more likely to “chill” or to enrage other Arab peoples and their rulers? And so on.

The sad thing is, much of the left is too lazy and/or stupid to engage in the intellectual heavy lifting necessary to pursue such questions seriously. Instead, they prefer to spin conspiracy theories.

To wit:

(1) George W. Bush’s wealthy friends in the Texas oil industry have long wanted to seize control of the Middle Eastern oil supply, for purposes of personal enrichment.

(2) Meanwhile, a cabal of wealthy American Jews whose primary loyalty is to Israel is determined to exterminate the Palestinians and to squelch any manifestation of Arab freedom and independence.

(3) At the same time, a vast right wing-conspiracy of wealthy fundamentalist Christian zealots longs to rob Americans of their historic civil liberties and to transform the nation into a fascist theocracy where dissent and abortion will be punishable by torture and death.

(4) All three groups can further their aims through a trumped-up war on terrorism, on Iraq, etc.

(5) So these nefarious powers conspired to place the easily manipulable dolt George W. Bush on the throne (as it were). (Fortuitously, he even has a personal score to settle against Saddam Hussein.)

(6) 9/11 provided the excuse and the public support necessary to put the whole conspiracy into motion.

(7) –And, by the way, isn’t that convenient? Maybe—just maybe—Bush et al planned the whole thing—or, at least, knew about it ahead of time but let it happen, because they realized that it would line their pockets

This conspiracy theory is supported by the following evidence:

(1) George W. Bush and Dick Cheney used to be in the oil business.

(2) Some Jewish neo-conservatives are vocal supporters of both Israel and the G.O.P.

(3) Many conservative Christians believe that abortion is wrong and should be forbidden by law.

(4) George W. Bush’s S.A.T. scores (566 verbal, 640 math) place him in only the top 16% of college-bound seniors, and about the top 5% of all students nationwide. In other words, he’s a “moron” according to the modern left (which, in all other contexts, denies that S.A.T. scores mean anything whatsover).

(5) Last time around, Bush Sr., at Colin Powell’s urging, failed to remove Saddam Hussein from power. Hussein later attempted to have the elder Bush assassinated. So Dubbyah probably dislikes him (assuming that he has normal human feelings).

(6) 9/11 was preceded by a number of rather routine intelligence failures, most of which took place before the younger Bush took office.

Sorry, no number 7.

I’m afraid that’s it. The gigantic, obvious, yawning gulf between the conspiracy theory and the actual “evidence” that “supports” it is filled up with a steaming pile of rhetorical…uh…compost. (Let’s keep this a family site!)

I always used to think of conservatives as stupid (but often right) and liberals as smart (but often wrong). But the longer I watch the left wallow in this paltry and asinine fantasy, the more convinced I become that the tables have turned—with a vengeance. The *right* may or may not be *right* about Iraq and the war on terrorism. But at least they have interesting and intelligent things to say about it. The John Le Carré's and Gore Vidal’s of the world do not. They cannot be argued with. They can only be laughed at.

15.1.03


SILLY OLD FOOL

In sheer idiocy per square inch, John Le Carré's column in the London Times today suffers few rivals. Gore Vidal, perhaps. But somehow Le Carré feels even stupider—maybe because of his customary drab prose style.

So why are some people quoting this pretentious git as if he were some sort of moral authority?

In the bad old days of the cold war, he was satisfied with fashionable moral equivalence: America no better than Soviet Russia. Now he has moved on to the equally fashionable moral inversion of our own day: America worse than Islamofascism.

Not that this comes as a surprise. When the Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa ordering the death of Salman Rushdie in 1989, John Le Carré sided with the mullahs.

"Great religions," he announced, "may [not] be insulted with impunity."

Of course, we always knew that Le Carré was a trashy writer. Somewhere between Stephen King and Tom Clancy.

What the Rushdie affair revealed was that he was also a moral half-wit.

His latest reveals him as a prematurely senile old fool.

He wouldn't last five minutes in a serious argument with the editorial board of the Washington Post.

And I don't even LIKE the Washington Post.

13.1.03


HEROISM VS. EGOISM I

Brink Lindsey—one of the best libertarian thinkers and writers—raises some hard question for libertarians—especially those who base their ethics on the pursuit of individual self-interest and their politics on the pursuit of national self-interest.

