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Relativism and Choice

Re-reading David Brooks' column and my response to the charge of relativism, it occurs to me that there was something else I wanted to say. The dilemma we face as a society is not, I think, that (as Brooks has it) the liberal and conservative views on this are both half-right. Instead, I think the problem is that the liberal view on this has a structural feature that leads liberals to become more self-righteous than we ought to be.

I described the liberal as having a two-stage view about end of life issues. First, comes something like the "life as continuum" view Brooks attributes to us. Second, comes a principle of free choice -- I think that I should make my own decision on this, but that my view should not control others, though I may try to persuade others that my view is correct (non-relativism). The problem here is that I think a lot of liberals don't recognize that the second principle really does depend on something akin to the first. If you hold views about the sanctity of life and the doing/allowing distinction that lead you to the conclusion that failing to keep alive someone who could be kept alive is the equivalent to murder, then adopting a principle of free choise at the second level makes no sense. An absolutist view on the first question requires an absolutist view on the second question.

I don't think liberals should adopt the absolutist view, but I do think liberals need to see it for what it is. Oftentimes in cases like these I think liberals see ourselves as being more generous to our opponents than we really are. "After all," we say, "if you want to be kept alive in a persistent vegetative state, we won't stop you, why are you trying to impose your preferences on us?" And of course we won't stop "culture of life" types from keeping themselves in their persistent vegetative states. But this neglects the fact that people who would want to endure such a state indefinitely probably do so for a reason, like the aforementioned view that failing to do so would be like murder. If that's what you think, then freedom is a non-started, just as we don't regard the prohibition on gunning random people down in the street to be a restriction of liberty in a meaningful sense.

As I say, I think liberals have the right policy conclusion here. But we would do well to keep in mind that our disagreement with our opponents really is a disagreement about deep moral issues (in what sense is life sacred?) and not really about liberty or lack thereof. This is the flipside of asking conservative to see that liberal/libertarian preferences for choices in these matters isn't a manifestation of relativism. The assymetries here, and the failure of many people on both sides to appreciate the, leads to a public debate that's a lot more vicious than it ought to be.

March 26, 2005 | Permalink

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» Relativism and Freedom from CommonSenseDesk
Matt Yglesias responds to Brooks. UPDATE More from Matt on Brooks. [Read More]

Tracked on Mar 26, 2005 11:38:09 AM

» Thinking How from Unfogged
Matt Yglesias has up an interesting post on relativism and Schiavo case (there's also a good follow-up from John Holbo). Matt writes, I described the liberal as having a two-stage view about end of life issues. First, comes something like the "life as ... [Read More]

Tracked on Mar 27, 2005 1:23:34 PM

Comments

I think you're wrong to separate the discussion of how life is sacred and the discussion of liberty. I believe that intrusion on the dgnity of a person's autonomous live/die decisions profanes whatever sanctity life has. You've neatly separated them into a two-part discussion, but for a lot of us, they aren't separable.

Posted by: bobo brooks | Mar 26, 2005 11:23:10 AM

Matthew,
Can I ask a personal question? Have you ever personally participated in an end-of-life decision for a close family member?

My stepmother had been an integral part of our family for 25 years, but when the time came only my stepbrother had the legal authority to make the decision. I walked down the hall with him and sat next to him while he talked with the doctors, but the entire burden fell on him. It was an experience which haunted my dreams for 6 months and is physically painful to write about 3 years later.

Precocious 20-somethings who write opinion columns will naturally have to write confidently about things that don't really understand, and that is fine. But in this specific case, unless you have actually done this yourself, I suggest you shut the f*** up at this point.

Cranky

Posted by: Cranky Observer | Mar 26, 2005 11:23:50 AM

We also disagree with conservatives about the certainty we should have regarding answers to "the sanctity of life" questions, rather than about the answers to those questions. In the absense of certainty, Dems tend to prefer that the individual be allowed to make the uncertain bet - at a minimum, this is true regarding both end of life and abortion.

Posted by: SomeCallMeTim | Mar 26, 2005 11:24:05 AM

"I advocate the use of force to rescue Terri Schiavo from being starved to death.
I further advocate the killing of anyone who interferes with such rescue." -- Hal Turner.

Posted by: Al | Mar 26, 2005 11:29:17 AM

Cranky:

I seem to recall that MY's mother passed away quite recently, and that she'd been ill for a while; IIRC, he went to her funeral while I've been reading him, so that means within the last year. Maybe that doesn't change your point.

Posted by: SomeCallMeTim | Mar 26, 2005 11:30:11 AM

"If you want to know just how sick you have to be for the U.S. Congress to care about you, now you know."
-Jon Stewart

(Ignoring, of course, the TX law Bush signed.)

