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.