Saturday, March 26, 2005

Morality vs. Legality

After my last post on the Schiavo case, I spent some time thinking about the moral and legal issues involved, and how liberals and conservatives differ in their basic approaches to the problem. Today, David Brooks has a column on the subject in the Times. His thesis is that social conservatives believe that " ... the life of a comatose person or a fetus has the same dignity and worth as the life of a fully functioning adult", that life is sacred, and hence, presumably, that removal of feeding tubes is akin to murder. Social liberals, on the other hand, believe that there is "... a continuum between a fully lived life and a life that, by the sort of incapacity Terri Schiavo has suffered, is mere existence" and that "... it is up to each individual or family to draw their own line to define when life passes to mere existence." Brooks claims that there are flaws with both of these: the conservative viewpoint is not pragmatic, and the liberal argument lacks moral force.

I disagree with the last statement, as do Matthew Yglesias and others. The liberal argument is rooted in moral principles, just not those which Brooks considers. The principle is that faced with such problems, individuals should be free to choose; in the event of dispute, the courts can decide. Belief in freedom and respect for the law are surely good principles to hold dear.

I want to think about the principles held by those demanding Terri Schiavo be kept alive. Either they believe that people do not possess the right to choose to be 'allowed to die' in such situations, or that the right does not apply in this case. If the latter, why not? Terri Schiavo is in a Persistent Vegetative State (PVS); electro-encephalogram results show no brain activity, even though most people in PVS have about 5% of normal activity. The courts have established that it is probable that she would not have wanted to be kept alive; even if this is discounted, her husband wishes it, and if anyone has a moral right to decide, it is her spouse. The fact that Michael Schiavo may benefit from her death should not be considered; it is routine for relatives who decide to withhold care from a patient to be named as beneficiaries in the patient's will.

For those who believe that people can choose not to be kept alive, but that Terri Schiavo's feeding tubes should be re-inserted, the only remaining moral position I can see is that the patient alone can make this choice and it must be recorded in writing (in the form of a "living will", presumably). If not for the written requirement, there would always be disagreement. This is not a very attractive position, because not everyone would write such a document, and we cannot foresee all circumstances. I, for one, would be uncomfortable to commit either way in advance of an incapacitating accident. I would want my family to make the best decision they could based on medical advice and the probability that I would recover.

With those who believe that life is sacred, and that we may never choose to let it end, I can only disagree; I (sincerely) respect that belief, but it is one I do not share. Adherents to it would do well, in my opinion, to petition for legislation in their favour. It seems to me, though, that only a minority of the demonstrators against removal of the feeding tubes share this viewpoint. What, then, is the moral position of the majority of those demanding that Terri Schiavo be kept alive? I'm genuinely curious; I'd love comments.

3 comments:

Moebius Stripper said...

For those who believe that people can choose not to be kept alive, but that Terri Schiavo's feeding tubes should be re-inserted, the only remaining moral position I can see is that the patient alone can make this choice and it must be recorded in writing (in the form of a "living will", presumably).

Where do you get this? I personally think that people can choose not to be kept alive, but that her feeding tube should be reinserted. This isn't based on a belief that only a patient can make the decision to die (like you, I'd have trouble committing to something ahead of time) - it's based on a belief that no one should die by being starved to death over a two-week period. I think that the most disturbing aspect of this case is that it's basically taken for granted that shooting Terri Shiavo in the heart or giving her a lethal injection that would kill her in seconds is murder, but that starvation over a two-week period constitutes death with dignity.

Woodworm said...

I would want my family to make the best decision they could based on medical advice and the probability that I would recover.

The courts have established that it is probable that she would not have wanted to be kept alive; even if this is discounted, her husband wishes it, and if anyone has a moral right to decide, it is her spouse.

Your above two statements are very disturbing as they lead to things very very dangerous. We are living in times of Harold Shipman. I don't think civilization has reached a decisive stage where even terminal patients themselves can be given the power to decide if or not to pull the plug - leave alone a third person - however he/she be close to him/her. It is not everyday that Bush comes up with sosmething like this - but it definitely makes a lot of sense to "err on the side of life"

If that be the question - I shudder to think of the debataes that will follow. Can severely depressed men and women allowed to take their lives? What about penuriously bakrupt people? What about people in lunatic asylums? What about people imprisoned for life without a chance for parole? What about people who cannot afford to keep their loved ones on life support - though they may have a good probability of recovery in the long term?

And when you ask proponents for legislation to define that "life is sacred, and that we may never choose to let it end" - I shudder to think of the consequences. Do you think law can ever be complete ? Do we need to define everyday activities in black and white laws? We will enter a Godel's world where there will always crop cases which cannot and should not be for the courts to decide.

Life is something we havent cracked - and we cannot ever make a decision for anybody. I am a leftist liberal, but I cannot bear to bring myself to defend for everything branded as "liberal" - just for the heck of it. I believe in the sanctity of life - and I hold that above any judiciary.

Nitish said...

Thanks for the responses; I've replied to them in a new post.