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.