Do I Care about People, or Principles?

Signing of the Declaration of Independence-John Trumbull

For a variety of reasons, it seems most Americans abide in a constant state of indignant political outrage these days.  On a weekly basis, some new crisis is displayed across national media outlets, inciting hordes of righteous hashtaggers who wish to register their disapproval (or support) for the cause-du-jour.  It is unclear which controversies or news items will register to this collective outrage, but stories such as Kim Davis’ refusal to issue marriage licenses, Ahmed’s “bomb-clock,” Hillary Clinton’s private e-mail server, and Caitlin Jenner’s transition really rile us up, and we don’t hesitate to let the world know on which side of the aisle we stand–many times with insufficient or uninformed reasons for that principled stand.

I’ve come to see that the response to these controversies illustrate something pervasive, and perhaps troubling, about American political life.  When I reflect on what it “means to be an American,” I’m struck by the fact that very few cultural features are part of that definition.  What I mean is this: when one thinks about what it means to be from many other countries in the world, that sense of belonging is accompanied by a strong attachment to certain cultural norms.  For example, Mexican cuisine, music, general racial appearance, and attitude toward family are all bound up in what it means to be a Mexican.  But because the United States is so large and so culturally diverse, when one thinks about what it means to be an American, very few of those cultural norms are part of that description.  Instead, when people think about American identity, or they claim to “love their country,” what they love are certain ideals embodied (more or less) by the American political system. Americans love “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Wrapped up in the founding documents of America are a dedication to ideas.

This love for ideals of justice is pervasive throughout the short history of the United States.  The Civil War, for example, wasn’t fought because people from Alabama hated people from Illinois.  Instead, the conflict centered on the preservation of certain ideals about property ownership and federal solidarity. These ideas were deemed worth dying for, and perhaps more soberingly, sacrificing others’ lives over.  Though our culture has routinely praised people who have died over principles, I want to suggest that there is something deeply problematic with basing political positions on a love of principle, especially if that dedication to principle trumps a dedication to people.  I find that both ends of the political spectrum-and most everyone in between-has this American tendency to prioritize principle over people.  Below, I’ll offer two examples that demonstrate this quality that both American progressives and conservatives seem to share.

Abortion, Science, and Care

As Congress grandstands over whether to defund Planned Parenthood, science educator and advocate Bill Nye the Science Guy weighed in on the abortion debate in a hotly shared Youtube video entitled, “Can We Stop Telling Women What to do with Their Bodies?”

While many have gone to great lengths to demonstrate that Nye’s argument is weak, Nye’s remarks are off-the-cuff and incomplete, and it is not quite clear exactly what position he is defending. In the clip, one of his claims is that science demonstrates the incoherence of the pro-lifer’s insistence that life begins at conception. Much of the debate about a woman’s right to choose is centered on whether a fetus should be regarded as a person, endowed with fundamental rights.  If individuals begin their existence at the moment of conception, ending that existence should be subject to the same moral disapproval appropriate for murder. If, on the other hand, life does not begin at conception, then abortion is no more morally problematic than using antibiotics to kill unwanted bacteria. In the video, Nye seems to be claiming that because natural abortions occur all the time, it is incoherent to believe that life begins when human sperm fertilizes an egg.

So, if one could “scientifically” demonstrate that life does indeed begin at conception, Nye would change his position, right?  I suspect that he would not. I suspect that he would adopt a perspective similar to the one expressed by Mary Elizabeth Williams in this article for Salon.  Williams asserts that even if life begins at conception, all life is not equal, and the needs and desires of the mother ought to take precedence over the needs a of a developing fetus.  The view she is expressing is not all that novel; ethicists such as Judith Thompson have been defending similar claims since at least 1971.  Many ethicists are willing to grant that a fetus is a person, but the rights of the mother to direct her life and choices are more morally demanding that the needs of that person.

Here, the conflict between principles of rights and the value of a priori individuals is explicit.  Even if a fetus is a new life, properly regarded as a person, if that person’s existence impedes a woman’s ability to actualize her own rights to autonomy, that person may acceptably be terminated. The principle of a woman’s right to choose is more valuable than the person she has (at least in part) created.

Gun Control and the Value of Life

Recently, the United States has witnessed yet another mass shooting, and once again, the usual political suspects are out in force to defend the right of individuals to possess lethal firearms.  This scenario has played out with a sort of obscene regularity in the U.S., and as I observe it unfold, I am reminded of this now infamous Piers Morgan interview with far-right talk-show host Alex Jones that occurred just after the Newtown Connecticut school shooting.

Of course, Alex Jones represents the most extreme version of right-wing political thought, and his views should not be construed as an expression of many (or perhaps even most) 2nd amendment supporters. Nevertheless, this interview does demonstrate the principle-over-people dynamic present in American cultural life. In the midst of his tirade, Jones asserts that the most safe America is an armed America, and he attempts to provide crime statistics that “prove” his point.  What is telling here is that Jones absolutely dismisses the data that Morgan presents, asserting that Morgan’s murder rate stats need to be properly qualified.

If, like Nye, Jones could be convinced  beyond a reasonable doubt that gun control laws would have a positive effect on murder rates, would he change his views?  Again, based upon my experience with people of Jones’ ilk, I assert that he would not.  No amount of lives saved could convince most second amendment supporters that limiting the possession of firearms is justified.  What is more important to strong gun-rights advocates than saving lives is their right to self-protection.  While right-to-bear arms folks may not typically think they have much in common with pro-choicers, both groups display eerily similar philosophical commitments: in either case, life is important, but it is not as important as my rights.

Do I Care About Principles, or People?

It seems to me that the basic unalienable rights espoused in the Declaration of Independence are listed in order of importance.  Life ought to be regarded as the most fundamental right, but most of us in the American political system, regardless of our political party affiliation, value our liberties (and certainly our own pursuit of happiness) above and beyond the lives of others.  In both the examples presented above, this misguided political philosophy stands out significantly, and it seems to me that a simple political sermon is necessary:  If your reasons for being pro-choice or pro-second-amendment are rooted in a love for people, then by all means, support those causes, but if your reasons for holding those positions are rooted in self-interested ideas of rights, perhaps your political philosophy needs a second look.

8 thoughts on “Do I Care about People, or Principles?

  1. Could you explain where your commitment to “love for people” comes from, and make a case for prefering the lives of other people over and against one’s own life? I know that these are tenets of religious traditions, but do they find a basis in reason as well?

    1. Michael, that’s a good question. I think that ethical systems that don’t ground themselves in the value of individuals a priori are fraught with intractable problems. This is a nice, Kantian way of saying, I don’t have to provide an argument, because all the alternatives are crap. :)

      More interestingly, though, you ask, if I can make a case for “preferring the lives of other people over and against one’s own life.” I think I can make that case, however I would point out that I am not claiming in the post that we have to sacrifice our lives for other people, just that if our claims to rights outweigh people’s ability to exist, those claims to rights are morally illegitimate.

  2. sir, sir, sir,……one does not simply start a blog without having an email subscription feature! I want all of this excellence delivered to my inbox!

    1. Noted, Andrew. Because you requested it, you can now subscribe via the link at the top of the menu on the left hand side of the screen. Thanks for the encouragement.

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