The Mirror-Image Counterpart of the Selfish Society

Posted on June 18, 2019 By

by Richard Stith

This 1978 article  was originally entitled “What it Means to be Pro-Life:  Toward a Political Theory for Our Movement.” It appeared in The New Human, Vol. VII No. 2, March–April 1978, a publication of the National Youth Pro-Life Coalition. 

It’s been lightly edited.

Richard Stith

Does being “pro-life” mean something more than being against abortion?  Every pro-lifer would, of course, answer “yes.”  But exactly what else it means is not quite clear.  Does it mean one is against all killing, and thus that one must also work against euthanasia, capital punishment, and war?  Does it mean that one is searching for “positive alternatives” to killing, especially in the case of the unborn?  Or does it mean that one is an all-around “pro-people” good guy, working to help everyone in every way?


Probably, it means all of these things to some extent.  But I think it also means something more exact.  I think that there’s a quite specific role that the pro-life movement has undertaken to perform. . . .

I want to argue that the specific role of our movement is to be an exact mirror-image counterpart of the “selfish society.”  That is, our job is to be a kind of counterbalance to the selfish tendencies in human nature and in politics—so that we ought not to try to do all the good things, but rather only those things which we think selfishness is least likely to take care of.

In order to make my point clear, let me first outline a model of a selfish society and of the rights which it recognizes.  The role of the pro-life movement will then be simply to further those rights which self-interest leaves unprotected.  I’m not saying that modern society is entirely selfish, but only that it is to a large extent selfish.  Therefore, we can expect  it won’t ignore matters affecting self-interest.  However, it may ignore matters of human dignity which it thinks not relevant to self-interest, and so it’s in these matters that the pro-life movement is most needed.

A Model of the Selfish Society

Even a totally egotistical and selfish person will grant some rights to other human beings.  For example, he or she will agree in general that people shouldn’t kill each other.  Why would the person agree?  Simply because the person doesn’t want to be killed, and realizes that other selfish people won’t promise not to kill him or her unless he or she also promises not to kill them.  Similarly, the selfish person will grant other people rights to property, because he or she wants them to respect his or her property.  So even in a society made up of wholly selfish egoists, certain rights will be recognized (or at least public lip-service will be paid to them).

But will a rational selfish person extend these rights to all people?  No.  For if his or her motives are wholly selfish, he or she has no reason to grant any rights to someone who’s too weak to do him or her harm. Such a person will be interested in “making a deal” only with those who have something to offer to that person.  For example, if someone else is too young or too weak to kill him or her, why should he or she agree not to kill that person?  The selfish person has no reason at all to make such an agreement.  A selfish person will recognize the rights only of those who are strong enough to hurt him or her.

We should add two additional points: 

First, strength may be measured by group rather than by individual.  So, for example, a selfish person will acknowledge the rights of even a very weak person, if the latter is a member of a group (say, racial, ethnic, family) which is strong enough to retaliate effectively.  Or conversely, a selfish person will not grant rights even to a very strong individual, if the former belongs to a group which is strong enough to suppress the latter.  So, for example, an individual slave may be very clever and strong and yet have no rights, if the combined group of selfish slave-owners is strong enough to crush any rebellion. [Editor’s note: the same applies to condemned prisoners.]

Second, even selfish people have their likes and dislikes, and they may like some other people.  The can’t love these people (because love, as self-giving, is necessarily unselfish), but they might like having certain others around, because they’re pleasant or useful.  Thus even selfish people, for example, may want to protect their own children, because they find them cute, or helpful, or a status symbol, or because of some other self-interested reason.  Thus, even though young children are too weak to be a danger to their parents, their parents may protect them insofar as they’re “wanted” (have no handicaps which make them not pleasant or useful).  Similarly, their parents may insist other adults not kill them, and in return they may agree not to kill the wanted children of other adults.

So our conclusion must be that pure self-interest will do a good job of recognizing the rights of the strong or the wanted (individually or by group).  But selfish persons won’t care at all about those individuals or groups who’re both weak and unwanted.

Caring without Selfishness

Just as selfish persons are concerned about others the more they are strong or wanted, so pro-lifers ought to care about others the more they are weak and unwanted.  Now, there’s no other class of human beings weaker than the unborn, and so whenever these children are also unwanted, they are totally ignored by our selfish society.  It’s for this reason, I think, that pro-lifers have rightly concentrated so much on protecting the unwanted unborn child.  That child is the underest of underdogs, so to speak, and so is both the most defenseless and the most oppressed (no other person today being totally killable on demand).

