The Royal Society recently published their report on End-of-Life Decision-Making in Canada, written by an expert panel commissioned by the Society. It is well worth a read if you are interested in the topic.
Not surprisingly, there has been some debate featured in the media following the release of the report. Also not surprisingly, the most vocal opposition to the report has come from various anti-choice interest groups, and individuals well known for campaigning against end-of-life options like assisted suicide on religious doctrinal grounds. As such, the anti-choice campaigners are not particularly interested in engaging the facts in the report (facts often get in the way of paid interests), so much as they are interested in discrediting a report that makes a strong case against their preferred (often commissioned) policy positions.
The debate is well documented in a blog maintained by one of the experts on the Royal Commission panel–Udo Schüklenk. Schüklenk, after having met with opposition from the interest group representatives (among them journalists, and a law professor who has long masqueraded as a bioethicist) challenged readers of his blog to find argumentative errors in his detractors’ positions (such as this, and this), the kinds of errors any first-year university student is (or should be) taught not to make.
Not surprisingly (again…) they found many such errors, and Schüklenk details them here.
Schüklenk makes the argument that many of his detractors are not really interested in honest debate on the issue since they refuse to even acknowledge or engage facts that obviously contradict their views. (The law professor I referred to ended up regurgitating many of the interest groups’ claims, regardless of their having been thoroughly refuted by facts in the report.) He suggests we should therefore not refer to the kind of back-and-forth that interest groups engage in as intellectual debate. I couldn’t agree more.
Unfortunately, debate in the media has to a large extent become an exercise in delivering lines. Participants are not expected to engage each others’ propositions. They are expected to find opportunities to deliver the talking points they have rehearsed, regardless of what has been said by their fellow debaters.
That kind of back and forth can hardly be called intellectual, it is certainly not debate.
If my point seems fuzzy, perhaps this Monty Python skit will add some clarity.
My suspicion is that the kinds of opponents Schüklenk has been pitted against would sympathize with John Cleese’s character. “Yes, that is debate,” they might say. They would have to, in order to maintain any semblance of credibility given their style of ‘debate’. Whether siding with Cleese would, or should, have the desired effect is another thing entirely.
In deciding on policy for End-of-Life Decision-Making we need to demand that real debates be had. The flippancy Schüklenk exposes ought not to be accepted when the issues at stake are as important as they are in this case.
Setting policy requires honest engagement with the underlying issues at hand. It requires considering all of the evidence, where there is evidence to consider. Most importantly it requires real debate between people who are willing and able to engage each others’ ideas and propositions in a way that recognizes first that something has been said by another participant, and second that what was said was understood. Neither of those is apparent in the arguments posed by the aforementioned opponents to the report. They should not be considered legitimate participants in the debate. There are other, more credible, opponents who could shed light on the report’s shortcomings while engaging in real debate.