Moral relativity and the culture of life in U.S. politics

Currently, the party lines of both sides of the aisle incorrectly assess the value of human life.

Tim Burnett

Throughout Pope John Paul II’s passing and the election of Pope Benedict XVI, the popes’ moral beliefs became a discussion topic. Unfortunately, we have concentrated on one issue and paid less attention to others.

A Lexis-Nexis search of major newspapers between April 1 and Wednesday for “pope AND abortion” comes up with 932 hits. The same search for “pope AND death penalty OR capital punishment” returns 308 documents. This comparison is by no means perfect.

Nonetheless, this agrees with my perception: Commentators, most of them conservative, have increased their abortion rhetoric, citing the popular late pope’s beliefs for support. But to only discuss part of a true “pro-life” perspective is disingenuous. It misleads people into the idea Catholic teachings align with or support a conservative ideology. If you compare, for instance, the recently published “The Compendium of Social Doctrine of the Church” to our two main political ideologies, it’s clear the church cannot be pegged to either.

But politics is not the point. Ignoring the death penalty and abortion undercuts advocacy of eliminating either. Both are abhorrent. Both are examples of society not properly valuing human life in its public policy.

Reviewing the justification for the death penalty does not leave it with a leg to stand on. Many studies now show the death penalty does not deter crime. Possibly because deterrence requires rational decision-making, which maybe isn’t a strong suit among killers.

Further, modern due process requirements, necessary to make sure we don’t execute the wrong person, often make the process more costly to the state than life imprisonment. So the only support left for the death penalty is society’s interest in retribution. Translated, the public likes to take revenge.

The justifications for abortion are similarly questionable. For starters, I think life intuitively begins at conception. Biologically, a fetus is alive. The only possible distinction is whether it has any cognitive abilities. I could now go into all the aspects of a developing fetus that make it seem lifelike, how early fingers develop or when one can find a heartbeat, etc. But this would not likely convince anyone of anything. Society will disagree about life’s beginning into perpetuity. That disagreement is exactly the problem. Humanity lacks the ability to define or value human life.

Philosophers have attempted to define the “meaning of life” unsuccessfully for so long, the question is the intellectual equivalent of a caricature. Even the idea of success proves too elusive for consensus. In “If,” Rudyard Kipling presents it as living bravely and boldly but humbly. “Success,” a similar contradiction-filled poem often attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson, presents success as leaving small legacies, such as “winning the affection of children.”

We can’t agree on the meaning of life nor what success is. That’s fine; we get to search for such things, each and every one of us. Unless that haphazard search infringes on another’s life.

I’ve just shown where I disagree with at least the new pope. Moral relativism is not necessarily the negation of absolute truth; it’s the acknowledgement human beings are bad at finding it. The real task is acknowledging that weakness and acting accordingly.

These weaknesses question our ability to accurately determine when life begins or what conduct merits the state taking it. But current public policy still acts like we know what we’re doing.

It’s the first duty of public policy to protect and improve our lives. We should make sure we know what we’re doing and, when we don’t, err on the side of caution, err on the side of life.

Objectively, the death penalty and abortion mean less people on the planet. If we could decide which of these losses were acceptable, fine. Well, maybe. But because we can’t, both policies should end.

Tim Burnett is the Editorials & Opinions editor and welcomes comments at [email protected]