Pro-lifers, in other words, don’t think the unborn are more valuable than other persons are.  Unlike the pro-abortion people, who give no rights to the unborn, we believe that all persons’ lives are equally worthy of reverence and protection.  However, self-interest will and does take care of the rights of the strong or wanted, and so the help of the pro-life movement is less needed.

Now, with this model as a guide, I think the special vocation of our movement can be truly discerned.  We’re called upon to help those who would otherwise be without help—not those who already have plenty of help.

For example, I don’t think the pro-life movement should be involved in trying to stop recombinant DNA research, even though this research, in my opinion, is a clear danger to the survival of the human race—because of the simple fact that the rights of the strong are here as menaced as are those of the weak.  The strong don’t want to be wiped out, and so we can assume they’ll do a good job of limiting such research for the sake of their own self-interest—without the help of the pro-life movement.  Pro-lifers shouldn’t fight against all dangers to life. They should mainly oppose the killing of the weak and unwanted.

But we must go beyond protecting the right to life of the victims of selfishness and aim at protecting all their human rights.  So, for example, pro-lifers should protect not only the right of Down Syndrome kids to survive, but also their right not to be purposely or accidentally neglected—insofar as selfish adults don’t give a dam.

Obviously, this is all a matter of degree rather than of absolutes.  There’s a kind of social spectrum along which we all fit.  At one end are those of us who are both very strong and very wanted.  These are not the concern of the pro-life movement.  At the other extreme are those both very weak and very unwanted.  These are our chief concern.  But we ought to be more concerned to fight for others as they near the point where they have no significant defenses against more powerful individuals and groups.


One last crucial point:  If such is our vocation we can’t ever expect to be popular.  For we shall always be found on the side of the unwanted—the “niggers” or “fetuses” of every age.  Even if, for example, we succeed in getting selfish persons to “like” unborn kids (say, by showing pictures of them cutely sucking their thumbs) or in getting them to see their own self-interest at stake (because, say, of a declining population or of a growing disrespect for all human life) we won’t become “socially acceptable.”  For to the extent that the unborn become wanted, they become no longer our chief concern; and we must struggle in defense of those individuals and groups who have now become the most oppressed victims of a selfish society.  As soon as our work is approved, it’s finished, and we are called to struggle elsewhere.


More of our posts from Richard Stith:

Equal Concern for Each Human Being, Not for Each Human Issue

Open Letter to Fellow Human Rights Activists

When “Choice” Itself Hurts the Quality of Life 

A Friendly Approach



  1. I first read this as assuming that selfishness is in some part a positive good that simply has a few gaps in who benefits from it, but on second thought it makes more sense that Richard is saying that some people will be protected *in spite* of selfishness, and special protections are needed for the rest in order to offset the selfishness. I hope my second reading is more correct than my first.

    It does still seem like he is using the term in an absolute sense, as a trait one either has entirely or not at all, while in reality most human beings fall somewhere in between. That is, his description of a selfish person – incapable even of genuinely loving other people, as he says at one point – sounds more fitting of a narcissist or psychopath. Most of us are not clinically narcissistic or psychopathic and are indeed capable of loving (at least some) others, yet none of us is completely selfless all the time.

    More to the point, Richard seems to be talking out of both sides of his mouth in terms of what it means to be pro-life. For one thing, it’s naïve to say that “every” pro-life person would agree that being pro-life is more than just opposing abortion. Certainly many of us do, and as consistent-lifers that’s exactly what we want to encourage. But by the end he seems to be defending a single-issue focus, or at least a patently disproportionate one. Of course the vulnerability of preborn humans makes them worthy of concern, but the kind of zero-sum thinking that assumes that concerns for certain vulnerable humans necessarily lessens concerns for certain others is exactly what the CLE is supposed to refute. If we all operated under the assumption that we had to completely finish securing full protection for the preborn before we could do anything about any other issue (which frankly is a very un-CLE assumption), that would leave unprotected the countless humans who are vulnerable to other forms of violence and neglect.

  2. Richard Stith says:

    Julia, your response leaves me dumbfounded. I don’t draw any absolute lines, but rather I talk about a spectrum, a sort of triage. Since we can’t do everything, I suggest a spectrum to decide where our help is most needed. At one end of the spectrum are those who don’t much need our help (because they’re independent and powerful, or they’re connected to those who are) and at the other end are those who are weak & friendless. All I say is that we should stay nearer to the latter end.

    I have never met a pro-lifer who cares about abortion per se, in the way somebody might just happen be concerned only with stamp collecting. Everyone I’ve ever met sees it as a symptom of something deeper, and opposes that deeper something as well. Some think abortion a symptom of an obsession with things rather than people, or of an antipathy to children. Others think it’s due mainly to poverty, or to machismo. And there are many more hypotheses. I and some others in Consistent Life think it is mainly, or at least very importantly, a failure to appreciate that nonviolence is part of the very essence of human dignity and community.

