If Terri Schiavo Were a Toaster

Steven Landsburg argues that we can apply economic reasoning to help us resolve the Terri Schiavo case. Specifically, we should imagine that she is a toaster.

Now on to the preferences of her husband and parents. This is essentially a fight about what to do with her body: He wants to dispose of it; they 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.

This is a fascinating heuristic device except for one minor detail. Terri Schiavo is not a toaster.

Landsburg’s argument is that we should value the preferences people express while they are alive/conscious only to the extent that abiding by their wishes will cause them to act in a socially beneficial way while they’re alive. While there is a purely utilitarian argument to be made for this position, it has the fundamental problem of treating people as commodities rather than, well, people.

If we are going to make decisions as to what to do with people based on their economic productivity, we could, to take one current example, just euthanize all retirees. This would solve the Social Security crisis overnight. And why not? Would people stop working hard while they’re productive? It’s doubtful, since people would still have incentive to maximize their happiness. Indeed, people would have every incentive to continue working–and at a productive level–far later in life, less they be deemed unproductive and euthanized.

We don’t do this because we value human beings beyond their economic utility. People are ends in and of themselves, not merely means to some end.

While Terri Schiavo no longer has any idea whether her wishes are being followed, we honor her basic humanity by trying to carry out her wishes. As best we can tell, Terri Schiavo would not have wanted to live in her current state. Additionally, the man she chose as her mate has also judged that prolonging her technical life at this point is not what she would have wanted. The happiness that ignoring her wishes might bring to her parents is completely irrelevant. She is not an object.

See also, Terri Schiavo Utilitarianism.

Update: Michelle Malkin, Megan McArdle, Trent McBride, and Tyler Cohen also comment on Landesburg’s piece. (Megan, a/k/a “Jane Galt,” says more in the comments below.)

James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Jane Galt says:

    But Terry Schiavo isn’t, according to those who want to pull her tube, a “people”: she’s a corpse. If she isn’t (to all intents and purposes) a corpse, then we shouldn’t pull out her feeding tube.

    There’s good reason for treating people differently from corpses. For example, I can contract with my local Hilton to let me stay in one of their rooms indefinitely, but I can’t contract with them to let me be buried in one of their rooms, even if they are willing to write the contract. Nor can I arrange to have my body hung in my neighbour’s yard (or my own yard), even though no one would stop me, the live person, from spending my life in a tree if I so chose. I cannot make legally binding decisions about the fate of my children (other than who their guardian shall be, or how they use my money), even though I could make those decisions if I were still alive. I cannot prevent my spouse from remarrying without benefit of divorce, selling our domicile, or sending my children to military school . . . etc.

    That’s the key difference between euthanising senior citizens and disposing of Terry’s remains so as to maximise general utility. If Terry is, in some fundamental way, not an object, then on what grounds are we justifying denying her food and water based on hearsay testimony about her wishes?

  2. James Joyner says:

    But we honor the wishes of the deceased, to the extent it does not contradict some public policy purpose, as to what to do with their remains. Do they want to be buried in the family plot? Cremated vice buried?

    We also honor reasonable economic wishes, as specified in wills, trusts, and so forth.

    As to Terri’s wishes, we generally presume that the spouse is the person who makes that call even absent evidence as to what they might have wanted.

    Further, testimony as to what some person told you is not hearsay. Most eyewitness testimony is based on what the witness saw or heard. Hearsay is reporting on what someone told you that someone said–i.e., third hand information. It’s impermissible under most circumstances because one can’t cross examine the witness.

  3. Jane Galt says:

    I’m not really trying to make a legal point; I have no interest in whether Mr Schiavo’s testimony does, or does not, meet the hearsay rule. Rather, I’m pointing out that IF Ms Schiavo is a person, who has desires that should be respected, then we are in effect putting that person to death because Mr Schiavo, Mr Schiavo’s brother, and Mr Schiavo’s brother’s wife claim that Ms Schiavo spontaneously expressed to them — and no one else among her friends, family, coworkers, or acquaintances–a desire to cease living should she be in this condition.

    If she’s not a person, her wishes have much less force. Not no force; after all, it makes people happy to think that their wishes will be respected after their death. But less force than the wishes of a living person: my uncle’s legally expressed desire for cremation was overruled by my cousin (his executor), who decided that giving my uncle the treatment he wanted would break my uncle’s father’s heart, which was set on a big Catholic funeral. Most people would allow that this was utterly respectable.

  4. Jonathan Wilde says:

    I couldn’t find an email addy, so I’m posting here. Do you mind fixing the link to Trent’s post? It should be:


  5. James Joyner says:

    Jonathan: Fixed!

  6. James Joyner says:

    Megan: I would disagree as to honoring the wishes of the father over that of the dead son, but don’t know what the law is on that point. To use his body as an object to fulfill the religious fantasies of someone despite his own disagreement strikes me as contemptable.

