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The New York Times

 

Natural Lawyer

June 23, 2013

By Kay S. Hymowitz

Most of us live our partisan politics through the media, which generally means cross-firing tweets, posts and cable news shows about the latest scandal as interpreted by a rotating stable of Washington strategists, party faithfuls and pundits. But behind the klieg lights, there has always been a less topical, more abstract debate between liberal and conservative academics and philosophers about the nature of human flourishing and the political and social institutions that best promote it.

Robert P. George is one of the most prominent conservative backstagers. The McCormick professor of jurisprudence at Princeton, a former member of the President’s Council on Bioethics, author of myriad books and articles, he is embraced in social conservative circles — and despised in liberal ones — for being staunchly opposed to abortion, gay marriage, assisted suicide and embryonic research. His newest book, “Conscience and Its Enemies,” doesn’t add much to what he has already written on these matters. But it does bring together an accessible group of essays that put his highly burnished philosophical and constitutional learning on full display. They should, at the very least, unsettle those whose only experiences of social conservatism are the blunderings of Todd Akin and the theatrics of Rush Limbaugh, and perhaps even lead to some reflection that rises above the media brawl.

Though a devoted Roman Catholic, George is not preaching religious dogma in these essays. Following the natural-law tradition, he relies on reason and science (the very tools that liberals, he posits, wrongly believe are always in their corner) to uncover immutable human nature. Certainly his starting premise — “Each human being possesses a profound, inherent and equal dignity” and is “an end in himself” — won’t raise atheistic or liberal hackles. Nor will the logic that this premise leads to: infanticide, slavery, segregation and eugenics, all of which deny human dignity, are immoral. But that’s about where agreement will end. George goes on to argue that the dignity we attach to the autonomous individual is also inherent in the human embryo. Modern embryology has corrected an earlier view of the fetus as a part of the mother; from the moment of conception, he holds, it is a “complete, self-integrating organism,” with unique self-directing DNA. The unborn are “living individuals of the species Homo sapiens — members of the human family.” Like all vulnerable beings, they need protection from the powerful who would like to control them. Utilitarian arguments about the benefits that could come from embryonic research or from preventing the birth of an unwanted child are no more valid than the social improvements promised by a eugenicist.

Critics will object — correctly — that a Georgian regime would impose an alien morality on nonbelievers. But George contends that liberal secularists enforce their own morality, which they mistakenly confuse with neutrality and, more disingenuously, with science. In an essay that challenges his usual even temper, George argues that Justice Harry A. Blackmun’s reasoning in Roe v. Wade relied both on dubious constitutional doctrine — a position that has also been held by a number of highly regarded liberal scholars — and on assertions of medical necessity, to disguise what was actually a moral claim. The Supreme Court could get away with this in part because the liberal secularists who applauded the decision didn’t grasp that they were asserting a particular morality based on a debatable view of the human person. In George’s view, they are “dualists” who believe the desiring mind is the locus of the authentic self, with the right to use the body to pursue its own ends.

Natural-law followers, on the other hand, believe the self is a “dynamic unity of body, mind and spirit.” The difference in visions of personhood is at the heart of what he has called elsewhere “a clash of orthodoxies.” Everywhere Georgians turn — on television and billboards, in schools and universities, music lyrics and videos, laws and judicial decisions — they find messages seeped in secular orthodoxy reiterating that we are “objects of sexual desire and satisfaction” rather than integrated persons. These hidden messages shape the next generation’s understanding of themselves and destroy the foundations of morality essential for a healthy political culture.

George is exceptionally nimble when he spars with conventional contemporary political and social thought, so much so that it presents us with a puzzle: in ­natural-law terms, humans are rational beings who have “intelligible reasons . . . for their choices and actions.” So why is he at odds with many whose logical skills are inferior to his? It could be they are prisoners of their own orthodoxy. Another possibility, as contemporary moral psychologists like Jonathan Haidt might suggest, is that they are guided by moral intuitions largely resistant to reason but potentially truthful nonetheless. In the case of abortion, for instance, many people surely believe, as George does, that reason affirms the equal dignity and value of all human life from conception on. Yet though women often grieve a miscarriage, there is no human society where people mourn a fetus 12 weeks after conception to the same degree they do a stillbirth at 7 months or (especially) the death of a 1-year-old. In George’s schema, these distinctions have no moral validity. But moral intuition senses they do.

The limits of moral reasoning hover even more around George’s discussion of marriage. Again, he begins with premises that are uncontroversial. In the Western world, marriage is now defined as an emotional union. We assume you should marry for love. Historians would agree that this view is relatively new in human history; they would probably also agree that on its own, love has proved a shaky foundation for the ancient institution. The modern ideal of marriage as a pure emotional bond, rather than the primary locus of procreation and child rearing, eventually led to the easing of divorce laws and the mainstreaming of cohabitation and single motherhood, and now — since clearly two individuals of the same sex are capable of loving each other — to gay marriage.

George rejects the idea of marriage as an emotional union, but not because of the way that ideal has weakened the institution. He believes that conjugal (or traditional) marriage unites husband and wife across all levels of being, physical, emotional and spiritual. Male and female complementarity allows them to unite “organically” as “a single procreative principle.” Note the word “principle”: whether they actually procreate or not, men and women are engaging in “one flesh unity.”

To chalk this up to homophobia is to miss something crucial; George is relying on philosophical ideas that predate the modern concept of sexual identity and that lead him to reject all extramarital — and even some kinds of marital — sex. The more pertinent philosophical objection is that his reasoning about the nature of marriage, however well pedigreed, is so far removed from most people’s lived experience that it will be inconsistent with their intuitions about the human good. George might counter that contemporary liberal secularists have no coherent philosophy of marriage, reasoned or intuited. About that, he is almost certainly right.

In the end, you don’t have to agree with any of this to support the central message of “Conscience and Its Enemies.” George’s book is more than anything a plea for liberty of conscience, or more specifically, for religious liberty. Religion, he reasons, should be thought of as “conscientious truth-seeking regarding the ultimate sources of meaning and value” and, therefore, “a crucial dimension of human well-being and fulfillment.”

George, in other words, speaks for a sizable number of conscientious objectors to America’s ruling liberal secularism.

Original Source: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/23/books/review/conscience-and-its-enemies-by-robert-p-george.html

 

 
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