The latest book by Robert P. George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at
Princeton University, is a series of essays held together by natural-law reasoning.
Although George is a devout Roman Catholic, he does not draw on church teachings.
His methodology should interest anyone who wishes to construct reasoned arguments
to place principled limits on government.
First, a disclaimer: My formal training in philosophy ended in the fourth grade,
when I memorized the St. Joseph Baltimore Catechism. Any philosophical knowledge
I have attained since then has been entirely self-taught.
One of Georges key chapters, Two Views of Liberty . . . and Conscience, lays
out the analytical approach. Does freedom mean we get to do whatever we want?
Does a defense of freedom rule out substantive claims about what is truly good?
George answers both questions in the negative. He believes truth claims about human
flourishing need not impinge on anyones freedom.
George illustrates the issues by contrasting John Stuart Mill with John Henry
Newman. Mill and Newman were among the most distinguished and powerful intellects
of the nineteenth century. Both wrote compelling defenses of freedom, but they
had very different views of what freedom and hence conscience mean.
Mill articulates his understanding of freedom through his famous harm
principle. The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others
(qtd. on p. 107). And what is the basis of this principle? According to Mill, it is an
appeal not to abstract right but to utility in the largest sense, grounded on the
permanent interests of man as a progressive being (qtd. on p. 108).
As George notes, for this concept to do any work one has to have some notion of
the permanent interests of man as a progressive being (p. 110). The utility principle by
itself cannot provide answers. George believes Mill had something of a tin ear for religion,
whichMill probably thought would wither away in an age of freedom (p. 110).
By contrast, John Henry Newman, whom George describes as a religious
genius, gave due credit to the civilizing impact of Christianity. His view of conscience
and freedom was correspondingly quite different from Mills. Newman believed that
[c]onscience has rights because it has duties; but in this age, with a large portion of the
public, it is the very right and freedom of conscience to dispense with conscience.
Conscience is a stern monitor, but in this century it has been superseded by a
counterfeit, which the eighteen centuries prior to it never heard of, and could not
have mistaken for it if they had. It is the right of self-will (qtd. on p. 111).
Poor Cardinal Newman didnt know the half of it. In our time, this concept of conscience
as self-will has continued to work its way through the institutions of society. We
have reached the point where sexual liberty (a concept that doubtless would never have
occurred to either Newman or Mill) is in danger of routinely trumping religious liberty.
Behind Mills view is an optimism about human nature. Humans are naturally
good and will become better if unfettered by artificial social constraints. Mill was an
educated, accomplished man living in Victorian England. When he looked around
at the result of centuries of civilizing influences, he thought that what he saw was
mans normal condition.
Although Mills view is more common today than it was in his own time,
Newmans view of the human person was probably widely shared in the Victorian era
as well as in the American Founding era. No human being created himself. Therefore,
the human person has a duty to his creator, a duty of gratitude and worship. But this
earlier religious age believed that it would be absurd and even wicked to suppose that
people have duties that they have no capacities to perform. Hence, government has a
responsibility to respect the rights of religious conscience. This is why religious
freedom was considered the first freedom.
This understanding of the conscience helps explain why religious liberty falls
down the ladder of importance under the self-will view of conscience. Freedom of
religion morphs into freedom to worship, just one more preference for a type of
activitya not particularly significant activity at that.
To know the good of man, one has to have a theory of the human person.
Utilitarians, including Mill and many modern economists, see the human person as a
utility function. Newman and along with him Robert George want to say that this
conception does not do justice to the human person. The utility view of the human
person begs important questions and assumes things that ought to be proven.
And so I revert to my formal philosophical training. The Baltimore Catechism
asks: What is man?
And answers: Man is a creature composed of body and soul, made in the image
and likeness of God.
Did I mention that the Baltimore Catechism ismodeled on the Summa Theologica
of St. Thomas Aquinas, redone for children? It was an audacious thing to do, to try to
teach Thomism to the children of working-class immigrants. But it worked. Even if
one does not ultimately agree with this little definition, having it tucked away in the
corners of ones mind is extremely helpful because it steers one away from the many
unsatisfactory alternatives. Man is not a bundle of passions or a utility function. Man is
more than a disembodied will or a mass of electrons or a blob of cells or the sum of
Although George never cites the Bible or any church documents and certainly
not the Baltimore Catechism, he and I as well as, I suspect, many readers of this
journalare drinking from the same well, whether we realize it or not. Georges
thought goes in a direct line back to Thomas Aquinas and through him back to
Aristotle. The philosophical realism of this whole line of thought protects us from
the many modern fads involving philosophical idealism or fantasy ideologies.
George is part of a wider movement bringing a refreshed version of Thomism to
bear on modern issues. Although he alludes to his critics within that wider movement,
I am not in a position to evaluate their disputes. What I can say is that their overall
project must be of the greatest importance to any advocate of minimum government
and human liberty.
It is not really possible to take a position on abortion or the definition of
marriage or any other serious moral issue without having some theory of the human
person and what is good for human persons. George observes throughout this work
that the modern claims to moral neutrality are essentially fraudulent.
For instance, in the title chapter, Conscience and Its Enemies, George
analyzes a report prepared by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists
in 2008. This report recommended sharp limitations on individuals physicians
conscience rights to refuse to perform abortions regardless of any moral objections
they might hold.
George observes that the advocates of these impositions on providers are hiding
behind a veil of objectivity, science, and neutrality. What jumped off the page at me
when I first read [the report] is that it is an exercise in moral philosophybad moral
philosophy, but lay that aside for nownot medicine. It proposes a definition of
conscience, something that cannot be supplied by science or medicine, then proposes
to instruct its reader on the limits of conscientious refusals, describing how claims of
conscience should be weighed in the context of other values critical to the ethical
practice of health care (p. 157).
George might have added but does not that how and why the government is in
the business of providing or subsidizing any family-planning services at all are
serious moral questions. How did it get to be any of the governments business
whether Mr. and Mrs. Morse have two children or ten? This question should cry out
to libertarians with historical or empirical inclinations. And that the government even
considers compelling religious people to provide these services should be anathema
to advocates of minimum government.
These questions in turn point to a deep incoherence in the view of conscience as
self-will. If self-will is not grounded in any substantive theory of the good for man,
then the good or the useful becomes an exercise in the law of the strongest.
Opponents of religion object to comprehensive worldviews as a basis for
policy because they claim that an overbearing concept of the good for man will then
be ruthlessly imposed on others. But George would respond that these very same
people have a surreptitious concept of the good for themselves, which they stealthily
but truly do impose on others without ever having to defend that concept. If they
were required to defend their concepts, they would surely fall short, as Georges analysis
of the report by the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecologists illustrates.
The real threat to freedom is not people with religious or other comprehensive
and substantive views of the human person and the human good. The real threat is
that some people insist that they be permitted to do what they want, including
reshape the fundamental institutions of society, on the basis of neutrality. These
people and their projects are not subjected to reasoned scrutiny but allowed to bypass
serious analysis as they skulk in the guise of neutrality.
This is why Georges philosophical approach should be of interest to readers of
this journal, regardless of their religious persuasion. The book could have been
improved by a note with each chapter stating when and where the essay was first
published to give the reader context for the problem being discussed. But this is a
quibble. Conscience and Its Enemies will be well worth the time of any reader of
The Independent Review.