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    Is Human Life Always Sacred?

    What Peter Singer Got Right That C. S. Lewis and John Paul II Got Wrong

    By Charles E. Moore

    March 10, 2021

    Available languages: español


      There are, regrettably, times when killing is the only viable means of defending oneself or others from violent attack. Most people (and legal systems) understand this. I'm not sure why Moore finds this so difficult to grasp.

    When I was a student of Peter Singer he was not a public figure, was not today’s most notorious proponent of utilitarian ethics. Granted, his 1975 book Animal Liberation was all the rage, especially at the University of Colorado Boulder where I was a doctoral student. His seminar, “Matters of Life and Death,” caught my attention. It also caught me off-guard. Much of his class was devoted to dismantling inherited notions regarding the unique worth or moral status of human life. For Singer, an amiable and fair professor, humans are highly sophisticated creatures, but neither sacred nor ontologically special. For him, notions like the sanctity of life and the infinite worth of the individual make no sense, and worse, they lack concrete moral import. Humans are sentient beings. Only that. Like other sentient beings, they flourish whenever they experience a sense of well-being.

    So where does our fundamental moral duty lie? According to Singer, our task is to minimize suffering in the world and, wherever possible, to maximize the quality of life of all – not just of humans, but of all creatures capable of sentience: that is, having the capacity of feeling pain and pleasure. Abortion, infanticide, euthanasia, and war are thus moral concerns, as each must address the problem of suffering. Each, under certain conditions and depending on the quotient of suffering involved, might sometimes be justifiable. Our basic duty is to reduce misery, wherever we find it, in the world, which entails a moral obligation to end hunger, homelessness, and even factory-farming of animals.

    “We may kill if necessary, but we must not hate and enjoy hating.” —C. S. Lewis

    I decided to take Singer to task, not on any particular moral issue but on the issue of human sanctity and moral obligation itself. In a lengthy essay, which eventually turned into my dissertation proposal, I argued that under his scheme there is no way to account for the moral worth of persons, and consequently our moral repulsion against killing. If suffering alone counts, human beings, no matter their state of life, could not, in and of themselves, ever be violated. Given a consequentialist’s framework, violence is a misnomer. In other words, depending on the circumstances one may always justify killing, so long as it is painless, no matter whose life is at stake. After all, no one (Singer believes) can suffer when he is dead. Murdered, you have nothing to complain of. To reduce suffering is one thing, but to take away someone’s life another. So as not to pick on Utilitarians unduly, I also argued that other moral frameworks, such as deontological and virtue approaches, fail to provide a sound basis from which to oppose violence. Only a robust notion of human sanctity, or the inviolable dignity of persons, is capable of explaining our moral repugnance toward violence and killing.

    Singer’s response? Pulling me aside over a glass of wine at his house, where my fellow classmates and I were enjoying an informal evening of conversation, he commented, “Being an evolutionary naturalist, as I am, I cannot agree with your view of human sanctity, even if it does give an adequate account of violence. That said, if what you argue is true, I would have to be a strict pacifist. Follow the logic.” I did, and have done so ever since.


    Illustration by xochicalco

    Anyone who adheres to nonviolence is invariably the odd person out. Not surprisingly, I’ve had more vigorous, animated, and yes, heated arguments about the ethics of killing than I care to think of. Interestingly, most of them have been with pro-life, “biblical” Christians adamant about the sanctity of human life. The unborn are to be protected at all costs. Yes. The fetus has moral status. Yes, again. Abortion, except in extreme cases where the mother’s life is at stake, is murder, pure and simple. Agreed.

    Why, though, I often retort, stop with the moral worth of the unborn? Why isn’t capital punishment wrong? What about war? What about the lives of soldiers, whatever side they are on?

