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Conservative Philosophy Returns?

December 23rd, 2009 · 19 Comments

A long New York Times profile this weekend advances the proposition that philosopher Robert P. George—whose work I first encountered back in college—is now “this country’s most influential Christian conservative thinker.” I have my doubts, but to the extent the profile itself helps make the claim more true, that’ll be welcome.  Andrew Sullivan argues—and I agree—that his natural law arguments often display a conspicuous indifference to actual nature, nor do they stand scrutiny well at a strictly conceptual level.  But man oh man would I rather be talking about why the arguments in Making Men Moral don’t work than about why Andy McCarthy’s arguments don’t work.

Tags: General Philosophy · Journalism & the Media


       

 

19 responses so far ↓

  • 1 DivisionByZero // Dec 23, 2009 at 5:12 pm

    I can’t say that I’m familiar with either. I’ll have to take a look.

  • 2 DivisionByZero // Dec 23, 2009 at 5:20 pm

    Meh. Both look like light-weights.

  • 3 Thursday // Dec 23, 2009 at 8:09 pm

    The strongest conservative thinker out there right now is James Kalb.

  • 4 sam // Dec 24, 2009 at 6:52 am

    “Andrew Sullivan argues—and I agree—that his natural law arguments often display a conspicuous indifference to actual nature”

    That’s pretty much been my take, too. It’s always seemed to me that the “nature” upon which natural law is based somehow got fixed around the time the Summas were written.

  • 5 sam // Dec 24, 2009 at 7:05 am

    BTW, if you’ve never read it, and want to see a first-rate mind dealing with issues of sexual morality from an orthodox Catholic viewpoint, see Elizabeth Anscombe, Contraception and Chastity

    (hope my linking works)

  • 6 Drew // Dec 24, 2009 at 11:46 am

    One way to look at these issues is pretty stark: religious mores have often been a means to encode patterns of cultural behavior that have stood the test of time. As even secular conservatives rightly note: these lessons may not all be accurate or good, but they shouldn’t merely be dismissed lightly or out of hand either.

    But of course, technology changes. Human societies change in ways that drastically alters the context of what is or isn’t possible. Innovations like democracy and money-based capitalism crop up. In a very real sense, the facts of nature change. And this renders “natural law” approaches more and more arbitrary and provincial.

    At least George recognizes that, in such a situation, reason has to play a much bigger role in figuring out how we, as a society, are going to cope. It’s just unfortunate that he thinks the purpose of reason is to re-derive everything he already believes is true: instead of letting reason do what it inevitably does when it is properly applied (as it is in, say, the hard sciences): repeatedly surprise and challenge the intuitions of the reasoner.

  • 7 DivisionByZero // Dec 24, 2009 at 5:19 pm

    As an approach I don’t think there is much wrong with natural law. By natural law I understand (and I may be wrong) that right and wrong can be determined by reason reflecting on nature rather than, say, by divine revelation. Now, that doesn’t mean that all reflection on nature is equal. Certainly some conclusions are more well-founded than others. And if folks are objecting to George’s conclusions are inadequate, then that’s fine, but to allow that to discredit the whole approach seems to be a bit much. Of course, I’m not sure how we should assess adequation of moral statements but I can’t find much to argue with the approach. Perhaps my interpretation of natural law is too weak and something stronger is entailed?

  • 8 Phil // Dec 24, 2009 at 11:30 pm

    Robert George is wildly overrated if you ask me. His arguments against gay marriage are masquerading as logic, and aren’t any less wrong than most of the other crap you hear coming out of the Christian right. There are a lot of more thoughtful and intelligent conservative Christians out there.

  • 9 John Culhane // Dec 26, 2009 at 5:11 pm

    One unanswered question is this: How do you get from a natural law argument (which anyway is weak and based on unarticulated and perhaps even unrecognized assumptions) to law and policy? I address these questions in the second of two posts on Robert George. http://wordinedgewise.org/?p=644

    In the first post, I take apart the discredited Hume-Aristotle distinction on which George still relies.http://wordinedgewise.org/?p=636 It’s as though the advances in neuroscience never happened.

  • 10 Julian Elson // Dec 26, 2009 at 8:44 pm

    I’ve sometimes thought about trying to clarify the meaning of “nature.” I think that George’s ideas of “nature” might have a different meaning than most people’s.

    There’s:

    Nature (the material world). Antonym of this natural is supernatural. This “natural law” consists of stuff like gravitational force = G*m1*m2/r^2.

    Nature (not created or modified by human society). Antonym of this natural is artificial. Earthquakes are natural disasters, nuclear meltdowns are artificial disasters.

    Nature (verdance). Antonym of this natural is sterile. This isn’t something people would talk about formally, but informally this meaning of “nature” is sometimes used: a stretch of uninhabited desert in the Empty Quarter of Saudi Arabia might be said “not to have any nature in it,” while a carefully cultivated Zen moss garden might be said to be a “beautiful bit of nature.” Also common as a meaning in High Fantasy games and such: in a fantasy MMORPG or D&D game, a druid who is a “defender of nature” is more-or-less always a “defender of the forest.”

    Nature (hierarchical corporatism): Antonym of this natural is perverse, disordered, or something. This is, I think, what George is talking about. The idea is that the interests of society override the interests of individuals — where “society” is conceived not as an aggregation of sociable, mutually interdependent individuals, but as an entity in and of itself, whose interests theoretically might not coincide with a single one of its members. The thought is based on an analogy of society to the body of a multicellular organism, and the analogy of individuals to individual organs or cells. (The conception of individuals joining together to form a larger body analogized to the human body is, of course, the etymological root of the term “corporation.”) Gays, even when they don’t hurt a single other individual, are hurting the body of society as a whole through their failure to perform their assigned role in society.

