[Paleopsych] Brooks: Morality and Reality

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Morality and Reality
Opinion column by David Brooks, The New York Times, 5.3.26

[Letters appended.]

    The core belief that social conservatives bring to cases like Terri
    Schiavo's is that the value of each individual life is intrinsic. The
    value of a life doesn't depend upon what a person can physically do,
    experience or achieve. The life of a comatose person or a fetus has
    the same dignity and worth as the life of a fully functioning adult.

    Social conservatives go on to say that if we make distinctions about
    the value of different lives, if we downgrade those who are physically
    alive but mentally incapacitated, if we say that some people can be
    more easily moved toward death than others, then the strong will prey
    upon the helpless, and the dignity of all our lives will be

    The true bright line is not between lives, they say, but between life
    and death. The proper rule, as Robert P. George of Princeton puts it,
    should be, "Always to care, never to kill."

    The weakness of the social conservative case is 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.

    Moreover, most of us believe in transcendence, in life beyond this
    one. Therefore why is it so necessary to cling ferociously to this
    life? Why not allow the soul to ascend to whatever is in store for it?

    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.

    On one end of that continuum are those fortunate enough to be able to
    live fully - to decide and act, to experience the world and be free.
    On the other end are those who, tragically, can do none of these
    things, and who are merely existing.

    Social liberals warn against vitalism, the elevation of physical
    existence over other values. They say it is up to each individual or
    family to draw their own line to define when life passes to mere

    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 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.

    You are saying, as liberals do say, that society should be neutral and
    allow people to make their own choices. You are saying, as liberals do
    say, that we should be tolerant and nonjudgmental toward people who
    make different choices.

    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

    You end up exactly where many liberals ended up this week, trying to
    shift arguments away from morality and on to process.

    If you surveyed the avalanche of TV and print commentary that
    descended upon us this week, you found social conservatives would
    start the discussion with a moral argument about the sanctity of life,
    and then social liberals would immediately start talking about
    jurisdictions, legalisms, politics and procedures. They were more
    comfortable talking about at what level the decision should be taken
    than what the decision should be.

    Then, if social conservatives tried to push their moral claims, you'd
    find liberals accusing them of turning this country into a theocracy -
    which is an effort to cast all moral arguments beyond the realm of
    polite conversation.

    Once moral argument is abandoned, there are no ethical checks, no
    universal standards, and everything is left to the convenience and
    sentiments of the individual survivors.

    What I'm describing here is the clash of two serious but flawed
    arguments. The socially conservative argument has tremendous moral
    force, but doesn't accord with the reality we see when we walk through
    a hospice. The socially liberal argument is pragmatic, but lacks moral

    No wonder many of us feel agonized this week, betwixt and between, as
    that poor woman slowly dehydrates.

    E-mail: [2]dabrooks at nytimes.com

The New York Times > Opinion > Terri Schiavo and the Moral Divide (5 Letters)
March 29, 2005

Terri Schiavo and the Moral Divide (5 Letters)

    To the Editor:

    I disagree with David Brooks's analysis of the moral beliefs of social
    conservatives and liberals in the Terri Schiavo case ("Morality and
    Reality," column, March 26).

    How can conservatives believe that "the value of each individual life
    is intrinsic" when they support the death penalty and value the life
    of a fetus more highly than the life of the woman carrying the fetus?

    If that were their true belief, they would not be so cavalier about
    sacrificing thousands of American and Iraqi lives so that we can feel
    that our country is doing something about terrorism.

    Liberals do not say that "it is up to each individual or family to
    draw their own line to define when life passes to mere existence," a
    belief Mr. Brooks finds "morally thin." Liberals rely on medical
    science and the rule of law to advise them in such difficult matters.

    Conservatives appear increasingly indifferent to both medical science
    and the rule of law. That is not just morally thin. It is morally

    Deborah J. Lee
    Westport Point, Mass.
    March 26, 2005


    To the Editor:

    David Brooks doesn't address the central aspect of the Terri Schiavo
    case. The circuit court found what it called "clear and convincing
    evidence" that Ms. Schiavo would not have wanted to be kept alive
    indefinitely on a feeding tube.

    The state is not deciding that Ms. Schiavo's life has less value than
    Mr. Brooks's or mine, but rather that Ms. Schiavo herself would want
    the feeding tubes removed.

    What the "moralists" are really arguing is that a competent Ms.
    Schiavo would not have the right to refuse the feeding tube and that
    the laws allowing for living wills, health care directives, health
    care powers of attorney and the like are immoral.

    Katharine Blumenthal
    Chicago, March 26, 2005


    To the Editor:

    David Brooks calls the social liberals' position in the Terri Schiavo
    case "morally thin" because it focuses on who makes the decision
    rather than on what the decision should be.

    I thought the point about the "right to die" position is that there
    should not be a universal standard, but that the person himself (or
    his surrogate) makes the decision for himself.

    The position that no one can tell me I must be forced to live by
    extraordinary means is surely based on moral grounds.

    Barbara Gish-Scult
    New York, March 26, 2005


    To the Editor:

    The primary consideration when determining whether someone's life
    should or should not be artificially prolonged in a vegetative state
    should be the individual's expressed wishes.

    As a gastroenterologist, I have both placed and removed hundreds of
    feeding tubes over the years. Medical professionals do not provide
    medical care, including that which could be lifesaving, if the patient
    expresses, or has expressed in the past, that such care is not

    That Mr. Brooks (as well as Congress, President Bush and the
    protesters outside Terri Schiavo's hospice) does not seem to take the
    individual's wishes into account is frightening.

    David R. Neiblum, M.D.
    West Chester, Pa., March 26, 2005


    To the Editor:

    David Brooks reveals the conflict between the positions of social
    conservatives and liberals in the Terri Schiavo case and criticizes
    them for failing to offer a compelling moral argument that can be
    adopted by all.

    But basic unresolved moral conflicts have existed throughout history.
    Unlike science's capacity to determine empirical and theoretical
    truth, ethics provides no objective method to determine moral truth.

    Moral disagreements can be resolved, not solved, by democratic
    processes, like those used in the Schiavo case. To aspire to universal
    moral absolutes reflects a romantic naïveté.

    Howard H. Kendler
    Santa Barbara, Calif., March 26, 2005
    The writer is a professor emeritus of psychology, University of
    California, Santa Barbara.

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