Saturday, March 26, 2005

Morality and Reality

In today's New York Times op-ed section, columnist David Brooks (free subscription required) claims that the arguments on both sides of the Terri Schiavo debate are flawed. Social conservatives insist that all human life is of equal value and warn of the dangers involved in ascribing greater worth to some individuals on the basis of their ability to function on higher levels than others. "The true bright line is not between lives," he writes, "but between life and death"

While recognizing the moral force of this line of thinking, Brooks says that its flaw lies in that "for most of us, especially in these days of advanced medical technology, it is hard to ignore distinctions between different modes of living. In some hospital rooms, there are people living forms of existence that upon direct contact do seem even worse than death." A further weakness, according to Brooks, is the fact that the majority of Americans believe in some kind of life beyond death in which case it's not necessary to "cling ferociously to this life." "Why not allow the soul to ascend to whatever is in store for it?" This is to resort to the same kind of pragmatism he later criticizes liberals for. (Unfortunately, I've heard Christians use the same argument, one that if consistently applied could be used to justify the murder of any believer experiencing adversity).

Social liberals, on the other hand, defend the right of each individual or family to determine for themselves when life is no longer worth living."They don't emphasize the bright line between life and death; they describe a continuum between a fully lived life and a life that by the sort of incapacity Terri Schiavo has suffered, is mere existence." Brooks accurately notes:
The central weakness of the liberal case is that it is morally thin. Once you say that it is up to individuals or families to draw their own line 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.
What begins as an appealing notion - that life and death are joined by a continuum - becomes vapid mush, because we are all invited to punt when it comes time to do the hard job of standing up for common principles, arguing right and wrong, and judging those who make bad decisions.
I agree with Brooks that the liberal argument is flawed. It is self-referentially incoherent in that it denies the existence of objective moral truths in which case the appeal to end Terri's life on the grounds that it is the merciful and right thing to do is undercut. Where Brooks errs, however, is in claiming that the pro-life argument is flawed as well. He has not identified a flaw in the argument. Rather, he has described the difficulty we often face in consistently applying a pro-life ethic. It doesn't follow from the fact that we find a particular course of action hard, that that action is not right. The fault doesn't lie in the argument but in us.

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