Saturday, March 26, 2005


A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. -- Ralph Waldo Emerson

I suppose the nature of the Web makes it inevitable. You start in familiar territory. You follow a link, and from there follow another link, and from there to the next, and the you go just one link further ... and suddenly you're in the belly of the beast. Someone you've never heard of is on a rant about "those people" and you realize that in all likelihood you are one of those people. At least, the ranter you have never met will automatically identify you as one of those people. And even though you've never met this person, and probably never will, you suddenly feel the need to explain yourself, to demonstrate that the rant isn't on target.

I'm going to explain myself here, even though the chances of anyone whose rant actually sparked the explanation actually reading the explanation are vanishingly small.

Personally, if I were in Terri Schiavo's position, I would not want to be kept alive. I would want my parents to respect my husband's efforts to look out for my interests. I would want them to try to make their peace with the fact that the part of me that was important -- to me, and I would hope, to them -- was gone. I would want them to figure out how to keep my memory alive in their lives, but I'd want them to let go of the bodily shell.

Does this mean I want the power to "play God" and "kill Terri Schiavo"? No. Indeed, it feels like the combination of modern medical technology and political grandstanding is working the "playing God" angle. We have the technology to keep the bodily shell alive, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's a good thing to do so. (Shouldn't people of faith, who think it's the next life that really matters, be concerned about our ability to "trap" people in this life for over long?)

Is there a basic inconsistency between supporting efforts to let Terri Schiavo go and supporting stem-cell research to explore treatment for Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease, and other illnesses? There might be if stem-cell research were aimed at saving people in Terri Schiavo's condition. But it's not. Rather, I think the hope is that medical application of stem-cell research might help people avoid getting to such desperate states.

Maybe the alleged inconsistency is something like this: Terri Schiavo's feeding tube is an unnatural intervention extending her life; it's bad because it's unnatural. But stem-cell treatments would be an unnatural intervention to extend other people's lives, so we ought to be against them as well. Of course, this would depend on some hard line between the natural and the unnatural that has some moral relevance, and it's just not clear that there is any such line. And I don't know anyone whose argument depends on there being such a line. We watch what we eat. We get vaccinations. We exercise. We cross at the crosswalk. How natural is any of this? Why would it matter anymore?

Another version of the alleged inconsistency: We need stem-cell research because, potentially, it will work medical miracles for people who are otherwise doomed to horrible suffering and agonizing death. But, Terri Schiavo is in a state where she is beyond the reach of miracles, so there's no point in keeping her around just in case. The inconsistency, I guess, is predicting miracles for one set of patients but not another. But here, I think there's a conflating of "medical miracles" and divine miracles. If divine miracles are going to happen, can humans thwart them? If so, why wouldn't we think that medical miracles might also be thwarting the will of the divine?

(For the record, I'm rather less sanguine about stem-cell research than a lot of people. I think the potential benefits have been oversold, as often happens when scientists are looking for funding.)

My worry about the whole shouting match is the idea that consistency depends on drawing sharp lines that are supposed to fit every situation. My experience of life is that these sharp lines really don't serve us very well (and it's not like they're pre-drawn for us to read unambiguously off the world). Life is complicated. Humans have to make tough choices. And, from my understanding of theology, that's part of the deal. Humans have rational powers because they need them. Moral agency often involves navigating through complex territory and making the best choices you can. Sometimes this involves reflecting on what is really valuable. And maybe sometimes the real value is not from achieving a particular outcome so much as coming to a better understanding of what makes our lives good.

I'm sad about polarization, and our inability to really engage each other on the hard stuff. Maybe that's because I don't have a political base I need to pander to.
Comments: Post a Comment

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?