“Is One Life Issue More Important Than the Rest?”: A Question That Might Not Need an Answer
by John Whitehead
Consistent Life Ethic activists generally have varying interpretations of the Ethic. Some take an absolutist stance on nonviolence, others allow exceptions to strict nonviolence. Some tend to specialize on working against a particular threat to life, others tend to work against multiple threats. Another difference among Consistent Life Ethic activists (which relates to the specialization vs. generalization difference) is varying views on whether working against a particular threat to life is somehow more important or a higher priority than working against others.
As with other differing views, I think Consistent Life Ethic activists need to agree to disagree on whether certain life issues take priority over others and live with such differences. Such tolerance of diversity is essential for several reasons. First, like other differing opinions, disagreements among activists about the relative importance of life issues are not likely to be resolved anytime soon. The enduring nature of such disagreements and the necessity of building up a movement require high tolerance for differing views.
Beyond the general need to tolerate disagreement within a movement, accepting disagreements about the relative importance of life issues is essential for an additional reason: The relative importance of different life issues probably has no real practical significance.
That is, whether all the life issues have equal importance, whether one issue is the most important, and which issue (if any) is most important need not have any meaningful effect on how Consistent Life Ethic activists pursue their activism. Let me explain why I think this.
“Most important issue” does not mean “only issue.”
Whatever their precise views on life issues’ relative importance, Consistent Life Ethic activists should be able to agree that no one threat to human life, however serious, is the only threat to life. Therefore, no commitment to any one issue exhausts the work that needs to be done to protect life. If any idea is central to the Consistent Life Ethic, this is it. (Indeed, I suspect most people, even if they don’t believe in the Consistent Life Ethic, would accept that multiple injustices or problems, as opposed to only one, need to be addressed in our world.)
Once we accept that multiple threats to life need to be opposed, I think it follows that we need activists working on multiple life issues. The alternative, that we all work to protect life against just one threat—presumably until that threat is somehow ended—is not realistic. Sad to say, threats to life or other injustices are rarely definitively “ended.” Often a victory for life and justice over a threat is followed by the threat taking a new form and the struggle continuing. Consider the long struggle against racism in the United States, which has been going on since the nation’s founding and is not over yet. If work against other threats to life had to wait until that struggle was won, we would still be waiting.
Trying to work against threats to life strictly one at a time, in order of supposed importance, is a recipe for never meaningfully working against those threats judged to be of lesser importance. We need to protect life against multiple threats. This means we need activists working against multiple threats, whether by devoting themselves to multiple life issues or by specializing on different issues. Such a diverse approach doesn’t require taking any particular view on which life issue, if any, is most important; it simply requires recognizing the importance of more than one issue.
Sustained activism requires passion, which takes different forms.
Not every believer in the Consistent Life Ethic is going to be drawn to the same approach to activism. Some people will be drawn to a generalist approach to the life issues, some to a more specialized approach; and those drawn to a specialized approach will want to specialize on different issues. This diversity is good, as it means people will devote themselves to the activist approach for which they have passion.
Passion for your cause is vital to activism. Passion helps sustain activists’ commitment over time, often even when the work is difficult or not immediately rewarding. Passion may also make activists more effective, as people are motivated to work that much harder on a cause that they care about deeply. Insisting that all Consistent Life Ethic activists follow the same approach or prioritize the same issue works against such passion.
In a more personal vein, I find that passion for a cause is essential for me. My own approach to Consistent Life Ethic activism has been to specialize on working against war and specifically nuclear weapons. For me, that is the most engaging and motivating way of upholding the Ethic. Opposing war isn’t my exclusive concern—I will certainly work on other life issues—but it is my focus. If I were pressured to switch my focus to another life issue or to give up a specialized focus, that would be devastating to my motivation and commitment. I don’t think I’m alone in this.
From these two conditions—the need to address multiple threats to life and the value of activists’ personal passion—I would draw the conclusion that Consistent Life Ethic activists should pursue whichever life issue or issues they like. Again, this conclusion implies no definitive answer one way or the other to the question “Is one life issue more important than the rest?” The practical reality is just that the Consistent Life Ethic movement needs different people working in different ways to protect life against the many threats to it.
For some similar posts reflecting on the consistent life ethic, see: