Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Derbism, or, the Morality of the Gut

For those who don't frequent National Review Online, the name John Derbyshire may not ring a bell. Which is a shame, because Derb is one of the more original, provocative and interesting voices on the political right. Derbyshire is a British import, and brings with him that typically pugnatious style of debate that is more common to our brothers across the pond than you see among political commentators here in the US. In a scathing review of fellow NRO contibutor Ramesh Ponnoru's latest book "The Party of Death", Derb defended abortion and euthanasia as the morality of a feeling, commonsensical people against what he called a "frigid and pitiless dogma" constructed by intellectualized nannies and schoolmarms:

Can Right to Life (hereinafter RTL) fairly be called a cult? This is a point on which I cannot make up my mind. Some of the common characteristics of culthood are missing—the Führerprinzip, for example. On the other hand, RTL has the following things in common with every cult in the world: To those inside, it appears to be a structure of perfect logical integrity, founded on unassailable philosophical principles, while to those outside—among whom, obviously, I count myself—it seems to some degree (depending on the observer’s temperament and inclinations) nutty; to some other degree (ditto) hysterical; and to some yet other degree (ditto ditto) a threat to liberty.
...
"Party of Death” makes pretty free use of slippery-slope arguments, to varying effect. Not every slope is slippery. Most of our social taboos are in fact surprisingly robust, even when perfectly arbitrary. Anglo-Saxon cultures are, I believe, in a minority in having a taboo against the eating of horseflesh; yet our regular consumption of pork, lamb, and beef does not seem to be pushing us down a slippery slope towards hippophagy, even though nobody much (except Bo Derek) would care if it did. Given the above-mentioned pressures on the medical profession, though, I think the euthanasia slope actually might be slippery, at least in potential. That is not in itself an argument against euthanasia, only an argument for great vigilance and care in that area. Ponnuru makes it an argument, of course, and I think it’s a pity, from the RTL point of view, he didn’t do more with this. He didn’t, because he has other arguments that he prefers, arguments from abstract principles, which he much prefers to the untidy, relativistic, and hypocritical realities of human social life. “[Terri] Schiavo’s death was surrounded by euphemisms,” Ponnuru complains. Good heavens!—people are using euphemisms when talking about death? Whatever next?—the euphemizing of sex?
...
The best thing in this third part of the book is Chapter 17, which deals with public opinion about abortion, and offers telling insights. This chapter also shows Ponnuru the intellectual at his best. His purpose is to make the case that support for abortion is trending downwards. The actual evidence he offers, however, paints an ambiguous picture—largely because of the admirable honesty with which he offers it. He takes his pluses where he can find them (“characters in prime-time television shows almost never have abortions”) while frankly admitting the minuses (“there isn’t a pro-life majority... exactly”).

What the poll numbers suggest to me is that the moral philosophy of the people of the United States is—as is, I would guess, that of people pretty much anywhere else—basically pagan, with a couple of thin coats of vague religiosity painted over it. We no longer smash sick people on the head with a rock, as I suppose our remote ancestors did, but invalids remain just as unpopular as they were back in the Paleolithic. Anyone who has endured a long confining illness knows this. Our preferred method for dealing with the unpleasant side of life, including topics like abortion and euthanasia, is to think about them as little as possible. In the fuss over Mrs. Schiavo, it was not hard to detect a general public irritation at having had the whole unsightly business forced on our attention. Perhaps this is not humanity at its most noble, but:

Show me what angels feel.
Till then I cling, a mere weak man, to men.

