Reflections on the Consistent Ethic of Life

Having worked for several years to advance the consistent ethic of life as an editor for Life Matters Journal and a member of the organization the Consistent Life Network, I wanted to offer some thoughts on this principle. How should supporters of the ethic understand it? What concerns should the ethic include—and not include?

I acknowledge at the outset that these questions do not have “right” answers. Those who support the consistent ethic of life are a diverse and loosely organized community that has no central authority or official set of convictions. We do not have a consistent ethic of life Central Committee or Party Chair capable of settling philosophical disputes. Nevertheless, the ethic has over time prompted reflection among its supporters—and some strong criticism from its opponents—and I think I can draw on some of this history of reflection, as well as my own experiences, to identify ways of understanding the ethic that will be helpful to activists seeking to promote it.[1]

A good working definition of the consistent ethic of life would be the principle that human life should be protected by ending the major socially accepted forms of killing. To be an effective means of social change, this principle should be understood and applied in a way that will attract a broad, diverse constituency yet remain clear and specific enough to be meaningful. The consistent ethic of life should become the basis for a powerful new movement that influences people across the political and other spectrums. With these goals in mind, I propose for consideration the following guidelines for understanding and promoting the ethic:

The consistent ethic of life should focus primarily on opposition to four types of socially approved killing: abortion, the death penalty, euthanasia/assisted suicide, and war. An understanding of the ethic that focuses on opposition to these four practices has three advantages. First, the four practices have common characteristics that make opposition to all four more than a random assembly of disconnected beliefs. All four practices involve the direct, intentional taking of human life; all are legal, socially accepted, or both in many parts of the world; and all four have significant forces working on their behalf that need to be met by opposition.

Second (as the writer and activist Mary Meehan pointed out to me), this understanding of the ethic is ideologically balanced: two of the practices opposed (abortion and euthanasia/assisted suicide) tend to be associated with the political Left while the other two (death penalty and war) tend to be associated with the political Right. This kind of balanced approach works against the notion that the consistent ethic of life is “really” a disguised form of either liberalism or conservatism.

Third, opposing these four practices is a sufficiently limited and specific mission to prevent the ethic from becoming overly broad and vague. In contrast to the focus on these four practices, the ethic should not be defined so as to include issues that, however serious they might be, do not involve socially approved killing of human beings. Concentration on issues such as reducing poverty or protecting the environment would not be appropriate to include in the ethic. To exclude such issues is not to deny their importance but merely their suitability as elements of the consistent ethic of life. Almost any social injustice or problem can be presented or contrived as harming or diminishing life in some way, and once the ethic is defined so as to encompass issues other than the direct taking of human life it becomes nearly impossible to say what the ethic does not encompass. To expand the ethic in this way risks broadening the ethic to such an extent that it becomes meaningless.[2]

The consistent ethic of life should cut across ideological lines and not be confined or identical to a particular religion, philosophy, or political party—or to a particular rationale for supporting the ethic. People who support the ethic, as defined above, may come from any number of different backgrounds and have any number of belief systems. People of different faiths or none at all; conservatives, liberals, libertarians, and radicals; Democrats, Greens, Libertarians, and Republicans alike should be welcomed into the community of those who support the consistent ethic of life.

Moreover, this community should allow for a diversity of views as to why the ethic is worth supporting. Some who adhere to the ethic do so out of an absolute rejection of all violence. They regard all killing of humans, or in some cases any kind of animal, as wrong and therefore reject all four types of socially approved killing as equally unacceptable. Other adherents to the ethic might take a different view, viewing the different kinds of killing as wrong for different reasons, and might regard these different kinds of killing as having different moral weights. As long as all adherents agree that these four types of killing should be ended, however, their differing reasons for reaching this conclusion should not be an obstacle to working together.

The consistent ethic of life should embrace a variety of strategies and approaches to ending socially approved killing. The diversity of views mentioned in the previous point will inevitably lead to a diversity of views about how to end the four types of killing opposed by the ethic. Some people will favor various types of direct action, such as helping pregnant women to carry their children to term; ensuring sound care for the sick, disabled, or dying; or challenging various lethal practices through nonviolent civil disobedience. Others might favor political action such as lobbying for legislation or trying to elect candidates to public office. Still others might favor educating the public about the different life issues.

