U.S. politics is experiencing a crisis of consistency. Rather than divining their principles before determining the associated policy preferences, political parties are falling prey to the fallacy of picking policy preferences first and a political philosophy second.
Doing so inevitably leads to a mismatch, where no single philosophical stance can explain each policy choice. This inconsistency is a serious flaw, because a political philosophy is supposed to tell us how the world works and the best way to act in it, in any given circumstance. If we hold two incompatible beliefs, one must be inaccurate or not preferable in terms of our beliefs about the world. The alternative is nothing short of arbitrary decision-making.
I’m not under the delusion that only one party espouses incompatible political preferences, but it’s one in particular that irks me. The anti-abortion policy preference is fundamentally incompatible with the pro-capital punishment view many conservatives subscribe to.
Some caveats: while it is possible to hold these two views consistently, the standard justifications provided for each are incompatible. All I ask is that those conservatives who do hold both views re-examine the basis of their choices and re-evaluate the validity of their conclusions. As a former Catholic who attended anti-abortion classes, rallies and demonstrations for 12 years, I am at least familiar with both the anti-abortion and pro-capital punishment positions.
Most anti-abortionists believe that no human being should have the right to decide whether another human being (or a fetus) gets to live or die. They think life is a gift from God and that killing an innocent human being is an act of murder. In contrast, capital punishment is viewed as a legitimate and necessary function of the state and a convenient means to expel evil doers from our society. It’s obvious that one policy supports life while the other denies it and resolving the glue that holds these positions in strong correlation will only require a consideration of the innocent/guilty distinction.
Most anti-abortion, pro-capital punishment advocates posit that the fundamental difference lies in the difference between a criminal’s knowing forfeiture of their right to life and a fetus’s limitless potential for both good and bad. Upon closer examination, this distinction breaks down. Most glaring is the persistent assertion of original sin by many anti-abortion Christians. If we are all born with original sin and only accepting a particular religion can forgive that sin, it seems that a baptized convict ought to be considered more pure than a fetus with original sin.
In addition, DNA testing has made it clear that innocent people have, are, and will be subject to capital punishment. Also, sometimes knowing someone will be a bad parent is equated with knowing their fetus will turn out to be a bad human being. Some convicts have the potential for full and genuine rehabilitation. In short – it’s not so obvious that, by empirical and theological standards, the victims of abortion are substantially different in kind from the victims of capital punishment.
Considering the issue on a deeper level, it’s clear that both policies are about the legitimate degree of state control or intervention. For the anti-abortionist, the state is perfectly licensed to regulate our decisions about life and death, whether it be anti-abortion law or prohibitions on murder. For the pro-capital punishment individual, the state ought to go even farther and actually decide who gets to live, and who has to die.
The inconsistency lies in the lack of real distinction between citizens and the state. As a community, we may choose to revoke our right to decide life and death issues via abortion, but assert our collective right to kill criminals. Conservatives have to decide: either the state, as our representative, is the arbiter of life and death, or it’s not and neither are we.
The inconsistencies between the anti-abortion and pro-capital punishment positions are only a single example of a larger problem. Lacking a coherent political philosophy from which to glean and guide our policy preferences will only result in counter productive, counter intuitive and ineffective policies.
– Beth Mendenhall is a senior in political science. Please send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.