Musing on the sanctity of life

O.K., he’s crude, but the questions are valid.

From David P. Gushee, PhD, The Sanctity of Life

One way of moving beyond slogans to a more substantive understanding of the sanctity of life is to define the term with some precision. This is my working definition: The concept of the sanctity of life is the belief that all human beings, at any and every stage of life, in any and every state of consciousness or self-awareness, of any and every race, color, ethnicity, level of intelligence, religion, language, gender, character, behavior, physical ability/disability, potential, class, social status, etc., of any and every particular quality of relationship to the viewing subject, are to be perceived as persons of equal and immeasurable worth and of inviolable dignity and therefore must be treated in a manner commensurate with this moral status.

Notice several things about this definition.

First, the sanctity of life is a concept that one believes in. It is, in other words, a moral conviction.

Second, it is a moral conviction about how human beings are to be perceived and treated. Belief in the sanctity of life prescribes a certain way of looking at the world, in particular its human inhabitants (with implications for its non-human inhabitants—a subject for another article). This perception then leads to behavioral implications related to how human beings are to be treated. Moral conviction leads to perception and flows into behavior. Notice that in constructing my understanding of the sanctity of life in this way I am emphasizing worldview dimensions first (convictions), character qualities next (perceptions), and behavioral prescriptions last. I think this is actually how the moral life works.

The third thing to notice about this definition is its universality. Rightly understood, the sanctity of life is among the broadest and most inclusive understandings possible of our moral obligations to other human beings.

All human beings are included (each and every human being), at all stages of existence, with every quality of experience, reflecting every type of human diversity, and encompassing every possible quality of relationship to the person who does the perceiving. What all are included in is a vision of their immeasurable worth and inviolable dignity. This means that each of these human beings has a value that transcends all human capacity to count or measure, which confers upon them an elevated status that must not be dishonored or degraded.

This breathtaking and exalted vision of the worth and dignity of human beings is what we mean, or ought to mean, when we speak of the sanctity of life. It is a moral conviction that continually challenges our efforts to weaken it. Yet weaken it we do, whether purposefully or unintentionally. Most often we weaken it when we chafe against the implications of its universality—its vision of the weak, the enemy, the disabled, the stranger, the unborn, the sinner, the poor, the ex-friend, the racial other, or whoever else we find it difficult to include within the community of the truly human.

Every effort to point out someone else’s violations of life’s sanctity implicitly requires us to examine our own fidelity to this exalted and demanding moral norm. This may be why the language of life’s sanctity has perhaps faded from public debate to some extent. Anti-abortion advocates who argued for the sanctity of (unborn) human life were met by anti-poverty advocates who argued for the sanctity of (born but poor) human life. Thoughtful moral theorists recognized that this was precisely right, and that a true understanding of life’s sanctity required a both/and rather than an either/or approach. But this hardly fits the culture wars paradigm. The sanctity of life is not so helpful as a political cudgel after all, which may mean its real value is as a bracing statement of human moral obligation.

Again, why aren’t these people protesting for gun control?

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