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Encased in flesh

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More on ‘The Ghost in the Machine”

Chris at Mixing Memory has a new post up in his ongoing debate with Sirius’ Brandon. It’s been good reading and this is more of the same. Standing outside this particular debate, it seems to me that as interesting as it is, it is probably doomed to go in circles and be inconclusive, and not just because of the subject matter – although obviously that’s a very large part of it. The whole issue comes down to the plausibility of the concept of “personhood” in our lives here and now. Chris writes:

I don’t think it’s the case that we have never had a precisely delimited cut-off point for personhood. In fact, I think that traditionally, both materialist and non-materialist concepts of personhood have rested on the presence of a mind, be it in the form of a working brain or the presence of a soul.

It seems as if Chris is assuming his conclusion in this passage. Maybe it is only a misunderstanding of the traditional Christian view. In any case, the passage struck me. It is true that western religion has held that there exits for every one of us a material body and a soul that is pure spirit. This does not work out as an equivalent to the modern mind / body dilemma, and that is because in our earthly lives, the two cannot be separated. The soul is encased in the flesh, and that is why the body has to be respected in a very high degree. That is why Christians traditionally look down on loose sexuality, drugs, tattoos, reckless piercings and so on. In our high tech world, this is why Christians generally oppose medical practises that treat a living body as if no one was home. It also spills over into how Christians view marriage and identity. In sum, it has a very large influence on how we view the world. Pope John Paul’s much lauded “Theology of the Body” builds on it.

In his post, Chris points to another blogger, Micheal Berube, who is writing in response to a Weekly Standard article I referred to here in one of my Schaivo posts. You might remember it; it was the one that argued that liberal thinking put too much value on autonomy and as a result had a difficult time fully respecting the disabled. It is Berube’s post in the main that I want to write about, building on the idea of a soul encased in flesh.

Berube writes:

So let me hit the ball back into [Weekly Standard writer] Cohen’s court: this is what ideological conservatism now seems to believe – whether in regard to the earliest or latest stages of life: that decisions should be made not by individuals or families, but by those who have decided that their moral judgments about such matters are objectively correct, and who have made those judgments enforceable by means of the power of the state.

Berube goes on to talk about being the father of child with down syndrome. He thinks such a diagnosis should not lead straight to the abortuary (so far, so good) but takes umbrage at the idea that his opinion should be enforced by law.

In both the deontological and utilitarian traditions, I believe that prospective parents who say “having a ‘tard, that’s a bummer for life” or “if he can’t grow up to have a shot at becoming the president, we don’t want him” are technically known as “assholes.” And forgive me, all you mullahs and moralists out there, if to this day I remain unpersuaded of the transcendent virtue of compelling such people to bear children with disabilities.

There is an important point here that it seems to me is sliding by Berube, and that is that, following his logic, disabled people’s lives are contingent on another person’s approval. As he argues it, the people so empowered are the parents, or a spouse. Without that approval, the disabled person has no right to live. How is that not “someone who has made their own moral judgements enforceable by the power of the state?”

The crux here ought to be that we have one or more people deciding the fate of another. The fact that it is happening at a small and local level does not alter this very basic fact or make it more pallatable. This is not what happens on the pro choice side, which is an attempt to find a balance between at least two sides in opposition. I know somebody out there is spluttering at this moment, but please bear with me. I know that carrying through with a child that is unplanned, unwanted or not perfectly healthy is hard. I know that. So is abortion. I’ve heard enough of those stories to know that there is no easy choice. If the child lives, however, it can be looked after by others. This isn’t easy to do but it has the virtue of respecting the other person -yes, person- whose future is at stake.

When Berube writes that the pro life side of the debate has “decided” it is correct, the phrasing suggests that there is either no truth at stake, or that it is unknowable. It’s pretty tough to establish that something is unknowable, and if there is no truth – well, why are we even talking then? Having dismissed option two, we see that there is a truth here, albeit one that is difficult to see. It is either true that the soul is encased in the body from conception or it is true that this happens at some later point (for the second option, materialists could insert the word mind in the place of soul). The question becomes, not having first person knowledge of what happens, how should we act? Surely the rule “do no harm” is sensible here. That’s a good heuristic and it comes down firmly on the side of life. When I say there is a person other than the decision maker at hand, that is how I arrive at that conclusion. If I am wrong and the soul arrives much later than conception, the “harm” is a larger population of disabled people. If Berube is wrong, we have murdered countless souls.

Berube concludes:

Liberals do not believe, pace Cohen, in treating incompetence itself as reasonable grounds for assuming that life is not worth living. But we do believe in granting others a zone of privacy from state scrutiny in order to allow other people to make intimate decisions about pregnancy or end-of-life care, and we believe that we are bound to honor those decisions even when we ourselves regard them as uninformed or mistaken. Those of us who are familiar with disability issues know that many of our fellow citizens – on the left and on the right – will regard incompetence as reasonable grounds for assuming that life is not worth living. While we may regret this, we do not take our regret as license to override the “living wills” of persons determining for themselves the degree of medical care they wish to receive or refuse. We do not believe that autonomy is the only or the highest good, but we do believe that the refusal to recognize the autonomy of others does violence to their human dignity.

