Roots of the Culture of Death

Uncovering the Ideas Behind the New Cultural Scourge

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In Chapter 11 of Evangelium Vitae, Saint John Paul II refers to abortion and euthanasia as attacks made against human life at the time of its greatest frailty. He calls our attention to the fact that these attacks are no longer regarded as “crimes,” but as “rights”. They are carried out by health-care personnel and, even more disturbingly, more often than not, with the approval of the family, which is called by nature to be “the sanctuary of life”. This development, so widespread in its scope, so convoluted in its ethos, provoked the Holy Father to ask, “How did such a situation come about?”

The question is a very good one, since this moral revolution, bringing into focus a Culture of Death, seems so alien to both the true nature of the human being and the wisdom of the ages. For the Pontiff, many factors must be taken into account, some philosophical, others existential. Answering this searing question remains open to further elaboration. Dr. Benjamin Wiker and I, in Architects of the Culture of Death, have isolated four ideas that we believe have contributed significantly to this new culture that places a greater premium of death than on life. Below is a brief sketch of these iniquitous ideas.

The Will As Absolute:

The philosophies of Arthur Schopenhauer, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Ayn Rand, in particular, espouse the primacy of the Will. This inversion of the natural order places the Will before Reason. Consequently, approval is given to making choices that do not accord with reason. Schopenhauer taught that reality was essentially Will, the irrational and malevolent force of nature. Nietzsche was in love with the “Will to Power” and turned conventional morality on its head. Ayn Rand championed the individual against all others, arguing from the premise that “altruism is the root of all evil”.

This illicit promotion of the will to a principle that does not need the direction of reason has shown itself to be a rationale for the “pro-choice” movement. It also sabotages reasoned debate.  Moreover, it has strong appeal for those who cannot defend their choices on the basis of reason.

Pleasure As Paramount:

A number of our “Architects” held that pleasure is more important than the person. Among them can counted Wilhelm Reich, Helen Gurley Brown, Alfred Kinsey, and Margaret Sanger. By putting pleasure ahead of the person, the person loses his primacy and becomes an object. He becomes a tool for someone else’s pleasure. Consequently, love, marriage, and the building up of society, all of which require the ability to postpone pleasure, are compromised in the process. Moreover, this extreme emphasis on pleasure makes joy, a quality that characterizes the whole person, elusive, if not unattainable.

These architects played an important role in ushering in the “Sexual Revolution” which, in its own way, played into sexual promiscuity, divorce, and abortion. Pleasure has its place, but it cannot come before the dignity of the person.

Society As Perfectible:

The utopian philosophers, particularly Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, and Auguste Comte, believed that through rigorous political structuring, imperfect man could build a perfect society. In order to bring about this ideal society, it would be necessary to suppress any trace of individuality. Therefore, dissent, debate, and discussion would be outlawed. The utopian state, by disregarding individual persons, therefore, could become only a collectivity of unhappy pawns. The realistic maxim, “The State exists for man,” for the utopian architects, was inverted so that it read “Man exists for the State”.

Utopianism places too much power in government, to the detriment of the free citizen. It must utilize force, rather than reason, in order to implement its demands. It has little regard for people who, because of age, ill-health, or disabilities, cannot justify their existence by means of their contributions to the State.

Adversity As Unbearable:

Peter Singer, Jack Kervorkian, and Derek Humphrey, who have been a major influence in the legalization of euthanasia, have little provision in their outlooks for dealing with adversity.  Logically, they oppose Christianity, a religion that finds meaning in suffering. For Derek Humphrey, author of Final Exit, “We are trying to overturn 2,000 years of Christian tradition”. Peter Singer reviles mentally challenged individuals as “vegetables,” demeans persons with Down syndrome, and rates the mind of a one-year-old human being below that of many brute animals. In order to find meaning in life, for these architects, good health and being free of disabilities becomes virtually essential.

The perspectives of these architects are incompatible with fostering care, hope, and courage. They are the apostles of the easy road, which for them is death and the cessation of all pain, difficulty, and discomfort.


“More powerful than armies,” wrote Alexander Dumas, “is an idea when its time has come.” He may have been thinking of good ideas when he penned this line. But bad ideas also have great power, and the four ideas outlined above may help to answer Saint John Paul II’s vexing question.


Dr. Donald DeMarco is adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College & Seminary in Cromwell, CT, a Senior Fellow of Human Life International and a member of the Pontifical Academy for Life. This article has been published by kind permission of Human Life International’s Truth and Charity Forum.

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Donald DeMarco

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