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Relativism and Schiavo

David Brooks has an interesting column out on the Schiavo case. He makes, however, a common error of the cultural conservative in conflating a principle of freedom with a principle of relativism. People normally don't find this confusing when you talk about things other than sex or death. The Go Fug Yourself people are not being non-judgmental about fashion, and certainly don't think there are no objective standards by which fashion choices may be judged. Nevertheless, I take it that they don't think celebrities should be legally prohibited from wearing fugly attire, should they choose to do so. This is liberalism. Brooks thinks the liberal view on the Schiavo case contains no moral principles. I would say, rather, that each liberal's view contains two principles.

One is a principle about how society should govern itself in regard to these dilemmas. The answer: According to individual choice as determined, in cases of controversy, by the law. The other is the principle about what you would choose for yourself (or, rather, what would you have those who care about you choose for you) under the circumstances. My choice would be to die with some measure of dignity rather than endure an indefinite and ghastly pseudo-life. But I see no reason to think this choice should be forced onto other people. When the cultural conservative wants to argue the merits of his (presumably "faith-based" as the saying goes) alternative view, I'm happy to debate. Worry about "turning this country into a theocracy," (though overblown in any case) is not a worry about "moral arguments" but about inappropriate efforts to instantiate outcomes through coercion rather than persuasion.

March 26, 2005 | Permalink

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Comments

MY, what is particularly hysterical is that these are the same people who believe we should spread freedom to other countries by invading them. Yet when people exercise their freedom in a way they don't like, they dismiss it as relativism. They're probably too stupid to see the utter innanity of their position.

Posted by: Dan the Man | Mar 26, 2005 1:52:08 AM

Brooks' definitions are all over the place, and have little connection to reality. Also, I would think that most people agree that live have intrinsic value. They differ on what they consider life and the amount of human agency they can accept. In a sense, do we live vs. do we have a life?

I don't think he is accurately representing social liberals at all. I think quality of life is actually a less important "core belief" than individual automony (Matt's principle of freedom), although I might just be confused here. Social conservatives are being wonderfully authentic, however, in terms of working within a extremely hierarchical framework of being. Perhaps this explains some of the freaky Terri-as-her-parents
-child-over-Terri-as-her-husband's-spouse stuff that's been popping up, though it might be simply a function of the specific dynamics, and in some alternate universe these same folks are arguing from the sancity of marriage . . . except I have a lot of trouble seeing that. Maybe just a failure of imagination.

Posted by: Dan S. | Mar 26, 2005 1:56:01 AM

I meant "lives have intrinsic values . . ."
and "a less important 'core belief' in this case than . . ."
blah.

Posted by: Dan S. | Mar 26, 2005 1:58:06 AM

His usual venom concerning liberals, based on a dishonest satement of the fact situation.

Maybe philosophers understand the term differently, but his use of "vitalism" is exactly the opposite of the definition used by historians of science.

Posted by: Roger Bigod | Mar 26, 2005 2:10:13 AM

The most dishonest thing Brooks does is to frame this affair as a contest between liberals and conservatives.

Only a small fraction of the public is pushing to keep the body of Terri Schiavo alive no matter what.

Posted by: bad Jim | Mar 26, 2005 2:55:23 AM

Brooks missed the point when he characterized the social liberal position as amoral. The tube was removed because the courts decided that based on the limited available evidence, this was Terry Schaivo's will. This was not an amoral judgment. The principle is respect for the autonomy of the patient. The courts may have gotten the medical facts wrong, or they may have misread TS's intentions, but there is more than just legal procedure at stake here.

Posted by: Bill Gardner | Mar 26, 2005 3:24:13 AM

The most dishonest thing Brooks does is to frame this affair as a contest between liberals and conservatives.

Although that's not a bad thing, given that the 'conservatives' in this fight are, for the most part, batshit insane fundie assholes whose 'culture of life' extends to threats of violence. Makes a change from facile polarisations in which 'liberal' is the supposed marginalising insult.

Posted by: ahem | Mar 26, 2005 3:52:05 AM

"there is more than just legal procedure at stake here."

And legal procedure is a VERY important thing, the most basci safeguard of our rights. The 1st and 14th amendments, for example, ultimately boil down to mere "legal oprocedure." Functioning legal procedure is what keeps the government from arbitrarily torturing or killing us. Binding the government in chains of legal procedure is what keeps it from becoming tyranny.