A corollary, though Ponnuru seems unaware of it, is that people who are obsessively interested in these topics seem, to the rest of us, a bit creepy. We may even find ourselves wondering which side, really, is the Party of Death. Ponnuru says that it is unjust to regard some instances of the human organism as less alive than others based on how we feel about them. (Another RTL-er once derided this approach to me, in conversation, as “Barry Manilow ethics”—the worth of another human life judged by our own feelings, wo wo wo feelings... I offer this designation for Ramesh Ponnuru’s future use, free of charge.) Unfortunately most of us do so judge; and feelings, wo wo wo feelings, are a much more common foundation for our social taboos than are Natural Law principles, or indeed any abstract principles at all. Why, if a woman’s husband dies, should she not use his corpse for garden mulch, or serve it up with mashed potatoes and collard greens for dinner? I cannot think of any reason well rooted in pure philosophy, though there might be a public health issue to be addressed. We do not do such things because of the disgust we feel—we feel—at the mistreatment of human corpses.

We likewise feel that an adult woman’s life, even a few months of it, is worth more than that of a hardly-formed fetus; and that the vigorous, usefully-employed, merrily procreating Michael Schiavo has a life, a life, more worthy of the name than had the incurably insensate relict of his spouse. Those like Ponnuru who think differently are working against the grain of human nature, against our feelings—yes, our feelings—about what life is. The life of a newly-formed embryo, or of a brain-damaged patient who has shown no trace of consciousness for fifteen years, is worth just as much as the life of a healthy adult, Ponnuru insists. Well, most of us instinctively but emphatically disagree, and no amount of argumentative ingenuity is likely to change our minds. Hearts, whatever.
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I wonder again: Who, actually, is the Party of Death? Here I see a woman who, having missed her period and found herself pregnant, has an abortion, comes home, downs a stiff drink, and gets on with her life. With her life. Here I meet a man whose loved wife has gone, never to return, yet her personless body still twitches and grunts randomly on its plastic sheet, defying years of care and therapy. Let her go, everyone begs him, and his own conscience cries; and at last he does, whichever way the law will permit. Here I find a couple who want a lively, healthy child, but who know their genes carry dark possibilities of a lifetime’s misery and an early death. They permit multiple embryos to be created, select the one free from the dread traits, and give over the rest to the use of science, or authorize their destruction.

The RTL-ers would tell me that these people, and the medical professionals who help them, are all moral criminals, who have destroyed human lives. They support their belief with careful definitions, precise chains of reasoning, and—I do not doubt it—sincere intentions. Yet how inhuman they seem! What a frigid and pitiless dogma they preach!—one that would take from the living, without any regard to what the living have to say about it, to give to those whom common intuition regards as nonliving; that would criminalize acts of compassion, and that would strip away such little personal autonomy as is left to us after the attentions of the IRS, Big Medicine, the litigation rackets, and the myriad government bureaucracies that regulate our lives and peer into our private affairs.

For RTL is, really, just another species of Political Correctness, just another manifestation of the intellectual pathology, the hypertrophied and academical egalitarianism, the victimological scab-picking, the gaseous sentimentality. that has afflicted our civilization this past forty years. We have lost our innocence, traded it in for a passel of theorems. The RTL-ers are just another bunch of schoolmarms trying to boss us around and to diminish our liberties. Is it wrong to have concern for fetuses and for the vegetative, incapable, or incurable? Not at all. Do we need to do some hard thinking about the notion of personhood in a society with fast-advancing biological capabilities? We surely do. (And I think Party of Death contributes useful things to that discussion.) Should we let a cult of theologians, monks, scolds, grad-school debaters, logic-choppers, and schoolmarms tell us what to do with our wombs, or when we may give up the ghost, or when we should part with our loved ones? Absolutely not! Give me liberty, and give me death!

I think at last it is largely a matter of temperament. Ponnuru has given his chapter on euthanasia the title “The Doctor Will Kill You Now.” I imagine the author meant this to have shock value. He plainly finds atrocious the notion of a doctor—a healer!—killing someone. I can’t say I agree. I can all too easily imagine circumstances in which I would respond to “The doctor will kill you now” with “Thank God!” either on my own behalf or a loved one’s. I suppose this, by Ponnuru’s standards and definitions, puts me in the Party of Death. It depends what you look for from life, and from the great cold cosmos—as I said, just a matter of temperament, really. Some of us are RTL absolutists: “You can’t do that to a living human being!” Some of us are personal autonomy absolutists: “Don’t tell me what to do with my own body!” Most of us are too unintellectual to be consistently absolutist about anything. We just favor one side or the other, more or less strongly. America would be a happier and freer nation if the accursed intellectuals would just leave us alone with our lives, our blunders, our tragedies, and our deaths.