    Almost without exception I receive a serious lecture on the morality of killing, and how the unborn are innocent, whereas felons and terrorists are not. Taking innocent life is murder, but that doesn’t mean killing is always wrong. There’s a moral difference between intentionally taking innocent life, which is intrinsically evil, and the regrettable but sometimes necessary duty of taking certain other lives. Killing to defend others is sometimes our only moral recourse – a lesser evil. Sometimes, people argue, we have to take a life in order to save one.

    The distinction between murder and killing appears self-evident. It is, in fact, an essential premise that underpins the classic just war doctrine. We all, public and private citizens alike, have a moral duty to rescue, to protect the innocent from violence, and the state, not bearing the sword in vain, has the moral duty to avenge wrong, enacting, in a limited way, God’s justice. Therefore, killing may be necessary, precisely because human life is sacred. A nation that goes to war to defend its populace from an attack by a hostile nation, a police officer who kills an active gunman about to shoot into a crowd, or a man who kills a violent intruder who threatens his family, are all morally justified in doing so. Deep down we all know that there is a difference between using force to take a life in order to protect others, and committing acts of violence.

    “The commandment 'You shall not kill' has absolute value when it refers to the innocent person.” —John Paul II

    It is certainly right to distinguish between those who perpetrate violence and those who defend the vulnerably innocent. The Ten Commandments recognize this, as does the Apostle Paul, who gives recognition to the state’s legitimate use of the sword (Rom. 13:1–7).

    Even so, the logic behind justified killing on the basis of human sanctity is not as airtight as some think. And this is because it rests on a fundamental moral ambiguity. Consider, for example, Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life, 1995), with its incisive description of abortion, euthanasia, and the death penalty as different manifestations of the “culture of death.” The encyclical’s critique was unparalleled in its time, and prophetic. Even so, The Gospel of Life, despite being unabashed about human sanctity, relies on an equivocation that simply doesn’t make sense.

    Pope John Paul II rightly argues that human sanctity is rooted in creation, not social convention. It transcends human valuation or construction, and is thus an absolute moral given, transcending time and culture. “Although formed from the dust of the earth (Gen 2:7; 3:19; Job 34:15: Psa. 103:14; 104:29), [man] is a manifestation of God in the world, a sign of his presence, a trace of his glory. . . . In man there shines forth a reflection of God himself.” This sacredness not only “gives rise to its inviolability, written from the beginning in man’s heart” (emphasis added) but is key to establishing humankind’s incomparable greatness.

    Contra Singer, says the encyclical, as unique manifestations of God we possess, unlike other beings, a sublime and intrinsic dignity that has significant moral import – a value that cannot be measured or calculated but must be respected. So much so, that by contemplating the death of Christ as the sign of God’s self-giving love, we “recognize and appreciate the almost divine dignity of every human being” – no matter the stage or condition of life. Human life is sacred “at every moment of existence, including the initial phase which precedes birth.”

    What exactly does this entail? First, we are morally required “to show reverence and love for every person and the life of every person.” “God demands that [we] love, respect, and promote life.” Every human life is precious; “great care must be taken to respect every life, even that of criminals and unjust aggressors.” When life has become as cheap as it has today, we need to rediscover with holy awe the ability to revere and honor every person: “Where life is involved, the service of charity must be profoundly consistent. It cannot tolerate bias and discrimination, for human life is sacred and inviolable at every stage and in every situation; it is an indivisible good.”

    Human sanctity means that God alone is the Lord of life. We should never discriminate for ourselves whose life is or is not worth living. Intentionally taking life is always a grave sin. “No one can, in any circumstance, claim for himself the right to destroy directly an innocent human being.” This includes the ending of one’s own life, as in voluntary euthanasia. Others are not ours to dispose of; we are not our own to dispose of. Bearing God’s image, we bear something we have no right to violate. We are his.

    Intentionally taking innocent life not only violates the dignity of another but mocks God. “Whoever attacks human life, in some way attacks God himself.” God cannot leave violent crime unpunished precisely because violence violates human dignity. God is thus the defender of the innocent (Isa. 41:14), and will intervene to avenge the one killed. He makes this clear to Noah after the Flood – “For your own lifeblood, too, I will demand an accounting . . . and from man in regard to his fellow man I will demand an accounting for human life” (Gen. 9:5).

    The severity of God’s judgment is in direct proportion to the sanctity of human life. However, this severity, argues John Paul II, is always balanced against life’s very sacredness and not in terms of retribution or remedial justice. God is always merciful when he punishes. Though Cain murdered his brother Abel, God still “’put a mark on Cain, lest any who came upon him should kill him’ (Gen. 4:15). . . . Not even a murderer loses his personal dignity, and God himself pledges to guarantee this.” (Emphasis added.) Even where homicide is involved, God always prefers correction to the death of a sinner.

    God’s creative act gathers together all the possibilities of life, which when rallied under God’s sovereign love oppose the powers of death arising from sin. Every person, no matter what his state, is of value – to be treasured, prized, affirmed, cherished, respected, protected, and cared for.

    Such an affirmation of life is remarkably bold, and provides plenty of fodder for anyone in the pro-life movement. Yet, despite Pope John Paul II’s plea for upholding reverence of life, despite his claim that every person is to be honored with respect, his prohibition against killing is at best a relative one. Alas, if we are to follow this logic, the sanctity and absolute dignity of innocent persons trump that of the wrongdoer. Human sanctity, when it comes to moral decisions, is not an indivisible good. The moral import of inviolability, as it turns out, is not quite as universal or unconditional as it seems to be. Human sanctity has limits, and in the end, the very notion itself is not only confusing but unhelpful: All life is sacred, every person possesses dignity, but, according to the pope, only those persons who are innocent of fundamental wrongdoing possess the absolute right to life. Hence the infamous distinction between “murder” and “killing.”

    The distinction between murder and killing is built on the concept of what the pope calls “legitimate defense”: the right to protect one’s own life and the duty not to harm someone else’s are difficult to reconcile in practice. In other words, the intrinsic value of life and the duty to love oneself no less than others gives rise to a true right, even obligation, to self-defense, and with this, a fortiori, the obligation to defend the innocent in general. Self-love, which is a legitimate response to one’s own sanctity, creates a justified basis for self-defense, and may, if necessary, eventuate in the death of the offender. In defending oneself against unjust injury, it is the preservation of one’s own life, not the killing of the offender that is intended. A seeming paradox, perhaps, but rationally and morally justifiable nonetheless. Intentionality is the deciding and morally relevant factor.

    Though the pope argues that one may renounce the right to self-defense, this, however, “can only be done in virtue of heroic love which deepens and transfigures the love of self into a radical self-offering, according to the spirit of the Gospel Beatitudes (cf. Mt. 5:38–40). The sublime example of this self-offering is the Lord Jesus himself.”

    So, on the moral grounds of self-defense, killing is sometimes justified. “You shall not kill” has exceptions. The question arises, however, as to whether this is a paradox or an outright contradiction. Recalling Singer’s comments to me, I suspect that he, like myself, would detect an unintelligible ambiguity. “Follow the logic.” Attempts to justify killing on the grounds of human sanctity, and presuming that not all killing is murder, ends in a rat’s nest in which the moral benefits of the doctrine of human sanctity are either lost or irrelevant. Granted, killing itself is not the same thing as murder. Intentionality is relevant. But, strictly speaking, neither is fornication the same as adultery; both, however, are wrong. Both violate the sanctity of sex, regardless of intentionality.

    Despite John Paul II’s plea for human sanctity, within his framework, it seems as if the sacredness of human life lacks sufficient grounds to protect life itself. On the one side, human life is holy and inviolable. Human sanctity is an “indivisible good” and therefore cannot be measured according to typical human standards. Because of this, we “must respect, defend and promote the dignity of every human person,” and we must do so “at every moment and in every condition of that person’s life.” In giving life to human beings, God demands that we love, respect, promote, and show care for the life of everyone. True service of love is a profoundly consistent one.

