Thin Freedom


Competition is stiff, but David Brooks may have pulled out the no-prize for most obtuse Terri Schiavo column in a mainstream publication. Annoying, but too strangely common to clinch the award, is the puzzling contrast between the "moral" tube-pluggers and the "pragmatic" tube-pullers, as though denying the intrinsic virtues of prolonging life under all circumstances weren't equally a moral position.

No, it gets truly insipid when we get down to details, in particular the claim that the "liberal view" (that is, a view that emphasizes letting persons decide when and whether their lives are worth living—leaving aside the principal-agent problem in this case) is "morally thin" because:

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….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 decisions.

First, I hope it's not necessary to point out the deceptive conflation of very much distinct issues going on here: There's a world of difference between saying that someone mustn't be prevented making a decision about his own life and regarding it as immune from moral criticism or debate. We routinely morally disapprove of choices we wouldn't dream of presuming to make for people. But in case it is necessary, I just did.

There's also something vaguely offensive about the reduction of the painful decision to end one's life with "mere taste" as though someone might say: "Yeah, I like strawberries and Outkast, but I don't much care for sardines, Yanni, or living." Still, if it's "relativist" to say there's no external, objective standard by which a life can be judged worth continuing or not, above and beyond the assessment of the person whose life it is, then I suppose I'm a "relativist" in that sense. The desire for a "thicker" guide here—a rule based on some transcendent principle that can supercede that assessment—betrays a desire to slough off moral reponsibility by outsourcing tough decisions to some standard that picks up the burden of choice for us.

And that gets us to what's most deeply misguided here: the notion that what's morally "thin" in the public sphere is "thin" tout court. First of all, the "liberal" position here may be thinner at that level, though it need not be. The "life's good, mmkay?" position is "thicker" in that it's rooted in what Rawls would've called a "comprehensive conception of the good"; a metaphysically freighted conception of value. The "liberal" position could be defended on comprehensive grounds—by means of the value of autonomy and the self-created life, as per Mill—or thinner pluralist grounds, as per the late Rawls. But the "punting" entailed by the thin, pluralist version of the argument is meant precisely to facilitate greater moral "thickness" at the individual level—to let individuals assess their situation in greater depth than is attainable if we demand precision in the public-level rule set out for all cases. A law specifying who was to marry whom would doubtless be "thicker" than a rule allowing us all to make our own decisions, in the sense of being more complex and detailed, but it couldn't possibly approach the "thickness" of the individual evaluation of partners we each make under the "thin" rule.

NEXT: Judge Judy Meets Fear Factor

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  1. Faither healer refuses to heal Schiavo.

    You know, there would be a big fat check waiting for him if he went ahead and applied his powers to the case. 🙂

  2. David Brooks’ rant on morality reminds me of the old Ted Knight line from Caddyshack: “Ive sent boys younger than yourself to the gas chamber. I didn’t want to, but I felt I owed it to them.”

  3. Wow, someone has been re-reading Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. 🙂

  4. Brooks should probably define what he means by “morality” in the article. What’s moral for me might be different than someone else. For instance, I see nothing wrong with having a drink, going to a casino, or having sex, but lots of others do on “moral” grounds.

  5. David,

    Well, there’s also bizarre notion that collective morality is somehow inherently better than that of the individual, which I don’t think the historical record supports.

  6. Gary,

    On top of that, there are many different collective moralities who all claim superiority. Which one should be the standard? Brooks doesn’t clarify.

    I think it all boils down to placing the governance of your life in the hands of someone else. Lots of people seem to like doing that. I don’t.

  7. Brooks column was more geared towards the kinds of folks who think “What Would Jesus Do?” represents some unique philosophical and moral insight.

  8. The desire for a “thicker” guide here–?a rule based on some transcendent principle that can supercede that assessment?–betrays a desire to slough off moral reponsibility by outsourcing tough decisions to some standard that picks up the burden of choice for us.

    It may be a desire for a clear definition of self and group. The responsibility falls on the chooser, whether that choice is guided by a set of laws or by well-practiced sophistry. As the individualists add detail (thickness) to create a continuum, they also erase the standards by which they assess themselves. One is never completely a failure if given enough time to argue extenuating circumstances. “It may look bad, but I had to do it, if you consider x, y, and z.”