Ponnoru's rebuttal is here.

Now I can't say that I totally agree with Derbyshire's views, but he has plucked a chord that resonates with me, and it has to do with the Schiavo affair. At the risk of re-opening some wounds from last year's debates on the matter, I do think that the Schiavo affair was the moment when the Right to Life movement, or parts of it at least, introduced a level of rigidity and extremism into the debate that divided the RTL movement from many basically conservative people who supported or had sympathy with it. While I haven't read his book, I do recall reading Ponnoru's opinion pieces regarding Shiavo, and realized that even opposing abortion was not enough for RTL hardliners like Ponnoru. If you held the opinion that the Florida court's decision should be upheld, that Michael Schiavo was the best person to represent Terri Schiavo's wishes, and that a desire to have feeding tubes removed in a situation of irreversible brain loss as suffered by Terri was a reasonable desire to have, then you were now part of the Party of Death, with no moral distinction between yourself and Peter Singer.

Another interesting thing to take away from Derbyshire's piece is his unique take on moral reasoning, at least from the standpoint of self described conservative. It is a viewpoint that trusts common feelings over abstract philosophies. Russ Douthat does an admirable job of capturing the essence of Derbism:

The Derb: I believe that there are few men more consistent in their conservatism than John Derbyshire - and by conservatism I really mean way, way old-fashioned conservatism, the kind that held sway not only before liberalism, not only before Christianity, but before what C.S. Lewis called the development of the Tao, and what Karen Armstrong calls "the Great Transformation." Derb has no interest in universals of any kind: his ethics are situational, his loyalties are tribal, his morals are instinctual. He is fond of the forms of his ancestral religion (Anglicanism, that is) and appreciative of religion's role in securing social peace, but he is generally dismissive of any religious system's truth claims, as he is dismissive of any system at all - save for the systems of modern science, because they offer immediate and tangible benefits to his bodily existence. He is openly prejudiced: He likes white people better than most other people, Americans better than foreigners, straights better than gays, and he makes no attempt to justify these prejudices with any kind of abstract theory, preferring to speak the language of kinship and taboo. He presents himself as a voice of common sense, and he is, in the sense that he speaks for the universal instincts that lie beneath the veneer of Mosaic morality in every Western mind, the kill-or-be-killed voice that aims to keep us alive in a hostile and uncaring universe. Favor your family and friends; kill your enemies or avoid them; regard everyone else with a certain suspicion - these are the tenets of Derbism, and it should go without saying that they breed a certain callousness toward human life and dignity. He is for torture, up to a point at least; he is for aggressive military action without any just-war jaw-jaw thrown in; he is more understanding than most commentators toward the motivations of rapists. And - as should come as no surprise, for a man who said of Abu Ghraib, "kick one for me" - he has no particular difficulty with legalized abortion.


I can't say that I subscribe to undiluted Derbism. Abstract principles have a role to play in the development of moral traditions. Such traditions evolve through experience and the clarifying view that reason brings to the grimy details of life, as the view from a mountaintop can provide a more revealing understanding of reality than a sole reliance on the ground level details can manage. The American experiment in constitutional governance would be untinkable without the theoretical groundwork of the Classical and Enlightenment thinkers.

However, as I argued in my tirade against Platonism, abstractions and essences are not the things in themselves. They are fictional representations of the real and the actual. Reasoning from them often results in magnificent castles of wispy pneumato, wonderful to behold but bereft of any practical value in comprehending reality. A rigid, totally consistent application of the "right to life" doctrine cannot result in the most humane decision in every circumstance. A moral philosophy that is not leavened with a good dose of Derbism will not result in nourishing fare.

15 Comments:

Blogger Peter Burnet said...