    On the other side, however, there are times when it is not only a right but a duty to take life, especially if the good of others or a higher good is at stake. Under certain conditions, the right to self-defense or the duty to defend others may necessitate the killing of another human being. “You shall not kill” is a command against the killing of innocent life only. This alone constitutes “an absolutely unacceptable act.” One’s life can be forfeited whenever one fails to respect the life of another. As far as “the right to life” is concerned, it is only innocent human beings who have, unequivocally, equal moral status. Absolute equality does not apply to those who are guilty.

    “If what you argue is true, I would have to be a strict pacifist. Follow the logic.” —Peter Singer

    Now if this is a genuine paradox it needs to be explained. You can capture truth in paradox, but how can one argue that human sanctity is inviolable, intrinsic, unconditional without respect to state or condition, in short, an indivisible good, and yet qualify or limit its application to only those who are innocent? Is not the duty to love oneself based on one’s inviolable dignity (not the other way around)? How then, is the life of the guilty person disqualified? Can one forfeit that which is intrinsic and unconditional? Not only that: if we are duty-bound to show care for the life of everyone, if we should never discriminate for ourselves whose life is or is not worth living, then how is it possible that, under certain circumstances, we are allowed, even obliged, to kill a would-be attacker? Are we not discriminating? And how sure are we anyway of his intention? How can one respect the sanctity and dignity of this person when it is now permissible, even a duty, to eliminate him? How does this demonstrate a profoundly consistent ethic of life or charity? How does this enable one, as the pope urges, “to see in every human face the face of Christ”? How does killing, even for the sake of a higher good, honor the sacredness of all human life? It is unclear how this notion of human sanctity has significant moral import.

    It is no wonder that so many people, even C. S. Lewis, despite his towering intellect and rhetorical skill, get themselves muddled up on the subject of killing, straining at moral gnats. Like all those who highlight the distinction between murder and killing, Lewis in his classic Mere Christianity takes pains to justify the possibility of taking human life. “All killing is not murder any more than all sexual intercourse is adultery.” Although the comparison may seem apt, it is in fact a false analogy. Sexual intercourse was created holy by God before Adam and Eve’s fall from grace. In Genesis God pronounced the love between man and woman good, and blessed it so long as it is expressed within the covenant of marriage. While adultery is a corruption of a holy good, the act of killing is different. Nowhere in the Bible is killing itself considered a good. It ravages the image of God and is the result of sin. Not so for sexual intercourse, something God created.

    To distinguish killing from murder, Lewis then tries to factor in the intention involved. According to him, it is not the act of killing that is wrong but the motive that drives it.

    We may kill if necessary, but we must not hate and enjoy hating. We may punish if necessary, but we must not enjoy it. . . . Even while we kill and punish we must try to feel about the enemy as we feel about ourselves – to wish that he were not bad, to hope that he may in this world or another be cured: in fact, to wish his good.

    Though Lewis is right in viewing motives as relevant in determining moral culpability, he fails to see that in and of themselves they are insufficient. What we feel about ourselves or about others may be relevant in terms of virtue, but intentionality alone doth not make an act moral or immoral. Take, for example, a witness in a court of law who lies under oath on behalf of the defendant. The witness may have excellent intentions, but they do not make his perjury excusable. Or consider the many historical instances where good ends have been used to justify terrible means: for example, the collectivizing of farms in the Soviet Union. Joseph Stalin’s intent to provide food security for all citizens and to achieve equality among rich and poor is praiseworthy, but it does not excuse the brutal force he used to achieve these ends. Intentionality outside the bounds of human sanctity is consequentialism in disguise.

    Lastly, Lewis argues that killing is justified because justice demands that evildoers be punished for their actions. He writes:

    Does loving your enemy mean not punishing him? No, for loving myself does not mean that I ought not to subject myself to punishment – even to death. If one had committed murder, the right Christian thing to do would be to give yourself up to the police and be hanged.

