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March 26, 2005

More on Brooks and Schiavo

Brooks' latest column is intellectually dishonest. He is insinuating that Terri Schiavo will die because liberals deemed her life worthless.

The Schiavo case is about the individual's right to accept or reject medical treatment. Even people who uphold the intrinsic sanctity of life aren't obliged to accept any and all life-prolonging care.

The column is dishonest because Brooks isn't engaging with any liberal position, he's just using "relativism" as an epithet. He knows perfectly well that there's nothing relativistic about upholding the individual's right to make decisions about her own body.

Irritatingly, Brooks doesn't even apply the term properly:

The core belief that social liberals bring to cases like Ms. Schiavo's is that the quality of life is a fundamental human value. 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 is pinning a novel hedonic/capabilities/perfectionist model of intrinsic value on liberals and calling it relativism. If anyone took this view seriously, they'd be a particularly nasty and illiberal kind of absolutist. They'd argue, as the Nazis did, that some lives were objectively worthless, regardless of anyone's opinion.

Brooks' unstated premise is that the only legitimate reason to refuse treatment is to avoid a worthless life. He's also attributing to liberals the relativist view that the value of each life is relative to the opinion of the person living it.* That's not what liberals are saying at all. We are arguing that the individual has the final authority over her own medical care. That's an absolutist position, too. A relativist might say that a person's right to control her body waxes and wanes depending on the preferences of her parents and the political fortunes of Tom DeLay.

* Note that Brooks' two charges of "relativism" are mutually inconsistent.

Further reading: Matt Yglesias (I II), John Holbo, David Velleman, and Bill Gardner on Brooks and relativism.

Amanda Marcotte on Brooks' appalling lack of traditional values

Philosoraptor's Field Guide to Objectivism, Relativism, and Nihilism

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We allow Jehovah's Witnesses to refuse blood transfusions on medical grounds, even in cases where the Jehovah's Witness is bleeding to death. We allow competent adults to refuse medical care all the time, even for treatable conditions and even if the consequence may be death. If Terri Schiavo truly made her wishes known that she did not wish to live this way (and several courts have found that she did, with many opportunities for her parents to cast doubt upon that stated wish), then this is simply a matter of Ms. Schiavo's wishes being fulfilled.

The oddest part of all of this is that I haven't actually heard big name liberals taking either side of this fight publicly (which I think is exactly the right straategy). Yes, conservatives are fighting to stick tubes in her, but there are no liberals fighting to keep it out. Brooks is trying to argue that since "conservatives" (I use the term loosely) are on one side of the fight, liberals must be on the other. That's obviously nonsense.

Democrats have been smart to stay out of this. The courts have decided, and that's as it should be. Speaking out for them merely turns this into what Brooks is trying to make it into, just another partisan shouting match, with liberals on the side of wanting to kill people.

What people believe who disagree with Brooks believe is an EMPIRICAL question. It is curious that so many out there, devotees of philosophy supposedly, assume without question, that such as Brooks can sum up what 300 million fill with one dichotomy, or else, that they can get at the essential position, there being two, one liberal, one conservative.

The focus of attention on absolute AUTHORITY is one critical step back to reality. This classifies this as a POLITICAL issue. Some people will wilfully then confuse inherently POLITICAL questions with ethics and the straw man of moral relativism. Again and again and again. THis is easy to do since POLITICAL questions mimic moral realitivism as described by conservatives. But making the government the AUTHORITY of "moral force" as Brooks would have it, is an anti Conservative, anti American, anti limited government position, not because of moral relativism, but because Brooks can't be trusted as a moral authority, nor can any of the gang he runs with.

The claim at the core of Brooks article is empirical, and testable, "... 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 jduging those who make bad decisions."

This claim is an outright lie. Pick the "liberal" Nation states or AMerican state, and they are not shrinking from right and wrong, nor are they snuffing old people. Make a list of who has stood up for common principles and right and wrong. Make a list, say, of Krugman columns vs. Brooks columns since 9.11 and test who has not shrunk from right and wrong, and who has made one relative excuse after another for wrong behavior, such as, I don't know,lying about the budget, Iraq's 9.11 connection, responsibility for a "mission accomplished" banner, who supported homelan d security, saying one things and doing another about health care, condoning torture, etc etc etc. The EVIDENCE tells us the moral absolutist take a dive on right and wrong whever they face a hard issue, and, are psychologically incapable, like Brooks, of admitting it.

No one feels good as, in Brooks' sancitmonous close, "that poor woman slowly dehydrates." but the reasons all feel the tragedy has nothing to do with Brooks analysis. The human heart feels the tragedy because humans are made to fell. Brooks' assholic agenda is revealed even at the last as he slips in "slowly dehydrates," as if that were the tragedy, when a decent human being with have ended "that poor woman." and passed on scoring points with one last cheap shot. But, a hack has a job to do.

Lindsay,
I agree with your (and Orac's) criticism of Brooks. What did you think about David Velleman's post?

Lindsay,

If there existed clear proof that Terri would not want to be kept alive through a feeding tube then I would agree with you.

Before we even get to that position though we have to wrestle with whether or not the husband is qualified to make that decision based on an oral notice that only he heard. To believe the husband requires a leap of faith and is based solely on belief and inclination (that goes for both sides in the debate).

