A Moral Authority
Conscience and Its Enemies: Confronting the Dogmas of Liberal Secularism
By Robert P. George
Intercollegiate Studies Institute Books, 384 pages
It is a strange feeling to read a book with which one agrees almost entirely, and yet find oneself shaking one’s head at every other page. Conscience and Its Enemies, by the Princeton philosopher and legal scholar Robert P. George, has a number of goals. George wants to show that liberalism is not a kind of relativism but a normative ideology replete with unexamined dogmas; that science and reason are on the side of conservatives, not liberals; and that conservatives need not make appeal to religion to prove the case against, say, abortion and same-sex marriage.
Chapter after chapter, Conscience and Its Enemies uses natural-law theory to make the case for the conservative position on the controversial political topics of the day, such as abortion, gay marriage, and affirmative action. In most cases, George puts forth a brilliant theoretical argument and then, satisfied that his job is done, moves to the next topic while ignoring obvious rebuttals. The sympathetic reader is left biting his lip, like a fan cheering for a technically brilliant tennis player who somehow keeps losing tie-breaks.
The strongest chapter by far concerns embryo ethics. George served on the Council on Bioethics during the George W. Bush administration and has wrestled with all the philosophical and scientific questions involved. It is a fact of middle school biology that an embryo is a human being, a scientific fact that supposedly science-enamored liberals consistently ignore, and in this masterful chapter, George meticulously dismantles all possible objections to recognizing the plain fact of the matter: Human beings in wombs are human beings; to consent to their violation is to jettison the concept of human rights.
But while I believe in the sanctity and legal defense of human life as much as George does, is it accurate or helpful to describe abortion, as he does in the book’s first chapter, as the product of “me-generation liberal ideology”? The phrase looks plucked from a liberal caricature of a right-wing rant. Surely sincere sympathy for women with unwanted pregnancies must play a role. Surely, too, one must not ignore that historically many opponents of abortion also opposed a gamut of legitimate rights for women. What does George expect a skeptical pro-choice reader to make of his assertion?
Further along, criticizing “judicial despotism,” George seems to argue against the doctrine of judicial review, which dates back to the benchmark 1803 case Marbury v. Madison and grants courts the power to strike down laws they deem contrary to the Constitution. George’s case is fascinating, but he does almost nothing to describe how the constitutional system would work without judicial review, except to say that an informed citizenry would be the constitutional check on Congress (which sounds very nice but seems unrealistic). Since he does not really explain how his proposed system would work, it is hard to say.
George then moves on to what is really the heart of the book: his case for natural-law theory as the template for morality and public policy. It is often said by critics of conservatism that the conservative disposition is little more than a grab-bag of ideas, unrelated and inconsistent. Is the combination of social conservatism, free-market advocacy, and foreign-policy hawkishness simply the result of a contingent political alliance, or is there a philosophical thread that can weave those pieces together?
George makes a strong case that natural-law theory is that thread. It offers a solid potential philosophical grounding for conservatism because it elevates the individual over government (because the individual has natural human rights) even as it imposes moral obligations on the individual (because everyone has these natural rights).
Having made his natural-law case, George then uses it to animate his argument against same-sex marriage. “Marriage,” he writes, “is a prepolitical form of association” that is made “uniquely possible by the sexual complementarity of man and woman.” He argues that, biologically speaking, in human reproduction, the male and the female become one reproductive organism—that is to say, they literally “become one flesh,” as the biblical phrase has it.
As George keenly perceives, the disagreement over same-sex marriage conceals a deeper disagreement about human nature itself. Are human beings persons who inhabit bodies, or are our bodies part of the essence of our selves? If the former, then, to put it crudely, “whether tab A goes into slot B” is of little to no moral importance. If we are merely minds inhabiting bodies, then it does not matter to a romantic partnership what the genders of the partners are. If the latter is true, however, if our bodies are not mere tools but who we are, then what we do with these bodies takes on moral importance.
His treatment of the question shows the limits of the natural-law approach. Like George, I share the view of my own Christian faith that bodies are not merely instruments but parts of our being. But once I have said this, I have reached the limit of natural-law theory, for this view is impossible to “prove” in any rational, let alone scientific, way. You either believe it or you don’t. Even if we agree that there is such a thing as natural law that we can discern through our rational understanding of human nature, we will still disagree about what exactly it entails, with little means to adjudicate these disagreements.
George writes that natural law commands us to act with a view toward “integral human fulfillment.” (Note the amount of work the word “integral” is doing there.) But of course, to countless Americans, “integral human fulfillment” would self-evidently involve pursuing romantic relationships irrespective of whether one is attracted to the same or opposite sex.
And even if we could resolve the disagreements about what the natural law entails, there is a much bigger question neither he nor anyone else has answered: Is there such a thing as natural law that is genuinely separate from religious belief? George takes on what he sees as the main alternative to natural law, John Stuart Mill’s utilitarianism, according to which we can find the good from that which is most useful to us—pursuing the things that make us happy while reducing the effect of the things that make us suffer. George finds Mill’s utilitarianism naive and utopian, a view with which I concur, but in a country whose animating document makes the “pursuit of happiness” equivalent to life and liberty, we cannot so readily dismiss it. This is the problem of meta-ethics: Every ethical system is ultimately based on an axiom beyond the reach of reason—whether it is God or human nature or Mill’s “utility.”
What to make, then, of Conscience and Its Enemies? George’s chapter on embryo ethics should be required reading in colleges across the nation. Philosophically inclined conservatives who are not familiar with natural-law theory will certainly benefit from George’s elucidation of that school. What of others? In his introduction, George notes that many elite secular liberals are prejudiced, believing that reason can only lead one to subscribe to liberalism. Alas, Professor George’s liberal colleagues can rest easy: This book will not cause them to reexamine their prejudice.