This is a very strange argument from one who was bemoaning the disappearance of honour just the other day. Just as you guys are incapable of coming up with any principle upon which to oppose Dawkins' splenetic foaming at the mouth beyond: "bit over the top, our Richard", so now you are admiring a self-declared racist homophobe who supports Iraq on the basis of revenge alone, hates immigrants and thinks euthanasia and abortion are instinctively in our guts.

A rigid, totally consistent application of the "right to life" doctrine cannot result in the most humane decision in every circumstance.

That is most certainly true, which is why there never has been such an application, as just about any doctor in history will tell you. The rigidity is all on the side of those who would accord the unfettered legal right to dispatch Granny based upon his (not Granny's) belief that her life is no longer worth living.

I really wish I knew how to drag you guys out of your ethereal world and force you to face the realities of actual families confronting these issues and the emotional and financial dynamics that play out under such stresses. Your faith in the nobility of man guided solely by his reason might be shaken, but maybe not.

June 08, 2006 2:20 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

In the early days of the Duck we used to spend a lot of time slapping each other on the back for being jolly clever members of the secular tag-team and saying ‘Great post fella’. Well, we take ‘great post’ for granted now...but that was a great post, Duck.

Regarding the actual debate about pro-life/pro-choice, we all know the arguments...

(For the record, I’m riddled with ambivalence. Ambivvled with rivalence. I do have some slippery slope fears about euthanasia, and I do have a lot of sympathy for the ‘potential human being’ arguments made against abortion. However, I don’t sympathise at all with the hardcore pro-life philosophy that a potential human being or a brain-dead human being is ‘worth’ (in the practical, medical resource-allocation sense) exactly the same as a walking, talking, compos mentis one. To my mind, that’s clearly a flawed Platonic argument, as well as being anti-common sense and anti-human.

One area where I think Derbyshire is in the right is in historical attitudes to life, death and illness. In the rebuttal Duck links to, Ponnuru directly addresses this:

That abortion was a crime used to be something nearly universally accepted, and felt. It took, among other things, a lot of intellectual work to change that. Many people changed their feelings in response to new ideas, and new situations partly created by those ideas. (And some people changed their ideas based on their feelings.) How should we feel about abortion? Is it a good thing or a bad thing that we feel less appalled by it than we used to?

Ponnuru falls into the classic right-wing trap of conjuring up a Golden Age (usually Victorian) that never existed, in order to show the slippery slope down which Modern Euro Secular Materialism™ has shoved us. True, there have been more laws against abortion at different times and places, but abortions used to happen all right, and whether anyone was more appalled by it then than today is doubtful. Certainly there’s no reason to think that human beings have historically been more pro-life than they are now: Derbyshire’s image of clubbing our sickly elders on the head when they become a drag is closer to the mark. Which doesn’t provide a moral argument for us to sign up to the unsubtle ‘pro-choice’ positions of our ancestors, but we should at least get over the Golden Age myth and the attendant accusations that the liberals have destroyed Eden. Humans are humans, always have been and always will be: a hygienic, safe, regulated abortion facility is a practical and moral necessity).

The interesting question that arises out of this post for me concerns the complexities of right versus left, conservative versus progressive, rational versus instinctive.

I tepidly subscribe to ‘Everything in Moderation-ism’. But really that amounts to a blend of Derbist instinct/common sense and classic Reason-ing. Reason is extremely important, but even that must be in moderation. Part of me admires someone like Singer, who has the courage to carry his convictions to their logical ends. But most of me knows he’s wrong about most things. Probably much more of my world-view than I’d normally like to admit consists of attempts to justify with Reason my Derbist instincts.

June 08, 2006 2:21 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

Peter,
I thought I had qualified my statements to the effect that I don't totally agree with Derbyshire's take on the RTL issues. And Douthat's description of Derb is a little misleading as well. Derbyshire can be a provocateur, and I think that a lot of what he says is out of disgust with American political correctness. I think he is more of cranky curmudgeon than a rabid throwback to Bull Connor.

