I was introduced to the concept of "a consistent ethic of life" by an opinion piece entitled "You Can't Protect Some Life and Not Others." The writer, Tish Harrison Warren, is a priest in the Anglican Church, but quotes Catholic leaders heavily, calling for a "whole life" ethic that "entails a commitment to life 'from womb to tomb'." She sees this consistency as a means of breaking the rigid categories of political affiliation. "We need to rebundle disparate political issues, re-sort political alliances and shake up the categories," she says. "A whole life ethic is often antiwar, anti-abortion, anti-death penalty, anti-euthanasia and pro-gun control. It sees a thread connecting issues that the major party platforms often silo."
It can be refreshing when people adopt points of view that draw from different political camps. Warren points to a time, in 1973, when conservative evangelical leaders declared that "we, as a nation, must 'attack the materialism of our culture' and call for a just redistribution of the 'nation’s wealth and services.'" And yet attempts to achieve moral consistency come at a price. A whole life ethic appears to call on women to risk their lives to have unwanted children, and calls on society to put vast resources into sustaining indefinitely lives made unbearable by pain or dementia. The ethics of life get murky at the beginning and the end. Does the quality of life enter into these ethical considerations, or just quantity?
A consistent ethic of life becomes even more elusive when considering our relationship to nature. I spend my days seeking to heal nature, and yet all of us depend for our comfort, sustenance, and mobility on machines that are chemically altering the earth's atmosphere, to the detriment of nature. Each of us can do a great deal to reduce our own individual dependency, but as long as our shared ecomony and culture runs on fossil fuels, there is little hope of consistency. What we intend and what we unintentionally do will remain very much at odds.
To break down rigid political polarization, I'd suggest we invest our consistency in a pursuit of truth, in building opinion on accumulating evidence, and not just the cherry-picked facts that will prop up an emotionally comfortable opinion. And, in building an opinion, be ready to be wrong. It's a readiness to be wrong that motivates the study needed to be right.