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Richard Kyte: The limits of good intentions

Richard Kyte: The limits of good intentions

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Back in the fall of 2004, a month or so before that year’s presidential election, I found myself participating in a forum on politics and farming hosted by Catholic Rural Life, an organization dedicated to “promoting Catholic life in rural America.”

It was a modest gathering of about 30 people, mostly farmers from the area around Alma, Wisconsin. We were discussing a number of issues: the decline of the family farm, genetically modified crops, manure run-off into lakes and streams, and so on.

About halfway through the meeting we were interrupted by a small group of pro-life demonstrators who had travelled across the state.

They burst into the room shouting and carrying signs. The moderator of the forum invited them to sit down and join the discussion, but they refused to either sit or participate.

They had no interest in rural issues. The only issue relevant to any Catholic voter, they insisted, was abortion. A few people in the room tried to engage them in dialogue, but it was fruitless. After a while, everyone just went home.

Walking toward my car, I was approached by a couple who had been sitting quietly in the back of the room. They wanted to apologize for the way the meeting had ended. They agreed with the cause of the demonstrators, they assured me, but they were embarrassed by their behavior.

There was no need to apologize; I shared their feelings. Even though I am not Catholic, I feel incredibly indebted to the Catholic church for helping me come to a better understanding of issues of life and death and how they fit into a larger comprehension of our place in the world.

For many years — throughout my twenties, at least — I was simply bewildered by the pro-life vs. pro-choice debate.

In general, I regarded both life and choice as primary goods, and I could not find anyone to help me understand how to resolve the conflict posed by the problem of abortion.

Participants in the abortion debate seemed mostly to talk past one another. They would focus on the merits of their own side while dismissing or mischaracterizing the very real, deep concerns of the other.

But then I came across Catholic social teachings, and in particular, Pope John Paul II’s encyclical “Centesimus Annus,” where he writes: “It is not wrong to want to live better; what is wrong is a style of life which is presumed to be better when it is directed towards ‘having’ rather than ‘being,’ and which wants to have more, not in order to be more but in order to spend life in enjoyment as an end in itself.”

It was there I discovered for the first time a really compelling argument for life describing how the very idea of “choice” in our world today is corrupted by a tendency to see ourselves and others as mere commodities in the marketplace.

I began to see how this conception of ourselves underlies a host of problems in our contemporary, industrialized world, not just abortion, but also euthanasia, criminal justice and environmental destruction.

I began to see how any comprehensive response to the most pressing ethical problems of our day requires a reframing of the way we see ourselves in relation to others as a whole, a reframing made possible only through habitual practices of humility, reverence, temperance, wisdom, justice and, most of all, love.

In that reframing, we begin to see we are not self-made beings free to manipulate the world to suit our desires, but created beings, recipients of a great gift and bearers of innate dignity. As such we have responsibilities, both to the natural world and to other beings, both human and non-human.

Understanding and acting appropriately with regard to those responsibilities is the very heart of ethics.

That, at any rate, is a rough sketch of how I came to see the broader ethical context of the arguments on abortion, but I also realize that most people are not strongly persuaded by rational arguments.

It is a natural human reaction to agree with those with whom one wants to be associated and to disagree with those from whom one wants to be disassociated.

When we stand to the side and witness the behavior of others in public, we ask ourselves — subconsciously perhaps — “Is that how others see me? Is that the kind of person I want to be?”

And that is what I saw happening with the pro-life demonstrators. Their sincere intention was to further the pro-life cause; their effect, which they themselves did not even see, was to drive sympathetic people away from them.

I saw the same thing happening a couple weeks ago with the video of Black Lives Matter protesters in Washington, D.C., angrily confronting a restaurant patron.

The reaction of many people watching that video — even those supportive of the BLM movement — was to cringe, to feel empathy for the woman under attack. That was not the intention of the protesters, but it was their effect.

The most powerful force in the world is self-deception. It leads us to think that the effects of our actions inevitably align with our intentions. That is rarely true in politics.

During the summer we witnessed a period of high drama with little effect. And we are about to see the drama increase as zealous partisans on both sides of the political divide ramp up the rhetoric of dire consequences.

They will spit and shout and spew hatred with the clear conscience of self-righteous contempt.

But deep-seated cultural problems do not respond to simple political solutions. They never have in the past, and they won’t do so this year.

We should never sacrifice our humanity for the sake of an uncertain result. To do so is to make a bargain with the devil, and we know who always comes out better in that deal.

Richard Kyte is director of the D.B. Reinhart Institute for Ethics in Leadership at Viterbo University. He also is a community member of the La Crosse Tribune editorial board.


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