Conservatives Podhoretz and Ponnuru debate stem cell research
Over at The Corner, John Podhoretz and Ramesh Ponnuru, both thoughtful conservatives, are having a real-time, no-holds-barred debate on stem cell research. The debate is wide-ranging and incorporates the Talmud and the nature of democracy. At times it even borders on the ad hominimem. (But then they retreat to setting up play dates for their infants.)
In any case, it makes for good reading. But it is hard to follow amidst the other discussions at The Corner. So I've taken the liberty of reprinting it here (with the permission of Ponnuru), in chronological order:
- Ponnuru: Conscientious objection for taxpayers
Charles Krauthammer writes today: "It simply will not do for opponents of this expanded [embryonic stem-cell] research to say that the federal government should not force those Americans who find this research abhorrent to support it with their taxes. By that logic we should never go to war, or impose the death penalty, except by unanimous consent of the entire population. We make many life-or-death decisions as a society as a whole, without being held hostage to the sensibilities of a minority, however substantial and sincere."
Krauthammer is right that the mere fact that people find a policy immoral is not a clinching argument against that policy. But the argument gets stronger when either of the following two circumstances apply: 1) It is not necessary for the government to adopt that policy, and 2) the objectors' moral judgment of the situation is sound. Both apply here. On point 1, note that Krauthammer, like Frist, fails to identify any good that federal funding, on top of existing private-sector and state funding, is necessary to achieve.
- Podhoretz: Ramesh on taxpayer objections
Politically, it is important for politicians to understand that moral objections are to be taken extremely seriously. But Ramesh, you seem to be arguing that moral objections are to be trump cards, preventing government action, if a) the policy to which the objection is made is not "necessary" and b) if the moral objection is sound. I can't believe you actually believe this to be the case, because it makes no logical sense. Those who argue for embryonic stem-cell research believe it is necessary. They may be wrong, but they believe it. Therefore, there's a moral stand-off here, in which case your argument a) is cancelled out. And as for the moral objection being sound, honestly, are you saying that Krauthammer's argument in favor of some embryonic stem-cell research is immoral, or that it doesn't pass muster because it can't convince those who believe it is immoral, or what? Pacifists have to stomach immoral policy every day. That's what happens in democracies. You can't always get what you want, even if what you believe what you want will be the salvation of the souls of millions.
- Ponnuru: Response to Podhoretz
First, on necessity: The point isn't that proponents of the research think that it's necessary. It's that the *federal subsidies* aren't necessary. Neither Frist nor Krauthammer bothers even trying to make the case that they are, and it's hard to make that case given the existing private-sector and state government funding that goes to the research. Second, on morality: I'm not arguing that Krauthammer's "argument" is "immoral," whatever that would mean. I'm arguing that the research is immoral. Obviously he disagrees. My point is that the force of the objection that people have to funding things they consider immoral depends in important part on whether they are correct to so consider it. I can't believe that you could really disagree with that point. The closing statements you make are just a restatement of the original Krauthammer position to which I was lodging objections.
- Podhoretz: Reply to Ramesh
Wait a minute. You write: "The force of the objection that people have to funding things they consider immoral depends in important part on whether they are correct to so consider it. I can't believe that you could really disagree with that point." Of course I disagree with that point, because it's not even a point, Ramesh. There is no absolute arbitrator of whether the "people" you mention are "correct" or not in their moral objection (except for God, but His ways are mysterious, if you haven't heard). Look, it is true that stem-cell funding isn't "necessary," but then, neither is cancer-research funding "necessary."
The problem, as I see it, is that you and others have a serious, profound, respectable and highly moral objection to stem-cell research, whether federally funded or not. In fact, the moral argument against embryonic stem-cell research has nothing to do with the funding source. If such research is by definition immoral, it's immoral no matter whose dime is spent doing it.
But here we are, living in a democratic society in which other people have other opinions on this matter. The Krauthammer opinion is that frozen embryos that are destined for destruction in any case are the only acceptable embryos from which to derive stem cells for research. The most comprehensive anti-stem-cell opinion argues that the true crime comes from the use of in-vitro fertilization, which creates these excess embryos. The most liberal argument leads us all the way to reproductive cloning.