That said, I was using Derbism more as a label for a categorical definition of his mode of moral reasoning, which trusts gut instincts and traditional taboos and attitudes more than abstract moral theories. You don't have to agree with Derb's specific moral judgments to practice Derbism, in my use of the term, you just have to arrive at your moral judgments in the same manner.

To further qualify, I am not promoting undiluted Derbism. That can be as morally dangerous as undiluted Platonic intellectualizing. On RTL issues I am between Pornnoru and Derbyshire, maybe closer to Ponnoru. But the point I am making is that there is an inflection point in moral reasoning past which a philosophy does more harm than good. In practice people are only capable of a finite level of goodness. A moral code that can only be lived up to by a race of angels will end up being a tyranny when imposed on mortals. I hope you see where I'm going with this.

June 08, 2006 7:23 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

And to clarify my post too, by 'Derbist', I meant "derived from instinct and feeling", not specific views similar to those of Mr Derbyshire.

June 08, 2006 7:29 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Derbist = hive mind?

June 08, 2006 8:08 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

I really wish I knew how to drag you guys out of your ethereal world and force you to face the realities of actual families confronting these issues and the emotional and financial dynamics that play out under such stresses. Your faith in the nobility of man guided solely by his reason might be shaken, but maybe not.

You assume, Peter, that we don't belong to actual families or that we don't understand such stresses. I know that Skipper has experience with a situation that has parallels to Schiavo in his own family, which I will not try to describe or speak to.

Your take on my position is interesting, as it seems to be the direct opposite of what I expressed. You see my thinking as some ethereal set of theories with no connection to reality, where I (and Derbyshire) are making that precise accusations to some in the RTL movement, such as Ponnoru, who we see as the ones dealing with ethereal abstractions rather than the gritty realities of families facing crisis. It seems everyone wants to claim the ground of "reality".

June 08, 2006 7:30 PM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Duck:

I'm not trying to play one-up-manship here. I know we all have our personal dramas, but certain professions do offer a general perspective on human behaviour that is at least worth pondering. Try giving a speech on man's inherent nobility to a convention of cops and you will see what I mean.

I repeat, it is you that is taking the extremist position. Your statement: A rigid, totally consistent application of the "right to life" doctrine cannot result in the most humane decision in every circumstance. is true, but not terribly earth-shattering. The search for a balance between general objective rules and individual subjective circumstance is well known to law, theology, philosophy, etc. and great minds have struggled since the year dot to find the just balance in the face of an ever-changing world. But you guys seem to have thrown up your hands and concluded any external objective morality of general application is ipso facto irrational and oppressive and can never be defended and so it all comes down to the self-assessment of needs, wishes, rights by free individuals, etc--relativism by whatever name. You seem to be dimly aware of the danger of a selfish moral free-for-all, but you are so glued to the notion that religion is warping and that love, kindness, charity, selflessness, discipline, honour and all the other good things can flourish without it that you don't even address the copious and growing evidence before you against that and would rather troll for out-of-context mystical statements or rail against ever-menacing fundamentalists determined to impose something undefined, but terribly scary nonetheless. It boggles my mind that you can believe that in light of what is going on around us, but let's stick with theory for now.

Obviously I have met and acted for many people who have left their spouses for another. I don't ever recall one that didn't find a way to work himself or herself into a complete philosophical justification (lots of Oprah-speak)for what they had done and who didn't succeed in scripting an after-the-fact horror film of their marriage (That is why in many cases rage and bitterness continues to grow after separation). In many cases, I have sympathy because there are lots of spouses from hell out there, and even when I didn't it isn't my job to condemn or pass judgement. But what strikes is the uniformity and inevitability of the reaction, which to me speaks of man's limitless creativity in finding justifications for whatever he wants to do, no matter how sordid, hurtful or selfish.

