Reason’s Culture, Life’s Defense
The Clash of Orthodoxies: Law, Religion, and Morality in Crisis
reviewed by Jack Wade Nowlin
The striking image on the cover of Robert P. George’s The Clash of Orthodoxies shows the stately dome of a cathedral standing above a harrowing scene of billowing black smoke, fire, and ruins. It is a photograph of St. Paul’s Cathedral taken during a Nazi bombing of London, a representative scene from one of the last century’s great clashes of orthodoxies: Man made in the image of God, possessing intrinsic dignity and worth, versus the Übermensch, “blood and soil,” and the Nietzschean will to power.
As readers of this journal well know, the Kulturkampf continues—first, within the Western democracies in the form of a disturbingly progressive erosion of traditional values by various anti-life ideologies, and second, from without in the form of newly active enemies such as the Islamo-fascist terrorist movement of Osama bin Laden. Ultimately, the stakes on both these fronts remain high: the protection of human life, human freedom, and human flourishing. And, ultimately, the foundation of victory will also be the same as in the last century: human reason in the service of moral truth and human courage in the defense of the common good. The Clash of Orthodoxies is a profound and far-reaching contribution to that ultimate victory.
Robert P. George—who has contributed several articles to Touchstone as an associate editor and who has been described without hyperbole as a “national treasure”—is the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University, one of the most prestigious political science chairs in the country. He also serves as director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions, centered at Princeton University and dedicated to the pursuit of excellence in constitutional studies and political thought, and he holds advanced degrees in law and legal theory from Harvard and Oxford.
As one might expect, George’s defense of traditional moral values evinces a high degree of philosophic sophistication, rivaling that of any moral theorist writing across the political spectrum today, and he is more than a match for liberal and leftist moral theorists such as John Rawls and Peter Singer. In particular, George’s own approach to moral questions is that of the central tradition of Catholic natural law philosophy as reconceptualized in recent decades by Germaine Grisez and John Finnis. This “new” natural law approach has proved to be a powerful tool for exposing moral errors in liberal individualism and providing a sophisticated moral defense of traditional Judeo-Christian values.
In the interests of full disclosure, I should note here that George supervised the writing of my dissertation at Princeton University in the 1990s, and I remain indebted to him for his guidance and support throughout those years. That said, I can say without qualification that The Clash of Orthodoxies is one of the most important books of the last decade in the area of moral theory. There is simply no better-reasoned case for life and no better examination of the philosophic heart of the debate between the “culture of life” and the many anti-life commitments in contemporary America. In short, The Clash of Orthodoxies is an indispensable book by an indispensable man, and it should be read by every moral traditionalist who has an interest in engaging the moral arguments of anti-life theorists or participating in public discourse on the momentous topics of the culture of life.
The scope of George’s book is quite broad, and it is well organized into three sections, discussing the clash of orthodoxies in the public square, in the courts, and in the Catholic Church. Each of the three sections is further subdivided into discrete but related and complementary essays, which are ideal for dipping into and which also make the book a useful reference tool. The section on the public square examines issues surrounding the culture of life, such as abortion, same-sex marriage, and the concept of public morality. The section on the courts examines a number of “life” issues related to the Constitution, the scope of judicial review, the legitimacy of the Supreme Court’s abortion decisions, and the relationship of positive law to natural law. The section on the Catholic Church involves a discussion of issues such as liberalism and Catholicism, abortion and Catholic political leaders, Catholic participation in debates over bioethics and public policy, and the relationship of faith and reason.
The last of these is directly related to George’s main thesis in The Clash of Orthodoxies: the superiority as a matter of reason or rationality of traditional Judeo-Christian morality to its anti-life rival(s). As George, writes: “My criticism of secular liberal views is not that they are contrary to [religious] faith; it is that they fail the test of reason.” Indeed, George demonstrates through a series of complex and sophisticated moral inquiries into areas such as abortion, homosexual conduct, euthanasia, and the nature of marriage that the values of moral traditionalism can vanquish secular liberalism on secular liberalism’s own epistemic terms: the appeal to reasoned argument rather than to religious authority. In short, human reason confirms the moral soundness of the culture of life, reveals the moral errors at the heart of anti-life belief systems, and is thus life’s first and best defense against the recent inroads of anti-life movements in the cultural, political, and judicial arenas.