This argument has now become part of the political debate. That is as it should be, or so I was taught in the wake of Roe v. Wade -- that we were never able to come to a true national consensus position on abortion because the fight was superseded by the Supreme Court. We shall see what happens. But to argue that the anti-stem-cell argument is demonstrably correct because passionate people hold it and their passion is undergirded by the rightness of their argument is the textbook definition of a tautology.
Maybe you haven't talked to a lot of pro-stem-cell research people. I have. Believe me, they're passionate. They start to cry when they talk about a family member with Parkinson's. That doesn't make their argument correct, but maybe according to you it would.
- Ponnuru: I'm sure John
has raised many valid points against somebody--but I'm not sure who; certainly not me. I never "argue[d] that the anti-stem-cell argument is demonstrably correct because passionate people hold it and their passion is undergirded by the rightness of their argument." John returns to this point in his conclusion; I have no idea what I wrote that could possibly make him think I hold that strange view. His insinuation that I haven't spoken to people who support stem-cell research is, I would like to think, beneath him.
To recap: I agreed with Krauthammer and John that the mere fact that some people oppose a particular government policy cannot be a decisive objection to that policy. To take the example that Krauthammer brought up, I quoted, and John then reiterated: the mere fact that many pacifists object to a war, and to their money's being spent on a war, is not a decisive reason not to go to war. So far, we agree.
But if the opponents of the policy are right that embryonic stem-cell research is an evil, then having the state encourage and subsidize it is an additional evil. (Obviously I did not suggest that to make that observation was to make an argument that they are correct; I merely stated my view that sound reasoning does, in fact, yield that conclusion.) To make people complicit in something they mistakenly think is an evil is not as bad as to make them complicit in something that is actually an evil. So a full evaluation of the rightness or wrongness of subsidizing embryonic stem-cell research cannot prescind from the question of whether that research is morally licit.
But--and here is where the question of necessity comes in--it is possible to be agnostic on the question of whether the research is morally licit while thinking that we should avoid making people pay for something they think is immoral if we don't have to. If, say, 40 percent of the public is opposed to a war, that is a reason not to engage in the war if the war is not a necessary one. It may not be the top consideration--one can make the argument that if a war isn't necessary, we shouldn't wage it regardless of the composition of public opinion--but it's not an obviously irrelevant consideration either.
If John wants to continue this discussion, I hope that this time he can describe my views in a way that at least rises to the level of caricature.
- Podhoretz: Caricature? Moi?
Ramesh, I quoted your own line in your own text stating that moral certainty of a person making an argument exists in relation to the validity of the argument. I hardly see how quoting you is an act of caricature.
And I don't quite know what you mean when you say that say that public opinion running, say, 40 percent against a thing should be taken into account when a policy is bruited about. Such a fact goes without saying, because our system is a representative one.
The way we make such decisions, in a representative republic-democracy, is through the votes of our elected officials. And they naturally take the views and feelings of their constituents into account. In that sense, of course public support is part and parcel of any serious legislative or executive decision-making.
But as you yourself say, a polling/PR approach really has no bearing on the intrinsic morality of the policy. And the deepest problem here is that this is a very hard case -- and hard cases, as we know, make bad law. The stem-cell debate is a rare circumstance in which people can have genuine moral differences about how best to pursue the furtherance of and respect for life. (This is as opposed to abortion, where the moral argument against abortion is really only challenged by an instrumentalist-pragmatist-convenience argument.)
You take offense at the idea that I "insinuated" you haven't talked to people who are for stem-cell research. I meant no offense, honestly. When I have spoken in favor of President Bush's August 2001 compromise, I have nearly been assaulted on almost every occasion by someone who is sure a family member might have been saved or will be saved by the research that is not being done -- and it seems to be that the argument you made, which suggested rightness has some relation to passionate feeling, could be made just as easily about such people.
Since you abjure that argument now, I won't hold you to it. But better go back and read what you wrote, because I didn't misquote you.
Of course it is the case, as you say, that "if the opponents of the policy are right that embryonic stem-cell research is an evil, then having the state encourage and subsidize it is an additional evil." But then you go on to add that "to make people complicit in something they mistakenly think is an evil is not as bad as to make them complicit in something that is actually an evil." And again, I can only ask you: Who is to make such a determination?
