Specialization or Generalization? The Many Ways of Following the Consistent Life Ethic

Posted on May 19, 2020 By

John Whitehead at the White House

by John Whitehead

The Consistent Life Ethic (CLE) movement is very diverse. It includes people of different philosophical or partisan backgrounds, with different understandings of the CLE and different preferred activist strategies. One aspect of this diversity is varying approaches to specialization, that is, focusing on a particular life issue of the CLE.

Some CLE activists are drawn to work primarily on one life issue while others take a more wide-ranging approach. Also, among those activists who focus on one issue, the chosen issue will vary. Like other differences, alternative approaches to specialization can be a source of tension within the CLE movement but can also, if handled properly, be a source of movement strength.

Specialization: Pros and Cons

People might be moved to focus their activism on one of the six life issues covered by the Consistent Life Network mission statement—abortion, the death penalty, euthanasia, poverty, racism, and war—for any number of reasons. (For simplicity, I am treating these six as “the life issues” but of course many people include other issues under the CLE heading, such as protecting the environment, opposition to human trafficking, and so on.)

Their philosophies might lead them to conclude the focus issue has some significance or importance that sets it apart from the others. Their life experience might have made them unusually concerned about the focus issue. Their cast of mind or temperament might make the focus issue especially interesting. Or all these factors might influence them. For whatever reason, some people prefer to work on one life issue rather than others.


Such preferences have advantages and disadvantages.

An advantage is it allows an activist to do greater justice to the focus issue. Working on one issue allows for investing more time and energy than would be possible when working on six issues. A focused activist gains more experience and detailed knowledge on the focus issue, which further strengthens activism on it.

Another advantage is it can help sustain an activist’s commitment. This advantage should not be underrated. A common characteristic of activism is the need for a long-term effort. These six issues encompass threats to life people have been struggling against probably since the dawn of civilization. Even if we limit our perspective to  contemporary history, work on these issues has been ongoing for decades. While progress is possible, work will likely require effort for a long time to come. A long-term activist commitment, in the face of inevitable resistance and disappointment, requires tremendous enthusiasm for the issue you are working on. Burning out is constant risk of activism, and I daresay one reliable path to burnout is having to invest time and energy in an issue that doesn’t really interest you.

These are specialization’s clear advantages. The disadvantages are equally clear. Focusing on one issue can easily lead to neglecting the others. Specialization can become the kind of narrowly single-issue activism that the CLE’s broader scope should correct. In several countries, life issue activism tends to be sadly divided across partisan lines, so specialized activism can foster strident partisanship for whichever party or faction champions an activist’s preferred issue. At worst, a specialized CLE activist can become indistinguishable from one who is not CLE at all.

Related  is the risk of competitiveness. Specialized activists can become impatient with or critical of anyone who isn’t focusing on the same issues as they are. Competitiveness can be a particular problem if activists’ specialization springs from a conviction that their focus issue is somehow objectively more important than the other life issues.

Generalization: Pros and Cons

In contrast to specialized activists, some CLE adherents can be generalists who concern themselves with the array of life issues. Like specialists, generalists might have a variety of motivations. Their philosophies might lead them to believe  all life issues are equally important and should receive equal attention. Their experiences, temperaments, and casts of mind can also play a role: some people find a specialized focus too limiting and are naturally drawn to take an interest in a wide array of issues.

An advantage of the generalized CLE approach is it avoids the dangers of single-issue activism, partisanship, and competitiveness that can be pitfalls of specialization. Instead, generalization unambiguously champions the holistic view of defending life that is essential to the CLE.

Moreover, by taking a wide-ranging view, generalized activists have an advantage in connecting the six life issues. Because they pay attention to all the issues, they more easily notice how different threats to life resemble each other: how they rely on the same kinds of justifications, for example, or use similar euphemisms. Generalization also allows activists to see how different threats to life reinforce each other: how racism contributes to the death penalty or how poverty contributes to abortion and vice versa.

A disadvantage of the generalized approach is that it limits how much time and energy activists devote to any given issue and how much knowledge and experience related to an issue they can gain. It’s a danger to be a jack of all trades, master of none.

Balancing the Approaches

Because of their advantages, the CLE movement needs all these different activist approaches. We need people who specialize in each of the six life issues as well as people who take a more generalized approach to these issues. To make this diversity a source of strength rather than weakness, I suggest a few broad guidelines:

  1. Recognize the legitimacy of different approaches. Specialized CLE activists should respect the approach of generalized CLE activists and vice versa. Further, specialized CLE activists need to respect each other’s different specializations. Insisting everyone adopt one’s own preferred approach should be rejected. This means that CLE activists will often need simply to agree to disagree on the contentious question of whether certain life issues are inherently “more important” than others.
  1. Specialized activists should not become exclusive. Focusing primarily on one issue is a legitimate form of CLE activism, but that focus should be qualified by attention to other issues. Everyone, no matter how committed to a specific cause, can take at least some time to work on behalf of another one. All activists can occasionally write a letter, attend a rally, donate money, or otherwise do something for life issues apart from their focus.
  1. Generalist activists should listen to specialized activists. Because they have more in-depth knowledge of a specific issue, specialized activists’ perspectives can be beneficial to generalists. Listening to those with experience focusing on a specific issue can fill in gaps in generalists’ knowledge and correct false impressions: perhaps the life issues are related in different ways than a generalist’s initial study might reveal.
  1. Ask for, and provide, support. A good way to follow guidelines 1-3 while building up the CLE movement as a whole is to seek fellow CLE activists for support. Whether you’re organizing a clemency appeal for someone on death row, sending vital supplies to immigrants on the border, or raising funds for crisis pregnancy centers, asking other CLE activists for their support or endorsement can correct many of the problems arising from diverse approaches. Specialized activists get involved in issues outside their usual focus, generalized activists learn more about activism in a specific area, and collaboration fosters mutual respect within our diverse movement.

The CLE movement has tremendous potential to break down existing political divisions and promote the defense of life. Respecting our movement’s diversity and managing it productively can help us realize that potential.   



For posts on similar themes, see:

Pondering Justice / Carol Crossed

Win-Lose is a Mirage / Bill Samuel

The Price of Violence: When Dehumanizing the Vulnerable Hurts One’s Own Causes / Julia Smucker

Different Ways of Looking at Issues / Sarah Terzo

Seeking Peaceful Coexistence:The Varied Ways of Supporting a Consistent Life Ethic / John Whitehead


consistent life ethic

  1. This is an excellent and well-nuanced analysis, which I think addresses the concerns well. “If handled properly” is a key phrase here. For me, competitiveness is perhaps the biggest problem I encounter, when people universalize the importance of their particular focus issue relative to other issues. I tried to address why this happens in my own recent blog post here (particularly why a dichotomy often arises between abortion and everything but), and I still don’t have a definitive answer. But I think you’re right to point to a person’s philosophy, life experience, and “cast of mind or temperament” as factors.

    I can certainly see those things playing out in my own approach to the CLE. I was raised to believe, and still do believe, in absolute nonviolence. Even though my family isn’t completely CLE, to me it has always been the only logical and moral conclusion of a Christian pacifist ethic (or any fully pacifist ethic, really). I’m also a systematic, big-picture thinker by temperament.

    We do need people with specific focus areas, which of course need not conflict with a belief in absolute nonviolence. But even when focusing primarily on one particular issue, as you point out here, it’s not hard to show some kind of opposition to other violence as the issues arise. On the other hand, you also make a good point about the wealth of expertise that we can only get from issue specialists. Very good balanced analysis overall.

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