If, in the absence of clear proof, the law states all decisions rest with the spouse does that really end the debate or is it just a crutch? Do we, as progressives, really want to take the position that the law is final? I think history has shown clearly that the legality of something doesn't prove its value or whether or not it is "right."

Before we even get to that position though we have to wrestle with whether or not the husband is qualified to make that decision based on an oral notice that only he heard.

No, we don't. Because 19 judges have already wrestled with that question in the past seven years and decided every time that Terri would not want to be kept alive in her current condition.

In fact, Michael never made the decision himself. He petitioned the court to determine the facts. And the courts decided he was right. Every time.

The courts have found that it is clear proof. How many "do-overs" do conservatives want? How many times do they want to count the votes?

The courts have found that it is clear proof. How many "do-overs" do conservatives want? How many times do they want to count the votes?

Till they win - just like the Democrats.

Mnenosyne,

You ignore my point. Even if every judge in the country agreed that Schiavo's husband had the right to decide it still doesn't matter unless your guiding philosophy is that whatever the courts decide is correct.

I think there is something more to this story that many are failing to deal with. Legal arguments are just a crutch. My assumption is that if the parents had been winning every case and the husband was the one out of favor with the law most of our opinions wouldn't change concerning the fundamental problem of this case.

Democrats have been smart to stay out of this. The courts have decided, and that's as it should be.

I agree, Bunny. My feeling is that there's basically nothing the Dems can say at this point that can't somehow be twisted into "those ghouls just can't wait for poor Terri to die!"

Of course, as Brooks and Noonan and the rest of them have proven in the past week, if "liberals" don't put forward a position, "conservatives" will simply invent one for them out of whole cloth.

Even if every judge in the country agreed that Schiavo's husband had the right to decide it still doesn't matter unless your guiding philosophy is that whatever the courts decide is correct.

That's not exactly true. The courts decided that Terri would not want to be connected to a feeding tube. The analogy is not to "whatever the courts decide is correct" but to "the courts convicted John of murder, so John committed murder." It is fallible at times but still more than certain enough, especially with all the appeals, which reduce the chance of a mistaken ruling.

My assumption is that if the parents had been winning every case and the husband was the one out of favor with the law most of our opinions wouldn't change concerning the fundamental problem of this case.

Maybe your assumption is flawed. You seem to state that liberals would be protesting if the courts ruled that Terri would want to remain on life support. That doesn't make sense. I think that most/almost all/all liberals would accept that decision by the courts. Why don't "conservatives" accept the courts' decision when the courts rule that she who not want to remain on life support?

"she who not want" = "she would not want"

Wapiti,

Liberals and conservatives always complain when judicial rulings don't go their way. You suggest that liberals would accept the decision of the court. This is the same exact court system that installed George Bush as president in 2000, to this day people are still wearing "Not my President" shirts.

This is exactly why I state that the legal argument isn't the fundamental question of the Schiavo case. This isn't a matter of "liberals" respect the law and "conservatives" want fascism. If this same court system outlawed abortion would we accept it? When this court system outlaws gay marriage do we sit back and say, "Why dont those gays just give it up, the courts have ruled." No, of course not.

For the record I am not a conservative.

Imagine a scenario - one that has been treated on many prime-time dramas - of a sick child whose parents are Christian Scientist and who, on those grounds, refuse certain treatments which might save the child's life. The "liberal" POV often taken in these dramatic treatments has the hospital suing the parents, taking custody, and carrying out the treatment. This is *precisely* the Schiavo scenario, with the difference of course that it is Michael Schiavo who is asking that treatment be withheld.

Would those conservatives who are demanding state intervention in the Schiavo case defend the parents in the above example, citing religious freedom? My guess is that they would, in which case it becomes clear that policy consistency is not the issue. Instead, it is pure and simple the dominance of religious values over settled legal procedures.

Exactly, Chloe.

[Of course, there's an important distinction between of a competent adult refusing their own treatment vs. parents who refuse treatment for their children -- but that doesn't affect the point you're making about the religious right's hypocrisy here.]

I get the equivalent of a Popsicle brain freeze when trying comprehend even the basics of Philosophy, but I knew there was something wrong with Brook's convoluted rationalization.

The fact that even Krauthammer wouldn't go there, but Brook's felt compelled to mount a defense, illustrates Conservatives still don't get it.

Well done Lindsey.

If this same court system outlawed abortion would we accept it?

Please distinguish constitutional law, which is a matter of opinion, from rulings on matters of facts. The ruling is analogous not to outlawing abortion but to decisions in normal criminal cases.

Alon,

Yeah because we know in other areas of law opinion has no bearing in how a judge interprets the facts.

The entire idea is that judges interpret things according to facts. In most circumstances, arguments such as "A judge convicted Mary of murdering James, therefore Mary murdered James" work. The exceptions have to do with funding and hype more than anything, as in the O.J. Simpson trial. This case, however, is not an exception because both sides had ample financial resources and argued for several rounds, and the media hype only began 7 years after the first ruling. In general, further, the exceptions are in criminal cases and lawsuits involving corporations, and this is neither.

On relativism, it often seems to me that the same people people who howl about "absolute values" are the first ones to claim exceptions; eg "Thou shalt not kill" except for convicted murderers in Texas and Florida, enemy combatants, Iraqi civilians who don't stop fast enough at checkpoints, terra-ists, etc. etc.

Press a fundie on their "absolute values" sometime, you'll be amazed at how often they will find reasons to ignore those values.

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