And I'm sorry, but you're far too highbrow for me, Ramesh, when you write that "a full evaluation of the rightness or wrongness of subsidizing embryonic stem-cell research cannot prescind from the question of whether that research is morally licit." I'm afraid I can't argue with you about this because you lost me somewhere there in the five-dollar-word section.
- Ponnuru: John
Just for starters: The problem isn't what you quoted, but your misunderstanding of it. When I said "the force of the objection," I wasn't referring to the passion with which someone makes that objection; I was referring to the consideration that their objection deserves on the merits. As should have been obvious from context. I don't have time to deal with your other misunderstandings at the moment, but I'll get to them later.
- Podhoretz: This is interesting
So I didn't misread you, Ramesh -- you mis-wrote? Or is it that you're sayingI'm too thick to get all your nuances? How Straussian of you!
- Podhoretz: I think I get it now
Ramesh, perhaps I took your initial comments about Krauthammer's stem-cell column too straightforwardly, as though it were part of a strategic argument about how to deal with the research as a matter of policy.
Now I think, having looked through your postings and trying to find the consistency between them, I think your argument simply operates from the basis that embryonic stem-cell research is obviously, unquestionably, inarguably, axiomatically immoral -- and that you either can't quite believe I might think differently or that you've decided my argument is morally relativistic.
But as I've been trying to argue, the morality here isn't as clear-cut as you would like it to be. Perhaps it is for a practicing Catholic, for example, because the doctrine of the church is that all embryo creation outside the womb is a sinful act to begin with. But for a practicing Jew like me, for instance, the moral framework has a different baseline.
The Talmud says any embryo-fetus under the age of 40 days is to be deemed "like water." That sounds harsh, though I believe its initial intention was to limit the emotional involvement of parents in the very early stages of pregnancy, when something like 25 percent of all fetuses naturally abort.
In any case, the code of ethics outlined in the Old Testament and the Talmud is based in the admonition in Leviticus to "choose life." In the case of embryonic stem-cell research, an argument can be made that such reseach does just that.
Now here's the thing. I am not even ARGUING in favor of embryonic stem-cell research. I find myself in some sympathy with the argument that any such research represents a journey down a potentially treacherous and immoral road. But I have to tell you, if brilliant polemicists like you can't make better arguments than the ones you've been making, you're helping to lead me toward that slippery slope....And here endeth my disquisitions on this subject. (For now.)
Andy McCarthy ("The Ramesh-JPod debate") and Kathryn Jean Lopez ("What Andy said") have related thoughts on the role of Government.
- Podhoretz: On this we can all agree
Government does far too much, and should not involve itself in more matters than it has to. Alas for Andy's point, one of the very few areas in which government does and should involve itself is public health. The promulgation of rules involving the management of disease -- so that plagues do not break out routinely -- and the proper disposition of diseased bodies and deceased corpses remain one of the linchpin purposes for which humans gather together in a society. You can certainly argue that the promotion of novel new ways to enhance public health like the use of stem cells is not the government's business. But I fear very, very few people would agree with this notion these days, except for philosophical libertarians. We would be better off if more did, I guess, but that ship of limited governance has long since sailed.
- Ponnuru: Stem cell hell
Andrew is right to suggest that I am not enjoying this debate. I do not believe that it actually qualifies as a debate. John Podhoretz, as he accurately noted earlier, has not taken a position on the morality of embryonic stem-cell research or the wisdom of having the federal government finance it. Contrary to his third-to-last post, I have not, in this thread, advanced any argument against embryonic stem-cell research or the federal financing of it, nor have I claimed to be advancing any such argument. I simply commented on one passage of a Charles Krauthammer column that I thought required qualification. Podhoretz misunderstood my point and was off to the races. And he continues to attribute to me views that I do not hold. (I'm amazed that he has the gall to suggest that it's difficult to find the consistency in my posts. I've lost count of his inconsistencies.)
I've debated embryonic stem-cell research and cloning with many people over the last few years, but I see no reason to do so with someone who seems oddly, and uncharacteristically, unable to engage in a responsive conversation. Perhaps the problem is, as he suggests, that I am an incompetent writer. Whether that is the case or he is an incompetent reader, it seems pointless to continue this non-debate.
- Podhoretz: Ramesh!