That last sentence is a mind-blower -not on the issue of living wills- but on abortion and in cases like Schaivo where there was no will, living or otherwise. If pulling the plug on Terri or an unplanned baby isn’t “a refusal to recognize the autonomy of others [that] does violence to their human dignity,” then what is?

It seems Berube is using the dualist notion of personhood here. He does not see a soul encased in flesh, as a Christian does. He wants his right to act on that belief respected. Ok, fine. He has that private right. It extends to about the tip of his nose, or perhaps to his own “living will.” It does not translate into us allowing violence leading to death against another. The neutral position is to let things take their course. “Zone of privacy” is a meaningless distraction here. Can we assume that incapacitated person, or a baby, consents to being placed in such a zone? Can we really make a magic room, though a legal fiction, that alters the meaning of what goes on inside it? The addition of the word ‘private’ is an attempt to skirt the fact that the heuristic that most people would use is against taking the chance of being complicit in murder. Saying this is a ‘private’ issue simply restates, without adding anything to the debate, that one or more people want to make a decision that others may disapprove of. The rhetoric is empty.

Before I make my final point, I want to bring up a conservative writer, Paul Cella, making what appears to be a mirror image of Berube’s point about protecting people from being pushed around by cadre of self proclaimed experts. Cella’s topic is the worthiness of using the court’s to win gays the right to marry (as opposed to campaigning on it). Cella asks:

Is it possible that the decisive objection of gay marriage lies not in its substance but in the method of its enthusiasts? If so, other questions demand attention. Could it be that what so many Americans-Democrats and Republicans, red-staters and blue-staters, men and women, Pacific Northwesterners and Southerners-are so jealous to protect, against the truculence of the innovators and despite all the stigma that attaches to it in polite society, is the nature and form of their government, which the innovators are threatening to subvert? Could it be that what the innovators in their enthusiasm have inadvertently put at issue is the very thing that makes all other issues fade into the background? Could it be that they have threatened, by opening it up to existential examination, the very thing which was so precious that Lincoln mournfully led the nation into a bloody war of brother against brother to preserve, that it “shall not perish from this earth”?

I would answer: yes. The proponents of gay marriage, in choosing as their final legislator the courts of this country, have thrown open to question, in a radical way, the very idea of self-government. They have made us think the unthinkable: that we might no longer be governed, however untidily, however frustratingly, by Publius’s “deliberate sense of the community,” but rather by a judicial plutocracy, egged on by the urban sophisticates. They have asked us to answer a terrible question. They have asked us to answer whether America will be a republic anymore. The editors of the journal First Things cogently captured the outward legal character of this calamity: “The question before us is how the Constitution will be amended: by judicial fiat or by ‘We the People of the United States’ employing the means established by the Constitution.” They did not go to the deeper philosophical question of our constitution as a republican people.

All four of the writers we’ve looked at here (Chris, Brandon, Berube and Cella) are tackling very tricky issues. Part of their difficulty lies in the difficulty of obtaining the needed facts. The other half of the problem is finding the right heuristic to use when we need to weigh the desires of competing groups in a difficult spot like that, and applying it consistently across relevant issues like abortion, euthanasia and gay marriage. I have mentioned one already that I think relevant and useful – ie. do no harm. To the credit of these writers, they all seem to have, in one way or another, sensed that decisions are best made at the local level, by people nearest and most affected by it.

This principal of smallness and localness has a name in Catholic thought: it is called the principle of Subsidiarity. For my purposes, I’ll call it our second heuristic. Where the quoted writers differ is in where they locate the lowest level. Berube and Chris stop at the level of the family and take the view that the family can choose what to do with “its own.” They acknowledge that families can be exploitative and argue that it is a cost or a risk that society must bear if the just principle of smallness is to survive. But society is not the one bearing the risk. The ones in danger are the small, the weak and the disabled. As this heavily left article points out,

“Leftists have the same problem everyone else has with new civil rights movements,” says philosophy professor Ron Amundson of the University of Hawaii. “They believe in the same rights and protections for ‘everyone’, but they’re not sure who ‘everyone’ includes. Thomas Jefferson didn’t include slaves in his ‘everyone,’ for example.

When it comes to the issue of same sex marriage, our two heuristics 1) do no harm and, 2) subsidiarity, do not, strictly speaking, give us an answer. They do suggest that caution is warranted in any attempt to re-make an old and very basic institution. More importantly, the two suggest that the proper way to go about having this debate is outside of the courts. It is hard to see how the court can in any reasonable way be considered lowest and smallest part of society able to deal with the issue. If there is merit in it, the argument needs to be made to the voters of a democratic country. Each individual voter needs to weigh it and vote accordingly. Unless the changes to the law reflect the thoughts of a self governing people, the law is merely imposed, as Berube phrased it, “by those who have decided that their moral judgments about such matters are objectively correct, and who have made those judgments enforceable by means of the power of the state.” This argument does not ignore or exclude gays, but explicitly says that they are fully members of the public and can bring their concerns to be debated in public fora. One cannot say the same thing about Chris and Berube’s stance on the rights of the disabled. The ‘zone of privacy’ has the same kind of ring to it that ‘states rights’ had before the US civil war.

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Written by Curt

April 12, 2005 at 4:36 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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