The Value of a Human Life

The conservative columnist David Brooks annoyed me even more than usual with his op-ed piece in the March 26 New York Times. Conservatives, he stated, hold that the value of each human life is “intrinsic” in the sense that it is immutable, a given. Social liberals, by contrast, don’t “recognize the bright line between life and death”, but rather hold to some kind of moral relativism that considers life in terms of a spectrum between a life that is lived to the fullest and one that is hardly worth living at all. This is why, in the current uproar over the case of Terri Schiavo, liberals ended up trying to shift the argument away from morality and onto due process, while only the conservatives proceeded with moral clarity.

There are two ways of looking at this issue. The first and easier way is to find Mr. Brooks guilty of gross hypocrisy and opportunism. When you think about it, you can readily see that his argument about the sanctity of human life, whatever its condition, is applicable only to lives of individuals within his own preferred group, and is invoked only when it suits his purposes.

Mr. Brooks’ implies that “moral clarity” is superior to a willingness to adhere to “due process.” This is a dangerous doctrine, and I doubt he really means it. He certainly didn’t four years ago, when his beloved conservatives took over the administration on a legal technicality, even after losing the popular vote. At that time conservatives like Brooks were all for the rule of law, morality be damned.

Mr Brooks’ assertion that all human life is equally sacrosanct is great, but how does he apply it in practice? Two years ago an articulate and idealistic young American woman, Rachel Corrie, stood her ground in front of an Israeli bulldozer engaged in the morally dubious act of demolishing Palestinian homes. The bulldozer operator looked her over, thought about it, and crushed her like an insect. Where was the moral outrage from American conservatives? Zip. She was on the wrong side. Her life didn’t count.

All very well, we can agree that Mr. Brooks applies his argument hypocritically and opportunistically. But what about the argument itself? Is there any merit to the claim that there is indeed a bright line between life and death, and that the so-called liberals fuzz it up?

I believe most liberals attach great value to any human life, whether the individual happens to be a member of the home team or not. In this sense they are more humane, and less inconsistent and opportunistic, than the conservatives Mr. Brooks represents. But they also recognize that as our scientific understanding advances, the problem of defining the threshold between life and death becomes more nuanced. The liberal is willing to explore nuance, and reject simplistic answers simply because our ancestors, knowing no better, used them. So in this sense Mr. Brooks is right, but draws the wrong conclusion. We liberals consider ourselves masters of our own fate, and willing to take responsibility for our actions. This implies using the knowledge we have to the best of our ability to work out solutions to current problems that are in the common interest of humanity. It does not imply willingness to accept moral judgments just because they are hallowed by tradition. For us, the buck stops here.

Tell me, Mr. Brooks, on that basis, and leaving aside the issue of your opportunism and hypocrisy, which of us occupies the higher moral ground?

Carl Coon 3/27/05

This entry was posted in Topical Issues. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The Value of a Human Life

  1. G man says:

    Conservatism supplies the military with all their demonic psychos. And they believe in the death penalty. I could go on, but the answer is simple. Liberalism could loosely be defined as the value of human life, and conservatism it’s opposite. That’s why Jesus was a liberal.

Comments are closed.