Thursday, March 31, 2005

Respecting the Dead for the Sake of the Living

Steve Landsburg’s economist’s take on the Schiavo case has been getting some attention. His basic argument is this: Terri Schiavo is effectively dead, and that means her preferences no longer matter because they no longer exist. What do matter, at least potentially, are the preferences of living people: her husband and parents. The rest of the article tries to sort out which preferences (of living people) should be counted and how competing preferences should be weighed against each other.

Tyler Cowen and Trent McBride both argue against Landsburg on essentially anti-utilitarian grounds, saying this is just the kind of case where weighing of preferences is not the right approach. Says Cowen:
Nor do I think that family decisions -- whatever your view in the Schiavo case -- should be decided by a real or hypothetical societal auction. If there is any "protected sphere" for human decision-making, surely it is here. The problem is that we don't agree on how to define the guardian of the sphere -- is it "Terry" or "husband as guardian of a no-longer-living Terry"?
Tyler’s point is sensible, but I think a counterargument to Landsburg can be made on utilitarian grounds as well. The reason is that a person’s happiness does not depend solely on current enjoyments (in philosopherese, instantaneous hedonic utility). It also depends on memories and anticipations. Anticipations are particularly important here. My current happiness is affected by what I think will happen in my future. Imagining a long and productive life enhances my current sense of well-being; imagining myself a quadriplegic diminishes it. Imagining my final years being spent hooked to machines, even without consciousness or pain, also diminishes my present happiness. Legal rules that eliminate or reduce that possibility of an undesirable death can therefore enhance your happiness during your life.

Lest we underestimate the importance of anticipatory utility, note that having our wishes about the fate of our bodies respected is one of the main reasons people get married. It’s among the leading arguments made by gay couples who want legal recognition of their unions: they want to put someone they love and trust in charge of their remains (whether those remains are dead, living but unconscious, or somewhere in between as in Schiavo’s case). The very same argument provides the justification for respecting a dead person’s expressed wish to be buried on hallowed ground, or to be cremated and have his ashes strewn over the Pacific: the likelihood that the wish will be respected gives some satisfaction or tranquility to the deceased before they die.

Once you’re dead (or approximately dead like Schiavo), of course, you don’t care. But fulfilling the wishes of the dead (or approximately dead) creates a precedent that affects the expectations – and thus the happiness – of the living.


Anonymous said...

Respecting people's wishes as expressed in their will with regards to the disposition of their body is of miniscule importance when compared to the disposition of their assests, just ask the heirs (or the one's that got left out).

I used to espouse the view that the state should confiscate all "excessive" wealth if not before you die then surely afterwards, but everybody hated me grumbling,"why should the government get my money,I hate the government." Well, have I softened my views over time? Of course not, I'm stubborn. But the conclusion is not that that the government will get all your dough after you die but that you must divest you're excessive wealth BEFORE you kick the bucket. The heirs need to be given their goodies and know that you love them way in advance of grandma's demise. Now wouldn't that make a lot more people happy right away? Yeah! Happiness is cuddling a puppy! If Bill Gates had $50,000,000 in the bank instead of $50,000,000,000 would he really be any less happy. Bull twinkie! I assure you that there would be multitudinous societal benefits to spreading the wealth immediately, but I will let you dwell on those splendiferous prospects. So, I will stop right here for now because I've got to divest myself of my 40 acres and my mule before she eats the probate documents. Glen, do you want my mule? By desisting, I'm sure I've just made a whole lot of libertarians much happier--but definitely not one plug nickel richer!

AMcGuinn said...

The amount of respect to be given to the wishes of the dead has always been controversial -- at least since 1278