In Defense of Detachment: The Different Approaches to Protecting Lives

Posted on June 7, 2022 By

by John Whitehead

A commitment to the consistent life ethic is a commitment to protect people’s lives against violence or other threats. This essential commitment is present among all varieties of consistent life advocates and their different approaches to the ethic.

Sometimes, though, consistent life advocacy can involve a more personal, concrete, and emotional type of commitment. People can be moved to protect life because they encounter a specific case of violence or suffering that is especially vivid. They might hear someone tell their story of being affected by violence or hear the story of a victim of violence recounted by someone else. They might see a photograph or watch a video showing an act of violence and its victims.

These presentations of specific people and how violence affects them are immensely important. They can put a human face on those killed or otherwise harmed by abortion, executions, suicide, war, or other forms of violence. They make the horror of violence apparent, free of euphemisms or other methods that distance people from violence’s reality. They can awaken empathy and motivate action.

For all their importance, these powerful presentations of violence and the emotions they evoke also have significant limitations. They provide motivation but not necessarily guidance. They can sometimes leave out or obscure certain types of violence and those threatened by it. Stories and depictions of violence can strengthen a larger consistent commitment to protecting people’s lives, but they are not identical to such a commitment.

Sometimes a commitment to protecting people from violence requires detachment. Sometimes consistent life advocates need to step back from presentations of specific victims and consider other factors, which may be more abstract and less emotionally gripping. When trying to protect life, distance can sometimes help.

What to Do?

Although they can take a variety of forms, presentations of victims of violence share a very obvious limitation. They can show us the reality of an injustice and make us want to do something about it, but they don’t tell us what to do. Finding a prudent and just way of protecting lives from abortion, the death penalty, war, and other forms of violence may require taking a broader, more dispassionate look at these issues.

This limitation becomes especially apparent if we consider that people on the other sides of these issues can also invoke presentations of violence to support their positions. Consistent life advocates can point to pictures or stories of the children killed by abortion and the women harmed by it; but advocates of abortion access can point to their own presentations of women killed by illegal abortions or life-threatening pregnancies. Consistent life advocates can provide examples of the horrors of execution or other aspects of legal punishment; but advocates of a more punitive type of law enforcement can provide examples of the horrors of violent crime. Consistent lifers can invoke the many victims of waging war; but hawks can invoke the victims of tyranny or aggression who allegedly will be saved by waging war. And so on.

Opposing presentations of violence and its victims can end up cancelling each other out. Resolving different views on these issues and identifying an effective response to violence often requires analyzing larger questions that specific human stories cannot address.

A Tilted Playing Field?

Presentations of violence’s victims has another, perhaps less obvious, limitation: an emphasis on specific cases of people harmed by violence tends to favor certain victims of violence over others. Not everyone harmed or threatened by violence has an equal opportunity to have their situations recognized.

Sometimes distance plays a role. People are more likely to see and hear about acts and victims of violence in their own country than victims of violence in other countries. Victims of war are thus often at a disadvantage compared to victims of violence closer to home.

Also, not all victims of war receive equal attention: in the United States, for example, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine received more air time on network newscasts during a single month (March 2022) than the Syrian Civil War received in all 2012, its year of highest network news coverage. The brutal war in Yemen received less network attention in roughly the first five years it was waged than the Ukraine war received in March of this year.

Sometimes the nature of the victim plays a role. People who can tell their own stories of being threatened or harmed by violence, or who have family and friends to tell their stories, are more likely to be recognized than those who cannot. One group of victims obscured as a result are victims of abortion, as children in the womb by definition cannot speak for themselves and never had people who knew them in the same way as already-born victims of violence did. This same situation presents an obstacle in defending the rights of animals, another cause important to many consistent life ethic advocates. While many people with disabilities are very eloquent self-advocates, some people with certain disabilities may not be able to tell their own stories and advocate for themselves.

Sometimes scale plays a role. As many have noted, violence becomes less emotionally affecting as the number of victims increases. If violence claims a relatively small number of lives, the victims’ names and photos can be seen and remembered. If violence claims thousands or tens of thousands or millions of lives, the victims quickly become an abstraction. An emphasis on representing specific victims of violence may paradoxically obscure the violence that claims the greatest number of victims.

Sometimes the nature of the violence plays a role. Arguably the greatest threat to human lives today is nuclear war, which would kill untold millions and possibly wipe out humanity. Yet this colossal threat is also a somewhat shadowy one, since, as long as it’s a concern for consistent life advocates, the threat must always remain a hypothetical and future one. If nuclear war ever becomes real and vivid, it will be quite definitively too late to do anything about it. Opponents of nuclear war can tell the stories of those harmed by specific instances of nuclear weapons’ use (Hiroshima and Nagasaki, nuclear testing), but most of the victims they are concerned with must always (we hope) be only potential victims.

The Value of Different Approaches

In summary, stories and other representations of specific victims of violence are vital tools in protecting life against threats. Such representations are not the only tools, however, and they may not always be the most useful tools. Consistent life ethic advocacy can also benefit from taking a broader, more abstract view of violence and its victims. A certain degree of detachment can coexist with, and sometimes strengthen, the commitment to protecting people’s lives that is at the heart of the consistent life ethic.


For more of our posts with philosophical takes on the consistent life ethic, see:

Win-Lose is a Mirage

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

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

“Is One Life Issue More Important Than the Rest?”: A Question That Might Not Need an Answer

More than Double the Trouble: Another Way of Connecting [intersectionality] 

The Consistent Peace Ethic



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