    By stating that the “Christian thing to do” for a murderer is to turn himself over to be executed, Lewis presumes that the Bible demands capital punishment for the retribution of sin. Though this idea may be inferred from isolated passages of the Mosaic Law, it is not, as Pope John Paul II himself points out, the thrust of the Bible as a whole. Consider Moses, who killed an Egyptian; or David who had Uriah killed in battle in order to take his wife; or Paul who rounded up Christians and had them killed. Had these men pursued Lewis’s logic the Israelites would never have been liberated from Egypt, received the Law, or gained the Promised Land; the lineage of Jesse would never have produced the Messiah as prophesied; the early Christian church (Paul the apostle was a murderer) would never have been established. God’s plan for these murderers was not death but mercy. God is a God of life.

    Part of the problem with trying to justify killing is the confusion that arises from what constitutes “legitimate defense” on the grounds of human sanctity. The pope is correct: We are to love our neighbor as ourselves. Based on the duty to love oneself, as well as others, he argues that one is morally permitted to defend oneself (or be defended) against unjust harm or attack. This intuition makes sense. However, it is a non sequitur to argue from the moral justification of self-defense to a right or duty to kill in self-defense. If our moral universe consists of persons created in the imago Dei, then without some further set of justifying premises one cannot logically move from legitimate self-defense, or the duty to defend the innocent, based on human sanctity, to killing in self-defense or the defense of others. Introducing intentionality or motive may differentiate culpability, but it cannot measure the inviolate moral worth of the other nor justify the act itself.

    If every human life is sacred, the question of legitimacy, and what constitutes it, must be more carefully unpacked. “Legitimate defense,” is indeed bound together with human sanctity. But what constitutes moral legitimacy? For a Christian, whose understanding of sanctity is also bound up with the imago Dei, it is necessary to define human obligation in the light of what it actually means to be human, which, again, rests on the moral import of human sanctity itself. If, as The Gospel of Life argues, human sanctity entails an obligation to love oneself, we must make sure that such love is congruent with the sacredness of all and the corresponding duty that others have to love themselves. But Jesus, the express image of God, shows us that love of self is neither prior to nor more important than the love of neighbor. Divine love, like human sanctity, is truly indiscriminate: “For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matt. 5:45). God’s love is unconditional, perfect, and Jesus calls us to this same love.

    To refrain from killing in self-defense, therefore, is the consequence not only of the sanctity of life, but of love’s logic. Love and sanctity coincide perfectly. This does not mean we refrain from acting in self-defense or that we ignore the innocent or refrain from restraining wrongdoers. Human sanctity compels us to act, to live in such a way that the sanctity of life is both affirmed and flourishes. But human sanctity legitimizes only certain acts; it compels us to act within the boundaries of the moral worth and dignity of all. Furthermore, if the example of Christ shows us anything, it is that true love of self, the affirmation of one’s own divine dignity, transcends the dictates of self-preservation. In situations where violence and the forces of death threaten, love of self, not to mention of others, will do its utmost to affirm the dignity of all, especially those most estranged from God’s love. The apostle Paul writes that while we were yet sinners and powerless, while we were yet God’s enemies, Christ died for us and reconciled us (Rom. 5:6–8). The moral import of human sanctity is such that we seek the redemption, not the destruction, of the one who is most lost, precisely on account that his life is sacred. Love never overcomes evil with evil, but with good.

    If, as the pope rightly argues, “the deepest element of God’s commandment to protect human life is the requirement to show reverence and love for every person,” this must demonstrably include the aggressor. Not even a murderer loses his sanctity. He is, as with Cain, “marked” indelibly with the divine. To legitimately protect oneself, and even the lives of others, is one thing. But one must do so within the strictures of the intrinsic, inviolable dignity of every human being, including those who seek to do us harm. If human sanctity is intrinsic and grounded in the transcendent, then its boundary must encompass all persons regardless of circumstances. This is what makes human sanctity an indivisible good, inviolate and universal.

