It is interesting to see what motivates a blog post. This one is motivated by something a dear friend posted on Facebook. Her post was about how people’s perspectives on different issues often do not form a consistent whole. When people’s perspectives on different issues seem contradictory, it is possible that they haven’t had the opportunity to stop to think about how their perspective on one issue might have implications for another issue. However, it is also possible that the contradictory positions are not as contradictory as they first appear.
If I boiled down my ethical worldview–the perspective with which I approach all topics–to one phrase, it might be “protecting life.” This may be surprising, since many of you know that I am both pro-choice and pro-enuthanasia. So let me explain.
First, what do I mean by “protecting”? Well, I do not mean anything like ensuring that no one steps on your toes. I do not mean anything like using violence to “protect” rights. No. Instead, I mean something more like nurturing, respecting, allowing to thrive, and celebrating life. By protecting life, I mean that we should work to build environments where life can flourish.
Second, what do I mean by “life”? Well, I do not mean being alive. And I also do not necessarily mean one individual’s being alive-ness. It seems to me that life is much more than either of those things. Life is much more than being alive, and life is much more than an individual. Life is complex, relational, intersectional, multiple, powerful, co-production, vulnerable, communal, and vast. In seems to me that in order to see all that complexity (re: beauty) we must stop seeing the concept of life through American individualism. Each individual life is more than a singular autonomous unit; human life is more than the sum of its individuals, and that is to say nothing of the complexity of non-human life. Anyway, my point here is that each of us is part of an ecosystem, both within humanity and within our environment in all its layers. What I do impacts you. What you do impacts me. My life includes you. And your life includes me. What’s more, there are many forms of being alive that are not life. The certain viruses are alive but deny and steal life. Certain bacterias are alive but in that context of causing sickness and destruction, they are not life. Cancer is living cells, but those cells are not life. Of course, tomes have been written about what makes up life, and I can’t even begin to explain life adequately here. Regardless, my point here is that life is complicated, and it must be distinguished from being alive. Those terms could also be reversed, but I hope you don’t get distracted by the language and see my point despite the limitations of English. Anyway, the relevant piece for my ethic is that I assert that we must always nurture life–dignity, community, fullness of life. We should encourage the best, the most dignified, the most beautiful of humanity and the world to thrive. To do so, we must oppose exploitation and dignity-stripping in all its forms, but this does not necessarily mean that we must oppose ending being alive in all it’s forms.
So how does this play out in real world issues (although each of these issues is vastly complicated, so my explanations here will necessarily be incomplete):
Torture- I start with this topic because I think it is particularly illustrative of my point. Some may argue that there are certain cases where life is most protected by using torture to gain information. These people would claim that this is the case in the event that a person has planted bombs around a school yard and is now in captivity refusing to tell officials where the bombs are placed or how to diffuse them (or you can imagine your own similar scenario). The argument is that the lives of the innocent children are most thoroughly protected if any means necessary are used to ensure that the bombs are removed. However, in my opinion this argument is short-sighted. Of course, the innocent children must be saved. Their individual lives are valuable beyond measure. However, life as a whole is not protected if government sanctioned torture is permissible. A society which condones torture does not protect life because the life of the person who planted the bombs is not a life that is disconnected from other lives. Even if the children do not die from the bombs, they then live in a society where torture is a reasonable way to treat suspected criminals, and that is not a society that values the dignity of life.
Slavery- I believe protecting life means that we must oppose the dignity stripping exploitation that is forced labor (manual, sexual, militaristic, or anything other kind). No human, no matter who they are, deserves to lose control of their bodily integrity or the fruits of their labor. That is the ultimate form of squelching fullness of life. All humans are equal in worth, and as such, none of them should be de-humanized into lesser beings. That seems fundamental to protecting life. We might also consider the implications of this for non-human slavery. Is it ethical to eat meat that comes from animals who lived a life of slavery? I’d say no. But might it be ethical to eat meat that comes from animals who enjoyed the fullness of life (whatever that may mean for their species)? Maybe.
War- I believe that “protecting life” requires us to oppose war, and in fact violence in general. Fullness of life is only nurtured in peace, and it must be a peace without the threat of war. War requires soldiers to de-humanize their enemy in order to kill them, and de-humanizing them denies them fullness of life. Furthermore, war leads to a whole bunch of other life-denying activities, like torture, environmental degradation, deaths of active community members, etc. Furthermore, the fullness of humanity is best nurtured when we use words to learn from each other, to negotiate with each other, to compromise with each other on a way to move forward. When two children are fighting over a toy, their mother can walk into the room and say, “If I see you fighting for one more minute, I will throw out all your toys.” So the children, sensing the threat of violence (or an action that they would experience as violence), stop fighting as long as the mother is in the room. However, as soon as the mother leaves the room, the children fight once again because the problem of sharing the toy was not really addressed. Neither child understood why the other wanted the toy so badly, and until they do, no real and lasting peace can be established. Their “peace” only lastly as long as there was a threat of violence. Likewise, war (or the threat of war) only postpones the real work of understanding each other’s perspectives, dealing with differences, and coming to an agreement that both parties believe in (and that lasts beyond threats). Like a society that allows torture, a society that allows war is a society that does not highly value the fullness of life and does not see the harm that the possibility of war causes its citizens.