Posted by: Al | Mar 26, 2005 11:30:18 AM

Yeah, Cranky is right. Only people he things are 'experienced' should ever open their mouth on anything. That means, anyone who hasn't had my experience and reacted completely the same way I did can't talk about anything.

In other words, I don't need to address anyone's arguments, 'cause if they don't agree with me, they should shut up.

Posted by: Al | Mar 26, 2005 11:36:36 AM

Nooners shows how discourse should be held:

Best line: "Those who are half in love with death [A majority of the American people who believe the federal government should not be interfering here!] will only become more red-fanged and ravenous."

Runner up: "Once you "know" that--that human life is not so special after all--then everything is possible, and none of it is good. When a society comes to believe that human life is not inherently worth living, it is a slippery slope to the gas chamber. You wind up on a low road that twists past Columbine and leads toward Auschwitz. Today that road runs through Pinellas Park, Fla."

Third place: "On Tuesday James Carville's face was swept with a sneer so convulsive you could see his gums as he damned the Republicans trying to help Mrs. Schiavo. It would have seemed demonic if he weren't a buffoon."

Posted by: Al | Mar 26, 2005 11:38:34 AM

"We also disagree with conservatives about the certainty we should have regarding answers to "the sanctity of life" questions,"

Ah, right. If you're in doubt about whether a life should be protected, it's just natural to let it be terminated. Because, if you're not sure whether or not somebody is committing murder, the natural thing is to allow them to proceed with what they're doing.

Posted by: Brett Bellmore | Mar 26, 2005 11:46:15 AM

I think this is a really good post and an important point. Of course, that's probably because I've believed for a long time that a crucial first step for progressives to regain their political strength is to really understand and accept that deep moral values that carry considerable emotional weight are wrapped up in many of the "culture issues" that the right has done such a good job of exploiting. Only when we understand that for a significant share of people who otherwise have a good deal in common with us, these values are real, and when we can stop dismissing their positions as foolish superstition or the result of being hoodwinked by corporate villians or puritanical clerics, can we begin to hope to have a real productive conversation with them about other issues where we do have common ground. I'm not saying we have to agree with them. About many things I certainly don't. But giving them credit for their belief in and reasoning behind their views is essential to having any kind of conversation with them about anything.

Cranky, I'm deeply sorry about the experience you went through. It sounds truly horrible in a way I hope never to fully understand. If it does not offend you, I would like to keep your family in my prayers.

Posted by: flip | Mar 26, 2005 12:00:49 PM

MY doens't know shit about morality. Morality is having nearly 1 in 5 kids in the U.S. living in poverty (number went down under Clinton), the highest infant mortality rate in the developed world, the number of abortions going up (after going down under Clinton), and adding $1.3 million in new debt every minute (compared to surpluses under Clinton). You immoral Dems will never learn.

Posted by: Al | Mar 26, 2005 12:29:25 PM

I am amazed that nothing is being said about the fact that the medical criteria for determining that someone is dead is zero brain electrical activity - flatlining. If someone has suffered a severe injury, for example, and has signed an organ donor card, the hospital will declare him to be dead and proceed to harvest the organs once he is found to have no brain activity. As I understand it, Mrs. Shiavo has been dead, by this criteria, for many years. Are we now to see the bug exterminator proposing that hospitals immediately cease organ donor programs? Or, will that be left to Karl Rove to propose? Isn't everyone aware by now that most human bodies can be kept physically "alive" indefinitely by artificial means?

Posted by: Vaughn Hopkins | Mar 26, 2005 12:31:33 PM

I don't think that's right. I don't think an absolutist view on the first requires and absolutist view on the second. Now if we don't know the wishes of the individual being kept alive, that would apply, but not when we know the wishes of the individual. We all have a right to kill ourselves if we want and under whatever circumstances we deem appropriate, don't we? Unless you bring some religious superstitions into it...then you can no longer reason anything out...it must be dogmatically accepted and there is no argument about it...ordained by "god"

Posted by: Oleary25 | Mar 26, 2005 12:34:39 PM

Stalker Al, the US has the highest infant mortality because we count stuff that other countries don't.

Let's say a woman has a premature birth of a 4 1/2 month old. The doctors work to save the baby, treat it, etc... and it dies the next day.

In the US, this is considered an infant death.

In other countries, this is considered a miscarriage and is not counted toward infant mortality statistics.

For what that's worth.

