Wednesday, November 10, 2004

The Pre-Established Harmony--Not

The New York Times > Health > Living for Today, Locked in a Paralyzed Body

When Attorney General John Ashcroft attacked an Oregon law allowing doctor-assisted suicide in 2001 - a case that is still working its ways through the legal system - patients with the disease were among those who supported the law in court. But while the legal case and much of the national attention has focused on the issue of the right to die, less is known about those patients who want to live, and, like Dr. Lodish, will go to extraordinary lengths to do so.

Debates between Liberals and Conservatives on some "lifestyle" issues are usually represented as disputes between those who believe that people should get what they want and those who believe that desire-satisfaction should be circumscribed by some independent, non-utilitarian principles of morality. The assumption is that people whose "quality of life" is seriously not up to snuff want death with dignity, that individuals in bad marriages want out and that members of ethnic communities want to preserve and identify with their ancestral cultures.

What people want is an empirical question and it seems likely that different people want different things. Cultural myth-makers obscure this obvious fact, often in the interests in telling us what we want to hear. It would be nice to think that people whose survival imposed substantial financial and emotion burdens on their families, and society at large, wanted to be put down. Over the past 20 years the media have featured innumerable stories of individuals who were crippled, chronically ill or elderly who wanted to suicide out to accommodate those of us who weren't--yet.

Many of us, particularly males, would like to believe that everyone wants out of "relationships" that aren't mutually satisfying. During my youth, clinging women who cramped their mens' style were berated in song and myth. Good counterculture chickies stood by their men, went waitressing to support them, had their babies and gracefully let go when the time came. Soon feminists got into the act and assured women that being dumped for a new chickie or a younger trophy wife was a blessing in disguise: they would find true love in new relationships or, even better, make careers as artists, poets or fashion designers and find themselves. In any case, the Pre-Established Harmony would kick in and everyone would be better off.

Nowadays we're assured that that members of ethnic minorities want nothing more than to preserve their native languages and cultures. In North America we actively promote "multiculturalism" and bi-lingual education. Geneology has been big business since Roots made it big in prime time and former students of Indian boarding schools established for the purpose of "killing the Indian to save the man" are suing their alma maters for "loss of language." Internationally, the 14 and 16-year old daughters of a French secular-Jewish lawyer and his secular-Muslim wife who are testing French law by wearing the hajib to school have become poster children for multiculturalism and religious tolerance.

Samira Bellil's Dans l'enfer des tournantes as far as I know hasn't been translated into English. We hear very little about immigrants who want to assimilate, members of ethnic minorities who want nothing more than to be unhyphenated 100% Americans or the majority of ethnically Muslim women in EU countries who want nothing to do with veiling, the folkways of the banlieus, or the misogynistic culture of their ancestors.

I don't know what most people want: that's an empirical question. What I do know is that we can't count on a Pre-Established Harmony to guarantee that people we want dead would prefer to die, that cast off wives and lovers will do better on their own or that members of ethnic minorities want to follow the (real or imagined) way of their ancestors.


Lindsay Beyerstein said...

Very interesting post, HE. Projection is almost always self-serving. The projections of the privileged have serious consequences for their targets.

What people want is an empirical question. However, the liberal arguments for euthanasia and no-fault divorce are very different from the "liberal" arguments for enforced bilingualism or hijab.

Liberals argue that suicide and divorce should be options. We agree that in an ideal world, everyone would have these options and no one would need to exercise them. We share the default assumptions that living people want to stay alive and married people want to stay married. To the liberal it doesn't really matter how often people have non-standard preferences. The point is that society shouldn't arbitrarily impose its preferences on the dissenters.

Politically, it matters how many people want to die or divorce. The good we can do by fighting for this right depends on how many people might exercise it. It would be foolish to spend our political capital fighting for a right that only a handful of people will ever want. On the other hand, if we determine that large numbers of people might want doctor assisted suicides or divorces, utilitarians might be moved to take a stand.

The "liberal" arguments for bilingualism and multiculturalism appeal more directly to the general will. The state has no intrinsic interest in preserving an unwanted languages or archaic ways of life. If we choose to spend limited resources promoting cultural practices, we want to make sure that the people involved welcome this intervention. Otherwise, we'd just be wasting money and unfairly imposing the preferences of a vocal minority on the rest of the community.

I'm not saying that society is automatically obliged to preserve languages and cultures, even when minority groups support these measures. However, empirical evidence of widespread opposition nixes most liberal arguments for intervention.

H. E. said...

The "liberal" arguments for bilingualism and multiculturalism appeal more directly to the general will. The state has no intrinsic interest in preserving an unwanted languages or archaic ways of life.The trouble is that states do the darndest thing--like conducting pointless, expensive wars and maintaining aparthaid systems in which they have no intrinsic interest, and quite often do impose the preferences of vocal minorities on everyone else. Once wars get going and aparthaid schemes are established, exit strategies can be hard to come by. War profiteers have an interest in promoting warfare and quite a few people are making a good living off the "diversity" industry.

There's plenty of evidence that quite a few members of ethnic minorities here and abroad want out of their ancestral cultures and that the well-meaning attempts of liberal states to accommodate minority communities set back their interests. Here, e.g. is a piece on honor killing in Sweden. Even when really godawful cultural practices like honor-killing or FGM aren't at issue, "cultural sensitivity" and the recognition of group rights undermine individual rights: culture constrains.

As far as empirical evidence goes, it's heavily filtered. The melting pot is out and the salad bowl is in so we get innumerable stories that fit the currently fashionable paradigm. Non-minority Americans enjoy diversity--they like ethnic restaurants and the opportunity to view specimens of diverse cultures without the expense of traveling abroad. Lots also like segregation and it's comforting to believe that ethnic minorities do too.

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