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Spring 2014

Natural Law and the Challenge of Liberal Secularism

book cover imageConscience and Its Enemies: Confronting the Dogmas of Liberal Secularism
by Robert P. George.
Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2013.
Hardcover, 384 pages, $30.

Glen Austin Sproviero

“Man is known to exist in no part of the world, without certain rules for the regulation of his intercourse with those around him. It is a first necessity of his weakness, that laws, founded upon the immutable principles of natural justice, should be framed, in order to protect the feeble against the violence of the strong; the honest from the schemes of the dishonest; the temperate and industrious, from the waste and indolence of the dissolute and idle. These laws, though varying with circumstances, possess a common character, being formed on that consciousness of right, which God has bestowed in order that men may judge between good and evil.” So wrote James Fennimore Cooper in The American Democrat, echoing sentiments which remain relevant, however embattled, in our own day. One hundred and seventy years later, in Conscience and Its Enemies: Confronting the Dogmas of Liberal Secularism, Professor Robert George offers a modern defense of natural law as an indispensible element of civilized culture and reveals liberal secularism’s widespread intolerance for both the classical and scholastic natural law traditions.

While remaining accessible to a broad audience, George examines important policy issues through a philosophical lens so that the reader is able to confront the intricacies of sensitive subjects including, among other things, marriage, abortion, and stem cell research. Slogans and tag-lines are absent from these pages; rather, he translates long-standing principles into fresh language in order to confront the challenges posed by contemporary culture and politics. Further, Conscience and Its Enemies lacks the emotional rapaciousness that too often animates political discussions and instead articulates a nuanced approach to the often uncomfortable issues confronting the public square.

George argues that secular liberals attempt to enforce their own brand of conscience, which they parade under the twin banners of moral neutrality and “objective” science. He discusses this directly in several chapters, including the ones on education and embryonic stem cell research. By contrast, George’s own defense of “conscience” is based on his natural-law understanding of personhood and relies upon both science and reason (Aristotle’s practical reason); he eschews the idea that conscience is the mere expression of individual feelings about right and wrong. For George, conscience is a coupling of rights and duties, and not merely a license to rationalize bad behavior in the name of freedom.

At the outset, George endeavors to disabuse readers of the notion that social and economic conservatism are merely joined in a “marriage of convenience.” He examines how “[b]asic shared principles should lead serious social conservatives to be economic conservatives” and vice versa. With this observation, George sets the stage for a policy discussion centered upon first principles as opposed to party politics. The philosophical antecedents of economic and social conservatism are shown to be of a common stock: they both “as a matter of principle, honor limited government, restrained spending, honest money, and low taxes, while upholding the sanctity of human life in all stages and conditions, the dignity of marriage as the conjugal union of husband and wife, and the protection of the innocence of children.” George shows that the artificial barriers often erected between social and economic conservatism are unnecessarily divisive and work to undermine the legitimacy of the principles upon which both rely for support.

George further argues that there are three “pillars” that form the basis “of a decent society”: (1) respect for the dignity of the human person; (2) the traditional family; and (3) an effective system of government and law. When these basic pillars are undermined by utilitarian rationalizations or are disregarded as irrelevant, government agencies are all too willing to step into the roles usually reserved for traditional social institutions such as churches and charitable organizations. A decent society respects itself and the value of its citizens and does not require an omnipotent state to provide for its every need. In connection with this principle, George observes that free markets and the traditional family have presented a more formidable defense against poverty than any government program in history.

A noted legal scholar, George expresses substantive concern over the state of the American constitutional system in a chapter titled “The Limits of Constitutional Limits.” He warns that the failure of both Congress and the presidency to fulfill their respective obligations to protect and preserve the Constitution engenders an unhealthy dependence upon the federal courts to act as the final (and sole) arbiter of American law. Under this framework, important policy issues are ultimately determined by the preferences of nine largely unaccountable appointees. George notes that while the Supreme Court has had its share of great moments, including its decision in Brown v. Board of Education, this same court handed down such decisions as Dredd Scott v. Sanford and Lochner v. New York. The strength of the American political system is derived from the national government’s separation of powers among the legislative, executive, and judicial departments, along with its shared sovereignty with the states. The breakdown of this delicate balance, and the augmentation of the power of an appointed judiciary, threatens republican self-government and the predicates of American constitutionalism.

A university professor charged with the instruction of undergraduates, George speaks with authority on the role of the liberal arts in the cultivation of a virtuous society. Rejecting the belief that the goal of a liberal arts education is liberation from “old norms and structures,” George embraces the spirit of John Henry Newman and Allan Bloom when he posits that education plays an instrumental role in transcending the self, instilling discipline, and forming character. In this understanding, education provides the tools to cultivate what the Scholastics, echoing Aristotle, called “right reason.” The traditional liberal arts free the individual to choose between the appetitive and the “good.” A true liberal arts education allows us to become masters of ourselves and to take ownership of our choices.

George is at his strongest, however, in his treatment of natural law and its relation to the new natural law theory of which he, along with scholars Germain Grisez and John Finnis, are the most prominent expositors. Insisting that Aristotle and Aquinas both recognize an implicit fallacy in deriving “normative judgments from purely factual premises describing human nature,” George asserts that it is necessary to respect the distinction between “description and prescription.” In this view, natural law remains a viable guide to human conduct through the realization of “modes of responsibility” that necessarily follow from the “integral directiveness of the most basic principles of practical reason,” which “direct human action toward basic human goods and away from their privations.”

