Saturday, July 01, 2006

The "Morality" and "Reality" of David Brooks

The "Morality" and "Reality" of David Brooks [Political Affairs Archives]
By Thomas Riggins

David Brooks, the New York Times op-ed page writer, calls himself a social conservative. Recently (3-26-05) he wrote an article in his paper called "Morality and Reality" in which he discusses the Terri Schiavo case and claims the moral high ground for the conservative position (replace the feeding tube.) Although this position is now moot, I want to examine Brook’s position to see if the social conservatives do indeed hold the moral high ground (which I very much doubt.)

The social conservatives, he says, hold that the "value of each individual life is intrinsic." He hold’s that social liberals (among whom for the purposes of this article I will include Marxists) do not have this view of life. But he is certainly wrong. The line between social liberals and social conservatives, in cases such as that of Ms. Schiavo, is not a line drawn between those who claim to hold each life as intrinsic, but between those who make decisions based on a compassionate world view that recognizes the value of reason and a scientific outlook as against an unscientific outlook reinforced by emotional intensity.

Brooks maintains that the "life of a comatose person or a fetus has the same dignity and worth as the life of a fully functioning adult." Is this a rational position to maintain?

If you were in a hypothetical position, say due to a fire, of only being able to save one of two lives-- that of a permanently comatose patient or that of a healthy ten year old child-- would any rational person rush into the fire to save the comatose patient and not the child, having such a choice, on the basis that the two lives were of equal worth? Does any truly compassionate person, not dominated by an emotionally unsound unscientific world view, really believe that a healthy adult woman whose life would be lost due to some complication of her pregnancy has no right to have the fetus aborted because it is of equal worth? I know there are people who hold such views, but they are rationally untenable.

What is meant by the life of a person? Brooks says that social liberals, unlike social conservatives, don’t believe in the "bright line" between life and death. He says we believe in a "continuum" between lived states and states of mere existence (such as fetal states and comatose ones.) I don’t think that is the real difference. The difference, as I see it, is that of the value to be placed on the different states. Life is life some hold. Some animal rights activists have claimed the life of a dog or cat is of the same intrinsic value of that of a human being. It is only "speciesism" that accords greater value to humans.

Without getting into the merits of this argument, I assume most social conservatives as well as liberals, would reject its conclusions. We see a value in a fully formed self conscious and spiritually aware moral being that we do not accord to mosquitos, chickens or dogs and cats (however charming they may otherwise be.)

Without this human conscious awareness there is no life in the human sense. There is a "bright line" between human life and non human life. A comatose person who is brain dead, is dead as far as as having a human life is concerned. To accord full human status in this case is to ignore scientific medical knowledge in favor of intensely held emotional beliefs founded on ignorance of the reality of the world.

A fetus is a potential human being. We can all agree on that. A lotto ticket is a potential million dollars. Few people would be just as willing to hold a losing ticket as the winning ticket on the basis of their intrinsic equality.

Brooks thinks these types of arguments are "morally thin." Why? Because : "Once you say that it is up to individuals or families to draw their own lines separating life from [mere] 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." This is a bogus objection based on a presumptive absolute morality that social liberals are not privy to. No one is saying its up to individuals or families to draw their own lines between life and death.

These fundamental medical decisions are made by qualified doctors and other scientists, by neurologists and other specialists. If a person is brain dead or comatose the family is confronted precisely with a moral choice. It is not the case that "moral argument is abandoned" as Brooks maintains. What is being abandoned is a simplistic absolute morality that has been handed down from a prescientific past and is held for emotional, not logical or rational reasons, mostly in the name of some religion or other whose followers think they have a monopoly on truth and right living and want to force their views on others. This is the moral high ground that Brooks is defending.

Any morality for our age must be based on a scientific world view and not the fantastic imaginings of ancient superstitions. It must deal with the real problems of humanity and provide solutions based on the complicated individual circumstances that confront people. It may have universalistic tendencies based on common human dilemmas, but it must also be open and flexible and realize that the ethical and moral problems facing us do not come in a "one size fits all" format.

To be fair to Brooks, he says, "The socially conservative argument has tremendous moral force, but doesn’t accord with the reality we see when we walk through a hospital." I think the socially conservative argument has no moral force. Any morality that doesn’t accord with reality is worthless. It is reduced to shouting, weeping, holding up pictures, marching around with candles and trying to bring, in the Schiavo case, food and water to the pitiful remains of a poor woman who died many years ago but whose physical body remained behind in a persistent vegetative state without even the potential for recovery. Sad case, sad people, sad morality.

--Thomas Riggins is the book review editor for Political Affairs and can be reached at

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