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David Brooks and Values Conversations From The Left
I wrote here awhile back about how political conservatives have cornered the market on “values” conversations and that it was high time for people on the left to intervene. I figured it’s time to practice what I preached and apply my idea to a concrete example.
David Brooks, one of those conservative pundits who loves to speak of “values,” recently wrote a piece in The Atlantic about Canada’s assisted suicide program. Brooks sees this program, which is responsible for perhaps one in thirty deaths in Canada, as the typical expression of what he calls “autonomy liberalism.” He defines it thusly:
“Autonomy-based liberalism starts with one core conviction: I possess myself. I am a piece of property that I own. Because I possess property rights to myself, I can dispose of my property as I see fit. My life is a project that I am creating, and nobody else has the right to tell me how to build or dispose of my one and only life.”
For him, the excesses of Canada’s MAID program, which many fear allows to the state to help people kill themselves rather than help them, is rooted in this idea. Brooks’ sophistry always relies on the fatuous dichotomies he invents to produce the necessary straw men for his arguments. He contrasts a “gifts based liberalism” (meaning liberalism in the broad, 19th century sense) that sees the value in every human life. (This is presumably his outlook.)
I must say I was surprised by Brooks’ contention, since I have heard much criticism of the program from the Left, something you would never know from reading the article. Most of the values conversation from the Right tends to involve a caricature of what their opponents actually believe, and in this case it is especially egregious.
In the first place, the emphasis on autonomy among progressives has had little to do with assisted suicide, and a lot more to do with sexual consent and reproductive rights. I feel like his use of the MAID program to attack the belief in bodily autonomy is a way for him to argue against reproductive rights without coming out and being fully anti-abortion.
He also pulls a sleight of hand beloved of conservative values pundits: he completely leaves out capitalism. There is no force in human history that has done more to shatter social bonds and reduce human beings to objects, but in the English-speaking world the people who call themselves “conservative” are unfettered capitalism’s biggest cheerleaders. It’s a deep contradiction that they are constantly trying to avoid talking about. The solipsism of his definition of “autonomy liberalism” sounds less like any political philosophy I’ve encountered and more like the logic of late-capitalist consumerism.
I am tired of the people who complain the most about traditional values being undermined being the EXACT SAME PEOPLE who want to completely unleash the force most responsible for that erosion. Hence the need for a values conversation from the left.
In terms of Canada’s suicide program, I would say that it violates a certain leftist understanding of values. As a social democrat I indeed believe that every person and human life has value, and that it is the duty of our society to redistribute resources so that every single person can live in dignity. Unlike Brooks and other conservatives, this belief is not grounded in a religious dogma that will inevitably find ways to exclude those it considers aberrant or sinful.
I believe that Canada’s government should focus more on giving people in its country better lives rather than making it easier for them to die. That belief is one that conservatives do not share, despite their declamations against the MAID program. They view sharing their tax dollars as a greater moral crime than a homeless person dying of exposure. For all of Brooks’ fuzzy talk about “gifts based liberalism,” he has zero interest in altering the material conditions of capitalist societies. As a leftist whose thought is grounded in moral values, I find this outlook to be bankrupt. Any vision of social morality that does not take material conditions into account is totally bankrupt.
Anyone who says they oppose something like MAID because it does not respect the value of human life but opposes universal health care is not worth taking seriously. Social morality is not just a matter of mentalities, it concerns our actual way of living. So yes, I agree with Brooks that human life has value above its instrumental purposes, but I also believe that value demands a redistribution that conservatives see as anathema. They cannot account for how their purported values are completely contradicted by their love of capitalism, and we should stop letting them get away with this flim-flam act.