What Does It Mean to Be Inconsistent?
by Julia Smucker
CLN President John Whitehead recently put a question to fellow consistent-lifers: does it necessarily make sense to call people “inconsistent” for not fully adhering to the consistent life ethic (CLE)? After all, the reasons people give for approving of some forms of killing and disapproving of others often follow their own internally consistent logic. John provided the following examples of common distinctions made by people objecting to the CLE:
“A fetus isn’t sufficiently developed to have consciousness, so killing a fetus by abortion isn’t morally equivalent to executing or killing in war someone who has been born and is conscious.”
“Helping someone kill themselves isn’t the same as other types of killing because assisted suicide is done with the person’s consent while other forms of killing involve coercion.”
“Executing a murderer isn’t the same as abortion or assisted suicide because the murderer is genuinely guilty of a terrible crime, while those other forms of killing involve killing innocents.”
None of these arguments are consistent in opposing killing, which is what we CLE advocates often mean when referring to “consistency” as a kind of shorthand for the CLE itself. They are, however, consistent with the speakers’ stated criteria of consciousness, non-coercion, and innocence. To John’s point, then, we risk talking past those who raise specific objections to the CLE when we call people inconsistent for not adhering to principles they haven’t expressed.
On the other hand, inconsistencies do sometimes arise with life and peace principles as they are expressed. For example, in certain pro-life circles, especially Christian ones, one commonly hears phrases such as “sanctity of life” and “conception to natural death.” Sometimes these phrases are used with all the robust commitment to the CLE that they imply, but other times they’re invoked by people who vehemently defend many unnatural deaths between birth and old age. Similarly, among those who talk about principles of nonviolence in absolute terms, or about particular concern for the weak and voiceless, some truly apply these principles without exception, while others explicitly exclude vulnerable prenatal lives, even while otherwise making a point of connecting issues.
In such cases, where exceptions are made within language that wouldn’t seem to allow for exceptions, it’s not incorrect to note inconsistencies. Being strongly familiar with different milieus in which both of the above types of no-exceptions language are used, and having often used them that way myself, I’ve also heard them applied inconsistently, often enough to cause me much frustration.
I often want to say, “Do we really believe human life is sacred from conception all the way to natural death or not? If the answer is yes, why wouldn’t we protest all violent, unnatural deaths with equal fervor – and why especially would we ever cheer some of them?”
Or, “Do we really believe in absolute nonviolence or not? If we accept the termination of a human life at any stage of its existence, our opposition to violence isn’t absolute after all.”
Even when people express internally coherent reasons for opposing some forms of violence while supporting others, in practice the rationales aren’t always applied with total consistency. Someone whose primary moral criterion is innocence could logically be firmly opposed to abortion but generally favor war and the death penalty. And the same person, by the same criterion, should be gravely concerned about possible indiscriminate killing in war or wrongful executions. Even if this criterion is only applied to the unborn by virtue of their complete and unassailable innocence, it should provoke as much concern for unborn lives dismissed as “collateral damage,” miscarriages resulting from domestic abuse, or mistreatment of pregnant migrants in detention centers (whose unborn children, at least, cannot reasonably be accused of breaking any laws), as for those killed directly by abortion.
Likewise, someone concerned about coercion may be against most violence with an exception for assisted suicide, but should still be disturbed by the possibility of anyone being coerced into accepting it, and should be at least as concerned with safeguarding against abuse as with making euthanasia available. On the flip side, approval of uncoerced killing would logically allow one to be undisturbed by any suicide, yet few (thankfully) would go that far. And if consciousness or development is the criterion for a life worth sparing, this could raise serious questions about its application to those with mental impairment or developmental abnormalities.
This doesn’t mean we should assume everyone who makes exceptions to the CLE fails to follow their own reasoning to its logical conclusions. Rather, even rationales with exceptions can be used as starting points to nudge people toward less approval of violence. Perhaps requesting clarification on others’ positions in a dialogical way, and expanding on the implications of their own stated reasons for opposing specific kinds of violence, can raise questions about accepting other kinds in understandable ways.
In other words, whether or not it’s accurate to call someone’s position inconsistent (which in some cases it is, though not all), it’s probably more persuasive to start with reasoning that’s consistent with their framework.
For more of our blog posts from Julia Smucker, see: