I am convinced that the single greatest cause of our time is the God-given call to uphold human dignity. Confessing that God created humanity in his image and redeemed us by the blood of his Son, any Christian ethic or politic worthy of the name must contend for the dignity of each person created in God’s image—man or woman, born or unborn, black or white, rich or poor, useful or inconvenient.
We must fight the good fight, opposing relentlessly the perverse tendency of our age to deny, minimize, or otherwise undermine the dignity bestowed upon all humanity by none other than God himself. One way to do so, as I argued in a recent essay, is to persuade our fellow citizens of the fundamental injustice of abortion, infanticide, euthanasia, and physician-assisted suicide.
That is why, as I reread J. Budziszewski’s The Revenge of Conscience this week, I appreciated his exploration of Western Civilization’s penchant for killing the weak.
“If we may kill,” he writes, “we may do anything—and historians will write that by the last decade of the twentieth century, great numbers of men and women in the most pampered society on the earth had come to think it normal and desirable that their sick, their weak, and their helpless should be killed” (125).
But how did our society come to embrace evil in this manner? We did so, Budziszewski answers, by buying into “spoiled” versions of virtue. In particular, we have acquiesced to perverted versions of pity, prudence, amenity, honor, remorse, love, and justice:
1. Spoiled Pity
Pity is heartfelt sadness at the sight of another person’s suffering. True pity moves us closer to the person suffering. But spoiled pity causes us to move further from the person suffering, to avert our gaze and avoid their presence. In putting to death an aging parent or a disabled unborn baby, we tell ourselves that we are putting the “other” out of their misery when in reality we are really putting ourselves out of our own.
2. Spoiled Prudence
Prudence is the ability to discern the true good in a situation and to choose the right means to achieve it. It involves good stewardship of the things and persons entrusted to our care. But spoiled stewardship devolves into ownership. A bad steward comes to think of his life and his relatives as his own to do with as he pleases. Thus, if a baby or an aging parent is inconvenient, one can protect oneself by eliminating the inconvenience.
3. Spoiled Amenity
Amenity is a person’s disposition to accommodate himself to other people. Healthy accommodation does not stem from a desire to belong or a fear of rejection, but from heartfelt concern for other people. Healthy accommodation also knows where to draw the line; it does not accommodate an aging parent who wishes to commit suicide or be euthanized.
4. Spoiled Honor
Honor is ascribing to other people the dignity they are owed as creatures made in the image and likeness of God. A healthy sense of honor keeps us from controlling the other, degrading the other, killing the other. But a spoiled sense of honor encourages other people to act immorally. Consider, for example, a woman who tells her husband that she doesn’t ever want to burden him and that, if ever he has the opportunity, he should “pull the plug.” Her misplaced attempt to honor her husband is actually dishonoring to him because it treats him as an amoral or immoral being. “With the thought of sparing him a burden he could have borne, she had thrust on him another burden that he could not” (131).
5. Spoiled Remorse
Remorse is a feeling of guilt from violating the moral law. True remorse causes us to repent and ask for God’s mercy. Yet spoiled remorse causes us to sin further. For example, a woman’s remorse over a previous abortion might lead her to have further abortions; to terminate the baby is to remove from sight a tangible reminder of previously-aborted siblings. Similarly, a man might feel remorse for having neglected his father over the years. Yet, instead of caring for his father, he asks caretakers to withhold food and water. Euthanizing the father allows the son to remove from this world a tangible reminder of the son’s life of negligence.
6. Spoiled Love
Love is the determination to do what is best for another person. But spoiled love grasps for the good by doing what is not good. For example, some parents choose an abortion for the sake of a child already born. They think it best for Johnny if “Sally is cut in pieces before her birth because with one less child their home will be quieter and their finances more secure.” (133) Similarly, some people “love” their aging parents by euthanizing them, assuming that the parents have nothing to learn spiritually from their suffering, and no benefits to be gained from being cared for by their adult children.
7. Spoiled Sense of Justice
Justice is the desire for every person to be given their due. Justice wants rewards for the good and discipline for the bad. But a degenerate sense of justice causes us to mistreat a weak person. For example, an adult might euthanize a parent out of resentment toward past wrongs. Similarly, a mother might wish to abort an unborn or born baby out of resentment toward the baby’s father.
Budziszewski’s point is that evil always stems from “good” intentions. But wrong is wrong, no matter the intentions. And for that reason, in our attempts to understand why we have done wrong, we must not excuse the wrong. Instead, as we understand why we have done wrong, let us throw ourselves before God’s throne of mercy. And let us do so quickly, for we are complicit in a great deal of wrongdoing.