Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

In Liberalism’s Troubled Search for Equality , Robert P. Jones takes the measure of contemporary assisted-suicide advocacy through a distinctly liberal lens. He has impeccable credentials for this task: He is the director and senior fellow at the progressive think tank Center for American Values in Public Life, given birth by the progressive political-advocacy group People for the American Way. In fact, it is Jones’ fervent liberalism that leads him to declare boldly that legalized assisted suicide violates the principle of “egalitarian justice.”

This is an interesting, and one might even say daring conclusion, particularly given that it conflicts with mainstream thinking of the liberal establishment. This includes the views of liberal guru and philosopher Ronald Dworkin, who has long championed assisted suicide in books, articles, and amicus court briefs.

Jones deeply admires Dworkin, yet he doesn’t hesitate to hoist the philosopher on his own petard by demonstrating that assisted suicide violates Dworkin’s oft-stated principles of egalitarianism, which Jones laments stem from “peculiar inconsistencies within his theory.” Thus, Jones writes not out of animus but devotion to the cause, hoping that, by extricating assisted suicide from other progressive agenda items, he can help his movement take “a critical step on the path toward a more egalitarian liberalism.”

Jones opens by approving Dworkin’s view that “commitments to liberty and equality . . . lie at the heart of contemporary American liberalism.” He then explains the principles of egalitarian liberalism to readers who may not have much spent time exploring and comparing competing philosophical schools of thought. It is good pedagogy, succinct and understandable. For example, he quotes Dworkin’s description of liberty¯often summarized by the word choice ¯as being epitomized by the right to “speak in politics,” to couple “with willing sexual partners,” or “to march in unpopular demonstrations.”

At the same time, liberal egalitarians don’t perceive that liberty is an absolute value. In some cases, it should be tempered by the more urgent need to promote universal equality, meaning “equal concern for each life,” with particular attention to be paid to the well-being of the weak and vulnerable. When these two weight-bearing pillars of egalitarian liberalism clash, in Dworkin’s words, “it is a conflict liberty must lose.”

The final element in Dworkinian liberalism is hostility to religion in the public square, which is seen as interfering with the essential task of arriving at shared principles of justice and maintaining civility “among radically incommensurable and mutual hostile conceptions of ‘the whole truth.’ ” Achieving these goals requires distinguishing between the “right,” described by Jones as “values that can be known by all,” and the “good,” meaning “values that only register within particular communities.” Egalitarian liberals contend that only the right can be enforced by law, not that which even a majority of citizens perceive as good.

But religious people too often conflate their view of what is good with the right¯and shove it down the throats of those who see it differently. In so doing, Dworkin (but not Jones) believes they violate the twin virtues of liberty and equality, which leads to oppression and loss of freedom.

If this seems a bit complicated, in Jones’ hands it isn’t. The author does not discuss this, but it seems to me that liberal arguments in favor of same-sex marriage aptly illustrate how the “egalitarian agenda” argument Jones champions is framed:

1. Since the question of the propriety of homosexual conduct is a matter of the good rather than the right, as a matter of liberty, gays and lesbians must be free to express their sexuality without fear of societal censure or adverse public policy consequence.

2. Hence, equality’s insistence that all lives be valued equally requires that civil society and the government treat homosexual love partnerships the same as heterosexual unions.

3. Objections to such homosexual liberty and equality are based in religious moralism; and, since society and government must be neutral about claims in support of the good, they are illegitimate bases for forging public policy; hence,

4. Civil marriage for gays and lesbians must be recognized by courts and state and federal statues as a fundamental right.

Dworkin has written that such egalitarianism analysis similarly requires the legalization of assisted suicide because the only bases for opposing legalization are allegedly religious-based or otherwise moralistic¯“about the value of the meaning of life.” Jones adamantly disagrees, and this is where their differences lie.

Jones contends that assisted suicide, whatever its liberty claim, profoundly violates the superseding liberal principle that all lives are to be equally protected, since some suicidal persons will receive facilitation,and others prevention, some better care than others, some could be coerced through economic circumstances into not being a “burden,” etc. This being so, and since equality trumps liberty whenever they conflict, Jones argues that assisted suicide should not be legalized¯much less made a constitutional right¯particularly given the profound social inequalities faced by the seriously ill, the elderly, and people with disabilities. Moreover, their exclusion of religious voices in the public square, rather than helping society determine the right, actually renders egalitarian liberals unable to “hear the real voices of the disadvantaged it promises to champion.”

