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A highly acceptable man

The following review of Robert P. George’s Conscience and Its Enemies appeared in the October 2013 Chronicles:

Conscience and its Enemies is a collection of Robert George’s recent writings for a general audience. In addition to the title topic, it includes chapters on the defense of natural marriage, the protection of life from conception to natural death, the nature of moral reasoning, and the need for limited government. Overall, the pieces in the book give what seems to be a comprehensive presentation of the author’s views and arguments relating to politics and public life.

George is generally a serious thinker, and his views can be considered in several aspects. They have an overall outline that positions them in current public debates. They rely on certain modes of argumentation. And at the most specific level they present particular arguments that must be considered on their merits.

His overall views are the least substantial aspect of his thought. They are very much like those that emerged in the wake of the 1960’s among the people who became the first generation of neoconservatives. As such, they are generally sympathetic to the moderate reformist liberalism of pre-1965 America, but strongly opposed to the liberationist tendencies that became dominant shortly thereafter.

The transformation that befell liberalism in the 60’s led the liberals who became neoconservatives to rethink what was permanently valuable in it and what led it to go so bad so quickly. The intention was not to abandon the emphasis on freedom and equality, but to limit and stabilize its implications, in part by bringing liberalism into closer connection with other traditions of American life and Western thought. In their view, and George’s, the weaknesses of liberalism that led to disaster include a tendency toward ideological absolutism and a failure to recognize the importance of limited government, distributed power, and institutions such as family and religion that mediate between the individual and the state.

So classic neoconservatives, with George as a late recruit, realize that limitations are needed, but in line with their fundamentally liberal tendencies conceive those limitations rather abstractly. It would have been difficult as a personal matter for them to lay stress on the specific affiliations of American civilization, such as Protestant Christianity or the English common law, let alone the national origins of America’s founding population. They have been men of decidedly non-WASP and nonelite background (in George’s case, Syria, Southern Italy, and the coal mines of West Virginia) who had risen to elite status, who wanted to keep faith with their ancestral heritage as well as with a country that had been good to them and their people, and who viewed their situation as emblematic.

The solution to their personal problem, which also seemed a solution to the problem of stabilizing liberalism by tying it to something more concrete than abstract principle, was to understand America as a nation unlike other nations, a proposition nation defined by equality and opportunity for all, in which people from everywhere can be equally at home. The result is an America that lacks specific cultural affiliations beyond popular theism, Judeo-Christian family values, the Great Books of Western civilization, and an understanding of the founding that places it in the tradition of Aristotle as well as that of Locke. It is good for America to have a religious and family culture, shored up by public recognition of God and a strong principle of religious freedom. It is also good for immigrants to retain something of the culture of the old country, especially an emphasis on faith and family. Such features help preserve Americans as virtuous and America as a dynamic opportunity society, just as maintenance of a dynamic opportunity society helps attach immigrants to America and the American creed.

On such a view the national saga begins less at Jamestown or Bunker Hill than at Ellis Island, and plays out less in the Kentucky woods or the Old West than on the Lower East Side and other remembered immigrant communities. Lincoln becomes our greatest president, and the Gettysburg Address one of our founding documents, since Lincoln made the propositional understanding of America explicit, and so made America what she truly is. And the earlier phases of the civil-rights movement receive a very high valuation, because they extended the promise of equal opportunity to all, although the Martin Luther King, Jr., who is made emblematic is a rather ahistorical one who opposed racial preferences in favor of individualism and hard work.

So George is a patriotic American, a pre-affirmative-action civil-rights liberal, and a late-arriving first-generation neoconservative. He is also a dedicated Catholic, and is confident that his varied commitments all support one another. The key to how they can do so is religious liberty, which includes a strong principle of free exercise and the rights of conscience. Religious liberty protects the right to seek what is ultimately good and true, and to act conscientiously. It also allows religion to be active in public life and to affect public policy profoundly, without turning the adherents of all religious views except one into losers and thereby making some less at home in America than others. George thus finds religious freedom central to a free, equal, and humane society.

These varied and ardent commitments are combined with a manner of argumentation that emphasizes natural science and analytic philosophy. George displays that approach when he argues for protection of the unborn child. He says that abortion and medical research that destroys embryos are wrong not for some specifically religious or metaphysical reason but because a fertilized egg is already a complete human organism that needs only a favorable environment to develop into an adult human being. Conception is the beginning of an individual human life, so the liberal and American principle of equality implies the Catholic principle of protecting innocent life from conception to natural death. His arguments for natural marriage also emphasize biological fact: Human reproduction is carried on not by individuals but by a sort of complex organism constituted by the union of man and woman. That is what it means to say that in marriage man and woman become one flesh, and becoming one flesh in that way is, George says, the defining good of marriage. While he is unable to turn marriage into a direct expression of freedom and equality, he makes it one of the preconditions for a decent society—which today means a liberal society—to exist.

A basic problem with George’s overall position is that it seems quite unlikely that Catholicism, generic cultural conservatism, credal Americanism, a strong principle of equality, and a strong principle of religious participation in public life can really be combined.

When he talks about J.S. Mill’s advocacy of freedom for “experiments in living,” for example, he accepts that freedom must be limited by a system of cultural understandings that supports the public good, and in the case of pornography he evidently believes those understandings should be supplemented by direct legal suppression. On the other hand, he wants to avoid burdens on experiments in religious living as much as possible. Why wouldn’t religious and sexual freedom be on the same footing? Both have to do with basic aspects of how we live, and both are subject to pathology and abuse, so it seems that in principle both would call for some mixture of freedom and public concern.

If there are laws against indecency, why not encourage laws against impiety? It seems clear that George’s restrictions on “experiments in living” are to be determined by reference to generic Judeo-Christian morality. But if that is so, why shouldn’t generic Judeo-Christian religion get the same privileges? After all, religions and forms of life correspond to each other. Or if varied forms and expressions of divine love must be left free and indeed fostered, why not the same for human love? The practicalities might sometimes be different, but it seems that the basic principle would be the same.

The “proposition nation” theory, which bases our national existence on a creed, also sits oddly with a strong commitment to religious freedom and equality. George tells us that a man becomes American “in the richest and fullest possible sense” by gratitude for the liberty, security, and opportunity this country affords him and his family, and by consequent belief in the goodness of the principles of the Declaration of Independence as manifested in “the ideals and institutions of American cultural, economic, and civic life.” Those principles and ideals, in George’s view, reflect the Western tradition of natural law, and as such would sit most easily with a theistic view involving a supreme personal creator Who is a God of reason. On that line of thought, it appears that Islam and Eastern religions cannot really have equal citizenship in America without becoming something other than what they are. He notices there is a problem with regard to radical Islam, but suggests no reason to suppose that the problem is not there in principle with Islam generally.

One might also note that the ideals and institutions that now define American life do not seem to be as George says. His views do not guide recent government policy. Nor are they taught in public schools, supported by pundits, or reflected by popular culture. The Supreme Court and his colleagues at Princeton are appalled by them. Is he right, and are all those other people wrong, about the nature of American society and ideals? It seems he should bear in mind that “trust not in princes” also means “trust not in republics and constitutions.”

In any event, there is something frightening and inhuman about the idea of a proposition nation. Suppose someone just wants to have a country, a land where his fathers died and where he is rightfully at home, but he is out of sympathy with the theory contained in the Declaration of Independence. Does that mean he is out of luck if he was born in America? On George’s view, is he even an American?

Putting such substantive matters aside, George’s combination of qualities, especially his fundamentally liberal commitments and a manner of arguing that emphasizes anodyne technical considerations, gives him general respectability. The book jacket is loaded with plugs from the likes of Elena Kagan, George W. Bush, George Will, and The Weekly Standard. That respectability ought to have an importance that goes beyond George’s personal acceptability in polite society. The claim that there are no rational arguments against social liberalism has been extremely useful to its proponents in their campaign to remodel law and custom, and it seems that George’s arguments should effectively rebut such claims. In fact, of course, they have had no such effect. He and others can make all the arguments they want, but after hearing them a Supreme Court with a strong Catholic majority and composed entirely of Yale and Harvard Law School graduates can still base a major constitutional decision on the bald assertion that the only reason to define marriage as natural marriage is to injure a politically unpopular minority.

From one perspective that situation can hardly be blamed on the kind of argument George presents. As he notes, no amount of actual science and reason seems to weaken the liberal conviction that science and reason unequivocally support their positions. Still, it seems that the features of his thought that make it possible for him to have an honored career in conventionally respectable settings, the rigor of his arguments and their abstraction from habitual informal ways of viewing the world, mean they can have no effect on public discussion. Scientific thinkers and analytic philosophers like to rely on strong, clear arguments based on explicit premises. The result is that their arguments are not commonsensical even when they are valid, because common sense is tied to the open-ended network of mainly inarticulate habits, perceptions, and understandings that such arguments ignore. It does not seem commonsensical to say, for example, that discrimination based on whether a living human organism is unicellular is bad because it is like racial segregation. Nor does common sense support the claim that becoming one flesh is itself the essential defining good of marriage. The claim is interesting, and very likely contains a fundamental truth, but to most people it seems artificial and tailored to get a result—the unique value of marriage between man and woman—that George wants for other reasons.

His way of defining and arguing for his positions also has a more substantive vice that is related to his neoconservatism. When relied on by a public intellectual commenting on broad issues of general concern, the emphasis on rigorous argument based on commonly shared principles leads to a tendency to extend the effect of simple principles and default assumptions beyond their legitimate range. That is a troubling quality in a thinker who intends to be conservative, because it is how modern thought leads to inhuman and tyrannical results.

The principle of equality, for example, is not properly substantive. It is mainly a way of drawing attention to the fact that some principles—for example, those that make unjustified killing so profoundly wrong—apply with equal force to all human beings. It can be useful to make that point in some situations, since modern thought has repeatedly led to the view that some classes of people are simply vermin to be disposed of, but it provides no way to arrive at general rules for human relations. Treating equality as the basis of an overall political position is therefore likely to lead us astray. It gets us a hearing with liberals who believe there is no substantive reason to treat people one way rather than another, because there are no substantive goods or deserts, but at the cost of radically compromising resistance to their general position that equality is a supreme goal that (for example) renders illegitimate any institution that requires the parties to be of different sexes.

Despite my concerns about his overall position and manner of argumentation, I find George’s specific arguments generally careful, forcible, illuminating, and clearly presented. His comments on the nature of the marital union, and his discussion of why the fertilized egg and the embryo in its very early stages should be treated as full-fledged human lives, are especially helpful. His brief account of new natural-law theory is also engaging. As always, though, the thought that basic human goods are multiple and simply incommensurable, although useful for promoting a richer and more plausible account of the human good than utilitarianism can provide, was somewhat less than satisfying. What is integral about “integral human flourishing,” the overall standard for his ethical system, when it involves advancing various independent items on a list? Isn’t a more coherent overall account possible—for instance, one that sees man as part of God’s world and discusses what kind of engagement with different aspects of that world is fitting?

George has a great deal to contribute. Even where there seem to be ultimate inconsistencies, there’s no apparent intent to fudge difficult issues. He is not obliged to deal with questions not raised in the discussions to which he is a party, and he is a careful thinker who would likely have a rejoinder for almost any objection one might make. On the other hand, much more is needed to deal with the enemies of the goods he holds dear as an American, a Catholic, and a human being. Recent events make it clear that we won’t get anywhere with particular arguments that accept the general tendency of public discussion and point out narrow reasons why this or that conservative position is acceptable or correct. We need a much broader counterattack based on a fundamentally different vision of human life from the liberal one. And that counterattack will undoubtedly take us very quickly outside the limits of what now counts as respectability.

[Conscience and Its Enemies: Confronting the Dogmas of Liberal Secularism, by Robert P. George (Wilmington, DE: Intercollegiate Studies Institute) 384 pp., $29.95]