What about times which call for heroic self-sacrifice?

As Lindsey observes:

“Theories of morality based on rational self-interest run in to trouble on the question of heroism. We all recognize the moral grandeur of those who risk or lay down their lives to save others. Who, for example, could be so obtuse as to find moral fault with the firefighters of 9/11?”

But how can a libertarian who bases his moral theory on the rational pursuit of self-interest countenance such self-sacrifice?

Lindsey moves on to suggest that the threat posed by terror-states like Iraq and North Korea calls for just such heroic self-sacrifice:

“…mustn’t we recognize that statesmanship cannot be reduced to calculations of interest – that it requires, at critical junctures, some unflinching commitment to virtue? And that virtue in such cases consists of refusal to back down in the face of a predator’s threats?”

At least, I think that Iraq, North Korea, and such like are what he has in mind here. I’m not sure. And if he is suggesting that, I’m not sure whether or not he’s right. (Would an attack on Iraq really involve some huge national self-sacrifice?)

But, be that as it may, the theoretical question interests me: is heroic self-sacrifice compatible with the pursuit of self-interest?

Those who come by their libertarianism by way of Ayn Rand have a particularly hard time with this question. Skeptics of objectivist egoism will relentlessly confront them with cases where the only alternative to self-sacrifice is disaster. Since egoism seems to preclude self-sacrifice, mustn’t the objectivist choose disaster? But doesn’t this prove that this version of libertarianism is both ignoble and impractical?

Q. E. D.

Favorite cases of this sort tend prominently to feature either lifeboats or foxholes.

THE LIFEBOAT: You are an unattached libertarian with no dependents and no remarkable personal gifts or accomplishments. You are stranded at sea in a lifeboat with Mother Theresa, Albert Einstein, the captain of the Harvard crew team, and a mother of six young children who is also a concert pianist. The captain of the crew team can row you all to safety, but there is only enough food to last for four. If no one goes overboard, all will starve before reaching land. What should you do?

THE FOXHOLE: You are, once more, a rather ordinary libertarian with no family ties. While fighting on the right side in a just war, you find yourself trapped in a foxhole with a half-dozen buddies, each more brilliant and talented than the last, and each possessed of numerous dependents: young children, elderly parents, etc. Someone throws a live grenade into the midst of your buddies. You are far enough away that, if you run for it, you can escape without injury. But you are close enough that you can throw yourself on the grenade, absorb the explosion, and save your buddies. If you run, they will all be killed. What should you do?

The egoist has three possible responses to such cases.

The first is to dismiss them as unrealistic. Hard cases, after all, make for bad law. The plausibility of an ethical view should be judged by how successfully it deals with the world as it is—not some philosopher’s fantasy land of perpetual emergency.

But such a response fails to appreciate the purpose of such problem cases. They are not supposed to be “realistic.” They are supposed to clarify concepts and reveal implications. They are like frictionless planes in physics. There has never been a real frictionless plane in the world as it is, and there will never be one. But just try to teach mechanics without them! Even if they only exist in imagination, they are essential for explaining physical theory. Just so, cases like the lifeboat and the foxhole may not tell us much about real life, but they tell us a lot about the differences between ethical theories and thereby help us do choose the right one.

The egoist’s second possible response is to bite the bullet and choose self-preservation. After all, what good does it do you if the worthies in the lifeboat or your buddies in the foxhole survive, if you’re not there to see it? Surely people who call for self-sacrifice in such situations are merely engaging in cheap moral exhibitionism. They wouldn’t really do it, would they? More likely, they would gang up on Mother Theresa and push her overboard. At least the egoist is honest about what he would do.

While this response has a certain cynical integrity, it is not the sort of thing that is likely to win friends or influence people. Perhaps only a few of us really have it in us to play the hero when heroism is called for. But more than a few of us would at least want to try, and would see little appeal in a moral theory that told us we shouldn’t bother. Such a position would seem, as I said above, both ignoble and, from all but the narrowest point of view, impractical.

So the egoist is likely to resort to the third possible response: that, contrary to appearances, self-sacrifice in an emergency can serve one’s self-interest. One can take a selfish pleasure in the act of saving others so great that it outweighs one’s whole future. So one jumps overboard, or throws oneself on the grenade, with a smile in one’s heart and a song on one’s lips.

