How Morally Culpable is Joe Lieberman?

Via Dylan’s twitter feed, James Poulos remarks that Ezra Klein’s characterization of Lieberman’s moral failure on health care was “reckless and irresponsible hyperventilating.” Here’s the offending sentence in the offending post:

That is to say, he seems willing to cause the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people in order to settle an old electoral score.

Strong words! But not so irresponsible, I think. The objection Poulos raises is that the more accurate construction would be to argue that Lieberman is letting hundreds of thousands of people die. He argues:

In truth, of course, to kill a bill that would prevent people from dying is not to kill those people — just as refraining from saving a person in mortal peril is not causing them to die.

But that’s not a proper analogy. To refrain from rescuing someone only requires passivity; it’s about what you’re not doing. For Lieberman, that would mean not voting at all. What he did instead was to threaten to filibuster the bill, thereby killing it. That isn’t inaction, but action–extraordinary action, in fact, although threats of filibustering have become so prevalent that we tend to forget just how extraordinary a measure it is.

The proper analogy, then, would not be refraining from rescuing someone, but instead actively obstructing a rescue attempted by someone else. Imagine that in more concrete terms: say a United States Senator was physically restraining a paramedic who was on her way to administer a necessary, life-saving procedure. If we are reasonably certain that the individual the paramedic is intent on saving would recover were the procedure administered, and if we’re also reasonably certain that the procedure would be administered were the paramedic not physically restrained, then it’s hardly “irresponsible” to claim that the person doing the restraining is causing a death.

So yes, Ezra Klein’s description of what Lieberman did was accurate. His post on the topic wasn’t an out of line assault, but a public service; if only more pundits articulated the actual consequences of all this parliamentary maneuvering as clearly as he did.

One Response

  1. Reasoning worthy of Emmanuel Kant.

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