Throughout the book, and especially in the chapter entitled “Missing Persons,” Jones hearkens repeatedly to the powerful critique against assisted suicide that has been mounted with increasing effectiveness over the past ten years by the disability-rights movement. People with disabilities, along with the elderly, racial minorities, and the poor, are forced to cope with profound social inequalities. This is particularly dangerous given their difficulties in accessing quality health care, the threat posed to those patients whose expensive care is threatened by the drive to control medical costs, the predominance of managed care and for-profit medicine, along with the relative poverty in which many people with disabilities live. Or, as the disability-rights slogan has it, “Don’t talk to us about death with dignity until we have been assured of life with dignity.”

This argument is forcefully presented by Jones through the voice of Elly Jenny, a disabled Oregonian who is very active in the disability-rights movement. (Full disclosure: I know Jenny but did not know she had been interviewed for Jones’ book.) Jones quotes Jenny at some length, such as her bitter dismissal of the blithe assurances frequently made by assisted-suicide advocates that legal guidelines will protect against abuse. She tells Jones:

I live in a world of economics, of my HMO, that’s my world. I don’t have a choice about this insurance or that or only breaking a leg once in my life. You know, I’m dependent on health care. I’m dependent on rationed care. These guys have no idea. Most of them are white and wealthy and able . . . . They can’t see this as an issue beyond choice . . . . They don’t live in a world that’s different, they don’t. They live in a world that’s able and going and doing. It’s not thinking about being able to go and do and what you do in between . . . . It amazes me that Democrats were the ones in the thirties and forties to say that its discrimination to kill a black person and not have anything happen to you. Right now they can’t see its discrimination and bigotry to kill a disabled person. Like Kevorkian¯most of the people he killed weren’t terminal; they were disabled. Why can they see with blacks and not with disabled?

This is the “real world,” Jones claims¯a profoundly “inegalitarian society and health care system” for the disadvantaged who would be affected adversely by legalized assisted suicide, an environment that Dworkin and other liberal proponents of legalizing assisted suicide simply refuse to see. In this they are elitists, Jones charges, and he withers Dworkin by denigrating his advocacy of assisted suicide as a mere “expensive taste.”

Throughout the book, Jones is thorough and meticulous, covering a broad canvas of philosophical argument, social science analysis, and the oft-neglected practical aspects of the assisted-suicide debate as these matters apply specifically to egalitarian liberal ideology. I think Jones’ almost exclusive focus on the debates about Oregon, however, gives the book a bit of a dated feel. For example, it is true that the disability-rights critique was indeed “missing” in 1994, when Oregon voters passed Measure 16 legalizing assisted suicide. But the disability-rights movement had not engaged the issue at that time. Today its voices are hardly missing in the fray. In my experience their clarion opposition is the primary reason assisted-suicide advocates have not managed to spread their agenda beyond Oregon’s borders. Indeed, disability-rights activists deserve plums for helping defeat repeated attempts to legalize assisted suicide in the legislatures of California, Vermont, and Hawaii (just to name three). They also played crucial roles in voters’ rejecting legalization initiatives in Michigan in 1998 and Maine in 2000.

Still, Jones’ logically argued and precisely aimed brief against assisted suicide from a liberal philosophical perspective¯no call to respect the sanctity of human life here¯is a distinct service to the broader debate. He proves to anyone with eyes to read that legalizing assisted suicide would be decidedly illiberal and would be an exercise in crass solipsism. As Jones notes in his conclusion:

If liberals could summon the moral vision, integrity, and political will to forego, even temporarily, a liberty for the privileged that is costly to the already disadvantaged, this act would communicate a sincere commitment to equal concern and social solidarity. Failing to make these connections is tantamount to claiming that, in these circumstances, the lives of the disadvantaged matter less, and that position is one that no true egalitarian can tolerate.

So true. But, in my experience, committed assisted-suicide advocates, unlike the author, aren’t much interested in bringing about an ideal liberal and egalitarian society. Rather, theirs is an agenda of the privileged pursued mostly by single-minded advocates who want what they want¯the right to die in the time, manner, and method of their own choosing. In achieving this goal, they don’t much care who gets hurt.

Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute , an attorney for the International Task Force on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide , and a special consultant to the Center for Bioethics and Culture.


Liberalism’s Troubled Search for Equality: Religion and Cultural Bias in the Oregon Assisted Suicide Debates by Robert P. Jones

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter Web Exclusive Articles

Related Articles