Tuesday, April 27, 2004
Brilliant piece by Karl Keating in his daily apologetics newsletter. To subscribe, visit the Catholic Answers website.
posted by Kensy |
KARL KEATING'S E-LETTER
April 27, 2004
JEFFREY HART: AN UNCERTAIN GUIDE
Dear Friend of Catholic Answers:
After several months, I have gone back to one of my favorites, Samuel
Johnson. I am reading through 'The Rambler,' the moral essays he wrote
twice weekly between 1750 and 1752. Let me give three quotations:
1. 'Men more frequently require to be reminded than informed.' This is
why apologetics is easier than it otherwise might be. Most people have
a large but subterranean reservoir of good instincts and right
thinking. Those instincts and thoughts just have to be brought to the surface.
If everyone had to be instructed from scratch, the apologist might give
up in frustration.
2. 'Nor would ever any thing wicked, or often any thing absurd, be
undertaken or prosecuted by him who should begin every day with a serious
reflection, that he is born to die.' Johnson was not a Catholic, but he
had a Catholic appreciation of the value of an examination of
conscience, and he knew that to reflect on one's end was a particularly useful
3. And then there is a comment that should humble any writer: 'A
transition from an author's books to his conversation, is too often like an
entrance into a large city, after a distant prospect. Remotely, we see
nothing but spires of temples, and turrets of palaces, and imagine it
the residence of splendor, grandeur, and magnificence; but, when we have
passed the gates, we find it perplexed with narrow passages, disgraced
with despicable cottages, embarrassed with obstructions, and clouded
with smoke.' "
BEING WRONG ON THE RIGHT
Jeffrey Hart is professor emeritus at Dartmouth and has served for
decades as an editor of "National Review," the magazine founded by William
F. Buckley, Jr. Hart was born in 1930, received his Ph.D. from Columbia
University, and was a bit of a character at Dartmouth. One reviewer
described him as "sporting raccoon coats, using walking canes, sipping
alcohol from a flask at football games, driving gas-guzzling cars, [and
wielding] a wooden grabbing contraption used to great effect at faculty
Many years ago I knew Hart briefly, when he was a trustee of an
organization I was associated with (not Catholic Answers). Unfortunately, like
many political conservatives, Hart is a Catholic who does not subscribe
to all that is taught by the Church.
(In this he parallels Buckley, who offered heterodox opinions as long
ago as the 1960s; I have in mind in particular Buckley's contributions
to "Spectrum of Catholic Attitudes," edited by the late Robert Campbell,
In the April 19 issue of "National Review" Hart wrote a column against
the magazine's opposition to embryonic stem cell research. Hart is a
very smart man, when it comes to English literature and to his other
field of special interest, the reform of higher education. But his column
is hopelessly muddled, as pointed out in an immediate following column
written by Ramesh Ponnuru.
Hart says that "The entire NR case against stem-cell research rests,
like a great inverted pyramid, on the single assertion that these cells
are 'human beings'--a claim that is not self-evidently true. Even when
the naked eye is aided by a microscope, these cells--'zygotes,' to use
the proper terminology--do not look like human beings."
Ponnuru, who also is an editor at "National Review," had the perfect
response: "Actually, they look exactly like human beings--the way human
beings look at that particular stage of development. We all looked like
that, at that age." Ponnuru could have extended his argument by noting
that the newborn does not look like the nonagenarian, and so what? A
fetus looks more like a newborn than a newborn looks like someone in
extreme old age. In such cases outward appearances tell us little.
Hart falls back on a long-discredited line: "I think we must conclude,
if we are to use language precisely, that the single fertilized cell is
a developing or potential human being." This is half true and half
The true part is that the fertilized cell is a developing human being.
The same can be said about any later stage of human life. I have been
walking for more than half a century, and I am still a developing human
being. Some of the development is physical--I am developing more
wrinkles each year, for instance--and some is mental and some is spiritual.
(I just wish the spiritual would develop more quickly than it has!)
What is false about Hart's line is that the fertilized cell is a
"potential human being." It would be right to say that it is a "potential
adult human being," but the same can be said of a teenager. What Hart
means, of course, is that the fertilized cell, as a "potential human
being," is not yet a real human being.
If that were so, the fertilized cell would have to be something else.
What is that something else? It isn't enough to say, "I just told
you--it's a potential human being." The phrase "potential human being" means
only that a thing is not at this moment a human being but might become
one. It is like a negative sentence without a "not," and it leaves open
just what kind of being exists right now.
If the fertilized cell is not a human being but only potentially a
human being, then it is something else--something that, in the future, may
cease to be what it is and may become a human being. So what is it now?
It is not a frog, an antelope, or a cabbage. We could list thousands of
others things it is not. What we cannot list is what it is, if we
insist that the "potential human being" is not already a human being.
Hart is at a logical impasse. Either the fertilized cell is a human
being or it is something altogether different, as different as a frog, an
antelope, or a cabbage. I suspect Hart knows this perfectly well. After
all, he is a well-read and well-written man, yet he offers up an
argument so sophomoric that many sophomores would see through it.
Moving on, Hart wonders what should be done with existing lines of
embryonic stem cells. "It seems to me that the prospect of eliminating
horrible, disabling ailments justifies, morally, using cells that are
otherwise doomed," he says. "But," replies Ponnuru, "we would not kill one
five-year-old child for the certain prospect of curing cancer, let alone
the mere possibility--because the act would be intrinsically immoral."
Of course. Christianity always has taught that we may not perform an
evil act even if some great good might flow from it. To Hart, the fate of
a fertilized cell is determined by the principle that the ends justify
the means. To Ponnuru, and to the Catholic Church, the applicable
principle is that the ends do not justify the means.
In other contexts, I am sure, Hart would affirm this, but here he gets
things exactly backwards. He is not alone. This kind of poor thinking
is distressingly widespread among political conservatives, even Catholic
As late as the 1960s conservatism in America was, at least in its
theoretical constructions, largely a Catholic movement. In four decades it
has become much more secular. Many of its leaders (not just in politics
but in other fields) give scant evidence that their thinking on public
policies has been formed by twenty centuries of Christianity.
Until next time,