Regarding Michael Novak’s post about Heather Mac Donald’s discomfort with talk of God: I too have grappled intellectually with how to analyze crucial concepts of right and wrong, good and evil, in a society that seems so pluralistic morally that it frequently appears not to be a true society at all. Yet, if we look carefully, we can discern a common frame of reference underlying many of these arguments. Indeed, amid the cacophony of competing voices¯whether Christian, Jewish, secularist, atheist, or none of the above¯I find it encouraging that all sides in most cultural controversies at least give lip service to the belief in universal human equality.
The equality-of-life ethic is an entirely secular interpretation of what is sometimes called the sanctity-of-life ethic. It was brilliantly and succinctly stated many years ago by the great Supreme Court jurist Benjamin Cardozo, who once wrote concerning an earlier drive to legalize euthanasia, “Just as a life may not be shortened, so its value must be held as equal to that of any other, the mightiest and the lowliest.”
Think about many of the most hotly contested social and cultural controversies of the day: Often the disputes seem to be about how best to apply the fundamental principle that every human being has equal moral worth. This is certainly true in the abortion debate. Pro-lifers, for example, argue that embryos and fetuses are fully human beings and that protecting their “right to life” is crucial to upholding the equal value of all human life. Pro-choicers counter that the unborn are not really human beings¯thereby denying their right to equality¯and moreover, they claim that even if fetuses are to be considered human beings, the right to personal autonomy is an essential aspect of equality, and so the state should not be permitted to force a woman to do with her body that which she does not wish to do¯for example, gestate and give birth. Thus, the abortion debate at its heart is about how best to apply the ideal of equality.
As is the issue over assisted suicide. Euthanasia advocates also claim that personal autonomy is essential to full equality, and hence, the ill, disabled, and profoundly suffering should have the right to determine “the time, manner, and method” of their own deaths. Anti-euthanasia activists echo Cardozo, claiming that for the state to sanction some suicides while seeking to prevent others would actually destroy equality by proclaiming in law that some lives are worth protecting from killing and others not.
At its core, the Terri Schiavo case was also a struggle over how best to apply principles of equality. Those supporting Michael Schiavo claimed he was only carrying out Terri’s wishes, and hence, the decision to remove her artificial nutrition and hydration honored her equal moral worth by complying with her pre-stated desires. Those who tried to save Terri’s life claimed that this argument was merely a veneer to cover the true agenda¯the dehumanization of people with profound cognitive impairments as so-called “nonpersons.” Taking her food and water away, based on very weak evidence of her true desires, it was argued, actually stripped her of equal moral worth. After all, if you dehydrated a dog to death, you would go to jail, yet removing sustenance from Terri Schiavo was deemed proper medical ethics.
The gay rights issue, about which I am not personally engaged, also seems to be an argument about how best to apply the fundamental societal principle that each and every one of us possesses equal moral worth. Homosexual-marriage advocates claim, for example, that it is not up to the state to discriminate against certain families and sexual behaviors among consenting adults. Anti-homosexual-marriage activists agree that gays and lesbians do indeed have equal moral worth but that their intrinsic equality does not require the state to redefine venerable cultural institutions or validate behaviors through the law.
In summary: Unlike earlier societal arguments, such as over slavery and race, almost all sides in today’s most heated controversies acknowledge the equality-of-life ethic. The big problem, as I see it, is that some take a very stunted view of who qualifies as truly human. This is very dangerous and certainly has the potential to lead us over the abyss. But at least in the West, it appears that the ideal of human equality is no longer controversial. And that may ultimately be our saving grace.
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