Posted by: Jaybird | Mar 26, 2005 12:35:04 PM

Are we back on the problems of "public reason" yet again? Of course the debates on abortion and end-of-life issues are passionate precisely because they are, on both sides, motivated by deep moral values. I don't quite see how respecting my opponents position because of its source makes consensus easier to achieve; although it might make agreement on other issue easier. But we are not talking about SS or taxes or Iran today.

And to be honest, liberals can end up conceding too much, example Ohio gay-marriage laws, because they don't justify their values transcendentally, and don't counter their opponents committment and passion with an equal fervor. As MY thought about Ohio, what the hey.

Cranky, you probably didn't know better, but MY has gone thru this specific experience (his mother chose to cease treatment), and you should probably apologize.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Mar 26, 2005 12:36:06 PM

Because, if you're not sure whether or not somebody is committing murder, the natural thing is to allow them to proceed with what they're doing.

So when do we become sure? The scrutiny of twenty-two judges and testimony of husband and friends leaves Brett Bellmore, whose participation in the court findings I must have missed, unsure. Therefore, attempting to abide by what has been determined again and again to be the desire of the patient is murder. Obviously, even if Mrs. Schiavo had left written instructions, attempting to carry them out by withholding invasive life support would still be murder. If she were conscious and refusing the care, at least it would only be the mortal sin of suicide. Concerning which the Justice Department has also been trying to trample federalism into the muck.

Posted by: mds | Mar 26, 2005 12:38:16 PM

I agree, good post. but in reality, isn't the difference even narrower in this case? Most of the "culture of life" people don't entirely deny the weight of free choice: they just have a very high standard (conscious decision, explicit living will) for recognzing it when it comes to a decision to end life support in the case of someone who could otherwise survive indefinitely without pain. Whereas the other side values free choice so highly they want a process, in this case judicial, to come up with the best approximation of what that free choice might have been, and then carry it out. Both are respectable moral positions. Reducing either to some caricature is both not very useful and pretty bad politics. Matt, as he often does, thinks himself out of such cul de sacs, despite the inevitable abuse from his own comments section.

Posted by: rd | Mar 26, 2005 12:40:00 PM

Mds, my point wasn't to address the specific case, but rather the more general thrust of "Tim"'s remark. Which wasn't, after all, limited to the Schiavo case.

Posted by: Brett Bellmore | Mar 26, 2005 12:47:36 PM

Brooks and MY accept the wrong premises here. The compulsory life types are not social conservatives, they are religious radicals whos theology is at best suspect and more accurately described as perverse (but that's their business in a democratic republic) and whose consequent policy prescriptions will undermine civil society.

Posted by: Pudentilla | Mar 26, 2005 12:56:54 PM

But this neglects the fact that people who would want to endure such a state indefinitely probably do so for a reason, like the aforementioned view that failing to do so would be like murder. If that's what you think, then freedom is a non-started, just as we don't regard the prohibition on gunning random people down in the street to be a restriction of liberty in a meaningful sense.

Horsepucky Matthew.

Libertarians and liberals do not ignore the fact that "cult of lifers" think that removal of life support is murder. We simply disagree and have decades of law and policy on our side. Rather than dismissing the claims of people like the Schindlers, we are saying that the law disagrees and it is that simple. The law does not equate gunning someone down with this mess and the law rules.

You are correct that it becomes a "nonstart[er]", but intractable situations are everywhere on the scales of morality.

I would have liked to have been in your ethics classes at Harvard just to see how somewhat simple concepts can get so twisted by dubious insight.

Posted by: def | Mar 26, 2005 1:01:19 PM

One of the more severe problems we are having in our society at the moment is the concerted effort to push all people into little immature political boxes tweaked down to each breath we take.

Red. Blue. Democrat. Republican. Left. Right. Liberal. Conservative. Far Left. Far Right. Us. Them. Left religion. Right religion. Superior. Inferior.

Frankly, it's a SICK exercise. And it is getting out of hand.

I speak as an individual. I decide what I think.

Posted by: Movie Guy | Mar 26, 2005 1:07:33 PM

Like the Clinton impeachment, the Schiavo case has allowed a lot of people who should know better to prove that they are out-of-control illiberal hacks whose only opinion is the opposite of the liberal opinion. Even most evangelical Christians disagree with the Bush cynics on this one.

Posted by: John Emerson | Mar 26, 2005 1:11:12 PM

The other's side deep moral position:

'Jesus/The Pope told me that life begins at conception, so I want to ban abortions for everyone.'

I'm suppposed to "respect" this type absolute mysticism ?

