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  • Writer's pictureDoug Weiss

Principles

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately thinking about the divisions in our country.  It is hard to remain objective, to see the other person’s point of view and I am not any better at this than most people I know so I have been rather deliberately constructing dialogs in which I attempt to articulate a view different from my own to try to better understand the issues and opposing perspectives. 

 

This kind of, dare I call it, role-playing, has been eye opening in a few ways.  While it has not resulted in any drastic change in my views it has helped me to see how it is possible for people of good intention to arrive at starkly different views of the truth, morality, humanity, and ‘right’.  What it has not helped me to understand is the demonization of those with whom we disagree, nor the justification individuals hold up for hatred of their fellow men. 

 

It is no secret that there are agents, both foreign and domestic whose purpose it is to sow dissent and cause us to feel anger toward those who hold opposing views or those who take actions with which we disagree. But a lot of our disunion is home grown, the product of human flaws that are readily exploited. Even when people put aside their emotions and just talk—not loudly or violently about issues of public policy what seems missing is some clarity around the principles that are at stake.  If we cannot even establish agreement around this foundational question, there is no hope of reaching any deeper understanding. In such circumstances, any discussion will quickly devolve into name calling and deeply emotional knee jerk reactivity. 

 

Let me suggest a highly emotional issue, one that among other things will surely play in the next election as an example  Abortion—or more precisely whether the government has the right to make blanket laws about whether a woman can terminate a pregnancy and under what conditions is perhaps one of the most divisive issues of our time.  The cardinal issue, at least as it aligns in most debates is the violation of rights—the right to life on the one hand, and the right of one’s own body on the other.  For purposes of illustration, I am putting aside religious convictions as these take us down a second and equally contentious axis of disagreement

 

There are of course many additional points of disagreement that come into play with regard to this issue, including but not limited to the question of terminating non-consensual pregnancy, termination of pregnancies that are life threatening to the mother or adversely affect a mother’s health, and fetal viability.  But for now, let’s keep this as simple as we can for such an emotionally charged and complex subject.  Let’s just look at the basic right’s question.

 

We might start by acknowledging the legitimacy of these rights; the fact that they are in conflict with one another not withstanding. Arguing the rights of the mother versus the rights of an unborn fetus is a hopeless conundrum without establishing a guiding principle.  So, let's suppose that we are arguing the right to life perspective. We might start by asking if every living thing should, therefore enjoy this right.  The answer, evidently is no. After all we accept that all manner of life from plants to animals, including bugs and even bacteria and viruses constitute life and we are not in violent disagreement for the most part in taking those lives for our own benefit. But you might say what we mean by this right to life—or what most people mean-- is the right to human life. 

 

Here again we face a challenge. What is it we mean when we say human life? We cannot rest our case on sentience or sapience or the ability to feel pain.  We know all too well that these are not exclusive to humans.  But one might argue that we set human life to a different and higher but clearly undefined standard. Whether one agrees with this standard or not let’s accept it for the moment and move on to the next question.  At what point can we definitively say that the process of life, cells growing in the womb of a woman represents human life?  Is it as some suggest at conception, some number of weeks later when basic cellular functions commence--when do those cells constitute human life? Well scientists and physicians have been debating this for a long time-even if legislators believe they know more or better. Lacking some guiding principle--some foundational and self-evident definition, we are again at sea, arguing over how many angels fit on the head of a pin.

 

In the interest of advancing then, allow me to approach that question another way. All of us carry within us cells that are growing, maturing and creating life.  If they didn’t we would cease to exist in short order. That new life that is being created every minute, that replaces every single cell in our bodies over a roughly seven year period is essential to our remaining alive, but some of those cells threaten our health and welfare.  Those cells and the organisms they create are every bit as human as we are, but they are growing into something that adversely affects the body of which they are a part.  Generally, we do not hesitate to rid ourselves of this life by any means possible—because we do not wish to sacrifice the living person to save that which is growing inside them.


Now, to be clear I am not equating cancer with babies—just begging the obvious question, what is the principle by which we determine that one form of human life must be preserved at any cost while another must be destroyed?  If we argue that anything which threatens the host can and should be eliminated we are walking ourselves into a trap of our own making--and we are right back where we started--whose rights are being violated? I am not saying there isn't a guiding principle that could help us come to some mutual understanding, but we never articulate it and so no dialog can advance in a meaningful way towards mutual understanding. We have to have some principle on which to rest our case or our disagreement is nothing more than a raft of emotional pretexts.

 

Now bear with me here while I take a sharp turn away from this brief illustration to arrive at the central theme of this post.  If we acknowledge that it is essential to reach some agreement around the guiding principles that govern human life and keep us from devolving into lawlessness and mutual destruction then let me ask what are those principles as they apply to our country as a whole at this divisive point in history?.  By what principle, by what right do we derive our laws and rules?  I would submit they are our Bill of Rights and our Constitution.  Didn’t see that coming did you?

 

Today we see and hear politicians and citizens of our country who are fully prepared to burn that house to the ground, to throw away those foundational rights, principles and laws.  Some wish to replace them with a single and specific religious doctrine—about which even theologians cannot fully agree while others just wish to make them optional or irrelevant if it suits their case. There are even those who believe we should surrender all our rights to the dictates of one man, as if divine right were not something humanity learned long ago to despise for the evident injustice and oppression it inevitably sunders.

 

Clearly, I do not believe it is ever wise to burn down one's house around oneself.  Neither did our forefathers so they made provisions to change and amend the Constitution and set out a process to do so with a very high barrier so that we wouldn’t do so at the drop of a hat.  We humans can be capricious from time to time and right now seems like one of those times.

 

Our founders also created a mechanism to adjudicate any laws or rules we made based on our foundational principles, the highest of which is the Supreme Court. This is, by the way, the very court that undid a previous decision about the rights of women with respect to the issue we were discussing earlier.  They are charged with ensuring we adhere to those first principles in our Constitution and of course they don’t always agree because –as you have hopefully gathered, the Constitution—like every other written document is a product of a particular time and place and therefore subject to some degree of interpretation, and application to things and concepts which did not exist when it was originally conceived.. 

 

There are to be sure literalists, not unlike those who quote scripture and believe in the absolute meaning of words, even when those words were written in wholly different languages, thousands of years ago, translated and retranslated to the best of our ability over thousands of years by succeeding generations each of which inserted their own cultural biases. Even with a single document as the foundational text--there is no single religion or even agreement within the various religions of the world as to the absolute meaning of much of that text or any other. Instead, scholars and theologians are tasked with the ongoing interpretation of what those words were actually intended to mean.


In any event as it applies to the Supreme Court and the Constitution the same is true. It is not at all clear what precisely the framers meant in every case. We cannot go back and ask what their intent was and are thus reliant on the slippery slope of interpretation. The justices of the court, appointed, but it is suggested not beholden to politicians, are tasked with applying their talmudic skills to divining this meaning.

 

My point is simply this. I may not always agree with the Supreme Court’s rulings or interpretation but if we do not uphold the legitimacy—even more urgently the necessity of our Constitution than we are no longer lawful, we have no alternative guiding principles, and none of our rules or laws which rest on the legitimacy of that document have any application if it is rendered null and void. I fail to see how that profits any but those who wish to sweep away America as we know it and create something else, and we must ask for whose benefit? If we abandon the principles on which we are founded, who are we?

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