    My position on Terri Schiavo would be identical if we had no information on what her wishes would be, as I’d then default to the husband. I’ve maintained from the beginning that the parents and/or siblings of a married person have zero standing as juxtaposed against a spouse, absent some compelling show of bad faith on the spouse’s part.

  7. ron says:

    “My position on Terri Schiavo would be identical if we had no information on what her wishes would be, as I’d then default to the husband. I’ve maintained from the beginning that the parents and/or siblings of a married person have zero standing as juxtaposed against a spouse, absent some compelling show of bad faith on the spouse’s part.”
    what could be more expressive of bad faith then living with another woman and siring 2 chidren by her. of course wanting her dead could also be construed as acting in bad faith.

  8. James Joyner says:


    He did this years after Terri’s consciousness was gone and after having spend those years taking every reasonable means to revive her. She is only alive because her parents have managed to litigate this for years.

  9. Jane Galt says:

    James, I assume that you have never been in a family where there was serious conflict between the wishes of the deceased, and the wishes of the living. Perhaps there are some people who have the stick-to-itiveness to torment a 90-year old man with the fear that his son his burning in hell in order to fulfill the wishes of an atheist who, by his own belief, will not know the difference, but not that many.

    Say my uncle had wanted my cousin to play a video in which he said all the nasty things that he’d stored up for his family, but been too cowardly to say in life. Should my cousin have enlivened the funeral with it because that’s what my uncle would have wanted? (This is, needless to say, entirely fictional; my uncle was a lovely man). If you’re an atheist, and assume the person won’t, in some sense, “know”, what kind of a savage would intentionally inflict gross pain on the living in order to carry out the wishes of someone who has no further wishes?

    I agree with the Schiavo decision on the legal side; the law is the law, and it should be carried out. I simply think that the law should be changed, for future cases, to allow, in the absence of a specific directive (not the hazy recollections of interested parties) family members who want to keep the impaired alive, to do so.

    I don’t like the way either side in this case has behaved: the conservatives calling their opponents Nazis and accusing Schiavo of abuse, the liberals acting as if the only possible reason to disagree with the Florida court were sheer meanness, total stupidity, or the political desire to pander to the mean and stupid.

    But I do think there is a contradiction in the side of those arguing that pulling the plug on Schiavo is not only legal, but obviously right: if Schiavo is indeed as inanimate as she needs to be in order to justify pulling the plug, then she is too inanimate to be treated, in any meaningful sense, as a person. Pulling the plug is not being done “for” her; it’s being done (or not) for the survivors.

  10. James Joyner says:

    Megan, You make an interesting point. I’d view a decedent’s wishes to inflict cruelty on the living differently than his mere wishes to be buried according to his own belief system, although I’m not sure where one draws the line.

    As to changing the law, I’d really hate to get into a system where husbands would have to divorce their wives in order to get on with things merely because some hysterical relatives want to keep the body “alive” via tubes when there is no medical hope for recovery.

  11. KipEsquire says:

    “If we are going to make decisions as to what to do with people based on their economic productivity, we could, to take one current example, just euthanize all retirees.”

    Same with the draft or other “public service” requirements — someone decides that their “utility measurements” of your life somehow exceed your own.

  12. Copper says:

    Now I’ve heard everything…

    Stupid way to try an make a point. Maybe the writer should check to see if he might also be brain-dead.

  13. denise says:

    “Hearsay is reporting on what someone told you that someone said—i.e., third hand information.”

    James, I already commented on the hearsay post, but just wanted to say here that what you are describing is hearsay within hearsay.

    Hearsay really is “testimony as to what some person told you,” if it is offered to prove the matter which the person told you, such as “X said the light was green.”

  14. denise says:

    By the way, I think the toaster analogy is bunk. First of all, if I have a toaster I want to dispose of, no one can prevent me from beating it with a sledge hammer before putting it in the trash can.

    Second of all, and as part of the point of Terri’s humanity, is she is not Michael’s to dispose of. As a human being, she doesn’t belong to anyone. This is why I would not “default to the husband,” as you put it.

  15. Just Me says:

    I don’t like the toaster analogy.

    I also disagree with you on your opinion of bad faith, in regards to Michael finding another woman and having children with her.

    For one thing, once he finds another woman, he has created a conflict of interest. From the GAL reports, it was made clear by Schiavo that he intended to marry his live in girl friend, once Terri was dead (that to me is a conflict), also the fact that he did not decide to pull the tube until after he decided he wanted to marry his fiance.

    The timing is just backwards. Had he decided to pull the tube, and then while still in the legal proccess met his fiance I could almost agree with you, but the fact that he met her first then decided it was tube pulling time, makes me wonder whether his position as guardian and decision make wasn’t compromised.

    I will be honest, once my husband moves on and finds another woman he wants to marry and make babies with, I personally would not want him in the position to make life and death decisions for me-because his interests lie in two different directions.