Preposterous Universe

Thursday, March 24, 2005
Rule of law and the laws of nature

Look, I'm as big a fan of the rule of law as the next guy. So I sympathize when people get upset because the religious right wants to toss the law out the window when it appeals to them; for a not-notoriously-liberal example see Andrew Sullivan (via uggabugga).

But, let's be honest. Imagine that something I thought was terribly immoral was happening, in full accordance with the rule of law. Laws banning gay marriage, for example. Then I would work as hard as I could to get the laws changed. As Will Baude points out, that's basically what DeLay and his cronies are trying to do in the Terri Schiavo case; they're working fully within our constitutional machinery, trying to alter the laws to get the outcome they desire. (Of course, they're doing it for ghoulish political reasons, not moral ones. And they're not doing a very good job, passing legislation that is blatantly unconstitutional, ignoring separation of powers, and so forth. But because these are such shoddy and desperate measures, they will ultimately fail; that's the way the system works. Nobody is manning the ramparts and ruling by force.)

Put another way: let's imagine that an actually qualified doctor (and no, random Nobel Prize "nominations" don't count) invented a miracle cure that could truly restore Schiavo to her pre-heart-attack state, with full mental faculties. Then I would be all in favor of keeping her alive until the cure could be tried, no matter what Michael Schiavo wanted to do, or was allowed to do by the law. And toward that end, if I were a legislator, I'd be trying everything I could think up to keep her alive.

So the crux of the matter is really that there is no such miracle cure. Terri Schiavo, the person, is gone. Her cerebral cortex has been destroyed. There is no possible way for her to be restored. It's really an appreciation of this fact about how reality works, rather than an abstract respect for the rule of law, that separates the different sides of this issue. Those who think that Terri Schiavo's feeding tube should be removed, in accordance with her own wishes and those of her legal guardian, understand the blunt fact about her state, namely that she is for all important purposes dead. Those who think there is a moral imperative to keep the tube in are under the misimpression that there is still a functioning person there, and that letting her die would be murder.

Those people are wrong. Over at Shakespeare's Sister there is an interesting discussion of how secular and religious liberals can relate to each other. I think that to many of us secular types, we can easily get along with religious liberals on almost any issue; but there will always be an underlying difference, because (to us) they are getting wrong some basic features about how the universe works. Most religious liberals are not in favor of dramatic intervention in the Schiavo case, but it wouldn't be intellectually inconsistent for them to be -- perhaps God will somehow work a miraculous cure. An acceptance of the fact that the laws of nature really are laws, and that the universe isn't going to put them aside for occasional interventions in our personal interests, sometimes does affect how we live our everyday lives.

Update: For discussion of what it means to be lacking higher-brain functions, read Chris at Mixing Memory.

Ideas on culture, science, politics.
Sean Carroll

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