Death Penalty- We are not protecting life by killing serial killers. I think we must admit that a serial killer is suffering from some kind of mental illness. I don’t use that term lightly, so let me explain. What I mean here is that a serial killer does not understand the human community and her or his place in it in a healthy way. That is a problem with perception, and that is mental illness. That is not to say that all people with mental illness might be serial killers, but it is to say that people with skewed perceptions of the world (on a spectrum from slightly skewed through depression/anxiety to drastically skewed through compulsion to kill… and let’s be honest most of us have skewed perceptions sometimes, and we don’t choose that) are victims to their own brain chemistry. And victims don’t need punishment, they need care and rehabilitation. To restate: we all suffer from skewed perception that we did not chose, and that never ever means that we deserve to be stripped of our dignity. This is not to say that we should let serial killers roam the streets however. No, we should provide them with the care they need, and that care will likely take the shape of constant supervision and removal from contact with most other members of society. By doing this, we protect the fullness of life both for members of society and for the serial killer.
Poverty/Capitalism- At the heart of capitalism is exploitation. Capitalism rests on the ability of producers to make the cheapest products and sell them at the highest prices. That is the nature of profit. But that production process nurtures exploitation and leads to poverty. Producers will always try to get cheaper materials, cheaper labor, cheaper production methods, and as a result workers, consumers of those products, and the natural environment are all exploited. Capitalism does not protect life.
Euthanasia- In November of 2008, my mom died of bladder cancer. She came home from the hospital on hospice about 2 weeks before she died, and during that time my brother, my aunt, and I were responsible for her care. Nurses would come to check on her everyday, but we were the ones to care for her throughout the days and nights. We rotated who would stay with her throughout the nights so that she would never be alone. 2 days before she died I guess, it was my turn to spend that night with her. Apparently her pain level had spiked that evening because it became very obvious that the constant drip of pain medicine into her IV was not enough to keep her comfortable. We had a button that we could push to give her more pain medicine, but we could only push it every 10 minutes. So, for about 8 hours, every 9 minutes or so, I had to listen to my beautiful mother whine, and moan, and cry in pain until I could push the button for her again. That night was the most traumatic night of my life. To this day, I can’t talk about that night without crying. I am crying now as I type this. Four years later, I still have anxiety problems because of that night (and the events surrounding it). That night did not protect life. That night stripped both my mom and me of our dignity. That night was exploitation. There is no reason at all why either of us had to experience that. My mom had already chosen to die. She had decided a few days earlier to take herself off TPN (IV nutrition), and she was a dietitian, so she knew exactly what that meant. If she would have had the option to die peacefully, with dignity, without all that pain, I believe she would have. Allowing her that option would have granted her dignity. Allowing her to chose to end her alive-ness on her own terms would have protected her life, but as it was, in the last moments of her alive-ness, our society chose to strip her of her life, her dignity, her ability to control what happened to her own body. And in so doing society also stripped me of a part of my life, my dignity, and my ability to live peacefully. That night convinced me that an ethic that “protects life” also supports euthanasia.
Abortion- In much the same way that I believe protecting life means supporting euthanasia, I also believe that protecting life means supporting a woman’s right to chose an abortion. Let me be clear, I am not pro-abortion. No one is pro-abortion. No one says, “Abortions are fun and cool, and everyone should get one!” No, abortions are always a tragedy. Any woman who finds herself with an unwanted pregnancy has been betrayed. Maybe she was betrayed by a man who raped her; maybe she was betrayed by an inadequate sex education class that didn’t teach her how to use birth control properly; maybe she was betrayed by birth control that didn’t work properly; maybe she was betrayed by a society that didn’t teach her that she was loved without sex. Whatever the circumstances, if she is pregnant and she doesn’t want to be pregnant, she was betrayed by some aspect of the universe, and she is a victim of that betrayal. And, as I said above, victims do not deserve punishment, they need care and rehabilitation. And, though we may not chose an abortion ourselves, I believe that we must acknowledge that a society that outlaws abortions is not creating an environment where that woman can receive care and rehabilitation in safe and effective ways. A society that outlaws abortions also stigmatizes unwanted pregnancies and forces women (who already feel betrayed and victimized, and therefore desperate) to chose unsafe, ineffective means of ending the pregnancy— with coat hangers, vacuums, and falling down stairs. We must protect life by creating an environment where women can seek care, and that means allowing women options and freedom to choose. If you believe that both the pregnant woman and the fetus are lives, and you believe in protecting life, then I think you should support the right to choose as a way to ensure that an unwanted pregnancy can end in only one death, instead of two. If you believe that the fetus is not yet a life, then I think you should support the right to choose as a way to protect and nurture the dignity of the pregnant woman, who deserves to be in control of what happens to her own body and deserves circumstances that allow her to seek the care she needs.
Again, each of these issues is super complicated, and I can’t address all the complexities in one post (or ever, really). I clearly acknowledge that I did not clearly delineate how to define “life” or “violence” or “nurturing dignity” in this post, but I hope that I showed you a way to understanding “protecting life” in a more complex and nuanced way.
I should also note that I see “protecting life” (as I have described it here) as a core tenant of feminism as well. My feminism and my ethic to protect life are basically just two ways to articulate the same commitments.
As always, I’d love to know your thoughts.
Do you think that “protecting life” can sometimes mean supporting a procedure that ends being alive? Do you think that life can be understood beyond the individual? Do you agree or disagree strongly with anything I’ve said here?