    Laws, being abstractions, may require exceptions to remain useful. When the exceptions are no longer exceptional there is no justification for any choice beyond personal whim.

  9. Dynamist,

    I like “personal whim” in most situations.

  10. Dynamist and gaius marius must be twins. 🙂

  11. So the whims of the many, outweigh the whims of the few? Because from my vantage point, all morals begin as someone’s whim.

  12. David,

    A great many people’s “whims” have given way to a moral belief that says the unprovoked harming of others is wrong. If I walk up to someone and hit them, that is wrong. If I walk up to someone and steal their wallet, that’s wrong. Surely, this collective whim must have been started, at some point, by the singular whim of a singular human being.

    This is the basic problem of conservatism: it fails to draw a line between one set of morals: that which governs actions which directly affect others; and the other set: that which governs more tertiary and removed actions which have little or no effect on others.

    So, anyway, I don’t buy the argument that, since every moral belief is nothing more than the collective whim of the people, that no morality is externally valid. Rather than dismissing externally-enforced morality on the preface that it’s all a whime, you’d be better pressed to draw a think line between the whims which govern that which have a direct external effect, and those which do not; then, you can safely say, those which do not, are not externally enforceable.

  13. David: There’s a non-theist hyptohesis which suggests morality is derived through natural selection. Acts of altruism help a group surivive, by outcompeting groups lacking in altruism. The non-altruist groups spend all their time shafting each other to satisfy their whims, while the the altruists can trust and cooperate toward larger projects. Some altruists may get screwed, but the group along with its surviving altruists carry the charitable impulse forward.

    God or not, there’s a good case that morals are not exclusively individual, but include preferences which serve the collective.

    (This is not to endorse the perversions made by those who use leadership of the collective to adjust group morals to fit their personal whim)

  14. The two positions Brooks discusses both have moral content, but they differ in their vulnerability to abuse. Quality of life is a continuum, and there will always be temptations to shift the decision point for reasons unrelated to the interests of the affected person. What Brooks labels the liberal approach is morally “thin” not because it lacks moral content, but because it is subject to such opportunism; for the same reason it has proven too dangerous to adopt as a society’s official operating principle. The Nazis began by killing the defective and disabled; by the time they got around to the “ethnically defective,” those who might have objected found the moral ground they wished to stand on had been mostly eroded away.

    But Brooks is also right that the conservative, either/or position, although not morally thin, is inadequate for decision-making in the real world. That finally must be left to the private decisions of families and doctors, who will usually proceed on the basis of judgments about quality of life. The moral absolute needs to be there in the background, though, as the small voice reminding us that we may not acting perfectly, perhaps not doing quite the right thing, even as we proceed.

    There is an untidy societal compromise at work here, a kludge, a patch, an uneasy truce, but it’s the best we will do; these are not principles that can be melded or chosen between. At best, we can provide a context in which they can work around each other, with a respectful nod as they pass. Provoking them into public confrontation has no upside. Hegel defined tragedy as what occurs when two valid but opposed moral principles collide, and that’s what makes the Schiavo case a tragedy. We need to do what we can (e.g., have the necessary legal documents executed) to insure that these public confrontations of principle occur as infrequently as possible. Otherwise, as we have seen, a delicate balance is lost and neither side reacts with much maturity; we are all losers for that.

  15. I often get emails offering me the chance to obtain a longer, thicker, moral guide…

    And to think that Russian women want to meet ME.

  16. Evan,

    I didn’t say all morals were wrong because the were someone’s whim. By whim, I mean choice.

    I used the word whim because that’s what people call choices they don’t agree with, as though the person making such can’t possibly have thought it through if they arrived at a different conclusion.

  17. God or not, there’s a good case that morals are not exclusively individual, but include preferences which serve the collective.

    agreed, mr dynamist — to mr gunnels shock, i’m sure. 🙂

  18. There are two kinds of people in the world: Those that think Brook’s Binary Social Argument Machine produces articles worth considering, and those who think the only thing more frustrating than the insipid content of his articles is that chattering classes give his articles the daylight they need to put food on his table. In fact, this is THE most important division in society. I have it on good authority that one group votes for Republicans, wears red, and goes to church; while the other likes Democrats, is smart (you know, the Woody Allen thing), and listens to NPR on Sunday mornings.

    I’ll say it right here. Brooks should starve as a writer until he has something less desperate to write.

