Saturday, June 29, 2013

Conscience and Its Enemies

Robert P. George, Prof. of Philosophy at Princeton, has authored a new book, Conscience and Its Enemies: Confronting the Dogmas of Liberal Secularism ,to which an online Introduction is available in both written and audio formats. Here's the written version:
Americans are deeply divided on a range of issues — not only as to the best means for achieving agreed-upon goals but also as to the goals themselves. These issues centrally involve disputed fundamental values and moral principles. For example: Should human life be protected in all stages and conditions? Or should abortion and euthanasia be permitted and even promoted as "best" (or "least bad") solutions to personal difficulties and social problems? Should we preserve in our law and public policy the historic understanding of marriage as a conjugal union — the partnership of husband and wife in a bond that is ordered to procreation and, where the union is blessed by children, naturally fulfilled by their having and rearing offspring together? Or should we abandon the conjugal understanding of marriage in favor of some form of legally recognized sexual-romantic companionship or domestic partnership between two (or more) persons, irrespective of gender, to which the label marriage is then reassigned?

Disputes such as these reflect the profound chasm that separates opposing worldviews. People on the competing sides use many of the same words: justice, human rights, liberty, equality, fairness, tolerance, respect, community, conscience, and the like. But they have vastly different ideas of what those terms mean. Likewise, they have radically different views of human nature, of what makes for a valuable and morally worthy way of life, and of what undermines the common good of a justly ordered community.

There is a truth all too rarely adverted to in contemporary "culture war" debates — namely, that deep philosophical ideas have unavoidable and sometimes quite profound implications for public policy and public life. Anyone who takes a position on, say, the ethics of abortion and euthanasia, or the meaning and proper definition of marriage, is making philosophical (e.g., metaphysical and moral) assumptions — assumptions that are contested by people on the other side of the debate. The temptation, of course, is to suppose that "I'm not making any controversial assumptions; only the people on the other side are doing that." But this is absurd. All of us make philosophical assumptions — about the human good, human nature, human dignity, and many other crucial matters. One objective of this book is to show that these assumptions — our own assumptions, not just the other guy's — have important consequences, and that we should all be prepared to examine them critically.

Self-awareness is, indeed, an obligation of democratic citizenship. With so much at stake in our public debates, it becomes difficult to maintain civility and mutual respect. A spirit of self-criticism can help. People who are aware that they are making contestable assumptions are much more likely to recognize that reasonable people of goodwill can, in fact, disagree — even about matters of profound human and moral significance.

Does this mean that participants in morally charged debates should soft-pedal their arguments or keep quiet about their convictions? Certainly not. Civility and mutual respect are not inconsistent with candor and even bluntness. I daresay that the title of this book, Conscience and Its Enemies, is plenty blunt — blunt in a way that will perhaps strike my adversaries in the same way that the 2012 Obama campaign's claims about a "Republican war on women" struck those against whom that allegation was made. But, misguided though the allegation was, I do not object to the fact that those who sincerely believed it said so plainly. They believe that protecting unborn children against violent killing by abortion (you see, I am speaking no less plainly myself) is a violation of women's freedom and equality, and that refusing to force employers, including those with sincere moral and religious objections, to provide employees with insurance coverage that includes abortion-inducing drugs, sterilizations, and contraceptives is a denial of female employees' right to "health care."

I say, let's have a debate about these questions — a debate that goes all the way down to fundamental assumptions about human nature, the human good, and human dignity and destiny. Let's bring those assumptions, and the assumptions of contrary views, to the surface. Let's examine them closely and see how well the competing positions hold up under critical rational scrutiny.

Many people are not accustomed to such scrutiny. In formal debates and informal conversations with my friends and colleagues at Princeton University, other scholars, public intellectuals, and government officials, I have found that secular liberal views are so widespread as to go largely unquestioned. As a result, many in these elite circles yield to the temptation to believe that anyone who disagrees with them is a bigot or a religious fundamentalist. Reason and science, they confidently believe, are on their side.

With this book, I aim to expose the emptiness of that belief. I make no secret of the fact that I am a Christian or that on the most divisive moral issues I make common cause with devout Jews, Muslims, and other people of faith. But in these essays I do not base my arguments on theological claims or religious authority. As we will see, human embryology, developmental biology, and other scientific fields have established certain undeniable facts that challenge the passionately held moral convictions of secular liberals. There is also a long philosophical and moral tradition — one that extends back to ancient thinkers untouched by Jewish or Christian revelation — that supports the positions of those who supposedly have no rational basis for their views.

Increasingly, enemies of what James Madison called the "sacred rights of conscience" cloak themselves in the mantle of science to marginalize their opponents. But close scrutiny reveals that it is their own views that are thinly supported — that are, as they might say dismissively, nothing but articles of faith. In any event, that is something I hope to demonstrate in the pages that follow.


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