While many (this reviewer included) remain unconvinced either that traditional notions of natural law are predicated upon some “naturalistic fallacy” or that the new natural law theories of Grisez, Finnis, and George provide a satisfactory answer to such an alleged logical insufficiency, there is little doubt that proponents of both traditional and the new natural law plough the same furrow and look to anchor the predicates of human judgment in something eternal. Although George does not attempt to affirmatively settle the argument between traditional and neo-natural law theorists (which he addresses in other writings), he demonstrates that the differences between the two groups need not prevent them from working toward common goals. Engendering respect for the intrinsic value of the human person lies at the core of the natural law theory embraced by both groups as the fundamental principle of a decent society. Absent this principle, we can maintain little hope for a public policy animated by good, noble, and virtuous ends. Without a basic respect for the innate dignity of the human person, the weak will be trampled and persons will be treated as means rather than ends.

Many secular liberals and aggressive individualists acknowledge the importance of this concept, but they nevertheless embrace policies that belie its very foundations. For instance, George notes that “[i]ndividualism overlooks the intrinsic value of human sociability and tends mistakenly to view human beings atomistically.” He continues: “[i]t fails to account for the intrinsic value of friendship and other aspects of human sociability, reducing all relationships to means by which the partners collaborate with a view to more fully or efficiently achieving their individual goals and objectives. Collectivism, meanwhile, compromises the dignity of human beings by tending to instrumentalize and subordinate them and their well-being to the interests of larger social units—the community, the state, the volk, the fatherland, the fuhrer, the future communist utopia.” This misunderstanding of human nature and distortion of human goods corrupts the very foundations of society by undermining the most basic notions of justice as it applies to personhood. The reduction of a person to a means rather than an end; the degradation of a human being as the object of rights as opposed to the subject of rights; the empowerment of individuals and groups to assert constructive possession of another’s conscience through public coercion and the threats of ostracism—these are the very philosophical pillars that a secular liberals decry as foul while unwittingly embracing in their political programs.

Liberal secularism presents a self-effacing proposition marked by an obsession with death—what Malcolm Muggeridge famously referred to as the “great liberal death wish.” The zeal with which secular liberals embrace both philosophical and political positions attacking the value of life is scandalous, and revealing. Philosopher Peter Singer’s belief that “hardly anyone really believes that all human life is of equal worth” provides an abhorrent excuse to justify the killing of innocent persons through abortion or euthanasia, and sadly, this is close to the mainstream of secular liberal thought. Astonishingly, these positions are embraced without serious reflection and sold as part of a larger platform predicated upon choice and liberation. The issue of life is casually tossed aside in favor of expediency, utility, and convenience. George places these important issues back into our thoughts and consciences.

George is particularly troubled by the position propagated by many politicians, Joseph Biden and Mario Cuomo foremost among them, that one can be morally opposed to a particular practice yet remain willing to endorse it as a matter of policy. Biden and Cuomo cling to the untenable proposition that their own beliefs on moral issues, informed by religious teaching, can at once be morally binding upon their individual consciences but not upon the policies they endorse or implement. This reasoning is flawed because it presupposes that opposition to these policies is strictly a matter of faith. It is not necessary, however, to accept Roman Catholicism, or any other religion, to remain pro-life or to believe in the traditional view of marriage. Plenty of atheists understand the value of personhood and cringe at the intrinsic evil of intentional killing. Politicians who endorse policies with which they have a genuine moral disagreement, and do so by erecting a straw-man argument concerning church-state relations, peddle an incoherent and unsound message that only serves to elevate ambition at the cost of both conscience and self-respect.

Conscience and Its Enemies is aptly titled to reflect its author’s growing concern over the ever-increasing intolerance faced by people of faith and those who express traditional values. George is particularly critical of the radical left’s transformation of policy disputes, based upon ideology and individual preferences, into moral crusades in which dissenters are painted as intolerant and ignorant. He exposes liberal secularism’s attempt to destroy individual conscience so that traditionalists have no choice but to conform to demands of contemporary culture. We are reminded, however, that each of us has a duty to protect what James Madison called “the sacred rights of conscience.” The “friends of conscience” must not be bullied into acquiescence on the seminal issues of our age.

Conscience and Its Enemies is uniquely powerful because it addresses matters that are located beyond the intellect and that reach into the innermost recesses of the individual conscience. George shows that the suppression of conscience is an intolerable intrusion into the rights of every person to fully participate in what it means to be human and an intrinsic evil propagated at the expense of our own professed principles. The book will be appreciated by anyone concerned with the present state of culture and politics, and like George’s other books, will not disappoint. 

Glen Austin Sproviero writes from New Jersey.

Posted: April 6, 2014

All great systems, ethical or political, attain their ascendency over the minds of men by virtue of their appeal to the imagination; and when they cease to touch the chords of wonder and mystery and hope, their power is lost, and men look elsewhere for some set of principles by which they may be guided.

Russell Kirk

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