  19. Byron,

    You disfigure the historical record.

    The Nazis didn’t just start with the weak and disabled; their plan from the start was based on eradicating defects from the German national make-up. And those that wanted to object continued to do so quietly throughout the war; the problem is that most Germans came to believe these things. So it wasn’t a slippery slope at all. See Koonz, The Nazi Conscience.

    The Schiavo case is entirely different.

    The moral absolute needs to be there in the background, though, as the small voice reminding us that we may not acting perfectly, perhaps not doing quite the right thing, even as we proceed.

    This just begs the question. What is the “moral absolute?” Where does it come from? From what fundyland?

    As to the untidiness of life; well that’s always been the case.

  20. Well, at least the body of Schiavo didn’t expire of the Easter weekend. Many Christians would have gone apeshit.

  21. I’m not much one for making laws, but if I could make just one, I’d make one mandating that anyone caught using the word “moral” in public be kicked vigorously in the groin.

    Hopefully, that would help them to focus on their own reproductive system, rather than everyone else’s, and as a side benefit, might inhibit their ability to reproduce. Which would be one of the few instances where yet-another-law actually contributed something to the “common good”.

  22. Gary,

    The trajectory of Nazi policies and public acceptance or resistance continues to be a highly contentious topic; that’s because the historical record is not as clear as you suggest. The book you cite is one of a great many, and it does not represent a consensus. There is no consensus. Protest that can only be “quiet” has little chance to be effective on any significant scale, and effective, principled protest got you where Bonhoeffer ended up, on the end of a rope. Public sentiment cannot be easily gauged in situations like that. The Nazis’ plans are one thing; my point is precisely that moral erosion would be part of the explanation for why “most Germans came to believe these things,” if they did. The brute facts are that extermination began with the disabled and defective, and that state-sponsored murder was subsequently extended dramatically. I don’t think calling that progression a slippery slope adds anything, so I didn’t call it that.

    It is not necessarily of much importance where moral absolutes (I should have used the plural, sorry) originate, although historically, as far as I know, the ones with staying power have always had a religious or quasi-religious basis. The reasons why one would expect that to be the case are obvious enough. Since I don’t consider questions about the truth of moral assertions to be meaningful, I would consider their origins to be important only insofar as those would impact their functioning. I’d be very surprised if it were discovered that there was no such impact, but it wouldn’t change my argument.

    Some kinds of untidyness are capable of being tidied up, at least in principle. But, as I said, I don’t think this is one of those. Some headlines today talk of Congress hashing out the issues surrounding the Schiavo case. I look forward to that with some trepidation. Sometimes, hypocrisy is a decent compromise, in which case we probably are better off to let it ride under the radar.

  23. Were the Nazi’s pragmatic about morals, or were they absolutist? My impression has always been that their appeal in Germany was that they offered a strict moral calculation that Germans of the time found appealing.

  24. deron,

    Totalitarian regimes can never recognize or be restrained by moral principles that transcend the regime; they are always pragamatic and opportunistic in the extreme. Lenin was very explict that morality must mean only what the Party requires it to mean at a given time and for a given purpose. Hitler went to great lengths to co-opt, harness, and corrupt the clergy, to destroy it as a source of independent moral authority. Lenin and Stalin did their best to destroy the Russian Orthodox church in every aspect. Non-religious sources of moral constraint, like the German (and Russian) universities, paticularly their arts and humanities faculties, got similar treatment.

    Probably the most plausible interpretation of the German people’s behavior in the early ’30s is that they were willing to look the other way, or even buy into the program, for the real economic benefits that Hitler’s rearmament program was delivering, following terrible economic times. He also preached pride and self-respect to a humiliated people, and he named the internal enemy that he said had brought about their humiliation. All the while, the many layers of the Nazis’ totalitarian control mechanisms were being put into place, a highly coordinated and thoroughly encompassing network of indoctrination, surveillance, rewards, and punishments. Resistance soon became a difficult matter, to say the least. We all wonder how we would have acted in such circumstances. It’s impossible to know, but my best guess is about like the average German did.

  25. “Well, at least the body of Schiavo didn’t expire of the Easter weekend. Many Christians would have gone apeshit.”

    Yeah, if she had died on Good Friday, you would be sure to have fundies/mackerel-snappers claiming they saw here “resurrected” on Sunday.

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