Saturday, March 26, 2005

Absolutism

Left2Right: black, white, gray:
When liberals say that I should be allowed to decide when my life would no longer be worth living, I object to their making life-and-death decisions a matter of personal preference. But I also object when conservatives insist that my body should be kept alive even if it is permanently bereft of consciousness. My objection is not that they are imposing moral absolutes on what I regard as a matter of personal preference: when it comes to morality, I share their absolutism. My objection is that they are imposing on me a metaphysical conception of who and what I am -- a conception based on religious views that I do not share.
This is the conclusion of a fascinating essay on the problems with a purely libertarian view of life-ending ("It's my decision to make about my body") and the conservative view ("Life ends when it ends naturally"). David argues, as I have, that the liberty at risk isn't the right to control and end my own life, but my right to believe what I want about when life begins and ends.

Conservative authoritarians want to force their expansive view on everyone. Liberals want people to be able to draw that line on the basis of their own complex morality. I know that I've said elsewhere that this is about individual liberties, and framed it as an issue of who controls my body, but I think that it was always this argument, that medical technology and the natural processes of death create a gray area and individual morality differs on where to draw the line on death, is always what I was thinking. The "I'll make decisions about my own life" argument cuts both to the control over the physical person and to the control over the morality which would govern the treatment of the physical person.

Here's an example. I give blood regularly because blood transfusions can save lives. If I get hurt, I want some blood from the blood bank. There are people who refuse transfusions for various (often religious) reasons. By refusing that treatment, they are killing themselves. Their right to make that decision is not driven by a right to determine the borders of life. No one questions that they are fully alive. But they have a right to have something put into or taken out of their body.

Terri Schiavo expressed a desire not to have a feeding tube remain in her body under certain circumstances, and she and the state designated her husband as her legal guardian. They are carrying out her stated wish not to receive certain treatments. The inevitable consequence of that refusal is death. Therefore, there is a reasonable argument to be made for individual liberties over the person's body.

But why doesn't that extend to people who want to put a knife in their body, or to bleed themselves to death? Because we don't think that's reasonable, and we judge someone who wants to inflict harm on herself to be insane, and incompetent to make that decision. Why is Terri Schiavo different? Why are patients in Oregon different?

David's argument has some merit, that individuals draw the end (and beginning) at different points. So a patient on the downward slope of a disease can refuse treatment, and allow death to occur naturally. There is some path to a coherent ethical position here, revolving around intentionality, and randomness, but I don't quite have it.