A single example, but one with far-reaching implications, will suffice to demonstrate the thrust of George’s thesis that anti-life moral arguments fail to comport with a reasoned examination of facts and logic: One of the recurrent themes of George’s analysis is the link between anti-life views and person-body dualism, a sub-species of discredited Cartesian mind-body dualism. The person-body dualist holds that “I” (the person that is me) am not my body—or more broadly a unity of body, mind, and spirit—but rather that “I” am principally my “mind,” the product of higher brain functions associated with rationality, self-awareness, and moral agency. On this dualistic view, “I” came into existence some time after the body that “I” possess came into being, and I may cease to exist before that body dies.
It is a foundational belief in person-body dualism that drives anti-life views such as the denial of personhood (and thus a personhood-order right to life) to individual members of the human species such as unborn children or those in a persistent vegetative state, as well as the belief that persons “own” their bodies and that it is morally permissible to use them instrumentally to serve their desires. This dualistic view is simply incoherent as a matter of logic. As George observes, apart from its many other philosophical problems,
Moreover, the ultimate implications of person-body dualism are even more disturbing and tragic than most dualists are commonly willing to admit. Currently only a handful of prominent theorists in the anti-life camp—such as Peter Singer, Bruce Ackerman, and Jeffrey Reiman—are willing to follow the thrust of their dualistic argument all the way to the conclusion that infants are not persons (because infants are insufficiently rational and self-aware and thus are mere sub-personal organisms such as dogs and cats) and thus that infanticide is not as morally serious as murder, the killing of a “person,” a term understood to include only those human beings capable of higher brain functions. Alas, one can well expect a steadily increasing number of anti-life theorists in future years to take this dualistic position to its logical and barbaric end, particularly given the self-interested motives many individuals will have to deny other human beings the right to live.
Overcoming “Cultural Cringe”
Another value of George’s book rests in its illumination of (and provision of a remedy for) a disturbing dynamic in American political life: the social conservative “cultural cringe.” The combination of anti-life liberal dominance of elite institutions and the insistence of liberal elites that their views are grounded in reason and that conservative values are grounded (illegitimately) in religious faith (or, when anti-life liberals are feeling less generous, prejudice and bigotry) has often produced a cultural or intellectual “cringe” among moral traditionalists. This cringe, in turn, can lead to two unfortunate reactions: (1) appeasement and temporizing, sometimes leading to wholesale surrender and “conversion” to anti-life positions; or (2) anti-intellectualism and disengagement from scholarly and public discourse. Both reactions are grave missteps and both are very damaging to the cause of life.
The challenge of social liberalism and the recognition of the need for forthright, reasoned engagement of anti-life intellectuals in the public sphere has awakened a new interest in the natural law tradition among non-Catholics. As a consequence, while George’s philosophical approach is squarely in the Catholic tradition, it will be of great interest to a wide variety of readers, including Protestants, Jews, and nonbelievers. As George himself has observed, even groups traditionally suspicious of natural law theorizing, such as American Evangelicals, are now “among the most eager and enthusiastic to learn about the philosophical resources available to defend Christian faith and morals.” One can hope that the growing recognition of the richness of natural law theory as a source for the philosophic defense of life will increasingly counterbalance influential anti-life theoretical constructs and dispel much of the dynamic of the pro-life cultural cringe.
Finally, no potential reader of this book should allow George’s philosophic sophistication to give him pause. The Clash of Orthodoxies is intended for a general audience as well as an academic one, and therefore the most difficult, abstruse, and esoteric philosophic technicalities are absent from the text, relegated to the notes or to references in the bibliography. Moreover, George’s brilliance as a theorist and philosopher is more than matched by his brilliance as a writer and teacher. (Notably, he is one of the most popular professors on the Princeton campus even among those students who disagree with his views). Indeed, The Clash of Orthodoxies manages simultaneously to communicate the essential core of the philosophic disputes at the center of the culture wars today and yet remain at a level easily accessible to the general reader and thoughtful non-specialist.
In the final analysis, moral traditionalists have nothing to fear from serious inquiry into contested moral issues. Quite the contrary. The culture of life is the culture of reason, and thus, life’s best defense is the careful cultivation of reason in the service of moral truth. Victory at home and abroad in the clash of orthodoxies will require that moral traditionalists of all religious faiths—and their secular allies and fellow travelers—form a united front in defense of reason, natural law, and human dignity. •
Jack Wade Nowlin is a Jessie D. Puckett, Jr., Lecturer in Law and Assistant Professor of Law at the University of Mississippi School of Law, where he teaches constitutional law, criminal procedure, and criminal law. His most recent article, “The Judicial Restraint Amendment: Populist Constitutional Reform in the Spirit of the Bill of Rights,” is forthcoming in the Notre Dame Law Review.
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“Reason’s Culture, Life’s Defense” first appeared in the November 2002 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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