At which point the cynics on the other side will begin to suspect that it is they who are witnessing an exercise in “cheap moral exhibitionism.” Who does the egoist think he is fooling, anyway? He was more believable—and possibly even more likable—when he defended pushing Mother Theresa overboard. Turnabout may be fair play, but this is ridiculous.

Brink Lindsey himself has doubts about this response:

“[C]an heroic acts be explained by self-interest? The only way to even try is to argue that a person’s self-interest must be understood broadly to include a compelling interest in being a virtuous person; accordingly, it can be “selfish,” in some expansive sense, to put one’s physical well-being at mortal risk in the service of a worthy cause.”

Lindsey doubts whether such an argument “can be made to work.” Even if it can, he concludes that “morality cannot be reduced to calculations of self-interest. Instead, self-interest reduces to considerations of virtue.”

So must libertarians—or, at any rate, most libertarians, those who defend the moral legitimacy of the pursuit of self-interest—give it up? Must they admit that, under certain circumstances, self-interest must yield to the common good (or to “virtue”)?

But then why not under all circumstances?

If libertarians concede this point, I think they give up their main claim to philosophical fame. All that would be left would be a purely empirical claim, to the effect that, most of the time, the common interest is served when people are allowed to pursue their own interests. In other words, they would be left with Adam Smith and his heirs: the logic choppers would pass from the scene and the number crunchers would inherit the tradition.

Sigh.

Fortunately for egoist libertarians, I think that there’s a way out of this problem. It all depends on what you mean by “self-interest.” Should we understand it in terms of pleasure, or in terms of desire? This seemingly trivial technical issue turns out to be crucial…

But all that must wait until I have another moment to post.

5.1.03


SOMETHING DEEP

I’m glad to see that my friend Tom G. Palmer agrees with me about the relative merits of the new Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter movies. Two Towers good, Chamber of Secrets bad.

Which reminds me. I was going to defend the proposition that Tolkien was on to something deep—something that transcends mere politics.

So here goes.

First, let’s return (for a moment) to the issue of Tolkien’s alleged racism. If you do a Google search on “Tolkien Racism” you will come up with more than 5,000 hits—so this would seem to be a going concern.

But it’s a mistaken concern—unless you’re worried about anti-German racism. For the bad guys in The Lord of the Rings are, quite obviously, Germans. The First World War was a formative influence in Tolkien’s life. Black Africa (despite his South African origins) was not. The aggressive, regimented, machinery-loving Orcs have much in common with stereotypical Huns and little in common with stereotypical Africans. End of story.

So why are the Orcs so often “black?” Because that is the traditional color of evil, dummy! Should Tolkien have made them orange, instead? Please keep in mind that he was not living in the age of dopey P.C. It would never have occurred to him that anyone would think he was out to stigmatize sub-Saharan Africans. He had other, and bigger, fish to fry.

What about the “Southrons?”

(a) In World War I, The Ottoman Empire allied itself with the Central Powers.

(b) Tolkien consistently treats his proto-Arabs as innocent dupes, worthy of sympathy.

So, to conclude, if you must read real life back into Tolkien’s story, against his wishes, it should be the First World War—not British colonialism, imperialism, and racism.

But, as Hannibal Lecter would say: “that is incidental.”

A more to-the-point criticism of Tolkien would be that his moral—as opposed to racial—landscape is too black and white. It’s not that he’s racist—it’s that he’s simplistic. The good guys are perfectly good, the bad guys are perfectly awful, and there’s nothing and nobody in between.

This feeds into the penny-in-the-slot charge that The Lord of the Rings is merely an overgrown exercise in cheap “escapism.” It offers its readers an easy escape from the real world of moral doubt and complexity into a fantasy land of comforting certainty. The worry is that naïve readers might try to import that comforting certainty back into the real world, with potentially disastrous consequences—viz., certain conservatives who look at Iraq and see Mordor.

(Or is that Morrrrrdor?)

In short, doubters will think that Tolkien’s “secondary creation” feeds into something crude and retrograde in our nature that ought to be discouraged.

This objection is not just incidental. Unlike the charge of racism, it at least takes note of a genuine and significant feature of the book: the lack of moral ambiguity. Nevertheless, qua objection, it’s mistaken.

