Thursday, August 15, 2013


Robert George is Princeton’s McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and, mirabile dictu, a Catholic and a conservative. His new book, Conscience and Its Enemies, offers a concise and philosophically compelling counterattack against “the dogmas of liberal secularism”—especially the largely unscrutinized beliefs that have recently prompted a redefinition of marriage and continue to provide moral justification for the million-plus abortions that annually take place in the United States since the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision transformed a deadly procedure into a constitutional right.

Professor George early on lays out what he sees as the three pillars of a decent society: 1) a fundamental respect for every human being 2) the institution of the family understood as marital commitment between husband and wife and 3) “a fair and effective system of law and government.”

Respect for each individual “as a subject bearing profound, inherent, and equal worth and dignity” begins with the child in the womb and extends to the very old as well as the mentally and physically impaired. George notes that societies that fail to nurture respect for every person will eventually “come to regard human beings as mere cogs…whose dignity may legitimately be sacrificed for the sake of the collectivity.”

This vital regard for the individual, rooted in both natural law and the Judeo-Christian tradition, is best transmitted from generation to generation by means of an intact family. When this basic structure breaks down, respect for human dignity, along with virtues like self-restraint, civility, and compassion, are ultimately undermined.

For traditional families to flourish, a “cultural ethos” that supports marriage and spousal fidelity is required. This ethos is bolstered by mediating institutions like churches and other voluntary associations that stand between lone individuals and the powerful state. Absent strong families and influential private institutions, government inevitably expands to fill society’s pedagogical and care-taking needs. In America this scenario has been playing out for several decades and should give pause to libertarians who don’t see social and economic conservatism as two sides of the same limited-government coin.

George’s third pillar, “a fair and effective system of law,” requires government institutions that value individual liberty and respect mediating associations (like the Boy Scouts or the Catholic Church) whose beliefs may not correspond with the dogmas of secular liberalism.

The author argues persuasively that responsibility for keeping government within constitutional bounds isn’t the exclusive province of the Supreme Court. Indeed, he points out that this Constitutional heresy—a form of “judicial despotism” adamantly opposed by both Jefferson and Lincoln—was only explicitly asserted by the Court in 1958 (Cooper v. Aaron). George insists, by contrast, that judging a law’s constitutionality is “everybody’s business”—including the President, Congress, and even ordinary citizens. Elite opinion, of course, rejects these additional checks on federal power—especially the idea that folks like Tea Party protestors should have a voice in upholding the Constitution.

Far from embracing constitutional limits, George shows how governments and courts now regularly overstep their legitimate spheres of authority. Recent Obamacare insurance requirements vis-à-vis abortion, for example, constitute a major assault on religious liberty. The practical effect of these must-carry mandates is to eliminate conscience-based exemptions for religiously-affiliated institutions and to confine faith to a private closet that lacks the cultural clout or moral standing to challenge ideas promulgated by a growing governmental Leviathan.

On another front, various rights-based arguments have been employed to support the liberal redefinition of marriage as an institution based purely on feelings of affection and to stigmatize religious individuals and institutions that affirm the traditional view of marriage as a “one flesh” male-female union. This feelings-based understanding of marriage, as some of its prominent advocates openly admit, is ultimately destined to undermine the very notion of marriage as an institution intimately connected with procreation and spousal fidelity.

These and other secular ideas, George notes, are seldom critically scrutinized. The philosophical basis for liberal policies typically involves utilitarian sentiments that place personal desire or a vague social calculus of well-being above the sanctity of human life. Princeton professor Peter Singer provides a stark example of this perspective. The controversial ethicist has not only advocated extending “abortion rights” to cover cases of infanticide but has also condoned a theoretical society that breeds children simply to utilize their spare parts. As George observes (and as Singer’s views illustrate in spades) utilitarianism has no use for the concept of natural rights—including the idea that human beings may not be reduced to mere means to achieve other goals.

The last section of George’s work is devoted to brief, morally-focused sketches of a handful of important intellectual figures—including Andrew Sullivan, Richard John Neuhaus, and Elizabeth Fox and Eugene Genovese. These vignettes serve to put human faces on central themes of the book: the right to life, a defense of male-female marriage, academic integrity, and the intolerance and philosophical obtuseness of secular liberals.

Though Conscience and Its Enemies is organized as a collection of essays (several of which were previously published) the book manages to focus consistent attention on the three principles adumbrated in George’s initial chapter. The author’s legal training and philosophical education are both evident in his vigorous defense of these ideas. Rarely, however, does one confront details or arguments that might be considered obscure or daunting for the reasonably informed reader.

In short, it would be hard to find a book that does a better job of providing accessible legal and philosophical defenses of male-female marriage, the right to life, and limited government than Conscience and Its Enemies.