In the Schiavo affair, I was struck by how Michael's defenders latched on to the notion of the "loving family" as the ulitmate decider of life and death. Leaving Michael himself aside (way to the side), what's going on here? We spend years in therapy working out our mommy and daddy complexes and can talk forever at cocktail parties about the Oedipus complex and archtypical sons slaying fathers, but suddenly it's all fond, grateful memories guaranteed to lead to maximum love and selflessness. Hogwash-there are all manner of hateful and resentful undercurrents to most familes, some of them strong to the point of murderous. A dependent elderly person can be a huge emotional and financial burden (and very nasty). The hard truth is life is much, much easier after the elderly pass on. If undiluted, unlimited love for our parents were a natural, default position for humans, there never would have been a Commandment in the first place. That's like saying there is no need for a prohibition on adultery or the reciting of solemn vows because most people will be faithful by instinct or choice. Ha!

Anyway, I'm happy to support argued out democratic compromises between objective morality of general application and individual conscience and freedom, but you won't brook any compromises. Your philosphy has no room for "Thou shalt nots...", only for the noble ideal self-contained individuals who I fear will always let you down. Which is why you and Skipper and many secular thinkers like Dawkins have basically found ways to define the religious as irrational, disordered and threatening and disqualify them from the debate.

June 09, 2006 3:49 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Peter:

But you guys seem to have thrown up your hands and concluded any external objective morality of general application is ipso facto irrational and oppressive and can never be defended and so it all comes down to the self-assessment of needs, wishes, rights by free individuals, etc--relativism by whatever name.You seem to be dimly aware of the danger of a selfish moral free-for-all ...

You have posed a false dichotomy, asserting there is no alternative between an external objective morality (assuming there is such a thing, an "if" so big as to be the proverbial elephant in a china closet) and a selfish moral free-for-all.

That simply isn't the case. Whether you call it Derbism, the hive mind, or society's consensus reaction to exigencies, none of us is remotely in the position of a selfish moral free-for-all.

As Harry has memorably said, a lone human is as impossible as a lone ant. What's more, all sentient humans have some sense of futurity: we can all, at some level, imagine ourselves as elderly and infirm, or hopelessly comatose, or any number of things.

Consequently, most of us will approximate treating others as we would wish to be treated in similar circumstances. Therein lies the devil, the detail of circumstances in their infinitude.

Fundamentalists wish to impose absolutes where none exists. Regardless of the specific right-to-life issue, such positions are coherent only as absolutes. I rail against them for very specific reasons: they claim an objective standard that doesn't exist, and the hope to impose an absolute in the face of endlessly combinatorial circumstances.

Speaking of dichotomies, this one, I hope, not false, there is the Jeffersonian marketplace of ideas on one hand, and coercion on the other. IMHO, the Jeffersonian marketplace beats totalitarian fundamentalists everytime. But, for some, the horror of that situation is people actually having the freedom to make their own decisions as best they can within the circumstances of their own lives.

Duck mentioned some travails I have been through that are similar in kind, but nothing like in degree, to what Michael Schiavo went through. I won't go into details, but my wife's reaction is instructive. If you want to move her to white-hot fury, just tell her that her end-of-life wishes aren't absolutely paramount.

You are right that my philosophy has no, or very little, room for "Thou shalt nots."

"Should nots" by the cart load, for sure. But there are darn few shalts in this life, and pretending there are is verging on delusional.

So long as the religious are leading by example, and hoping to persuade my voluntary adherence to their ideals, fine. But it is the latent totalitarian impulse that richly deserves resistance at every turn.

June 09, 2006 4:46 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

The point is not that you reject objective morality. Lots of people do and even those who don't have endless disagreements on how to define it and how far it should extend into the public square. The point is you have come to see those who disagree with you as injecting a somehow illegitimate perspective into public debate that transcends the particular issue you are debating and allows you to discount and ignore them no matter how large a majority they may be. You have put anyone who argues from that perspective by definition on the same basis as a defender of slavery and therefore outside of the rules of democratic society. That puts you exactly in the same position as the most literal, rabid, theocratic fundamentalist.