Posted by: rea | Mar 26, 2005 6:13:07 AM

Brooks just wasted some very valuable real estate.

What did he call those of us who are standing back in horror as a fight between a husband and his in-laws has boiled over into "The Passion of the Terri"? "Morally thin?"

Brooks can go fug himself.

Posted by: def | Mar 26, 2005 7:19:36 AM

"Instantiate"? I declare, my vocabulary grows larger by the day reading Matt's blog. The man is just chewing up dictionaries and spitting out vocabularies.

Posted by: serial catowner | Mar 26, 2005 8:11:53 AM

"He makes, however, a common error of the cultural conservative in conflating a principle of freedom with a principle of relativism."
You misuse the term "error" IMO. Brooks may be an oaf but he's not ignorant. Or you need a term that doesn't ascribe motive.

Posted by: John Isbell | Mar 26, 2005 8:39:05 AM

John I., what do you mean? No coffee yet . . . brain slow . . .

Also, I suspect for a lot of people, core beliefs aren't as directly implicated as Brooks would suggest in his con vs. lib framework - a lot of it has to do with narrative. Do you think that Mr. Schiavo (all this Terri and Michael stuff disturbs me) beat his wife, and is now trying to kill her so he can take her money and enjoy life with his new family? More soap opera and court tv - Scott Peterson redux, except of being with (unborn) child she is functionally an unborn child - than Pope and moral philosophy . . .

My side keeps getting called amoral, whatever it is! Atheists, liberals, whatever. Geez, eventually I'm gonna start believing it . . .

I think we need a linguistic moratorium on a fairly large number of words, relativism being quite high on the list, at least until people can use them appropriately.

Posted by: Dan S. | Mar 26, 2005 8:53:26 AM

David Brooks faces a daunting task: to remain conservative enough to justify his hiring as an affirmative-action conservative, while at the same time retaining his reputation for being interesting and thoughtful. In the world of Tom Delay and George Bush I don't see how he can possibly succeed.

Posted by: John Emerson | Mar 26, 2005 9:04:49 AM

First, Brooks never said the left is amoral. He said their views are premised on a "thin morality" that often devolves into a question of mere personal preference.

Second, Brooks acknowledges that both sides have flawed arguments. Why do none you acknowledge that?

Third, this entire affair is tragic. I fail to understand why either side's substantive views should be ridiculed.

Fourth, many in the comment section fail to address the most important question: how does our society want to treat the most vulnerable among us? Talking about the putative motives of the right, or how boorish they are, or what a bunch of hypocrites they are, really obscures the issue.

Posted by: jk | Mar 26, 2005 9:18:08 AM

"First, Brooks never said the left is amoral. He said their views are premised on a "thin morality" that often devolves into a question of mere personal preference."

Yes, this is classic Brooks. Shakes your hand and smiles as he gut-punches you.

Posted by: Dan S. | Mar 26, 2005 9:24:55 AM

so what does Brooks get wrong when he says: "Once you say that it is up to individuals or families to draw their own lines separating life from existence, and reasonable people will differ, then you are taking a fundamental issue out of the realm of morality and into the realm of relativism and mere taste."

Posted by: jk | Mar 26, 2005 9:35:42 AM

While it wasn't much of a column, I do think that a lot of liberals leaned too heavily on the legal-procedure argument. That may be a moral argument of sorts (in that it's immoral to try and undermine the authority of the justice system on which our rights depend), but it's not specifically about the morality or non-morality of removing the feeding tube.

As the letter on Steve Sailer's site points out, what the Schiavo case basically comes down to is that Michael Schiavo could afford a better lawyer than the parents at the trial level, and once the trial establishes the "facts," the results of the appeal are usually a foregone conclusion. Well, say I, that's the way it goes; the legal system has flaws, including the fact that it favors the side with the better lawyer, and as a matter of morality we should still respect the results of the courts (because the alternative -- ignoring any decision we don't like -- is far worse). But I don't think the results of the court case says much about whether it's morally right or wrong for the tube to be removed, any more than the result of the O.J. trial says that it's morally right for O.J. to be a free man.

In other words, yes, respect for the rule of law demands that we respect the decision to take the tube out. Yes, that is a moral position in itself. But it did seem to me that a lot of liberals weren't taking a position on whether it was morally right to take the tube out, or were acting as though taking the tube out was the best thing in and of itself without really explaining why. Of course, that may be that liberals, unlike pro-tube conservatives, were humble enough to admit that we who didn't know the Schiavos and Schindlers don't really know the facts of the case.

