The Corner

Berkowitz: Real Disagreements

Berkowitz argues that our intuitions about the human embryo contain moral wisdom. The embryo, “though surely part of the human family,” strikes us as different from a newborn—for example, it is “invisible to the naked eye”—and it strikes us this way because it is, in truth, different. Different enough that its “life may need to give way” when other goods are at stake. He continues with the passage Jonah quoted below (the one about how Oakeshott, Kirk, and Hayek have exposed my “error”).

 

These parts of Berkowitz’s review seem to me to be much too glib. The tangled history of abortion law casts doubt on the notion that we can take our bearings from the “wisdom embodied in custom and common sense.” Common sense used to tell almost everyone that abortion should be generally illegal, and now there is no common sense of the matter. The book makes some moral distinctions and defends their relevance, while arguing against the relevance of other, pretended distinctions. If I am wrong in these arguments, Berkowitz can try to demonstrate it. But that would require that he make an argument rather than just gesture toward one. Making an abstract point about the limits of abstract thinking won’t do. To say that a situation is complex, meanwhile, is not to do justice to its complexity (or to point out specific ways in which I have allegedly failed to do so).

 

The trouble with this kind of “argument from intuition” is that it is neither based on intuitions nor arguments. Nobody intuits that a tiny human being has no rights or that some members of “the human family” do not deserve the elementary protections to which others are entitled. They perceive that it’s tiny (or rather, don’t perceive it because it’s tiny). They conclude (if they conclude) that it therefore has no rights. This conclusion is bad logic, not an “intuition,” and certainly not a “complex” one.

 

I noted (and John Miller has also mentioned) that Berkowitz did have some praise for the book, and for me. Allow me to reciprocate. While I thought his review was flawed in key respects, I appreciate the thoughtfulness, fair-mindedness, and intelligence he has shown on this occasion as on others. So far he is the only critic of my book to have exhibited these characteristics.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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