One of the many interesting things about writing a blog, and the rapid feedback it provides, is writing a post with a particular viewpoint and then having a reader write back, disagreeing, who then goes on to make the same point you thought you just made.
True clarity in writing or speaking is a difficult proposition, especially in a medium that doesn't afford the luxury of extensive revision and editing.
This point occurred to me this evening when I received a note from a reader disagreeing with my earlier post about the Schiavo case.
Respectfully and patiently, the reader told me that I had missed the issue which was really at stake and then went on to press the point about the rule of law.
As I suggested above, I couldn't find anything in what he said that I disagreed with. So evidently, in some fashion or another, he and I were talking past each other. And when I considered it further, the issue that I hadn't dealt with clearly enough was the difference between this case in its moral dimension and its legal one.
When I said this case was "murky and dark and difficult to reason through" I was talking about the moral and human questions it raises. Who's right and who's wrong in this instance? Whose wishes should prevail in such a case? How do we compare the life of someone who has no consciousness of their surroundings or existence to someone with all their faculties intact?
Let me share with you one of the letters about the Schiavo case that has had the greatest impact on me ...
1) My mother suffered cardiac arrest in May 2003, and was revived, but with severe brain damage. I faced the do-we-pull-the-plug decision. Everyone -- doctors, other family members, etc. -- assumed that I would and this place enormous pressure on me. I took me a week to realize that, in my own mind, the decision was equally clear: I did not want to pull the plug. My mother's doctor spoke condescendingly of my "not being ready to let go yet". The doctor at the nursing home, to which she was moved, couldn't hide the shock on his face when I told him I'm an atheist, and that, no, I wasn't doing it for religious reasons.
The point is this is just to note that we are -- at least in New York, where I live -- pretty far along toward the pro-life-support position becoming disreputable, and I hope some good comes out of the Schiavo case in at least letting people who feel as I do know that they are not alone. Schiavo's parents, let's not forget, have been trying to preserve her life: this wasn't a case invented by Republican attack group.
So, yes, the moral case is cloudy, difficult and painful. But the legal one, as near as I can tell, is not. And that, to me, is the crux of the matter.
The law is not the same as morality. Law is rooted in values and moral judgments, yes. Often moral judgments are what prompt us as a society to pick up the pen again and rewrite the law. But the two are not the same. And that is precisely the point. That is the power of the law -- or one of its great attributes, what makes the 'rule of law' more than just empty rhetoric.
It is precisely because we cannot come to agreement on the most contentious and profound questions of morality that we have the law -- an agreed-upon-in-advance set of rules -- to find our way to solutions which are at least equitably-arrived-at if not necessarily moral or ones that we ourselves agree with. The alternative is a descent into public violence and lawlessness, which we are already seeing the first hints of in Florida.
There is a high public morality at stake in respecting the rule of law even in cases where we disagree with the outcomes it generates or even find them immoral in themselves.