June 09, 2006 9:11 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

But you guys seem to have thrown up your hands and concluded any external objective morality of general application is ipso facto irrational and oppressive and can never be defended and so it all comes down to the self-assessment of needs, wishes, rights by free individuals, etc--relativism by whatever name.

I think that this issue is so deeply emotional that we're not really reading what the other person writes but reacting out of stereoptypes of the other's position. This statement does not describe my position at all. Please reread my posts and tell me where I categorically reject any application of objective morality.

And I don't have an unrealistic view of the innate goodness of Man - just the opposite. Reread this statement I made: A moral code that can only be lived up to by a race of angels will end up being a tyranny when imposed on mortals. The extreme RTL positions assumes that Michael Schiavo, or any other person in his position, should have the moral strength and the goodness of heart to nourish and attend to the brain-dead body of his all but deceased spouse for all his natural days, irrespective of whether there is any reasonable hope of her ever recovering any cognitive abilities whatsoever.

I fully support the application of an objective rule that states that life is sacred and must be protected. But I also realize that there are inflection points at the extreme boundaries of life where we cannot pretend that we can reasonably expect people to behave like angels and uphold this objective law with anything approaching perfection. And when the objective absolutists try to enforce such perfect adherence to the objective law, they will end up creating expectations that will turn those people, who are capable and willing to uphold thet law in 99.9% of cases, into lawbreakers. This is a perfect illustration of the maxim "the perfect is the enemy of the good". Or to rephrase, the "good enough". Or better, "the good as can be expected".

Now in all of these debates over Schiavo, I've never really been able to pin down your position, other than a sort of cautionary warning saying "don't go there". I know that you oppose Michael Shiavo's decision, and the decision of the court, but I can't say that you are one of the extremists that I describe above because I don't think that you have ever said precisely how the objective rule should be applied in this case.

In a way this statement by Derbyshire describes you: Our preferred method for dealing with the unpleasant side of life, including topics like abortion and euthanasia, is to think about them as little as possible. In the fuss over Mrs. Schiavo, it was not hard to detect a general public irritation at having had the whole unsightly business forced on our attention. The main difference, I think, is that you would have preferred that Schiavo had just continued to care for his wife's unconscious body until it's natural death so that the rest of us would not have had to deal with this sticky moral dilemma. In that way the objective rule is upheld in one of those very rare outlier situations where the application of the rule is highly problematic. I'm not trying to make a harsh judgment of you here, only a human judgment.

June 10, 2006 8:32 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Granted my use of "you guys" was a little sloppy--I was thinking of Skipper. Some days you Duckians just look all the same to me.

But, what you you mean I've never made my position clear? I was bleeding it in post after post at the time. I can only suspect we're back to your (pl.) repeated argument that objective morality implies a rote, obvious and unanimous agreement--sort of like a math problem. It doesn't, any more than the objective existence of a criminal code obviates the need for endless trials and judgments over how the crime is defined and what circumstances it applies to.

It's not really that tough. A woman lost virtually all of her physical and mental faculties for many years with little likelihood of regaining them (possible, but highly unlikely). There was professional and private controversy over whether she was in any way sentient (probably was). There was no evidence she was in distress.

Her husband, who was analagous to a separated or divorced spouse and had acquired a new family to whom he presumably owed his first loyalties, wished to terminate her life in circumstances that would be financially advantageous to him. He asserted "wishes" on her part based upon evidence that would be laughed out of court if it were used to try and claim a deceased person's car or painting. In response, her natural family disputed this and offered to care for her at their expense, thus relieving Michael of a burden few of us can understand.

The court made a decision based upon technical legalisms that would have embarassed Lord Coke. Millions of people who would take it for granted that a spouse who left their brothers or sisters for another would or should lose legal, financial or emotional authority over them for that reason alone suddenly swooned about Michael's great love for Terri. So he won. And she was killed in a slow, painful, barbaric manner that would lead to criminal charges if anyone did it to a sick pet. That was necessary to keep alive the fiction that she was only alive through extraordinary medical interventions she would quickly die without--like at aged person on a respirator. But, of course, she wasn't, which is also why so many suddenly felt attracted to the novel assertion that life should only be preserved if it is "a life worth living.", judged subjectively and therefore relatively. A merciful injection would have spoiled the whole ideological underpinning of the cause.

