Persons, corpses, and toasters

Can it really be true that Steven Landsburg can’t tell the difference?

As someone who spends a lot of time and energy trying to persuade people to use economic analysis as a way of looking past their moral and policy intuitions to the “effective truth” of the choices that have to be made in the world, all I can say to Steven Landsburg is: YOU’RE NOT HELPING!

It’s sometimes hard to tell whether Landsburg (1) is naturally obtuse, (2) has become obtuse through long and careful training, or (3) knows perfectly well that what he’s saying is absurd and disgusting, and is just trying to stir up a fuss.

Here’s Landsburg’s take on the Schiavo affair, which puts more crudely a sentiment earlier expressed by the editors of the Wall Street Journal and by Jane Galt, who links to Landsburg with apparent approval:

This is essentially a fight about what to do with her body: [Her husband] wants to dispose of it; [her parents] want to feed it. And the question arises: Once someone has decided to dispose of a resource, why would we want to stop someone else from retrieving it? If I throw out a toaster, and you want to retrieve it from my trash, there’s a net economic gain. If Michael Schiavo essentially throws out his wife’s body and her parents want to retrieve it, it seems pointless to prevent them.

It would be easy to respond to this with a hypothetical: Would the same reasoning apply if Michael Schiavo wanted his wife’s body cremated and her ashes scattered, and her parents wanted to have her body stuffed and mounted instead? But that, of course, is beside the point.

Terri Schiavo is (was) a person, not a broken toaster. (See item #3 in Lindsay Beyerstein’s eloquent post.) If she is alive, then her right to refuse treatment trumps her parents’ desire to keep her heart beating. If she is no longer alive, then she ought to be buried, rather than being kept warm at the cost of $80,000 a year in Medicaid funds.

Landsburg thinks that the wishes of the dead about the disposition of the bodies they used to inhabit shouldn’t be binding on the living. I have some sympathy for his conclusion, especially when it comes to organs for transplant. Still, I can’t parse the argument Landsburg offers for that conclusion, which seems to imply that we should keep promises only in cases where the custom of promise-keeping has good incentive effects. That can’t be right. Even if we stick (as Landsburg would prefer) to strictly preference-centered reasoning, why shouldn’t my current preferences about the future disiposition of my body count?

If you value (today, while you’re still alive and valuing things) the knowledge that your body will be, e.g., be given a Christian burial, your preference about the future is just as genuine as any other preference you might have. And the only way to fulfill your preference for knowing now that your body will be decently buried in the future is to have a custom that doesn’t allow someone else to make a different decision after you’re dead.

Moreover, Landsburg completely ignores the consideration that doing with someone’s body what he or she wanted done with it is a way of honoring that person, and that honoring the dead is one important function of funerary ritual.

When it comes to my own corpse, I agree with Landsburg that it’s really none of my business how it will be dealt with. (As Socrates said when Crito asked “How shall we bury you?”: “However you please; but you’ll have to catch me first.” [Phaedo 115a.]) But that is not, it seems to me, a good reason for Landsburg or me to impose our indifference on others who actually have preferences about the matter.

If you believe that (1) what Terri Schiavo would have wished for herself in her current condition can’t be known; that (2) her current status counts as being alive; (3) that everyone should be presumed to want to remain alive unless there is conclusive evidence to the contrary; and (4) that the wish to remain alive should be honored whenever possible, using public resources if necessary, then you have good reason to think that Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube should be reconnected. None of those beliefs is inherently absurd or disgusting.

That’s more than can be said for thinking about a person, or even a person’s body, as a broken toaster.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: