Monday, December 21, 2009

Robert George's Kantian Catholic Conservatism

The New York Times has published a long article on Robert George and his influence with American conservative Catholics and the Republican Party. George is a prominent professor of politics at Princeton University, who is best known as a proponent of John Finnis's "new natural law." Politically, he is best known as a staunch advocate of conservative Catholicism in American politics and a devoted supporter of George Bush's policies.

From my reading of George's writings, this article is remarkably accurate in surveying George's thought. As the article indicates, George is especially devoted to the claim that "reason alone" proves that abortion, embryonic stem cell research, heterosexual sodomy, and homosexual sex are immoral. Reason alone teaches us that marriage is self-evidently good only when it becomes a "one-flesh union" through vaginal intercourse. When a married heterosexual couple engage in any sexual activity other than vaginal intercourse, this is sodomy, and "reason alone" tells us that this is immoral.

George distinguishes between those moral judgments that are self-evident from those that are not. The evil of abortion is self-evident. But the evil of capital punishment is not. So, George concludes, Catholics can reasonably disagree with the Church on the second issue but not the first. He says this despite the fact that the Church has condemned both abortion and capital punishment as part of the "culture of death."

George's appeal to "reason alone" puts him in opposition not only to my conception of Darwinian natural right, but also to traditional natural law thought and many traditions of Christian theology.

According to George, the great debate in moral philosophy is between Aristotle and Hume. Aristotle stands at the head of the tradition of thought that says that there is an objective moral order that is grasped by the authority of reason alone, which must then rule over the passions. This Aristotelian tradition includes Thomas Aquinas and natural law thought. David Hume stands at the head of the opposing tradition that says that reason alone cannot rule, because the passions must motivate human action. According to George, the appeal to pure reason as a source of moral guidance does not require any appeal to the facts of human nature and history, because moral truth rests on principles that are grasped by pure logic as self-evidently true with no regard for nature or history.

I disagree with this on many points. I agree with Hume that morality requires a combination of reason and passion. Passion or emotion provides the motivational direction for moral experience, although reason can elicit or direct emotion based on judgments about the circumstances of action. Pure reason alone cannot move us to action. Both our reason and our emotions reflect the facts of our human nature and history, and therefore moral experience depends on the nature and history of human life.

I also disagree with George in his claim that his reliance on pure reason is Aristotelian. After all, Aristotle is clear in declaring that "thought by itself moves nothing." Human morality requires a combination of reason and desire in practical experience. This is clear in Aristotle's On the Movement of Animals. I see that same combination of reason and desire in Aquinas, who roots natural law in the "natural inclinations" of human beings.

Far from belonging to the philosophical tradition of Aristotle and Aquinas, George actually belongs to the rationalist tradition of Immanuel Kant, who insisted that morality rested on pure imperatives of logic with no reference to human nature or human desires.

If morality is rooted in human nature, then Darwinian science can clarify our moral psychology by explaining how our moral experience is grounded in the biological reality of the human mind and body as directed to moral goods. So, for example, we cannot judge sexual morality without some understanding of our nature as sexual animals with natural desires for sexual identity, sexual mating, parental care, and familial bonding.

By contrast, George insists that knowing the "human goods" is a matter of self-evident reasoning that is totally abstracted from any knowledge of human nature. I find that incomprehensible. How can we know what is good for human beings without considering what human beings are like? In fact, George admits that this reliance on pure reason alone is the one point where he is uncertain. "This is a serious issue, and if I am wrong, this is where I am wrong." "I just hope I am right." But if his position really is self-evidently true, why should he have any doubt at all?

As the article indicates, George's Kantian Catholicism clashes not only with my Darwinian ethics, but also with traditional natural law and many lines of Christian theology. Traditional natural law--like that elaborated by Aquinas--recognizes the importance of human reason, but it also recognizes that natural law must be founded in the natural inclinations of the human animal. As Aquinas said, "natural right is that which nature has taught all animals." By contrast, George's Kantian natural law is natural law without nature.

George's Kantian Catholicism is also opposed to the theology of original sin, particularly as understood by many Protestant Christians. George's Kantian rationalism assumes that human reason can grasp the fundamental principles of morality by pure logic alone. But many Christians would say that because of original sin, human reason is defective as a moral guide, and that's why we need Revelation to teach us what is right and wrong.

Even someone like Carson Holloway, who has been a fellow at George's James Madison Program at Princeton, would have to disagree with George's Kantian rationalism, because Holloway would say that our moral knowledge requires religious belief.

We might dismiss all of this as just another philosophical debate with no practical effects on real life. But as this article makes clear, George has become the leader of a powerful political movement uniting conservative Catholics and Evangelical Christians working to control the future of the Republican Party and American politics generally.

Some of my posts on "Darwinian natural law" can be found here, here, here, here, here, and here.


Greg R. Lawson said...

