Last night I watched Lake of Fire, a fascinating (if long-winded) documentary about the abortion debate in America. I don't want to say much about the film except that even though perhaps more screen time was given to pro-life activists, the pro-choice intellectuals definitely had more thoughtful and thought-provoking stances on the issue. Only Nat Hentoff had what seemed to be a pro-life argument based not on religion.
Because the abortion debate in America has as much or more to do with women's rights than it does about the medical procedure, I don't really want to delve too deeply into the specific issue. But the film made me think about how people value life and how blurry and context-dependent that value is. Specifically, I'm curious about where individuals draw the line between caring and not caring about a particular life.
Reading about the ethical aspects of abortion can seem like a debate about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin; or, when exactly does a bundle of cells become a person? If one is utilitarian and thinks that the fetus' suffering matters, then what happens if the fetus doesn't actually suffer during abortion? Hmm, well, another argument could be that abortion is morally wrong because it terminates the potential for human life, but if that's the case, contraception ought to be just as immoral because it prevents the potential for birth. I suppose some people do believe that, but the point is that it's very easy to draw imaginary lines in the sand declaring when it's important to care about a human life (or the potential for life, or the potential for potential of human life!). Everybody evaluates the point at which he or she starts caring — Do I lose sleep over spilt sperm? Should I worry about the suffering of a 6 week old zygote? Is it wrong to abort at 39 weeks? Am I bothered by the millions of infants who die every year due to preventable diseases or conditions?
If all life is sacred, then does being a pro-life activist mean you care more about the 800,000 potential births aborted per year in the U.S. than you do about the 850,000 infant malaria deaths in the world per year? What about the 20-30,000 gun-related deaths in the U.S. per year? How about the 40,000 car accident deaths per year? Why is one kind of life more important (or at least worth more energy) to protect than another? It can't be because of an unborn child's helplessness. Surely there are many more helpless children — real, live children — suffering and dying than there are aborted fetuses. For that matter, why do we limit our caring to children? Is a fetus in America more worthy of our attention than an adult in Iraq?
A person truly concerned about every kind of preventable suffering and death in the world could very well become paralyzed in thought or tirelessly devoted to every cause imaginable. Because most of us would rather not think about pain and suffering unless it's our own, we find ways to rationalize our lack of concern. There's probably some genetic defense mechanism behind our ability to abstract away (and as a result, ignore) distant sources of suffering, but I find it fascinating to think about the extent of our delusion. Tell anybody about that 40,000 number — the number of people in the U.S. who died in car accidents last year — more than 10 times the number of American soldiers who've died in Iraq since 2003 (or more than 10 times the number of people who died in the September 11 attacks). It's a relatively huge number, but for a variety of reasons, justified or not, certain types of suffering eclipse others.
Let's not forget meat, by the way. Every time somebody bites into a burger, he implicitly determines that his desire for meat outweighs a cow's suffering. The action says, "my immediate desire is worth more than a life." Years ago, these kinds of decisions would've been deliberate and maybe even difficult (is it wrong to hunt Bambi's mom?), but today there needn't be any thought process or effort taken before consuming another animal's life. As a society, we're so thoughtless, in fact, that every year, 34,000,000 cows are killed for our consumption. The numbers are staggering and hard to grasp, but for reference, only about 2 million humans die every year in America, for any reason. And considering there are about half as many cows as people in the U.S., well, they've got a pretty lousy mortality rate compared to us.
Don't worry, chickens have it worse. Americans eat about 8,000,000,000 chickens per year. That's Billion, as in: more chickens than there are people on the planet. The fact that we can commit such enormous, industrial acts of violence against whole species of animals every year is both a testament to the human race's dominance and to its savagery. That the majority find little reason to question an industry of mass killing neatly illustrates the ability to abstract away others' suffering.
Of course, vegetarianism again raises the issue of where to draw the line. As a lacto-ovo vegetarian, I can't honestly say that I'm doing everything I can to personally avoid partaking in animal suffering. Unless I avoid thinking about it entirely, it takes some mental gymnastics to rationalize that the 300 million chickens laying eggs in America somehow aren't suffering as much as those 8 billion slaughtered chickens (though it's hard to imagine). So, the line moves to veganism... Oh, but some vegans don't eat honey; do bees feel pain?
As another example of this blurriness, I can raise cattle, slit their throats, and grill their carcasses, but if I wanted to turn my own puppies into burgers, I'd probably be in trouble if anyone found out. Why is that? Who are we to judge the worth of one type of mammal over another? (Cows like to play, too) Furthermore, although I may not be able to buy cats for stew, I can certainly kill my kitty if he becomes too old, too sick, or too expensive to take care of. And years before I kill him, I'm supposed to cut off his testicles to ensure that my companion is an evolutionary dead-end. The justification for castrating our pets, of course, is that it helps decrease the 4,000,000 cats and dogs euthanized in America every year, weighing the suffering of death against the suffering of mutilation.
In any case, whether it's deciding to put an old pet "to sleep," whether to mutilate an animal to keep as a possession, whether to chow down on a bucket of abused chickens, whether to abort a fetus, whether to assassinate an abortionist, whether to send money to Save the Children, or whether to send a child off to war, we consciously and unconsciously make these significant decisions about how to value one life over another. Absolutism dissolves in these murky waters, leaving a very personal moral compass behind. The driving hope in any of these life-and-death issues is that we each have the capacity to be mindful. Whether we use that mindfulness or ignore it in favor of dogma or pleasure is the crux of the matter.