Navigating the murky depths of moral outrage

It all began with that first video. A senior official at Planned Parenthood, America’s tax-funded abortion provider, was caught on camera by an undercover team from the Center for Medical Progress, a pro-life bioethics group.

Between forkfuls of salad and sips of wine, the PP official blithely explained how to dismember aborted babies so that their body parts can be harvested and sold. More such videos from the CMP continued to surface, each offering a further look into the grisly realities behind the abortion industry.

Meanwhile, in a strange convergence of disturbing news, a story broke about an American dentist on a big-game hunting trip in Zimbabwe. With the aid of a local guide, the dentist lured a lion named Cecil from its legally protected habitat. He then shot it with a bow and tracked the wounded animal for 40 hours before finishing it off with a rifle.

Two unrelated stories, one confused moral compass

Although the two stories are unrelated, the response to them provided a stark snapshot of our culture’s public moral compass and the worldview that directs it.

Regarding Cecil’s story, public reaction was sharp and extreme, to say the least. Politicians, celebrities and the media united to express intense outrage and sorrow at the lion’s death. They repeatedly referred to the killing as a “murder.” Cecil became a martyr, the dentist who slew him a murdering monster. Vitriolic hatred for the man poured out on social media, wishing him all manner of ill and suffering. There were calls for his extradition to Zimbabwe to stand trial for poaching, and beyond that, even for his execution.

In contrast, the public response to the Planned Parenthood videos was ambivalent at best. Far from expressing outrage at the horrific images and callous disregard for human life, many of our cultural elites remained curiously silent.

When they did speak up, it was mostly to defend Planned Parenthood. They pointed accusing fingers at the CMP, disparaging the motives and integrity of the pro-life group. They asserted that the sale of organs from aborted babies is not illegal and the money exchanged is merely to cover costs. Besides, they argued, it’s all for the benefit of research. Pro-lifers simply need to stop being so ignorant and squeamish. Most of all, they should just stop insisting that these are human babies and body parts, rather than fetuses and tissue and the “products of conception.”

The banality of evil

Yet despite the name-calling, the evasion and the disingenuous use of language, one thing remained clear: people of all persuasions, including many who are pro-choice, were deeply disturbed by these videos. And that’s not due to concerns over legal issues or the journalistic integrity of an undercover exposé. It’s due to watching educated professionals coolly discuss the destruction and sale of fellow humans over lunch.

It’s a terrible contemporary illustration of what Hannah Arendt called the banality of evil. And deep down, all of us recognize it precisely for what it is.

When it comes to the death of Cecil the lion, we should be equally clear: the destruction of this beautiful creature was wasteful and cruel. It was also illegal according to Zimbabwean law, which permits the regulated hunting of lions (a fact apparently lost on the popular protesters) but forbids poaching.

Moreover, Cecil’s fate represents a sad failure in stewardship. Scripture teaches that God gave humanity dominion over the rest of His creation, not to abuse it for our own amusement, but to care for it as God’s representatives. Our treatment of animals should be marked by appropriate kindness and respect. Killing them for no reason other than pleasure would be most difficult to justify from Scripture.

Humanizing animals whilst dehumanizing people

At the same time, the killing of a lion cannot be categorized as murder. By definition, murder is the taking of a human life, as opposed to any other kind of life. In co-opting the term, protesters were seeking to humanize the lion and equate its value with that of a person. To be sure, we all tend to humanize the animals we care about. We give them names and histories. We project our thoughts and feelings onto them. Usually this is just an innocent expression of our affection for them. It becomes problematic when we use it to elevate them to an equal footing with human beings.

Conversely, human societies have quite often dehumanized the people deemed to be inconvenient: the poor, the weak, the vulnerable. It serves to deaden the conscience. After all, it’s easier to ignore or even do away with people if we see them as nameless, faceless masses or impersonal categories, rather than as what they are, individual persons. So if a woman wants the child growing within her, it’s a baby. If she doesn’t, it’s just tissue or a fetus.

And so we’ve arrived at the topsy-turvy language these two stories have given us: killing a lion is murder; dismembering an unborn child is “harvesting the products of conception.”

An upside-down worldview

Beneath the language lies an equally upside-down worldview. It considers human and animal life to be of the same order, all of it merely the product of meaningless random chance. None of it has any intrinsic value, only that which we ascribe to it. Consequently, the death of a beloved lion becomes a greater cause for moral outrage than the deaths of countless unwanted children.

This is precisely the reverse of the Scriptural view of life on our planet. All life has been created by God for His glory and pleasure, and thus has intrinsic value. In fact, God declared all of His creation to be good. As part of that good creation, animals are worthy of care and humane treatment.

However, they’re not people. They’re not volitional, moral creatures and therefore cannot have rights, per se. Human beings, by contrast, are unique and exceptional, made in God’s image and thus possessing inestimable dignity and worth.

The cruel slaughter of a majestic beast like Cecil should rightly upset us. But the murder and ghoulish trafficking of unborn babies should frankly fill us with outrage. If we get that backwards, or not at all, then something is profoundly wrong.

Sources and further reading

Allan, Clare, “What makes us feel for Cecil the lion but not for fellow humans?Guardian, August 4, 2015.

Carrington, Adam, “The Planned Parenthood videos’ powerful argument for unborn humanity,” Federalist, August 10, 2015.

Hemingway, Mollie, “The 4 most embarrassing things Cecile Richards said in defense of Planned Parenthood,” Federalist, July 27, 2015.

Hemingway, Mollie, “Thanks to media blackout, most Americans are in the dark about Planned Parenthood videos,” Federalist, August 5, 2015.

Klinghoffer, David, “What’s revealed in those Planned Parenthood videos,” Evolution News and Views, July 22, 2015.

Liaugminas, Sheila, “There’s no cover for Planned Parenthood anymore,” MercatorNet, August, 10, 2015.

Metaxas, Eric, “The Planned Parenthood video: The price of sexual freedom,” BreakPoint, July 17, 2015.

Metaxas, Eric, “Cecil the lion and Planned Parenthood: Not an either/or,” BreakPoint, August 6, 2015.

Navarette, Ruben Jr., “I don’t know if I’m pro-choice after Planned Parenthood videos,” Daily Beast, August 10, 2015.

Nyathi, Kitsepile, “Zimbabwe bemused by world reaction to killing of Cecil the lion,” Daily Nation, August 7, 2015.

Nzou, Goodwell, “In Zimbabwe, we don’t cry for lions,” New York Times, August 4, 2015.

Onishi, Norimitsu, “Outcry for Cecil the lion could undercut conservation efforts,” New York Times, August 10, 2015.

Smith, Wesley J., “Cecil the lion’s killer violated his own exceptional obligations as a human being,” Evolution News and Views, July 29, 2015.

Smith, Wesley J., “PETA says ‘Hang hunter!’ who killed Cecil,” Evolution News and Views, July 31, 2015.

© 2015 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

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