The Rarity of Moral Courage Radical Bleeding Heart image

Our Terror of Moral Choices

Nothing provokes mindless, blind hysteria quite like the prospect of having to make difficult moral choices.

No one wants to make such choices. Having to choose between two distinctly evil alternatives is horrible. There is nothing irrational about recognizing that fact. But our terror of such choices can lead us to hysterically deny that they even exist. That is irrational.

And dangerous.

Moral cowardice is the heart of the conservative mantra on the “sacredness of life.” They accuse liberals of being casual about killing, but no one takes loss of life lightly. The notorious Terri Schiavo case illuminated the differences between liberals and conservatives in instances where difficult and painful decisions must be made. Are there times when a human life has become so degraded that it is no longer, in some sense, really even human? Would you, should you be so unfortunate as to fall into a persistent vegetative state, want heroic measures made to keep your body alive after your mind had permanently disappeared?

Decisions like this are horrible. The difference is that liberals acknowledge that they are real and must be faced. This is the essential point. If liberals are true to their core values, they will respect either decision; what they should insist on is that the decision be acknowledged with open eyes and confronted honestly.

It should not be surprising that conservatives are moral cowards. They are authoritarians, and authoritarianism is about abnegating individual responsibility. Whether the issue is abortion, end of life decisions, or any other difficult and unpleasant choice, they choose to refuse to choose, and, moreover, demand that their choice be forced on everyone else.

They not only demand tyranny, but hysterically project their tyrannical rage onto their opponents. So in the great furor over health care reform, the modest proposal that end-of-life counseling be covered by insurance was demonized as mandatory “death panels.” This seems perfectly sensible to conservatives. They feel threatened, indeed terrified — terrified of the possibility of having to make a difficult decision. Of course in their simplistic, black-and-white world, it makes no sense to feel threatened by merely having to choose, although that is the case, so their hysteria converts the prospect of choice into its opposite — an evil mandate. The emotional reality is that they are being confronted with a horrible choice. The image of evil government bureaucrats coldly deciding who may live and who must die may not be supported by objective facts of any sort, but it corresponds perfectly to the terror they feel at having to make genuine moral decisions. Being forced to face reality feels like the imposition of evil “death panels.” So naturally, that is what it must be.

[Next: Do Ends Justify Means?]