Another great post.

I have serious questions about the full utility of reason. As I have written on my blog:

"Reason is indeed quite necessary to function in the natural world around us, however, it offers no glimpse into the transendent. That is its perennial limit and an important one to keep in mind when phrases like 'let reason decide' get thrown around in debate.

'The existential-ethical questions as to who I am and what I am to do are inseparable at once from the political question who we are and from the theoretical or 'ontological' question of the way things are.'

None of those questions are answered by 'reason.'"

Reason can only function within predetermined parameters. It is indispensable, but much more limited than many, especially in our secular age acknowledge.

So what predetermines those parameters? Again we come to what seems to me the existential question. Faith and faith alone can answer the existential and ontological questions. THis is irrespective of whether that faith is in an atheistic conception of the universe or a universe of intelligent design.

So do we now arrive at the Kierkegaardian "Leap?"

Again, it is man's need for transcendence and cosmic purpose that makes this such a needful discussion.

Larry Arnhart said...

You say that only transcendent faith allows us to answer questions about "what I should do."

Does it give us specific answers? Could you provide some examples?

For instance, Robert George claims that "pure reason" alone tells us that heterosexual married couples who engage in any sexual act other than vaginal intercourse are committing sodomy, and this is self-evidently bad.

Would transcendent faith confirm this?

Greg R. Lawson said...

I certainly take your point and would agree that pure reason does not necessarily confirm your example.

However, if you believe in the Bible as the unadulterated word of the Judeo-Christian God, then I do think it illustrates many things one should do as well as not do. The Old Testament "Law" is actually rather specific, perhaps, in Leviticus, so specific as to prove itself practically impossible. Consequently, though we should not be under the illusion we can adhere to everything in an entirely legalistic sense, we can acknowledge that it is a guide that points us in a direction.

I certainly recognize that transcendent faith cannot specifically spell out what one must do under every conceivable scenario. I also recognize transcendence, certainly that which is present outside of the Judeo-Christian framework, does point in vastly different directions on innumerable specific issues.

However, in a general sense, transcendent faith points in a direction that tends towards order and authority. This is the indisputable necessity of functional society.

There will always be differences of opinion as to what is the "Truth" with a capital "T." However, if there is not "Truth" with a capital "T" then, as Dostoevsky illuminates, anything is possible. That cannot be an acceptable situation for us to confront in anything outside academia or conferences on philosophy.

I am not certain if I am responding adequately to your inquiry, I trust you will advise me if I am not.

Unknown said...

Mr. Lawson has written:

"Reason is indeed quite necessary to function in the natural world around us, however, it offers no glimpse into the transendent. That is its perennial limit and an important one to keep in mind when phrases like 'let reason decide' get thrown around in debate.

'The existential-ethical questions as to who I am and what I am to do are inseparable at once from the political question who we are and from the theoretical or 'ontological' question of the way things are."

However, I thought that reason could tell us the way that things are, and that it is for precisely that reason why medieval theologians such as Aquinas turned to Aristotle as an authority, because they thought that reason itself confirmed the existence of God, but what was more, reason could illuminate the ontological status of God in a way that the Bible could not. Not that the Bible was inferior to reason, but rather the truth that the Bible conveyed was about God's role in human history and in human life, and didn't specify really too much about God's nature, except that he was Jesus.

Greg R. Lawson said...


Thanks for raising this issue.

I confess, my view on transcendence is much more existentialist. I think that while reason proves itself a useful tool that can explain much, it cannot explain all. I am not certain that Aristotle could ever really reason through what God is, at best I think he could only reason about how God might choose to manifest himself in ways that we can observe.

How is God the "Alpha and the Omega?" How did he always exist outside of time and space? If, theoretically, God can act arbitrarily and against nature at any time (since God is the creator of nature in the first place), how can we ever use reason to really understand an entity that protean? How do we reason through to an answer for any of these questions?

If we ever do manage this task, then I would be forced to reevaluate reason itself.

We know God as a personal and historical entity through the Bible. We understand how God chooses to become manifest in nature through reason. But even that manifestation must still be God's choice. Consequently, our reason bumps up against the limit of what God allows us to comprehend in our finitude.

Anonymous said...

You attribute the quote "Natural right is that which nature has taught all animals" to Aquinas but elsewhere to the Roman jurist Ulpian. Which is it? Does Aquinas cite this somewhere? However, I agree with your general point against "intellectualist" natural right doctrines which try to abstract from our biological nature and social being. Readers interested should see your article "Thomistic Natural Law as Darwinian Natural Right" in Natural Law and Modern Moral Philosphy (eds. Paul and Miller, Cambridge U Press.) In deriving a rigid doctrinaire natural law teaching, supposedly from "reason alone", George is trying to be "more Catholic than the Pope" if I may use the expression.

Larry Arnhart said...

It's Aquinas quoting Ulpian.