    But that failure doesn’t make much difference if we’re talking about a person who is strong and wanted. He or she is unlikely to be subject to violence anyway. The place where our nonviolent witness is most important is in the protection of the weak and unwanted.

    • Richard, I appreciate the fact that we share common goals of promoting nonviolence and a preferential option for the vulnerable. But I do think you’re being naïve about the existence of single-issue inconsistency. I’ve seen you assert that there is no such thing because nobody is advocating for killing toddlers. But this overlooks the fact that there are indeed some people who, while vehemently opposing abortion, act indifferent to the deaths of toddlers (and others) from poverty or border crossings or gun accidents – to name a few examples – and who consider economic liberalism or harsh immigration policy or liberalized gun laws more worthy of protection than *those* vulnerable human lives.

      You and I both know that this is far from being true of all pro-lifers. Still, consistency means more than just actively opposing one form of violence and refraining from actively advocating other violence. I suppose that’s the minimum of what we’re trying to move people to as consistent-lifers, but that by itself is not the CLE. And it’s not enough as long as existing threats to life are as varied as they are. If surviving to birth were a guarantee of being “strong and wanted”, as you almost seem to be suggesting here, there would be no need for a CLE. But if vulnerability is what drives our priorities, then it stands to reason that we should be just as automatically and viscerally and visibly moved by any lack of protection for any human beings vulnerable to violence wherever andwhenever and however it occurs, rather than approaching threats to life as a kind of ordered checklist where we have to finish solving one before we can act on another. What happened to “consistently opposing them all”?

  3. Richard Stith says:

    Julia, there are as many consistencies and inconsistencies as there are definitions of pro-life. For example, those who define pro-life as being open to life will say it’s inconsistent to be against abortion but in favor of contraception. Meanwhile, those who say being pro-life means caring for children may say that it’s inconsistent to be against abortion and also against vaccination, government childcare, and much more. Nonviolent types like me are likely to say that it’s inconsistent to be against abortion but be in favor of other intentional sorts of killing, like wars and executions. The narrow, core definition of pro-life, which I think all pro-lifers share and which in fact is nearly universal across every society in all of human history, is that it’s wrong intentionally to kill innocent human beings (as opposed to guilty persons, and especially as opposed to aggressors caught in the act of aggression).

    Most people in fact are consistent within their own definitions, and as long as anyone acts consistently within his or her definition of what it means to be pro-life, it is wrong to say or imply that they are hypocrites, although we can urge them to be consistent with regard to our favored definition of pro-life as well, as indeed we do all the time. Our title “Consistent Life Network” should not be understood to be saying that everyone else is inconsistent, but rather as an invitation to join us in a very simple and clear sort of consistency based on, as I see it, never intentionally killing anyone, period. (A stance of fighting against all deaths, even unintentional deaths such as those from cancer, earthquakes, relative poverty, etc. seems to me so wide that it blunts itself to the point of ineffectiveness.)

    But the point of my initial essay was not to choose which of the above definitions of pro-life is correct, but rather to find another way of identifying a common element in our struggle, namely, that we are all struggling to protect the weakest and most unwanted. In other words, my whole point was to bypass the sorts of debates that you’re having with me about how to define being consistently pro-life. I wanted all of us to share a kind of camaraderie in defending the little guy.

    • You’re right that there are different approaches to defining what it means to be pro-life, which can be coherent within themselves based on different criteria. My point is, if your basic criterion is “defending the little guy,” then you should naturally be just as readily moved to defend any and all “little guys.” This certainly includes the preborn, especially in countries like the US where they are largely unprotected by law and any attempts to even mitigate this are met with enormous social backlash (and it doesn’t help that the way these things are politicized doesn’t exactly make a strong case for defense of the vulnerable being the driving concern). But they are far from being the ONLY human beings vulnerable to violence or to being “unwanted.” And yet you seem to be using the criterion of vulnerability to argue for being single-issue, or nearly so. This may fit certain narrower definitions of pro-life, but again, it’s not CLE.

  4. Richard Stith says:

    We seem to be in agreement, Julia.

    • If we’re agreed on the importance of working and speaking up on multiple issues, then yes.

      • Richard Stith says:

        Search criterion: helping the weaker and unwanteder. Right, Julia?

        • Right, as long as it’s not framed as a competition of priorities in which we can’t stand up for anyone else until after we’ve definitively obtained for one particular category of weaker and unwanteder humans an absolute guarantee of strength and wantedness.

          Vulnerability to violence takes many different forms, and they happen simultaneously. The needs are urgent and not mutually exclusive.

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