To understand why, let’s go back for a moment to the Harry Potter stories—which really are, so far as I can tell, exercises in escapism, pure and simple.

Harry quite literally “escapes” an annoying set of relatives through the sudden and unexpected discovery of magical powers. Any reasonably intelligent and sensitive young person will identify with him. Who hasn’t daydreamed of such an escape? It’s part and parcel of being a kid. The Harry Potter books shamelessly cater to that innocent wish.

True, there are dangers for Harry to face in his new life. But unlike his foster family, they’re lively and colorful, and he can always count on the powers necessary to face them showing up at just the right moment. All perfectly harmless—and all kid’s stuff. (If it weren’t just kid’s stuff, it wouldn’t be perfectly harmless anymore.)

Now compare Frodo’s situation. Through pure luck, he, too, unexpectedly stumbles on magical powers (not in himself, but in the ring). But there the similarities end. For Frodo’s bit of luck is not good, but bad. Disastrously bad. The ring does not save him from everyday life—it robs him of it. It thrusts him suddenly into the burdensome world of moral responsibility. It demands that he give up everything he cares about to do his duty. Can he do it? Will he do it? Can or will anyone ever do the right thing, simply because it is the right thing, when deprived of any possible personal interest in doing it?

Everything in Frodo’s story is calculated to point this problem as acutely as possible. The stakes are large (saving the world, more or less) but Frodo’s chances are small (he has only a “fool’s hope” of success). His path will be long and painful and will test his rather ordinary physical and emotional capacities to their limits and beyond. Even if he succeeds, the attempt will almost certainly cost him his life. At the end, there will be no glory. No yachts or dancing girls. No heavenly reward. So he must save the world, but not for himself. He can’t palm the job off on someone else, because no one else is either willing or better able to do it. (Some are all too ready to take the ring—but not to destroy it). It’s almost cruel the way Tolkien paints him into the corner. The author makes his duty perfectly clear, but systematically deprives him of any selfish motive for doing it.

Now this is an interesting moral situation. In fact, it might be the most interesting moral situation there is. (Immanuel Kant seems to have thought so.) It is the heart of Tolkien’s story—and there is nothing simplistic about his treatment of it. On the contrary: his portrayal of Frodo’s response to the moral challenge that confronts him is both subtle and plausible. It is also quite ambiguous. In the end, does Frodo do his duty or not? This is not an easy question to answer.

To introduce shades of moral gray into the representation of the orcs or the elves would merely cloud the issue. Frodo’s duty must be unambiguous. If Sauron had legitimate grievances, or if Aragorn were merely an imperialist war-monger, the focus would shift from ethics to epistemology: from “how do I do what’s right?” to “how do I know what’s right?” The latter may be an interesting issue—but it is not Tolkien’s issue. Why should it be?

I suppose one could still make out a case that the book is “escapist.” But if so, it’s escapism of a peculiar sort. While the Harry Potter books appeal to the childish desire to be somebody special, The Lord of the Rings appeals to almost the opposite desire: the desire for commitment to a cause greater than oneself. Perhaps that is why it seems to make its strongest appeal to adolescents, the best of whom are highly susceptible to a longing for moral commitment.

Maybe that longing is merely another form of escapism—and a potentially dangerous one at that. Historically minded adults have every reason to view it with suspicion.

And yet, there’s good in it. Isn’t there?

1.1.03


CHILDREN AND CLONES AND OTHER LIVING THINGS

The Raelian clone story has everyone dusting off old arguments, for and against, and giving them another trot around the track. Someone on “The Corner” at National Review Online recommended a piece by Ramesh Ponnuru that offers a “non-theological” argument against therapeutic cloning. It’s old (from last August) but worth responding to, especially since at least some conservatives apparently still find it persuasive.

Ponnuru’s main argument goes like this:

(1) “…the early embryo is a living member of the human species…”
(2) “…all entities that meet this description have intrinsic worth such that it is wrong intentionally to destroy them.”

Ponnuru does not spell out the various supplementary premises necessary to support his implied conclusion (that therapeutic cloning is wrong) but I suppose they are clear enough.

Another thing he doesn’t spell out is that his argument applies equally to therapeutic cloning and to any form of abortion whatsoever. So if we outlaw cloning, on these grounds, we must also outlaw all abortion—from the moment of conception on.

