I described the liberal as having a two-stage view about end of life issues. First, comes something like the "life as continuum" view Brooks attributes to us. Second, comes a principle of free choice – I think that I should make my own decision on this, but that my view should not control others, though I may try to persuade others that my view is correct (non-relativism). The problem here is that I think a lot of liberals don’t recognize that the second principle really does depend on something akin to the first. If you hold views about the sanctity of life and the doing/allowing distinction that lead you to the conclusion that failing to keep alive someone who could be kept alive is the equivalent to murder, then adopting a principle of free choice at the second level makes no sense. An absolutist view on the first question requires an absolutist view on the second question.
I think the last sentence is not actually true, due to ambiguity in ‘absolutist’. It can mean either: cleaving to a black-white view of a matter (that other folks say they see in shades of grey.) Or it can mean: insisting that views besides one’s own are beyond the pale of moral reasonableness and tolerability. Let’s thumbnail the first absolutism: denying the continuum; the second: denying pluralism. These may sound as though they come to the same, and they probably have a tendency to run together; but in fact they are distinct.
Take Brooks’ column. He is clearly tempted to deny the continuum. He is drawn to bright lines. He has a (deeply confused, I should say) sense that bright lines are, per se, a sign of moral health. So he could find himself holding a stark black-white view of these matters, if he doesn’t already. But he is not equally tempted to say that those who see shades of gray are beyond the moral pale. He understands the appeal of the continuum position. He clearly sees it as morally intelligible, as sincere and advanced in basic good will, hence as inevitably respectable in some minimal sense (albeit crucially flawed, in his eyes.) In short, Brooks shows how easy it is to see things personally in absolutist, continuum-denying terms, yet at the same time to affirm non-absolutist pluralism when it comes to the possibility of minimally respecting the views of those are continuum-affirmers. [Since that last sentence is humorously hard to read, it will almost do to substitute: believing in a sharp distinction while tolerating the views of those who try to say it isn’t a sharp distinction.]
This happens all the time. Brooks is in, or very nearly in, this position. I suspect that the vast majority of the ‘culture of life’ warriors are as well. That is, they do not fail to understand why the other side feels as it does. As Brooks’ says, "The weakness of the social conservative case is that for most of us, especially in these days of advanced medical technology, it is hard to ignore distinctions between different modes of living." Brooks’ doesn’t say: ‘most ‘culture of life’ warriors find it hard to imagine why anyone would think it is more permissible to pull feeding tubes out of a brain-dead woman than it is to shoot dead a healthy young woman with her whole life ahead of her. For them these are merely two cases on the same side of a bright line.’ He doesn’t say it because it wouldn’t be true. But it is precisely the acknowledged reasonableness of the other side’s position that makes this a matter for liberal/liberatian preference, i.e. individual choice.
Consider this exchange between Hewitt, Hinderaker and Reynolds. Hewitt is at pains to emphasize that his disagreement with Reynolds is "a very cordial disagreement among friends." But if it is indeed the sort of question that friends can cordially disagree about, then how can it be regarded as anything but a matter ultimately to be left to individual choice?
And that’s why I think Matt is too quick to grant that "an absolutist view on the first [continuum] question requires an absolutist view on the second question [about pluralism]." That said, the pattern of moral reasoning he maps out fits many disputes – e.g. the abortion dispute – better. So it is important to recognize the pattern.