Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Partial Response to Professor Kevin Lee

This is an incomplete response to an essay posted  to ssrn by Professor Kevin Lee.

The key phrase “Culture of Death” in the title of Professor Lee’s essay was popularized by Pope John Paul II in his important 1995 encyclical, EvangeliumVitae (“The Gospel of Life”).  The encyclical is divided into four chapters.  Sections 7-28 comprise the first chapter, “The Voice of Your Brother’s Blood Cries to Me from the Ground.”  After a review of the Biblical account of the first murder of Abel by Cain in sections 7-10, John Paul catalogues in section ten several contemporary attacks on life on which attacks his encyclical expressly does not concentrate:  threats from nature exacerbated by human indifference; results of violence, hatred, and conflicting interests; poverty, malnutrition, and hunger because of unjust distribution of resources; armed conflict; reckless tampering with ecological balance; criminal spread of drugs; and promotion of sexual activities involving grave risks to life.  On none of these does John Paul concentrate.  

Rather, beginning in section eleven, John Paul focuses his attention on a particular form of attack on life:  attacks affecting life at its most vulnerable, earliest and final stages.  John Paul writes of abortion and euthanasia.  These attacks on life are all the more serious because they “are carried out in the very heart of and with the complicity of the family—the family which by its nature is called to be the ‘sanctuary of life.’”  John Paul then turns his attention to the causes of this situation including moral uncertainty fostered by many and serious social problems, which leads to section twelve of the encyclical, the section in which John Paul introduces the phrase “culture of death,” providing Professor Lee with a catchy title for his essay.

In section twelve, John Paul identifies a structure of sin that spawns the emergence of a “culture of death.”  The problem is a “society excessively concerned with efficiency.”  This “culture of death” amounts to a “war of the powerful against the weak.”  The lives of the very young and the very old, lives that “require greater acceptance, love and care” are “held to be an intolerable burden.”  The “culture of death” is a culture that values life only so long as it can “contribute to the bottom line.”  If a particular life demands more of human society than it can give back, then that life has no net value and must be eliminated.  This is the “culture of death” of which John Paul wrote. 

The phrase “culture of death” appears eleven more times in Evangelium Vitae, most of those recurring in the first chapter.  The phrase appears for the second time in section nineteen, which addresses the roots of a “remarkable contradiction” between contemporary global proclamations of human rights and the practice that the “very right to life is being denied or trampled upon, especially at the more significant moments of existence: the moment of birth and the moment of death.”  John Paul identifies one of those roots as “a completely individualistic concept of freedom, which ends up by becoming the freedom of ‘the strong’ against the weak who have no choice but to submit.”  This concept of freedom supports a “culture of death”:  “the taking of life not yet born or in its final stages.”  Section twenty-one seeks “the deepest roots” of “the culture of death” and finds “a social and cultural climate dominated by secularism” that “produces a kind of progressive darkening of the capacity to discern God’s living and saving presence.”  John Paul argues in section twenty-four that this darkening of the moral conscience of a society that “encourages the ‘culture of death’ is exacerbated by the media that confuses “between good and evil, precisely in relation to the fundamental right to life.”

In section twenty-six, John Paul notes “signs which point to” the ultimate victory of life over death.  These signs appear even in societies that are “marked” by the “culture of death.”  The phrase “culture of death” appears twice in section twenty-eight, the final section of the first chapter, in which John Paul sums up the “clash” between the “’culture of death’ and the ‘culture of life’” and emphasizes our duty to choose between the “’culture of life’ and the ‘culture of death.’”

The phrase “culture of death” appears once at the end of chapter two, “I Came That They May Have Life,” which reflects “on the Christian message about life.”  In section fifty, John Paul analogizes the “dramatic conflict between the ‘culture of death’ and the ‘culture of life’” to the “cosmic disturbances” experienced at the Cross on Good Friday.  The phrase “culture of death” appears once in chapter three, “You Shall Not Kill — God’s Holy Law.”  In section sixty-four, John Paul focuses on end of life issues.  John Paul identifies “one of the more alarming symptoms of the ‘culture of death,’" which is “an attitude of excessive preoccupation with efficiency . . . which sees the growing number of elderly and disabled people as intolerable and too burdensome.”

The three final uses of the phrase “culture of death” are in the final chapter four, ““You Did It to Me — for a New Culture of Human Life.”  In section eighty-seven John Paul stresses the need for the “service of charity” as “the ‘culture of death’ so forcefully opposes the ‘culture of life.’"  In section ninety-five, John Paul again stresses the “dramatic struggle between the ‘culture of life’ and the ‘culture of death,’” which presses the “need to develop a deep critical sense, capable of discerning true values and authentic needs.”  The final use of the phrase appears in section 100 in which John Paul acknowledges that “[t]here is certainly an enormous disparity between the powerful resources available to the forces promoting the ‘culture of death’ and the means at the disposal of those working for a ‘culture of life and love.’"

Thus, the “culture of death” discussed by John Paul in Evangelium Vitae relates entirely to abortion and euthanasia.  What does all of this have to do with firearms?  Perhaps nothing – firearms are used neither to abort babies nor to euthanize the elderly or infirm, at least not commonly.  This is not to say that John Paul was not concerned about gun violence, it is rather to say that he did not express that concern in his “culture of death” discussion in Evangelium Vitae.

Professor Lee looks at three aspects of firearms.  The first is their intrinsic nature.  Professor Lee offers the opinion that the “firearm is, in its essence, a weapon.  It is intrinsically violent since it is brought into existence . . . to bring about the potential of a violent act.”  It certainly is the case that firearms make especially effective weapons of violence, but that is a particular use, not necessarily inherent to their essence.  Firearms are inherently high-velocity projectiles.  Many, but not all, high velocity projectile machines are very useful as destructive weapons.  For example, very low caliber firearms are not very effective as destructive weapons.  Of course, people probably have always used projectiles as weapons.  Likewise, people probably have always used projectiles for sport.  There is a fine line between throwing a rock as a weapon and throwing a baseball for sport.  The same physics that permit a catapult to be used as a weapon permit the lacrosse player to use a stick for sport.  Likewise, firearms can be used in war and can be used for target shooting.  “Destructive force” is not inherent to the firearm.  It is incidental.  The power that permits high velocity and accuracy at great distance also makes many fire arms dangerously destructive, but not inherently so.  Of course, a particular firearm can be designed, more or less, for destruction, which actually makes the point that destruction is not inherent to the firearm.

Professor Lee reports that the firing of a firearm is pleasurable precisely because of its potential for destructive impact.  I certainly am in no position to deny Professor Lee’s personal experience.  I can only describe my own.  I would compare my pleasure at striking a target at distance with a firearm to the pleasure of “shooting” (pun intended) a basketball through a hoop at distance.  In both cases, the level of the pleasure is directly proportional to the distance.  Of course, the firearm provides the unique opportunity of hitting very, very small targets at very great distances.  I cannot think of anything that compares to this.  Professor Lee relates the “widely reported sensation” of “a satisfying feeling of the power one gains over the weapon and the target.” Professor Lee expressly declines to cite much in his essay, but I would find at least one citation in support of this widely reported sensation to be helpful to my understanding. He says that this feeling is intrinsic to the firearm.  This is the firearm “fulfilling its purpose.” As I have suggested, this experience of the inherent purpose of the firearm is not universal.

Finally, it may be beneficial to consider this subject based on a balanced view of the facts.  Professor Lee’s essay indicates that gun slayings in the United States are growing.  But gun slayings in the United States actually are on the decline.  Most homicides in the United States are committed with handguns.  Such homicides are at historically low levels.