Commentary Magazine


Intellectuals

To the Editor:

Gertrude Himmelfarb’s discussion of my book, Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline, is intelligent, responsible, and very interesting [“Judging Richard Posner,” February]. Though there is much in it with which I disagree, there is only one point on which immediate correction seems required. It is her statement that I argued in an earlier book “for the selling of infants (though not older children) to pedophiles.” I have never argued for such a thing. What is true is that I have long been critical of the way in which we regulate the adoption market, and I have suggested that adoption agencies therefore be permitted to experiment with offering a woman contemplating an abortion a fee to carry the fetus to term and put the child up for adoption.

A natural objection is that someone might want to adopt (“buy”) a child for improper purposes. To that my reply is that one’s legal duties to a child are independent of how the child was obtained—whether naturally, through adoption, or (for that matter) by theft. But as an additional safeguard I suggested that no sale of parental rights over non-infants be permitted. The danger that pedophiles, who rarely have a sexual interest in newborn infants, would attempt to obtain parental rights over an infant for purposes of abusing it when it is older seems slight. In any event, the method of adoption would not license the adopter to engage in criminal activity against the adopted child.

Richard A. Posner
Chicago, Illinois

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To the Editor:

Gertrude Himmelfarb writes that Richard A. Posner “criticizes ‘academic moralists’ who torment themselves with questions of ethics and justice.” But Ronald Dworkin and other moral philosophers whom Posner criticizes are not “tormented”; they are complacent and arrogant. Rather than struggle with moral issues, they attempt to prove that the only valid position on questions like abortion just happens to coincide with the left-liberal views they espouse. Posner does not think that philosophy is the source of morality, and convincingly argues that what the academic moral philosophers do is not useful, particularly to judges.

Richard Posner is a freethinker and moral relativist, but not, as Gertrude Himmelfarb suggests, a vulgar or extreme one. I do not see him as someone who rejects the prevailing moral views of our society.

Jon Jewett
Richmond, Virginia

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To the Editor:

Near the conclusion of her masterful and totally convincing critique, Gertrude Himmelfarb politely refers to Richard Posner as “one of our most distinguished public intellectuals.” Distinguished? She has just skinned him alive. As she demonstrates, Posner is an extreme moral relativist who has neither internal compass nor external mooring. By asserting the unreality of right or wrong, he sets himself up as the judge of what is right and wrong. Like Lucifer in Paradise Lost, has he not committed the ultimate sin of pride and hubris?

Ernest W. Lefever
Ethics and Public Policy
Center
Washington, D.C.

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To the Editor:

Gertrude Himmelfarb justifiably takes Richard Posner to task for, among other things, portraying Lionel Trilling as a critic torn between “the moralist and aesthetic camps,” when Trilling is more accurately described, in her words, as “the prototype of the moral critic.” She goes too far, however, in asserting that Trilling “coined the term ‘moral imagination.’ ”

The phrase occurs in a famous passage of Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. Lamenting the ill treatment of Marie Antoinette, Burke comments that “the age of chivalry” has been replaced by a time of “sophisters, economists, and calculators.” Now, Burke fears,

All the decent drapery of life is to be rudely torn off. All the super-added ideas, furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination, which the heart owns, and the understanding ratifies, as necessary to cover the defects of our naked shivering nature, and to raise it to dignity in our own estimation, are to be exploded as a ridiculous, absurd, and antiquated fashion.

Trilling might have run across the phrase either here or in Irving Babbitt’s Democracy and Leadership (1924), the third chapter of which is titled “Burke and the Moral Imagination.”

James Seaton
Michigan State University
East Lansing, Michigan

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Gertrude Himmelfarb writes:

I thank Richard A. Posner for his gracious remarks about my essay. His demurral, however, to my statement about “the selling of infants (though not older children) to pedophiles” is not persuasive. He says that he never argued for such a thing. But he did argue, and not so long ago, and not casually or facetiously (in Sex and Reason, 1992), for baby-selling, which he renamed “the sale of parental rights.” He qualified this only by prohibiting the sale of non-infants so as to prevent them from being used by pedophiles. The sale of infants should be permitted, he wrote, because “very few child abusers have a sexual interest in infants; very few would acquire an infant for the purpose of being able to abuse it five or ten or fifteen years later.” I think my statement, therefore, is entirely accurate.

I agree with Jon Jewett (and with Judge Posner) that many “academic moralists” are “complacent and arrogant” in their reflexively “left-liberal” views. But this does not mean, as Judge Posner and evidently Mr. Jewett think, that philosophers, academic or not, have nothing to say on the subject of morality. On the contrary, morality has had pride of place in philosophy. Else we would have to rule out the profession of Plato and Aristotle, Kant and Hegel. As for the claim that Judge Posner is in accord with “the prevailing moral views of our society,” I do not think he himself thinks that. My impression is that Judge Posner regards himself as a maverick, a brave soul defying conventional opinion. Does “our society” believe, as he does, that it is only our “local standards” that deem the Holocaust, human sacrifice, infanticide, slavery, or—for that matter—baby-selling to be immoral?

I apologize to Ernest Lefever for not making it clear that when I called Judge Posner, toward the end of my critique, “one of our most distinguished public intellectuals,” I was being ironic. In fact, I am not sure that, post-Posner, one can call anyone a “public intellectual” without being ironic.

Finally, James Seaton is quite right to take issue with my statement that Lionel Trilling “coined the term ‘moral imagination,’ ” and to remind us of Edmund Burke’s use of that phrase. Having quoted Burke to that effect in at least two of my books, where I explicitly related his usage to Trilling’s, I am, of course, aware of Burke’s priority. In making my point about Trilling, I too hastily used the shorthand “coined.” I should have said that Trilling “introduced” that phrase into our vocabulary, for it is he, and not Burke, who made us familiar with it, as a corollary to his “liberal imagination.”

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