The Role of Principles in Public Policy

In a TV interview released in two parts (on 17 and 18 January), Prime Minister Harper said that he thinks capital punishment is justified in some cases, but that he has committed to not introducing this issue in the next Parliament.  On abortion, he said that he tells people in his party that if they want to reduce the number of abortions, they have to change people’s hearts and minds, not the law.  Opposition parties were, predictably, quick to ramp up the rhetoric in response to the PM’s statements, accusing him of having a hidden agenda and of not having the courage of his convictions.  Herewith, one of my political and schedule ‘outlier’ postings.

Canadian conservatives are often appalled by what they see as our Supreme Court making law as opposed to interpreting it—as one example, the ruling that led to legalized gay marriage.  Their usual preferred solution calls for a greater role for Parliament, our legislative branch.  American conservatives were likely disappointed in 2006 when their Supreme Court ruled that it did not have the authority to over-turn Doe v. Bolton, an abortion rights case similar to Roe v. Wade.  At the time, I wondered whether abortion opponents would make judicial power an issue in their upcoming presidential campaign.

Balancing judicial and legislative power appropriately is tough.  While scholars argue the constitutional principle, interest groups are more pragmatic, supporting the party or candidate more likely to uphold their own views.  Nowhere is this tendency more marked than in contentious public policy issues—‘issues over which reasonable men may easily and heatedly differ’, as Justice White, a Roe v. Wade dissenter, described them in 1973.

Almost 40 years later, reasonable people still ‘heatedly differ’ on abortion and capital punishment.  Principles, after all, are not amenable to compromise.  What’s worse is that others’ principles can be hard to see.    

When Roe v. Wade was first making headlines, I was baffled by the apparent conflict between two stereotypically conservative positions: against abortion because it was murder, yet four-square for capital punishment.  If a woman didn’t have a right to choose, why did the state?  If fertilized eggs and unborn babes had a right to life, why not adults, albeit convicted murderers?  As I opined to all who would listen, there was clearly no principled position here.

Interrupting me in mid-rhetorical flourish, a friend proposed a principle to cover both positions: ‘one strike and you’re out’.  Its full articulation was this: “From the moment of conception, everyone deserves their chance at life.  That prohibits abortion.  Mess up totally (say, by taking someone else’s life), and you forfeit your chance.  That enables capital punishment.”

It was a startling moment.  Maybe anti-abortionists and capital punishment proponents had principles that seemed obvious and high-minded to them.  Allowing for that possibility was a first step to examining my own views more closely.  What I saw was more hairball than conceptual clarity.  Forty years later, not much has changed.

On abortion, now as then, I’m no card-carrying ‘right-to-lifer’, but neither do I think abortion is nothing more than a woman determining the disposition of her own body.  My views don’t accord with either camp’s extreme rhetoric; neither can they be neatly explained by a single principle.  Rather, they’re distilled from a brew of competing principles, feelings, and instinctive reactions.

I want to protect the helpless, yet respect the mother’s life in all its dimensions.  While recognizing the father’s stake, I am unwilling to require his consent, thereby bestowing a de facto veto.  Believing that moral choice belongs with individuals, not committees, I am still disgusted by reports of serial abortion.  Determined not to return to the days of desperate teens and back-alley butchers, I am nonetheless sensitive to those doctors, nurses and administrators who oppose abortion on moral grounds.  ‘Pro-life’—I like to think so, but not as it has come to be understood.  ‘Pro-choice’—yes, on balance, given the alternatives.  ‘Pro’ a world in which abortion were never necessary—yes, even more so.

Similarly, my anti-capital-punishment stance is an uneasy and shifting truce among conflicting feelings and ideas.  Valuing each individual’s life equally in theory, in practice I empathize with victim, not perpetrator.  Because police work and forensic technology are imperfect, and a good defence not a given, I fear executing the wrongly convicted.  My gut screams to kill those who commit violent crimes against children; my judgement doubts the noose’s deterrence value.  Offended by arguments reducing human life to an economic calculation, I nevertheless acknowledge that lifelong incarceration siphons money from worthy purposes.  Wanting to believe in redemptive possibilities, I despair over psychopaths’ prospects and wonder how to weigh one person’s second chance against another’s lost chance.

A hairball indeed.

Abortion and capital punishment nicely illustrate what a complex, messy world it is, and how poorly served we are by slogans if what we want to do is think about, and talk about, public policy.  If we have the inclination, where do we begin?

We start by critically examining our own positions.  Most likely, they will reflect a trade-off among several principles, not to mention feelings, instinctive reactions, pragmatic assessments, self-serving rationalizations and untested assumptions.  Faced with the real-world messiness of our thought processes, the recognition that ‘principles’ aren’t all that’s in play, we might be ready to dial-down our own rhetoric, ready to listen to what others have to say.

Canadians might also accept the Prime Minister’s stated position on both these issues at face value, rather than playing for political advantage.  And we all, Canadians and Americans, might follow Woodrow Wilson’s advice: “The thing to do is to supply light and not heat”.  If purely ‘principled’ positions are beyond us, principled processes need not be.

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One Response to The Role of Principles in Public Policy

  1. I’m sure hairball thinking has some evolutionary benefit. It’s stalling for time when we don’t know what to do. It keeps the brain agile. And it drives the Other Side nuts. Nuance is always the enemy of blinkered opinion set in stone (’cause my daddy/church/god/bible said so!) Look what it gets judges –cool uniforms & life-long jobs.