    One might object that 1) this is a stupid way of looking at things, and 2) even if it weren’t, what’s the argument that gays are *actually* harming the abstract corporate body of society as a whole (insofar as society’s interests can even be inferred separately those of individuals), and not merely that some form of sanction *would* be justified against them if they were?

    At any rate, hierarchical corporatist arguments seem to a common cross-cultural justification for established powers. The analogy of society to the human body is how the Laws of Manu justify the division of society into Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaisiya, and Shudra varnas. It is how Plato justified the aristocratic hierarchy of Gold, Silver, Bronze, and Iron-souled people in The Republic. It’s how the ancien régime justified division of society into First, Second, and Third estates, etc. Naturally, George is just bashing gays, not calling for a return to manorialism, but I think that’s only because of current circumstances. I’m reminded of Harriet Taylor Mill’s snark about the Chartists: “The chartist who denies the suffrage to women, is a chartist only because he is not a lord; he is one of those levellers who would level only down to themselves.” George is the opposite: he is a homophobe only because he is not a Brahmin; he is a stratifier who would only stratify society up to himself. His corporatist Natural Law arguments are the sort that are always used to justify every form of social stratification.

  • 11 Clayton // Dec 26, 2009 at 9:55 pm

    I flipped through his book where he discusses the moral status of embryos in B&N and I don’t think that there’s anything in there that I’d bet could have made it through blind review into a decent journal. I had hoped it would provide something that I could assign for a class discussion on embryonic stem cell research and the status of embryos, but there was no substance at all to his arguments. Very disappointing. I think Leon Kass’ stuff is better.

  • 12 Baron // Dec 28, 2009 at 10:17 am

    Two features of a sex act are undeniably true. We procreate by it, and we enjoy it. The former cannot but be the primary function of sex – a coupling of a sperm and an egg, and as such it forms the basis of the true raw natural, in a sense that it leads to the creation of a new life required for the continuation of our species. All other forms of sex – heterosexual oral, homosexual, bestiality and the lot merely satisfy the latter attribute of sex. Nobody should have any objection to anyone enjoying a sex act of whatever form or shape provided that it isn’t equated with the primary function of sex.

    One cannot help feeling that the new enlightened view of sex is attempting to reverse the relative standing of the two features of a sex act seeing its pleasurable aspect as the top decisive one. A bad mistake that, which may live to regret.

  • 13 Baroness // Dec 28, 2009 at 6:11 pm

    Two features of a sex act are undeniably true. We procreate by it, and we enjoy it.

    Speak for yourself, boy.

  • 14 Justin // Dec 29, 2009 at 2:38 am

    If you’re interested in contemporary philosophical discussions of how “nature” might ground facts about what humans ought to do, you could try Philippa Foot’s Natural Goodness or Michael Thompson’s Life and Action. Both take great pains to make the point that the conception of “nature” involved is not one that we could use merely by determining statistical regularities about how humans act or acted at some point in the past. Of course they have a burden of explaining exactly how facts about nature relate to purely descriptive facts. I’m not particularly confident that either ultimately has a good story to tell.

    I should note that as far as I know, neither would endorse George’s specific views on human nature. They’re just interesting as important contemporary philosophers who are aiming to rehabilitate Aristotelian views of how nature matters to practical philosophy.

    Foot is more readable, at the expense of occasionally being breezy, Thompson is (probably?) more interesting, but also quite obscure. (Fwiw: I don’t think it’s skewed my judgment, but I have taken a course from him).

  • 15 Robert George And The New/Old Natural Law « Around The Sphere // Dec 29, 2009 at 11:42 am

    [...] Julian Sanchez: A long New York Times profile this weekend advances the proposition that philosopher Robert P. George—whose work I first encountered back in college—is now “this country’s most influential Christian conservative thinker.” I have my doubts, but to the extent the profile itself helps make the claim more true, that’ll be welcome.  Andrew Sullivan argues—and I agree—that his natural law arguments often display a conspicuous indifference to actual nature, nor do they stand scrutiny well at a strictly conceptual level.  But man oh man would I rather be talking about why the arguments in Making Men Moral don’t work than about why Andy McCarthy’s arguments don’t work. Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)George on Law and Moral Purpose [...]

  • 16 Julian Elson // Dec 29, 2009 at 10:24 pm

    I don’t see the need for a categorical assignment of one “function” to all sex acts, baron. Why can’t a couple start out having sex for pleasure without intending on procreating, then decide they want a kid and start having sex with the intention of conceiving and procreating, then switch back to pleasure-oriented sex once the woman conceives? I can see why it might be a bad idea for the participants in sex to have different intentions without effectively communicating with each other — i.e., one wants to make babies, the other just wants to have fun — but saying all sex should have the same primary purpose (procreation) seems like it’s a bit excessive, like solving a dental cavity by knocking all of the patient’s teeth out with a sledgehammer.

  • 17 Drew // Jan 5, 2010 at 5:32 pm

    Which is the more natural function of the mouth: eating or breathing? We have already have noses for breathing, and mouths are outfitted with teeth, which are clearly meant for eating and serve no purpose whatsoever to the process of breathing. Therefore, we should reserve the mouth to it’s primary function: eating. Breathing through the mouth is unnatural and corrupts its true, essential purpose.

  • 18 m65 // Feb 17, 2010 at 3:10 am

    good read thanks for the share. i really like the way the article is written and also the design of the website

  • 19 エドハーディー // Jan 20, 2012 at 3:29 am

    already have noses for breathing, and mouths are outfitted with teeth, which are clearly meant for eating and serve no purpose whatsoever to the process of breath

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