    In giving life to human beings, God demands that we love, respect, promote, and show care for the life of everyone.

    An ethics based on the sanctity of human life recognizes the incalculable, sacred gift of each person created in God’s image and atoned for through Christ’s blood. The doctrine of the sanctity of life is not about what we can legitimately claim for ourselves, or what we can demand of others, but what we owe one another on God’s behalf. Human life is sacred because, from beginning to end, we are all children of the Holy One. Sanctity is a gift bestowed, and whether “innocent” or not we all fall short of the glory of God and yet, undeservedly, still live and move and have our being in him. Deliberately taking life, no matter what the intention or motive, not only usurps God’s authority but desecrates the divine image that envelops the human family. For in each person, no matter how debased or depraved, there shines forth a reflection, dim as it might be, of God himself.

    The basic intuition underlying these arguments over justified killing is right: all human beings are sacred. But for this very reason, human sanctity and killing are irreconcilably incongruent. As divine image bearers, and before the cross, we are all absolutely equal – both in terms of our sin and in terms of God’s love. Human sanctity is truly, unrestrictedly inviolable. It cannot be taken away nor forfeited. Neither can it be diminished, as if weighable on a scale. Indeed, our worth is inestimable. God’s love is upside-down from our laws of calculation, as it extends especially to those who least deserve it. His love and our sanctity is not conditioned by our worth. Rather, we are made worthy because of who God is and who we were created to be. Our sanctity is measured against one thing only: God’s unfathomable and unconditional love that sustains each of us.

    If, then, we believe in the sanctity of human life, we must also believe that killing is wrong – always. Peter Singer recognized this; John Paul II and C.S. Lewis (and many others) try, while affirming human sanctity, to evade the point by justifying some kinds of killing. Their attempt is understandable from a pragmatic point of view, but it’s not logically defensible without abandoning or cheapening the very human sanctity they claim is absolute.

    Is it presumptuous to contradict sixteen centuries of Christian tradition? Perhaps. How do we square our total rejection of violence with the Old Testament? That’s a question Christians have to grapple with. Does refusal to kill no matter what open up a different can of worms for Christian ethics? Does affirming the sanctity of human life mean we are granted immediate moral discernment in difficult cases? What are we to do when both the life of the fetus and that of the mother are simultaneously at stake? And what about heinous, wanton acts of violence? We cannot get into these here. But if we profess the sacredness of human life, if we believe that human sanctity is indeed an indivisible good, inviolate and universal, then we must follow the logic: Killing is always wrong.

    Our concept of human sanctity alone, however, cannot generate all we need when addressing the moral questions we confront. All the more, we must turn to Christ – he who came to bring life and bring it more abundantly (John 10:10). And the cross, if it teaches us anything, teaches us how to die, not kill; to lay down our lives, not take the lives of others. On the cross Jesus’ glory, his divine dignity, is made supremely manifest, and so is ours. Herein lies the jewel of our personal sacredness. Death’s stronghold has been defeated through selfless love. We are no longer under its rule, no longer under the dictates of having to take life in order to protect life. God’s Son redeems the marred image in all of us so that we, the sons and daughters of God, are able to be victorious over every weapon of death. Through Christ we can freely, even joyfully, give our lives away, even if it means our own deaths. The dictates of death, with its “conspiracy against life,” are neither invincible nor inevitable.


    1. Exod. 20, 21
    2. Rom. 13:1–7
    3. The Gospel of Life, Pope John Paul II (Random House, 1995). Also
    4. C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York, NY: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1952), 106–107.
    5. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 107–108.
    6. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 106.
    Contributed By CharlesMoore Charles E. Moore

    Charles E. Moore is a writer and contributing editor to Plough. He is a member of the Bruderhof, an intentional community movement based on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.

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