Perhaps most significantly, different adherents to the consistent ethic of life will take different views about legal prohibitions of the socially approved forms of killing. Some might hold that, say, abortion must be made illegal or the death penalty formally abolished; others might hold that keeping these types of killing formally legal while ending their actual practice is acceptable. An analogous divide might arise in regard to war and international conflict: liberal adherents to the ethic might desire a stronger United Nations and more effectively enforced international law, while libertarian or conservative adherents might prefer alternatives to war that do not affect national sovereignty and autonomy.

The consistent ethic of life should allow for all these different strategies. While absolute statements are hard to make, the general rule for the community that supports the ethic should be to be open to any strategy for ending the four major types of killing as long as the strategy is nonviolent.

The consistent ethic of life should challenge dominant political ideologies and parties. Side by side with the ethic’s openness to a diversity of beliefs and strategies should be the recognition that the ethic is not easily compatible with the political ideologies that are currently dominant, at least in the United States. While members of the different ideologies and political parties mentioned above can all legitimately support the consistent ethic of life, all of them should also acknowledge that they are atypical members of those ideologies and parties—and should challenge their fellow members to support the ethic.

This kind of challenge is essential because without it the ethic can too easily be lost or watered down amid the desire to support a larger political ideology or party. The legitimate variety of strategies and approaches to ending socially approved killing should not become an excuse to strain or twist the ethic until it fits an existing party platform or until any distance between supporters of the ethic and those with more conventional political views disappears. To take two specific examples, opposition to abortion should to some degree challenge the preferred agenda of Planned Parenthood and opposition to war should to some degree challenge the preferred agenda of the US Department of Defense. An interpretation of the consistent ethic of life that loses this element of challenge is one that robs the ethic of its integrity and power.

The consistent ethic of life should allow for focusing on a particular issue. While the ethic links together four different issues, supporters of the ethic are not obligated to work on all four simultaneously with equal commitments of time and energy. No one can do everything and some people’s talents, concerns, or backgrounds will draw them to focusing on one issue over another. This kind of division of labor is entirely legitimate, and different adherents to the ethic should respect and support each other as they focus on whichever issue they are drawn to.

The consistent ethic of life can be a force for great good and major social transformation. Realizing the ethic’s potential requires balancing the various guidelines I have outlined above so the ethic becomes neither narrowly sectarian nor vague and meaningless. Instead, the ethic should retain its ability to challenge and inspire many different people and groups to work to defend life.

A version of this essay originally appeared in Life Matters Journal.


[1] Earlier reflections on the consistent ethic of life that have influenced my thinking in this essay are Mary Meehan, “Let’s Revisit the Consistency Ethic,” Meehan Reports, accessed March 15, 2016,, and Nicholas Neal, “No Aggression, No Homicide: Being Libertarian & Consistent Life,” Life Matters Journal 1, no. 2 (2012): 26-27. A reflection on the ethic by Julianne Wiley that Mary Meehan shared with me was also helpful.

[2] To be clear, I am not suggesting that an organization or individual activist identified with the consistent ethic of life should never show concern for issues other than the four I have mentioned here. I have participated in two organizations dedicated to promoting the ethic, the Consistent Life Network and Life Matters Journal, and both of these organizations work against injustices other than abortion, the death penalty, euthanasia, and war. The Consistent Life Network also includes opposition to poverty and racism in its mission, while Life Matters Journal also concerns itself with working against torture and human trafficking. Similar diverse concerns characterize other organizations that identify with the consistent ethic of life, such as Feminists Choosing Life of New York. All this is entirely legitimate, and I am not suggesting these groups must jettison their concern with issues other than the four highlighted in this essay. I would say, however, that these central four issues should be the core issues around which we try to build a social and political movement. Issues other than these four should not be included as the central, mandatory concerns meant to unite a diverse constituency of organizations and people into a movement dedicated to the consistent ethic of life.

© 2016 John Whitehead. All rights reserved.

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