What an extraordinary post! Do you really want to argue that you aren't arguing anything when you attempt to point out someone else's inconsistencies -- in this case, Charles Krauthammer's? And do you think you can prevail in a "debate" you say isn't a debate by asserting that I've been inconsistent without the slightest argument in favor of that assertion? To use a formulation you seem fond of, I've lost count of the number of times you have now said you haven't said what you said in the first place, and then in the second place!
And do you really want to accuse me of "gall" because I have the temerity to find some fault with your reasoning on a matter that might end up being the most important issue we deal with in our lifetimes? I congratulate you on having your position completely hard and fast and in place. Some of us aren't there yet, and it doesn't make us bad people, or poor reasoners.
But really, guy! Get a hold of yourself! I don't get why you're so upset, honestly!
- Ponnuru: John!
I'm not upset, but I do have better things to do. The reason I keep noting the fact that I have not made various points is that you keep erroneously attributing these points to me. Knock it off.
As for your question: "Do you really want to argue that you aren't arguing anything when you attempt to point out someone else's inconsistencies -- in this case, Charles Krauthammer's?" Well, no, I don't want to argue that I'm not arguing anything--I want to argue that I am arguing only the limited point I am arguing, and not anything broader. I have occasionally criticized arguments against same-sex marriage. Very few people have taken those criticisms to be anything more than they were intended to be--to be, for example, arguments for same-sex marriage.
If this rhetorical question of yours had the force--i.e., strength, validity, logical persuasiveness--that you seem to think it does, it could just as easily be turned around on you: Do you really think that you're not arguing for embryonic stem-cell research when you criticize its opponents, albeit in a scattershot way? But that would be unfair. I have never attributed to you the view that embryonic stem-cell research should proceed or be federally funded, because you haven't said that. I certainly haven't speculated about your religious views (as in your "salvation of the souls of millions" line, among several others--I'm not the one who's been mentioning God every other post). It would be nice if you would extend the same courtesy.
You are, however, correct to say that I have merely asserted that you have been inconsistent. So let me give you an example.
At 5:29 pm yesterday, you wrote, apropos of I have no idea what: "But here we are, living in a democratic society in which other people have other opinions on this matter. . . . This argument has now become part of the political debate. That is as it should be. . ." At 10:42 pm yesterday, you wrote: "I don't quite know what you mean when you say that say that public opinion running, say, 40 percent against a thing should be taken into account when a policy is bruited about. Such a fact goes without saying, because our system is a representative one. The way we make such decisions, in a representative republic-democracy, is through the votes of our elected officials."
Doesn't it "go without saying" that we "are living in a democratic society in which other people have opinions"? Has anyone denied this point? Has anyone suggested that a dictatorship ought to be established to impose a particular stem-cell policy? Have I? If it "goes without saying" when I say it, why is it a profound point when you do?
Or how about this one? The 5:29 Podhoretz: "If such research is by definition immoral, it's immoral no matter whose dime is spent doing it." In context, this has to be taken to mean that nobody who objects to the legality of the research has any additional reason to object to being forced to subsidize it. It's no worse. Then there's the 10:42 Podhoretz: "Of course it is the case, as you say, that 'if the opponents of the policy are right that embryonic stem-cell research is an evil, then having the state encourage and subsidize it is an additional evil.'" So "of course" the 5:29 Podhoretz was wrong. It goes without saying!
Look, I've already spent too much time trying to untangle your comments. Enough already.
- Podhoretz: I'm flattered...
...to be the subject of such close reading, but in this case, my friend, youreally don't understand a word of what I said. In some cases I was summarizing your argument. In some I was discussing my own. In some I was stating truisms, as in saying that if research is evil it's even more evil if the government is involved in it. But I am not convinced, as you are, that the research is evil. Just because I state the position, I am not advocating it. I am merely trying to establish the context of the discussion.
But enough. I don't get why disputation has put you in such a foul temper. We can agree to disagree, but since I either don't understand what you're saying or you don't understand what I'm saying, then maybe we should agree to agree.
How's the baby? Mine's adorable.
- Ponnuru: Excellent
Just the outcome I've been seeking. The baby is spectacularly lovely (as, based on the pictures I've seen, is yours) and, today, on her first flights, well-behaved. Perhaps a play date is in the future? Conservative children can have play dates, right? (I think she's conservative. She smiled at a picture of Ronald Reagan in her mother's office.)