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Ramesh Ponnuru’s Achievement



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I just finished reading Ramesh Ponnuru’s Party of Death.  In short, punchy chapters written with passion but without the slightest touch of shrillness, Ramesh establishes himself as perhaps the most effective advocate of the right to life writing today.  Academics such as Hadley Arkes and Robert P. George, to name just two of many, make their own invaluable contributions.  Journalist and lawyer Wesley J. Smith is indefatigable and indispensable.  Religious leaders and writers beyond counting make the case to the faithful, while Nat Hentoff toils courageously in the precincts of atheism.

But Ramesh’s achievement in P.O.D. is to combine a) an unwavering commitment to justice; b) a moral lucidity that resolutely travels where reason leads; and c) a deep appreciation for the recuperative powers of American politics; with d) an enviable grace, elegance, and concision as a writer, gifts that make this book accessible to any reader who is willing to think like an adult about important questions.

As a teacher for a quarter century, I have been called upon many times to explain the rational ground of the principle the Declaration of Independence describes as “self-evident,” namely the equality of all human beings.  When I offer the recognition we all share of our common nature as rational creatures, sometimes a student will ask me how this affects the exceptional cases, of members of the human species who have never developed, or who have lost to accident or disease, the full form (or sometimes any recognizable shred) of their rational capacity.  I have usually said that such persons are, as fellow humans, objects of our solicitude and care, at the same that they are not permitted (or condemned) to be on their own in full charge of their lives.  “So, not absolutely every human being is a rational creature enjoying equality with the rest of us,” the persistent student will say; “why should such persons be thought to have any rights, even to life?”  At this stage of the conversation the answers come a little harder.

Ramesh, I am happy to say, gives a better answer than I have ever mustered.  From page 184 of his book (italics his):

[I]t is not plausible that a human being’s value is based on the immediately exercisable capacity to perform those functions. One need not be actually conscious, reasoning, deliberating, making choices, or doing whatever else it is that these philosophers [such as Peter Singer] value in order to be a human being who deserves full moral respect.  Plainly people who are asleep, under anesthesia, or in reversible comas deserve such respect.

. . . [W]hat is valuable about human beings is a different kind of capacity.  Even human beings in the embryonic, fetal, and infant stages of development have the radical capacity (that is, the basic natural capacity in root form) to perform mental functions—and to laugh, sing, love, and mourn—because of the kind of beings they are; because they have a human, and therefore rational, nature.

A moment later he sends the reader to an endnote that reads thus:

Disease, genetic defect, accident, and violence can of course block the development of this capacity in particular human beings [or, I would add, rob them of an exercise of it they once enjoyed], but these possibilities do not call its existence in those beings into question.

This is at once limpid, compelling, and instructive.  The answer I will henceforth give to my persistent student is that the member of our species who demonstrates a reduced or even destroyed rational ability, so different from ourselves in degree as to seem to differ in kind, is no less possessed of the rational capacity than the rest of us.  His humanity itself guarantees the existence of the capacity.  It is not its absence we observe, but its frustration.  And from that way of looking at the matter we can gain greater moral clarity about our own obligations to those among us who need our aid.

Thank you, Ramesh.


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