Posted by: M.A. | Mar 26, 2005 9:36:38 AM

My choice would be to die with some measure of dignity rather than endure an indefinite and ghastly pseudo-life. But I see no reason to think this choice should be forced onto other people.

I could have written these words, too. My only problem with what's going on here, is: how can we be certain that the choice being taken for Terri isn't being forced on her?

Answer: we can't. That's where the real divide comes into play between the two schools of thought Brooks is talking about. He concedes the social conservative standard is flawed (as is what he describes as the liberal standard), and he's correct in that concession: nothing's perfect.

Still, when it comes down to it, what's transpired here, what passes for "law" is the various courts' acceptance of the husband's word over that of the parents.

It's not that there aren't many people of the social conservative ilk who can't accept the desireability of dying over living life as a vegeable. Many (like me) can.

Sullivan had some interesting words yesterday from some Jesuit about the how obsessing over the maintenance of physical life against all reason can go against, frankly, common sense Christian (among other philosophies) morality.

It's just that we do hold there is something sacred about human life itself, and we regard its inviolability as a necessary safety check against tyranny, and we think, absent something in writing, society ought to err on the side of not starving somebody.

My own messy, flawed compromise would be something along the line of: don't starve a person (ever) unless they've filled out forms (and even then require the passage of some time in a PVT, to insure it really is a PVT). But a ventilator could be shut off after, say, a year, if permission is granted (or a request is made) by next of kin.

I think really what we need is some better rules.

So, I think social conservatives ought not to engage in ad hoc extralegalisms, I think rather some more sensible ground rules should be hashed out to deal with is likely to become a more common problem, as life-sustaining technology grows more sophisticated. Social conservatives, most of all, are concerned about the slippery slope. Liberals, for their part, should be willing to cooperate in sensible compromises with us (after all, what if our fears about slippery slopes were actually justifed? Y'all wouldn't really want to live in such a world, would you?).

Posted by: P.B. Almeida | Mar 26, 2005 9:53:16 AM

"so what does Brooks get wrong when he says: "Once you say that it is up to individuals or families to draw their own lines separating life from existence, and reasonable people will differ, then you are taking a fundamental issue out of the realm of morality and into the realm of relativism and mere taste." "

Well, for starters, saying that "it is up to individuals or families to draw their own lines separating life from existence, and reasonable people will differ" does not (contra Brooks after the comma in the above quote) imply that there are no moral facts; rather, it is an acknowledgement that if there are moral facts it is hard to know what they are, and none of us should presume to impose our opinion as to what they are on others.

Posted by: another dan | Mar 26, 2005 9:55:39 AM

"Fourth, many in the comment section fail to address the most important question: how does our society want to treat the most vulnerable among us?"

I see several comments that address this very concern. How will we treat these people? By conscienciously and transparently, so far as we possibly can, according them the freedom to make their own, personal medical decisions. Reading through the history of the case, and the legal findings, the Florida courts have done that very thing for Ms. Schiavo. And they have done so while "erring on the side of life": the judge simply believes that the evidence presented, and not challenged by the Schindlers at trial, placed his decisions outside the reasonable margin for error.

I think that the most energetic of the Schindlers partisans are (unlike the Schindlers themselves, if news reports and court documents portray them correctly) so stridently and dogmatically "pro-life" that they would challenge the authority of advanced directives, or the decision of any person to refuse available, life-sustaining, medical treatment for himself even if that person was in all other circumstances called competent. (The Pope's position on this matter is that one can only do so if the procedures are "heroic". A nutrition tube through the abdominal wall would fall outside that definition, I think.)

I am not a young person, and I consider these issues intimately in regards to myself, my immediate family, and my aged parents. They are emerging from abstraction, and--helpless or not--I want my wishes (for myself) and those of my relatives (each for herself or himself) to prevail. If those wishes and the evidence for them must be debated recorded in public court, well, I'd rather avoid that, but it's the price of civilization.

The question for me is, that I do not see the saner, less arrogant members of the GOP addressing, is how we keep the most helpless among us from being dragooned into service as a rhetorical or political device to advance some larger cause, all on their party's supposed behalf?

Posted by: Brian C.B. | Mar 26, 2005 10:05:52 AM

Poppycock.

