Why We Cannot Reach Compromise

Original Article

The other day, I read a column in the National Post that made my stomach turn. It wasn’t the quality of the writing, which was quite good, but the content. The writer celebrated a recent Canadian Supreme Court ruling that determined lethal-injection termination is a charter right. As a result, euthanasia will soon be bureaucratized and normalized—made banal—in Canada:

 [S]ooner or later, death will become a civil servant. He will operate in the open, during business hours, with a budget and a boss. His work will be humanized and bureaucratized. Death will be licensed, regulated and empowered by law to solve a public policy problem—the unacceptability to certain people of certain types of dying.This marks a major shift in the meaning of death, from ineffable human destiny to legislated human right….

This argument elevates absolute personal autonomy and the prevention of suffering to the highest purposes of human society. That such a value system includes eliminating the sufferer is seen not as a vice, but as a virtue.

This positive view of euthanasia is antithetical to everything I believe. I first described my views about medicalized killing in a 1993 Newsweek column, in reaction to the suicide of my friend Frances under the influence of the Hemlock Society’s pro–assisted suicide literature:

 It is a cause I now deeply despise. Not only did it take Frances, but it rejects all that I hold sacred and true: that the preservation of human life is our highest moral ideal; that a principal purpose of government is as a protector of life; that those who fight to stay alive in the face of terminal disease are powerful uplifters of the human experience.

My purpose in today’s column isn’t to convince readers to adopt my opinion. Rather, I intend to illustrate why the West is increasingly incapable of engaging in true debate, achieving broad consensus, and reaching compromises about our most important controversies.

A debate, it seems to me, requires a baseline commonality of fundamental values and desired goals. Sharing a common ethical understanding and seeking mutually compatible ends, debaters contest the best means to attain the mutually desired goal. For example, in my youth, there were many debates—some of them quite bitter—between liberals and conservatives, “doves” and “hawks,” over how to win the Cold War. But there was no fundamental disagreement about the imperative of our prevailing over the Soviet Union.

Contrast those Cold War debates with the current discord over euthanasia. Where is there room for debate or compromise between two incompatible worldviews? Those arguing about euthanasia are speaking two different moral languages.

Let me give an illustration of what I mean. Several years ago, I was invited to an international bioethics conference as a panelist on euthanasia. My co-panelist was a Dutch ethicist who supported his country’s liberal legalization regimen. We sparred courteously for an hour, and although the discussion remained cordial, we found no points of agreement, either on means or ends.

At the end of the convention, one participant—a UN bureaucrat—told me angrily that many people were upset because I was not willing to engage in “conversation.” I was surprised. “I flew 6,000 miles to engage in conversation,” I replied. “I have respectfully listened to opposing views and been civil in presenting my own opinions.”

“But you refuse consensus,” he complained. That’s when I realized that I hadn’t been invited to discuss and defend my viewpoint. Instead, I was brought there to reach an agreement, to find a compromise, by accepting “a little euthanasia” as the middle ground. But that was a fool’s errand—for me, a little euthanasia is still euthanasia.

Give-and-take is possible when the subject is something technocratic, like tax rates or the proper speed limit, or when the debaters agree on ends. But for matters involving bitter differences over fundamental values, or, to borrow a term, issues that derive from or impact “first things”—abortion, religious liberty, sexual and gender controversies, the death penalty, terrorism and war—“compromise” is unachievable, because accord would require one side to surrender its moral views to the other.

That leaves us tolerating different opinions—increasingly our default setting—rather than engaging in fruitful debate as a true community. But we aren’t that community anymore. This does not mean that our estrangement will last indefinitely, but it does mean that society will have to choose between contesting and incompatible worldviews. As Lincoln put it so well about the slavery crisis that roiled his time: “I do not expect the house to fall—but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other.”

Wesley J. Smith

Chair and Senior Fellow, Center on Human Exceptionalism
Wesley J. Smith is Chair and Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism. Wesley is a contributor to National Review and is the author of 14 books, in recent years focusing on human dignity, liberty, and equality. Wesley has been recognized as one of America’s premier public intellectuals on bioethics by National Journal and has been honored by the Human Life Foundation as a “Great Defender of Life” for his work against suicide and euthanasia. Wesley’s most recent book is Culture of Death: The Age of “Do Harm” Medicine, a warning about the dangers to patients of the modern bioethics movement.