Seeking Peaceful Coexistence: The Varied Ways of Supporting a Consistent Life Ethic
by John Whitehead
That consistent ethic of life advocates are at odds with more conventional American political categories—conservative, liberal, libertarian—is well recognized. Less often recognized are the ways different consistent life ethic advocates diverge from each other and the tensions this can cause. People can understand the consistent life ethic in different ways and have different reasons for opposing various threats to human life. Treating this diversity as a source of strength rather than division for the movement is vital.
The Consistent Life Network’s mission statement speaks of the need to defend life against six main threats: abortion, the death penalty, euthanasia, poverty, racism, and war. Others might define consistent life ethic concerns more broadly or narrowly, but defending life against these six threats provides broad parameters for a consistent life ethic movement. (I should stress that while I use this statement as a guide, the analysis here is strictly my own.)
Within this consistent life ethic movement, I would identify at least four broad categories or schools of thought:
- Those who hold that killing is inherently wrong in all cases and that the six major threats to human life should be opposed for that simple reason.
In contrast to the absolutists, the other categories of people within the consistent life ethic movement do not necessarily oppose all killing in all cases, although they typically believe all six major threats to life should be ended or dramatically reduced. Moreover, they draw distinctions among the different threats to life, opposing these threats for different reasons and taking an absolutist stance against some of the threats but not others.
- Innocent versus Guilty. People in this category draw a distinction between the killing of people who are “innocent,” in the sense of not harming others, and the killing of people who are “guilty,” in the sense of harming others. The first group would include unborn children targeted by abortion or elderly and disabled people targeted for euthanasia. The second group would include people guilty of murder or other serious crimes who are now targeted by the death penalty and enemy combatants in a war who are targeted by lethal military force. Consistent life ethic advocates who make this “innocent versus guilty” distinction would argue that killing innocents is inherently wrong in principle while killing the guilty is theoretically justified. Nevertheless, these consistent life ethic advocates argue that the death penalty and war should generally not be used because of various practical problems: they too often kill innocents by mistake, they are costly and inefficient, and so on.
3. Forced versus Chosen. People in this category draw a distinction between killing other people against their will and killing in which the person being killed agrees to having her or his life ended. This distinction separates euthanasia or assisted suicide from the other five threats to life, as euthanasia is the only threat in which the target theoretically consents. Consistent life ethic advocates who make this distinction would argue that the other threats to life are inherently wrong in principle but euthanasia is theoretically justified as it respects the targeted person’s wishes and personal freedom. Nevertheless, these consistent life ethic advocates argue that euthanasia should generally be opposed because of practical problems: subtle coercion and discrimination against elderly or disabled people can too often creep into the practice of euthanasia.
4. Oppressor versus Oppressed. People in this category draw a distinction between killing carried out by a powerful group in society as part of larger systemic oppression and killing that is carried out by a far less powerful group that is the target of oppression. This distinction separates abortion, which is generally done at the request of an oppressed group, women, from threats to life such as the death penalty, poverty, and racism, which can be seen as supporting oppression by powerful groups such as men, corporations, or a racist criminal justice system. (Euthanasia or sometimes war could also be classified as killing done by oppressed groups, although I see people in this category making this argument less often.) The distinction drawn here is less clear-cut than those in the other categories. Advocates of this understanding of the consistent life ethic do not argue that abortion can be theoretically justified but instead generally oppose abortion because it takes human life. Rather, their attitude toward abortion differs from that toward the other threats to life because they argue that the women who seek abortions are targets of a larger oppressive system and deserve sympathy and support that those responsible for poverty, the death penalty, or other threats to life do not.
The differences among these categories can lead to tension and conflict. This friction is partly the result of the real philosophical differences among the four groups. The latter three groups can criticize each other for not properly understanding the moral significance of the different threats to life while the first group, the absolutists, can criticize the other three for qualifying or making exceptions to the prohibition on taking life.
Friction among different types of consistent life ethic advocates also results from differences in emphasis and rhetoric. People tend to focus on the threats they view as unambiguously wrong and will condemn them in the strongest language while being more careful and muted in their criticisms of other threats. Those in the “Innocent vs. Guilty” group may well talk about abortion more and condemn it more fiercely than the death penalty or war while those in the “Oppressed vs. Oppressor” group will do the reverse.
Such differences can even lead to a kind of “Is the glass full or half empty?” split: one group will frame their concern as “Too often people who say they are concerned about peace and social justice ignore the lives of the unborn” while the other group will frame their concern as “Too often people who say they are concerned with human life ignore people’s needs after they are born.” Such characterizations are not inherently contradictory but can irritate people on the other side.
If consistent life ethic advocates are to form an effective movement, we need to manage these different approaches to the ethic. We need to recognize these differences and agree to disagree. This means not trying to convert or expel those with different understandings. This also means not being excessively concerned with emphasis and rhetoric. Different emphases and rhetoric are a strength of the movement. They allow different types of consistent life ethic advocates to engage outside audiences who are with us on some but not all issues.
In spite of our differences, these four categories of consistent life ethic advocates can find a great deal of common ground. We can all agree that the six threats to life are serious problems that should be ended or at least dramatically reduced and probably even can agree on some steps to end them. As long as we have those points in common, we can accept and even benefit from differences
John Whitehead is President of the Consistent Life Network