I won't concede a thing to the religious right in their so-called reverence for life, because they don't believe in any such thing. They wiggle out of the corner it paints them by talking about justified killing. From Brooks:

as Robert P. George of Princeton puts it, should be, "Always to care, never to kill."

Never to kill? Liars.
Bush has signed death warrants. But those deserved to die.
Bush has started unnecessary wars resulting in innocent death. But those can be expected.
Bush can try to cut Medicaid consigning more to inadequate healthcare and premature death, but those don't count either because it wasn't his intent.

There is no morality lacking in me and possessed by the masses on their knees with their faces toward Schiavo and their backs to the truly needy.

Hypocrites.
And Brooks is a gutless apologist who wants the right to die but hasn't the courage to say so and contradict his Republican masters.

Posted by: epistemology | Mar 26, 2005 10:15:38 AM

jk:

If you want courts to judge that in this case but not that, that the sacredness of your life is forfeit, then legal judgments are a matter of taste too. Right?

A repentant Karla Faye Tucker dies and this is morality, but my mother suffering the terminal stages of her esophageal cancer ending her life is just a matter of taste, as you call it?

And when it's your family suffering pain and degradation, you will skulk over to my side of town and do what needs to be done, then slink back to your bright self-righteous morality.

jk:
Talking about the putative motives of the right, or how boorish they are, or what a bunch of hypocrites they are, really obscures the issue.

No, the hypocrisy of the religious right IS the issue. If you can't build a morality that survives the test of reality (as Bush's fetal stem cell research stance does not) then back to the drawing board.

Posted by: epistemology | Mar 26, 2005 10:26:00 AM

P.B. Almeida, you are generally one of that superb cadre of sensible, reasoning posters from the right. And to some extent, I agree with the notion of working out a more rigorous framework for these situations. That said,

I think really what we need is some better rules.

Possibly. But until those rules are worked out, a nation founded on the rule of law must abide by the existing rules. This is what many liberals and conservatives are upset about here: that Congress, the President, the governor of Florida, and the protesters have shown a disregard for the rules. What good would it do to come up with "better" rules if our federal government asserts the right to override the rules whenever it wishes?

Social conservatives, most of all, are concerned about the slippery slope.

Yes, painstakingly working out, over years of analysis in the courts, that Mrs. Schiavo would not have wanted the feeding tube puts us on the slippery slope to Soylent Green. Except for how the case reinforces individual rights over those of the state. But there is no slippery slope to worry about in Congress voiding legitimately-arrived-at court decisions it doesn't like, or protestors calling for the death of judges trying to uphold the laws as they are currently written? Or in the governor of Florida considering using armed agents of the state to defy judicial rulings upheld all the way to the Supreme Court? Yes, there are unjust laws, and people definitely need to fix them. But what we're seeing is a disregard for the principle of law.

Posted by: mds | Mar 26, 2005 10:29:32 AM

The largest disagreement I've had with this whole process is that the legal hurdle of "clear and convincing evidence" is so easy to clear. Sorry, but somebody's years-old memories of a short conversation just isn't clear and convincing evidence. Hell, very recent eye-witness testimony has been shown to be nortoriously unreliable. If I ever get called for a high-profile jury trial, it'll be a race as to which side tosses me first; the defense for putting so much credence in circumstantial evidence, or the prosecution for viewing eyewitness testimony so skeptically.

Posted by: Will Allen | Mar 26, 2005 10:33:31 AM

PB Almeida:

My own messy, flawed compromise would be something along the line of: don't starve a person (ever) unless they've filled out forms (and even then require the passage of some time in a PVT, to insure it really is a PVT). But a ventilator could be shut off after, say, a year, if permission is granted (or a request is made) by next of kin.

Your implication that Terri Schiavo is starving is false as I assume you know. She is painlessly dying from uremia, due to dehydration.

Either people have a right to die when their lives are painful and degrading or they don't. You take as a default position that most of us would rather live like Terri than be allowed to die. That is clearly false, so why the need for forms if wishes are clear? The courts, most of your fellow citizens, and I disagree with you.

As for leaving people on a ventilator for a year: You obviously have never seen what a month on a ventilator does to people. Not to mention the practical impossibility of creating vast ventilator farms to accomodate the numbers we would be talking about. When Brooks says of conservative belief that it doesn't accord with the reality we see he was apparently thinking of you.

Posted by: epistemology | Mar 26, 2005 10:40:31 AM

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