Have the Lights of Reason and Empathy Gone Out?

I’m going to give you food for thought on two matters today. First, I’m going to describe briefly the history behind some important laws. Second, I’m going to ask you to think about whether the twin lights of reason and empathy have gone out in our society.

The early days of our legal system are shrouded in the mists of time. There is good evidence that as long ago as the year 980 the Anglo-Saxon King Alfred the Great acknowledged that he himself did not possess absolute power but had to answer to a system of laws above him.

For centuries Judges figured out rules on a case-by-case basis, using official decrees, and filling in the gaps with as much reason and justice as they could invent. Much of their decision-making was unwritten, with a few written reports scattered about.

Finally, about 400 years ago, around the year 1642, a learned judge named Edward Coke caused all of these accumulated legal decisions to be written down. He called it the Institutes of the Laws of England. It was the first comprehensive written law book in the history of our legal system.

The 1642 Institutes contained two laws which will particularly interest you. The first was a declaration that a child would not be legally recognized as a human being until his or her birth was complete. This made sense at the time in light of the primitive lack of knowledge about children before birth. Many children were not born alive, and some emerged with such defects as not to be recognizable as human. It meant that there was no way to prove that a child before birth was even a human being, so Judges felt causing the death of a child before birth could not justify imposing the same punishment reserved for taking a human life. We call this the “born alive” law.

The second law said maybe we can’t fully punish someone for taking a child’s life before birth since we don’t know for sure the child is human, but we know that a child before birth is alive, and it’s criminal to take even a non-human life. We’ll just impose a lesser penalty. We call this the abortion law. It was a necessary twin to the born alive law.

In 1867 Canada became a country and adopted all of the English common law as our own, including these twin laws. Some years after that, we took the criminal law parts and put them into our Criminal Code, including these twin laws.

Next, in 1948, the free nations of the world boldly declared in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of every member of the human family is the foundation for freedom, justice, and peace in the world.” This legal declaration directly contradicted the born alive rule, but no one noticed that contradiction at the time.

Then, beginning in 1968, Parliament began to tinker with the abortion half of these twin laws.

In 1988 the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the new abortion law Parliament had drafted went too far and so over-turned that law. In that same written decision Justice Bertha Wilson recognized the validity of offering some legal recognition to children before birth. She knew that modern medical and scientific evidence could give a needed update to the born alive law. Unfortunately, rather than immediately extending justice to children before birth, she merely invited to Parliament to study the evidence about it.

In 2012 a motion was submitted to Parliament proposing the very study suggested by Justice Bertha Wilson, a study of the evidence to update the born alive rule. At the urging of the leaders of all three major Canadian political parties the motion was defeated. 93 MP’s voted to take a look at the evidence. 205 M.P.’s voted to shut tight their eyes to modern scientific evidence and instead affirmed the 400-year-old false born alive rule. 10 M.P.’s abstained.

When Parliament sends into courtrooms across this land a 400-year-old false assertion that children are not human beings until complete birth, Parliament is committing perjury.

Which brings me to the question I posed earlier, that is, have the twin lights of reason and empathy gone out in our society?

Before answering that question, let’s consider the importance of reason and of empathy.

In our natural world of conflicting interests and claims, and of competing allegiances, reason transcends everything else. It’s a common language. Whatever our claims and whatever our loyalties, a commitment to reason allows us to find common ground in rules for living together.

Reason depends upon our willingness to acknowledge truth and evidence. Reason forces us to agree on principles about justice and about the equal worth and dignity of every individual. Reason says we cannot simply impose our will upon others but must, like King Alfred the Great centuries ago, answer to an objective standard.

All of these preconditions supporting reason are being eliminated in Canada today. When Parliament decided, for example, to falsely pretend that children are not human until complete birth Parliament abandoned any commitment to truth or evidence. When the people who govern the Ontario College of Physicians and Surgeons ran rough-shod over doctors’ conscience rights (another example) they were simply imposing their will upon unwilling citizens, and abrogating principles of equality and human dignity. There are many, many other examples occurring in Canada today.

Empathy is equally important. Empathy is our natural human impulse to imagine and to feel the pain that others are suffering. Empathy allows us to put ourselves into another person’s shoes. Empathy finds its clearest expression in the admonition to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” We call empathy “The Golden Rule.” We recognize that empathy is an important part of what makes us truly human.

Have some of you heard of the book “The Lord of the Flies” which was dramatized in film? That was a tale to illustrate the importance of reason and empathy, and what happens when they are suppressed. That book was required reading when I was young, but I suspect is no longer required reading.

Look at the increasing numbers of Canadians who routinely insult perfect strangers (on social media or otherwise), who deny others freedom to speak, or freedom even to hold dissenting views, and who bully and harass those with whom they disagree! We can reach no other conclusion but that empathy is on the wane in our social relations.

As reason and empathy recede they can only be replaced with the idea of “might makes right“ by those with power. Our social relationships are no longer governed by reason, truth, or justice but instead are about jockeying for power over others at all costs. Look around, and you will see this happening in Canada.

In the Trinity Western University case, for example, the Supreme Court of Canada decided that people who believe a union between one man and one woman is especially sacred are *not* equal to people who believe there is nothing special or a sacred about such a union. The former may therefore be punished with exclusion from full participation in our public justice system.

In Ontario, doctors are punished if they refuse to help arrange the death of their patients upon demand. They are denied the freedom to conscientiously object to their own participation in ending the lives of others, a freedom Canada gave even to soldiers in time of war when the very existence of our nation was threatened!

Across Canada, governments are denying parents the freedom to decide the kind of education their own children receive, a freedom guaranteed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Some Canadian citizens have been denied the right to adopt a child because their religious beliefs do not conform to the beliefs of people with power. An Ontario couple even had their foster child removed from their care because they refused to profess a belief in the Easter Bunny!

These authoritarian measures do not depend upon reason, truth, or justice. These authoritarian measures do not possess even a whiff of empathy for the citizens they oppress, or even a hint of recognition of the equality and dignity of every citizen. These authoritarian measures depend solely upon the decision of those with power to impose their will upon others, using all the might at their disposal.

And, of course, such measures are supported by everyone whose interests or claims are served by such oppressive measures, or who identify with them.

Does all this mean that the twin lights of reason and empathy have gone out in Canada? Not while I’m alive!

It’s no exaggeration to say the lights of reason and empathy have dimmed, and we are entering a new Dark Age as a consequence. But even as the flame of reason and empathy was preserved intact through the last Dark Age, you and I can preserve that flame through the present one!

It’s not as easy as it sounds. We have to deny ourselves the unsavoury but tempting tools that our oppressors use against us – deception, bullying, violence, power at any price, insult, the denial of human dignity……

I know too many people who are goaded into demeaning and insulting others! I know too many people who are frightened into advocating the oppression of others, advocating the denial of the freedom of others! I know too many people who have learned to see the world through the lens of “us against them,” demonizing those who disagree with us instead of extending the hand of friendship. Too many people demand measures against others that they would never want imposed upon themselves.

I myself don’t claim to be free of those dark impulses. But, having become aware of them, I do my best (failing often) to suppress them. I try consciously to discipline myself toward reason and empathy (failing often). I am asking you to do the same!

So long as you and I act and speak with reason, so long as you and I place ourselves, with empathy, in the shoes of those who oppose us – for that long, reason and empathy will not be extinguished in our society!

And, who knows? If we bravely persevere with that good example, if we distinguish ourselves from those who oppress us, perhaps others will see the value of reason and empathy, and a new age of enlightenment will dawn again!

STEPHEN WOODWORTH

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