Fair enough—just so long as everyone understands that point.

Ponnuru rightly recognizes that the sticking point for most cloning enthusiasts will be his second premise: that all living members of the human species have intrinsic worth, etc. His opponents will simply deny this.

Rather than defend the premise directly, Ponnuru shifts the burden of proof to the other side. If mere humanity isn’t enough for intrinsic worth, then what is? He mentions several possibilities but finds them all wanting:

“The candidates most commonly proposed…are consciousness, mental functioning, making choices, and the like. But if the right to life is tied too closely to these characteristics, it is not only embryonic human beings that will be found not to deserve protection. Infants lack the immediately exercisable capacity for mental functioning as well. So do the comatose and the severely retarded, not to mention people who are sleeping.

“Also: Since the acquired characteristics on which human rights are said to hinge typically come in varying and continuous degrees, it is hard to see why human beings should be considered equal in their rights.”

So if mental functioning, say, were a precondition for intrinsic moral worth, then smart people would have a greater right to life than stupid people, and we would all lose the right to life every time we fell asleep.

Ponnuru is right to think that this is an effective reductio of any position that makes intrinsic moral worth dependent on some “immediately exercisable capacity.” Moreover, his opponents cannot get around the objection by leaving out the phrase “immediately exercisable.” If they try to rescue the sleeping by pointing out that they will have the capacity in question when they wake up, Ponnuru can simply point out that an early embryo will have the same capacity when it develops. If they complain that it takes much longer for an embryo to develop than for a sleeper to wake up, Ponnuru can resort to the case of the comatose. Suppose someone is in a coma from which he is very likely to awake, but only after a lapse of—to choose a number at random—nine months. Would we pull the plug? Surely not. So why are we so ready to sacrifice the embryo?

Defenders of cloning (and garden variety abortion) need a better argument. Luckily for them, they have one. It depends on the idea of a threshold.

A threshold is like a hoop you have to jump through before you can move on to a new level. Once you jump through that hoop, you’re on that new level, no matter what happens next. Maybe you could never do it again. Maybe you couldn’t even come close. But once is enough: you’ll never be the same person again.

Thresholds play a large and familiar role in all our lives. Once you’ve graduated high school, you’re a high school graduate—even if you’ve forgotten everything by the time you get your diploma. Once you’ve passed the bar exam, you’re a lawyer. Once you survive internship, you’re a doctor. And you stay that way, come what may.

Is it crazy to think that humanity is like that, too? That there is a threshold, somewhere, beyond which you count, morally speaking? Even if you later fall asleep, or into a coma?

I don’t know what the threshold should be: ability to think? to suffer? to care whether you live or die? But whatever it is, I’m pretty sure that blastocysts have not crossed it yet.

At any rate, such a position immediately answers both of Ponnuru’s serious objections.

Sleepers and the comatose may not be thinking now, but they have long since earned their stripes. Early embryos have not. That is a big moral difference. In fact, it is all the difference.

Moreover, “having crossed the threshold” is not a matter of degree. Either you have or you haven’t. So there is no room here for some to be more equal than others. You don't have to be an elitist to defend therapeutic cloning.

Ramesh Ponnuru needs to think again.

30.12.02


WHAT CLANCY MEANT

Andrew Sullivan rightly commends a short memoir of a trip to Jerusalem by our finest living playwright, David Mamet. It’s a wonderful piece, but it includes what seems to be an unfair criticism of (not our finest living) novelist, Tom Clancy.

Mamet takes umbrage at a passage in Clancy's The Bear and the Dragon, in which an "American operative," "rightfully...horrified" by the "Chinese custom...of female infanticide," remarks that "if it were the Jews, the world would be Up in Arms."

"What can he mean?" asks Mamet, before trying out a couple of interpretations that would attribute to Clancy anti-Semitic intentions.

But presumably what Clancy meant was that if it were the Jews who were practicing infanticide, the world would be horrified--yet they look the other way when the Chinese do it. In other words, Clancy is not expressing anti-Semitism, but pointing it out—and rightly so. One could even go further, and observe that the world (especially the Arab world) habitually makes up lies about Jewish infanticide in order to justify its hatred, yet ignores well-attested evidence of actual infanticide amongst other peoples.

In this case, at least, I think Clancy can plead "not guilty."