As a retired pastor, and one who takes moral and ethical issues seriously, I've been reminded again of the conflict between principles and the reality of everyday life.
My train of thought was sparked by an article in the Sydney Morning Herald.
A new UN declaration of intent [on illicit-drug-use policy] is due to be signed in Vienna on March 11. However, there are serious disagreements between member countries over whether a commitment to "harm reduction" should be included in the document, which is published every 10 years.
Now the Vatican has issued a statement that claims that using drugs is "anti-life" and "so-called harm reduction leads to liberalisation of the use of drugs". The Vatican's last-minute intervention appears to have led to Italy withdrawing from the EU consensus on the issue and thrown the talks over the declaration into confusion.
In 1998 the declaration of intent was "a drug-free world - we can do it", which critics said was unrealistic and did not tackle the complex nature of drug treatment. In favour of including support for a harm-reduction clause are most EU countries, Brazil and other Latin American countries, Australia and New Zealand. They argue that some commitment to tackling HIV and addiction through needle exchange programs and methadone and other drugs should be included.
. . .
Release, a British drugs and legal advice charity, said: "By making a statement against harm reduction, the Vatican has indicated that its moral objection to drug use is more important than its commitment to the sanctity of life. If the Vatican is allowed to influence the UN to adopt a naive and ineffective drug policy it will needlessly lead to the increased spread of blood-borne viruses and the death of thousands more people from HIV/AIDS."
Release argues that drug treatment programs are vital for those living with HIV/AIDS and that not to accept this will put their lives at risk. "Needle and syringe exchange programs have significantly contributed to the reduction of HIV transmission among people who use drugs," it said.
There's more at the link.
This highlights the conflict between principle and compromise. The Vatican regards illicit drug use as morally wrong, evil, 'black' rather than 'white'. From that perspective, it is, of course, entirely correct to oppose any measures that might downplay or minimize that reality, blurring the 'black' of absolute evil into the 'gray' of partial and de facto (if not de jure) acceptance. On the other hand, governments and organizations such as Release have to deal with the reality that illicit drug use is a daily fact of life. They have to try to help those sucked into this mire, addicted to the drugs, and unable or unwilling to break free of their habit. Should they be ignored, left unaided, because their conduct is morally unacceptable, or illegal? Should the help extended to them be restricted to that which is in line with absolute moral principles (namely, efforts to break their addiction and reform them), but doing nothing to help those who will not or cannot succeed at such efforts? Or should the help extend to measures that will at least reduce the 'collateral damage' caused to themselves and others by those who can't break free - even if this means tolerating their behavior?
This applies to many other areas besides drug policy, of course. Contraception; abortion; marriage and relationships; crime (including the definition of what constitutes a crime, as well as establishing punishment for it and/or rehabilitation of criminals); these and many other areas run headlong into the conflict between what is 'absolutely right' or 'absolute truth' (which is itself disputed among many participants), and what is 'practically possible' or a 'realistic approach'.
The great tragedy, in my opinion, is that so many adopt the approach that since the 'ideal' is unattainable, impossible in an imperfect world, we should abandon or ignore it entirely, and deal only with the reality that's presented to us. This leads to policies (both private and State) that ignore the higher moral ground in their attempts to be 'practical'. Such approaches offer no solution whatsoever. While dealing with reality, we can and should strive to eliminate (or, at the very least, reduce to the absolute minimum) the root of the problem, which is (in virtually every case) wrong choices, wrong actions, wrong conduct. If we tolerate the wrong in an attempt to address its results, we abandon people (and future generations) to the effects that it will cause in their lives.
On the other hand, those who press for the recognition and propagation of the 'ideal', the 'absolute truth', must also accept that their position can become so ideologically (or theologically) rigid, so 'perfect', that it ignores the fact that we live in an imperfect world. Whilst striving for the absolute good, can we morally ignore the reality that not everyone shares our perspective on that truth (indeed, some vehemently disagree with it), and that we can't expect them to adopt our approach in dealing with it? Shouldn't we try to find what common ground we can, so that options for intervention, treatment and resolution can be as broadly based and effective as possible?
Take abortion as a common (and highly controversial) example. My perspective is shaped by my Christian faith. I categorically and absolutely reject abortion as an alternative to contraception. To me, that's murder, pure and simple. The foetus in the womb, if left alone, will emerge as a human being. Since there's no possible way to determine when it changes from 'a collection of cells' to 'a human being', it must be treated as the latter from conception to birth. Naturally, given that every human being has an absolute right to life, I also reject abortion in the case of medical defects being discovered in the foetus, just as I reject euthanasia. Of course, others, with different convictions, will hold different views.
However, even I have to acknowledge that there are some circumstances where the agony facing the mother (or both parents) can be so great that the 'absolute' must take them into account. What about rape? Naturally, the child in the womb is innocent of that (or any other) crime, and has the same right to life as any of us. On the other hand, the mother's mental anguish at being forced to have the 'seed' of the crime growing within her may be so overwhelming as to cause her serious, perhaps lasting harm. I can't ignore that reality. For her to abort the child within her womb would be wrong, from my moral perspective: but to force her to bear it, because it's innocent, might be equally morally wrong, in the light of the possible consequences of that decision for her own mental health. I have to accept that a choice must be made between two very great evils. I'm not God, and don't pretend to be. If she chooses to abort the child, because she simply can't bear the thought of carrying it to term, who am I to condemn her? I'll do my very best to understand her, sympathize with her, and stand by her. I won't minimize what she's done to the child, and I'll try to help her repent of any wrongdoing and seek God's mercy: but I can't morally force her to adopt an 'absolutist' view of the matter. If I did, wouldn't I be raping her all over again - not physically, but morally? I can seek to persuade her, by example and by word; but I can't compel her.
I also have to accept that if I reject abortion, I must concede that there needs to be some alternative that will make it unnecessary (except in the most extreme cases). That means permitting contraception. Of course, a Christian 'absolutist' view would be that contraception is not needed, because sex should only take place within marriage, where children are the God-given and expected fruit of the marriage, and therefore a married couple should 'have as many children as God sees fit to give them'. On the other hand, that ignores the reality that many (including professed Christians) do indulge in sex before or outside marriage. (As a pastor, I'd guesstimate that the vast majority of couples I married were already lovers, and most had been for a long time.) Many of those engaging in extra-marital sex are not Christians, and see no reason why they should adopt a Christian moral code in that regard. Can I realistically deny contraception to them because my moral perspective disapproves of it?
I freely confess that this is an ongoing conflict within me: the clash between what I firmly believe to be absolute truth, revealed by God and binding on all humanity, versus the reality that many don't share my beliefs, and the further reality that life can be a whole lot more complicated than 'black' or 'white'. There are an awful lot of shades of gray out there! I've learned to be very wary of those who insist on seeing the world in 'black' or 'white'. They tend to be (or become) fundamentalists, intolerant of any other point of view or perspective. At the same time, I acknowledge that if I become too tolerant, too inclusive, in my moral perspective, I risk betraying what I believe to be true, and making myself a hypocrite and a fraud.
There are no easy answers. If anyone declares that there are, he/she is probably operating from within one particular moral perspective, and insisting that if only everyone would adopt that moral code and obey it absolutely, there'd be no problem. He/she would be right in that . . . but I submit that such insistence is utterly utopian, and has lost touch with reality.
I'd be very interested in hearing from readers how you've experienced this conundrum in your own life. This applies particularly to my friends who hold different beliefs, or reject the Christian moral code. If you have any particular examples you'd like to share with us, please do so in Comments. Hopefully we can all learn from each other, given mutual respect.