Landsburg on Schiavo

Just when you think there isn't possibly anything more of interest to say on the Schiavo case, here comes Steve Landsburg with his always interesting viewpoint. Read the whole thing, but I will point out one point of disagreement (or, at least, weekness):

Sometimes we honor the preferences of the dead because we think the dead were unusually wise, or because "letting the dead decide" is a good rule for settling disputes without bloodshed; those are the reasons we look to the U.S. Constitution for guidance, but they don't seem particularly relevant here. The other reason to honor dead people's preferences—to enforce their wills, for example—is to alter their behavior before they die. If you promise me that my estate will go to my daughter instead of some random stranger, I'll work more and consume less—which means everyone else can afford to work less and consume more. (After all, everything I produce and don't consume is available for someone else—and available immediately, not just after I die.) That's a good reason to promise you'll enforce my will, and it's also a good reason to keep that promise, so people will believe such promises in the future.

On the other hand, I see far less reason why you should let me dictate, say, the disposal of my remains. I might have strong preferences about the matter, but once I'm gone, those preferences are quite irrelevant, and while I'm alive, your promise to enforce those preferences is unlikely to change my behavior in any socially useful way.

That's relevant to the Terri Schaivo case, because the same argument that applies to the disposal of a dead body applies as well to the disposition of a living but permanently unconscious one. Thomas Jefferson (one of those dead wise men who we sometimes go to for advice) admonished us that the Earth belongs to the living. Once Terri Schaivo essentially stopped living, it became frivolous to care about what she might prefer.

Now, I might agree that it is more important to enforce the wishes on how to divvy out the deceased's estate than it is to enforce the wishes on disposal of remains or PVS care, but that is not the same thing as these wishes not being important at all. Landsburg is being much too glib in passing them over. I think they are very important - indeed, I think they are the only thing that matters in this case.

Tyler Cowen has more.

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The Dead as "Toasters" Steve

The Dead as "Toasters"
Steve Landsburg’s latest Slate piece, on Terri
Schiavo and respecting or disregarding the wishes of the dead (or not dead, or
not quite dead), is generating quite a buzz....

Landsburg can see no social

Landsburg can see no social utility in respecting the preferences of the dead as regards the disposal of their own body.

How about happiness?

A world in which people can be confident that such wishes are respected will be a lot happier than a world in which such wishes are routinely ignored. There must be millions of people who would be distraught if they thought that their wishes as to whether they are cremated or buried etc are likely to be ignored.


Grant- That is indeed a good


That is indeed a good point, and I think the most powerful criticisms of the "culture of life" people have been from fellow Christians, who are pointing out that a "physical life at all costs" is rather at odds with a Christian conception of life & the afterlife.

For example, Neal Boortz's position is that if you believe (as he does) that the soul cannot go to heaven absent the death of the body, then it's unconscionable to keep Terri's body alive with no forseeable restoration to conscious life; in his view, she's been prevented from going to Heaven for 15 years and its morally blameworthy, not praisewothy, to try and keep her from heaven another 20 or so years (perhaps) before the body dies from being worn out/age.

Generally speaking, at least from a Christian perspective, life is valuable but not infinitely so; the faith demands a perspective greater than that of physical existence. People ought not be cavalier about death or especially the ending of life, but the faith is about (a) humility in the face of death and (b) rejoicing at the conquering of death in the face of the resurrection & general reconciliation with God provided thereby.

I understand that there are very sticky issues with regards to letting go of the taboo/social injunction against actively causing death, but it still seems to me that in some cases we can aid passing without prolonging physical ends.

If Terri Schiavo Were a

If Terri Schiavo Were a Toaster
Steven Landsburg argues that we can apply economic reasoning to help us resolve the Terri Schiavo case. Specifically, we should imagine that she is a toaster.

Now on to the preferences of her husband and parents. This is essentially a fight about wh...

You seem to pine over

You seem to pine over pragmatics in one paragraph (increased violent suicides), then extoll ethics in the next (keeping a promise). In this particular instance (Shiavo), the two happen to be on the same side (keeping your promise, and pragmatic good), but this is not always the case.

Correct. Acts we consider just and acts we believe would have good consequences are not always aligned. In such cases, I tend to side with better consequences because I don't trust our sense of justice. But, as you noted, this is not one of those cases, so I can present both arguments: one to woo those more concerned with justice, and one to woo those more concerned with good consequences.

"Would it not increase the

"Would it not increase the rate of unnecessary and violence suicides?"

It is painfully obvious that the eventual pragmatic reality of a situation has no relevance on the morality police. They have taken a position to be the one right way, and anything else, even if it is in the worst interest of everyone involved, is superfluous. It is this conscious ignorance that leads to such statements like "err on the side of life".

"don’t we have an ethical responsibility to keep our promises, even to people who are already dead?"

It seems as if you may be constructing conflicting viewpoints, Micha. For example, take the previous statement and mash it together with this one. Now, let's say an instance arises (don't ask me for specific examples, this is just an abstract) where keeping a promise to the dead would increase the rate of unnecessary and violent suicides. Which takes precedence: the wishes of the dead, or the pragmatic good of the living? In other words, either ethics (morality) takes precedence over pragmatism, or it does not. You seem to pine over pragmatics in one paragraph (increased violent suicides), then extoll ethics in the next (keeping a promise). In this particular instance (Shiavo), the two happen to be on the same side (keeping your promise, and pragmatic good), but this is not always the case.

Good point, Grant - that

Good point, Grant - that does seem to be the direction the "culture of life" is moving towards.

How we treat a person's body after they are dead may not effect their actions, but wouldn't it effect other people's actions who are alive to witness it? Would it not increase the rate of unnecessary and violence suicides? And even if it doesn't change any incentives, don't we have an ethical responsibility to keep our promises, even to people who are already dead?

As someone with a purely

As someone with a purely cognitive view of life, I have to say that Schaivo's "medical care" looks a lot like enbalming to me -- another aspect of the fetishization of the dead and their artifacts that passes for a "culture of life" in modern debate. Who cares if something is permanently functionless; preserve that corpse so that the living can venerate it and care for it!

My foremost fear from the Schiavo case is that if I or my wife ends up in that sort of situation, it will be the corpse-fetishists' preferences rather than ours that rule, and that resources will be wasted on this barbaric practice of medical enbalmment. It appears that the coming trend is that Americans will mummify their dead in tubes instead of linen; the practice is no less a product of mysticism recycled into public policy, and no less a sign that the "culture of life" is simple a culture of corpse-worship.

When the technology is available to keep the next Schiavo organically functioning forever, will they build a pyramid?

The weakness of Lansberg’s

The weakness of Lansberg’s argument is that it is purely economic. Has Lansburg driven by a cemetery lately? Seen any toasters out there? Terri Shiavo’s situation is even worse than death. She is MIA somewhere between live and death. So who knows what is just the right thing to do.