So, what is it about "Thou shalt not kill" that you are having trouble with?

June 11, 2006 4:50 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

Now I remember why I stopped arguing this topic last year! :(

Yes, you bled gallons in your posts, but most of your energy went to tearing down the other side's arguments, and what statements of principle you made seemed to stop short of a clear cut set of rules to decide cases like these, other than people should not leave "living wills".

You say, in response to my post:

Me: A rigid, totally consistent application of the "right to life" doctrine cannot result in the most humane decision in every circumstance.

You: That is most certainly true, which is why there never has been such an application, as just about any doctor in history will tell you.

And yet it seems that now you are saying the opposite, that the objective rule not to kill is to be applied rigidly in every circumstance. So I have to conclude that you are a RTL extremist. Tell me if this is not the case.

It's not really that tough. A woman lost virtually all of her physical and mental faculties for many years with little likelihood of regaining them (possible, but highly unlikely). There was professional and private controversy over whether she was in any way sentient (probably was).

I think that the post-mortem autopsy conclusively proved that she was not sentient.

There was no evidence she was in distress.

Likewise there was no evidence that she suffered from the removal of the feeding tube and her subsequent starvation. You can't have this argument work for you both ways. If she was sentient enough to suffer excruciating pain due to lack of water and food, then she was sentient enough to suffer from being locked in a stiff, immobile posture in bed 24 hours a day, seven days a week, week after week. Have you ever been confined to a bed for more than 24 hours?

But, of course, she wasn't, which is also why so many suddenly felt attracted to the novel assertion that life should only be preserved if it is "a life worth living.", judged subjectively and therefore relatively.

I'm sure this sends shivers and chills down your spine, but for the majority of people the question of whether such a life is worth living is moot, because it is not a life. A living body without a living mind is not a living person. Most people, with hindsight looking back on Terri Schiavo's ordeal and the probability that her condition was irreversible from a very early point after her brain injury, consider it that Terri Schiavo died years before her husband sought a court order to remove her feeding tube. More is required for human life than mere respiration, digestion and a pulse. The result of the Schiavo affair was not an urgent call by an outraged public for legal reforms that would save future Terri Schiavo's from being forced to die in this way, but an urgent rush to prepare living wills to prevent relatives and meddling politicians from subverting their will in court.

I think that Derbyshire is right to say that earlier generations would not view this episode as raising any moral alarm signals. Most back then would think it insane to keep a person in Terri's condition alive with a feeding tube to begin with. I don't think that the "let her die" side, for lack of a better name, is some new dangerous slippery-slope trend becoming manifest now because of the relativization of morality. Rather, I'd say that the extreme RTL position is the new development, the counter trend. I can't say why it has developed, other than as a reaction to Roe vs Wade and the perceived need to eliminate any subjective influence on life & death decisions. As such, it is an overreaction that will risk depriving the RTL movement of the broad, popular support that it deserves.

June 11, 2006 9:21 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

I am not qualified to argue the medical aspects of her condition and the autopsy, so I'll let a doctor do it for me.

As to your assertion as to what the "majority" of people want or think, you must have a unique feel for the pulse of Amercia on such a complex issues. But, you know, I really don't care very much whether the majority of people think my life is worth living or not. Do you?

June 11, 2006 11:27 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

Check the polls, Peter

You should care if you don't want the majority of people to be turned off by RTL rhetoric that tells them they are no better than the guards at Auschwitz, and therefore destroy all credibility for the RTL movement.

June 11, 2006 12:03 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Peter:

I really don't care very much whether the majority of people think my life is worth living or not. Do you?

No.

Which is why I want to make the decision myself, instead of some majority of people.

June 13, 2006 4:03 AM  

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