Posted by: Ron | Mar 26, 2005 1:14:07 PM

I agree with you to some extent Matt. In thses debates, we sometimes hear a lot of arguments whose central premise is something like: "you don't have a right to impose your judgments on me." But that premise is of limited plausibility, because most of us are of the view that there are at least some judgments that a majority does have a right to impose on a minority through legislation, and so the question is which judgments are of that kind. And I think most people would be of the opinion that the fact that those views may be in part religiously motivated is not in itself a reason for disqualification. We can't avoid debating the correctness or incorrectness of the judgment.

But in this case, it is hard to speak of "our opponents" in the debate as conservatives, and assume that they line up against some other integral position called "liberalism", since there are a wide variety of different, mutually incompatible arguments and views about what our laws and practice ought to be that have been offered on the pro-reinsertion side. Here is just a smattering of such views:

A. Terry Schiavo's life is a supreme value. It's value inheres in biological life itself, and does not depend on whether she is conscious. We have an overriding duty to protect and preserve that life. Even Terry Schiavo should not have a right to end her own life.

B. Terry Schiavo's conscious existence is a supreme value. The value of her life does not inhere in biological life alone, but depends on whether she is conscious. We have an overriding duty to protect and preserve her conscious existence, and even Terry Schiavo should not have a right to end it. In this case, because we cannot say for sure whether she is conscious or not, we must err on the side of preservation of life.

C. Terry Schiavo's conscious existence is a supreme value. The value of her life does not inhere in biological life alone, but depends on whether she is conscious. We have an overriding duty to protect and preserve her conscious existence, and even Terry Schiavo should not have a right to end it. In this case, it does seem likely that she is no longer conscious, and so we have no positive duty to preserve her life. But if anyone is willing to assume the burden of care, we should allow them to do so.

D. Terry Schiavo has an unalienable right to life, whether or not she is conscious, a right that society has a duty to protect and preserve. Only Terry Schiavo has the right to allow or seek her own death. But, because we are unsure about whether she did or did not authorize the cessation of care in these particular circumstances, we must err on the side of preservation.

E. Terry Schiavo has an unalienable right to conscious existence, a right that society has a duty to protect and preserve. Only Terry Schiavo has the right to allow or seek the cessation of her own conscious existence. But again, because we are unsure about whether she did or did not authorize the cessation of care in these particular circumstances, we must err on the side of preservation.

Certainly there are other arguments at work on the pro-reinsertion side as well.

I won't pretend to speak for "liberals" collectively, but personally, I reject all of thse arguments:

I reject A because it gives too much weight to biological life alone, and also shows insufficient regard for the value of an individual's own estimation of the value of her life and interest in determining its course;

I reject B for the latter reason that it shows insufficient regard for the value of an individual's own estimation of the value of her life and interest in determining its course, and because it overstates the uncertainty about whether Terry Schiavo is conscious;

I reject C because it again shows insufficient regard for the value of an individual's own estimation of the value of her life and interest in determining its course, and shows excessive regard for the estimations and whims of other parties;

I reject D and E because they (i) overstate the uncertainty about Terry Schiavo's wishes and give insufficient regard for the privileged position of the spouse in a marriage to make the crucial determination in the presence of uncertainty.

Posted by: Dan Kervick | Mar 26, 2005 1:14:32 PM

On economic issues, Democrats and some liberals waste a lot of brain cells trying to characterize their dispute with conservatives, trying to make sense of conservative calls for "smaller" government, and the like. Then, they wonder where the conservative "liberatarians" are, when a conservative administration takes authoritarian measures, and the majority of voters remain in ignorance of huge redistributions of wealth and risk.

Now, we have Matthew asking us to "respect" the moral seriousness of "pro-life" conservatives.

Matthew needs to wake and smell the coffee. Conservatives, by and large, adopt the arguments, which they use in political dispute, for their utility and not for their content. Their political arguments are opaque with regard to their ultimate goals, for the obvious reason that they could not achieve their goals in a democracy, if they were honest about what those goals are.

I am sure there are many in the "pro-life" movement, who are utterly sincere, but the sincerity of fools should not be "respected." It should be ridiculed. Any other response in partisan debate is a dangerous concession that "they" are motivated by moral values and "we" are not. In the analysis of the November elections, "we" (Democrats, liberals) were outmanuevered on this score; it is not the right position to occupy on the field.)

A large part of the "pro-life" movement, including the President, the Florida Governor, and House Majority Leader have no principles, but a lust for power. Their sincere followers are fools for believing otherwise. The hypocrites should be exposed, and the fools should be ridiculed.

The goals of the Right are purely authoritarian, and their respect for the sanctity of life is a pretense. As a principle, absolute regard for "life" is ludicrous and unsustainable. It is cows wandering the marketplaces of starving India.

Posted by: Bruce Wilder | Mar 26, 2005 1:21:13 PM

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