Sunday, March 25, 2007

"The Clash of Orthodoxies": A Review

Western civilization today is immersed in a deep struggle between two orders, two sorts of orthodoxy. The traditional order, which may be thought of the Judeo-Christian Orthodoxy consisting of faithful Catholics, conservative Protestants, and observant Jews, finds itself pitted against the newer order of “isms”—feminism, sexual liberationism, secularism, multiculturalism, moral relativism—a sort of modern liberal orthodoxy. This so-called “culture war” is often depicted as being a fight between the forces of “faith” and those of “reason.” To be sure, the Judeo-Christian orthodoxy does largely consists in the more orthodox and observant members of the various religious communities, while secularists tend to favor the modern liberal orthodoxy, but this does not mean that these two orders represent “faith” and “reason” separately: in fact, reason is often on the side of faith in this conflict. So contends Princeton’s McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence, Robert P. George, in his “The Clash of Orthodoxies: Law, Religion, and Morality in Crisis.”

George argues that on every issue of law pertaining to public morality, from abortion and stem cell research to pornography and gay marriage, reason itself is on the side of the Judeo-Christian orthodoxy. On issues of life, for example, he notes that “If we lay aside all of the rhetorical grandstanding and obviously fallacious arguments, questions of abortion, infanticide, suicide, and euthanasia turn on the question of whether life is intrinsically good, as Judaism and Christianity teach, or merely instrumentally good, as orthodox secularists believe.” If the former is true, then all humans, even the disabled and unborn, have an inherent dignity which “transcend the instrumental purposes to which their lives can be put.” In other words, the value of those persons’ lives does not hinge on such things as what they are capable of, or what the “quality” of those lives may be.

Those who embrace the secularist view that life is merely instrumentally good do so by embracing a sort of dualistic philosophy. Such a philosophy views “the human person as an essentially non-bodily being who inhabits a nonpersonal body.” This view “contrasts with the Judeo-Christian view of the human person as a dynamic unity of body, mind, and spirit.” However, the everyday experiences of any person will show that the dualistic interpretation of “personhood” is utter nonsense: “We don’t sit in the physical body and direct it as an instrument, the way we sit in a car and make it go left or right.” Any theory which seeks to defend such a dualism will ultimately contradict itself, because “reflection necessarily begins from one’s own conscious awareness as oneself as a unitary actor,” that is, as a unity of the mind, body, and will.

Such a defender will therefore be left with no place from which to begin:

“The defender of dualism will…be unable to settle whether the ‘I’ is the conscious and desiring aspect of the ‘self,’ or the ‘mere living body’.…[if] the former, then he separates himself inexplicably from the living human organism that is recognized by others (and, indeed, by himself) as the reality whose behavior…constitutes the philosophical enterprise in question. And if, instead, he identifies the ‘I’ with that ‘mere living body,’ then he leaves no role for the conscious and desiring aspect of the ‘self’ which, on the dualistic account, is truly the ‘person’.”
This dualistic outlook is thus rationally untenable.

The same might be said about issues of sexual morality. The traditional Judeo-Christian view towards sex is that it has an intrinsic good as the unification of two people—emotionally, spiritually, psychologically, and bodily. Such unification is inherently tied to the procreative end of sex, as the only act in which two organisms act as a single organism to create new life. “Since men and women are essentially embodied (an not simply inhabitors of a suit of flesh), the biological union of spouses in reproductive-type acts consummates and actualizes their marriage, making the spouses truly, and not merely metaphorically, ‘two in one flesh’.”

Secularists treat sex in a different manner, viewing it as a means of attaining pleasure, or of becoming closer, or of releasing stress—in other words, they view intercourse as being merely instrumentally good. The same can be said of marriage. However, this concept of marriage and sex relies on Hume’s noncognitivist understanding of practical reasoning as being the slave of the passions. “Marital communion cannot be a noninstrumental reason so far as [they are] concerned, because, on this account, there are no noninstrumental reasons.” Such reason is therefore not as detachedly rational or logical as secularists would prefer to claim.

Having refuted such arguments of modern liberalism against the intrinsic good of such things as marriage, life, and traditional morality in general, George then turns to questions of public morality and the law. Many such liberals tend to often turn to the tactic of arguing against the “imposition” of morality on society, even if that morality may be right, because not all people hold to such morality. In other words, they argue that the law ought to maintain a sort of strict moral neutrality. George notes first that this is akin to the old argument against the abolitionists: “If you don’t like slavery, don’t hold slaves.”

There is a second problem with the concept of moral neutrality where it tends towards a sort of “libertinism” towards the law. George notes that “Any effort to achieve neutrality will inevitably prove to be self-defeating. For the law is a teacher.” Thus, for example, by permitting abortion, the law teaches that there is nothing wrong with it, and thus undermines any attempts to establish a consistent culture of life; this in turn tends to undermine such attempts to preserve the sanctity of life in areas such as euthanasia, suicide, cloning, and the “therapeutic” killing of those people who have been deemed “defective.” As regarding marriage, the law can either teach that
“Marriage is a reality that people can choose to participate in, but whose contours people cannot choose to make and remake at will… or the law will teach that marriage is a mere convention which is malleable in such a way that individuals, couples, or indeed groups, can choose to make it whatever suits their [purposes].”

Given the nature of human psychology and sexual morality, the result of this would “be the development of practices and ideologies which tend to undermine the sound practice of marriage.”

George argues that the law can legitimately regulate such things as the definition of marriage, or prohibit abortion. It can even step in to regulate the availability of such things as pornography, and in fact would be acting justly to do these things. “It can be, and often is, unjust to subject people to powerful temptations to do things that are harmful to them, morally or otherwise.” This includes things that may seem to be only private acts, for “The acts of private parties—indeed, sometimes even the private acts of private parties—can and do have public consequences.” When immoral deeds are tolerated (ore worse, encouraged) by the government, public morality is damaged, and with it, private morality.

George then warns against the fallacy of equating the legitimacy of a government or its laws with their popular, democratic establishment. The legitimacy of a government and its laws cannot be based merely on the way in which that government is enacted, but must instead be based the inherent dignity of human beings. He notes that, contrary to the realist or historicist position, tyranny isn’t wrong because it is unpopular, but rather because it I unjust. When a government enacts unjust laws, it is the moral duty of the citizens to fight those laws. “Certain sorts of unjust laws may not licitly be obeyed….The fulfillment of their moral responsibilities requires people to disobey [such] laws.” This is the natural law tradition of philosophy, which contrasts with modern liberalism’s so-called “politics of victimhood” in that the natural law requires responsibilities in addition to granting rights. Thus, for example, it is not morally licit to be “personally opposed to abortion, but pro-choice” as per former New York Governor Mario Cuomo, as people have the moral responsibility to protect the sanctity of human life.

George ends his analysis with a critique of the (Catholic) Church and her role in society. The Church’s efforts to defend traditional morality in the culture war have been hindered by three difficulties which have developed during the last five decades and beyond. The first is that many otherwise faithful Catholics often feel bound to the “deal” struck by John F. Kennedy with the country to keep his faith separate from his politics. This helped to reinforce the unfortunate misconception that the Church desires to impose its views on society, and Kennedy effectively separated his faith from his politics. The result is that many other politicians, especially liberals and particularly Catholics, have followed suit.

The second problem often faced by the Church is that of the dissenting (liberal) theologians, who reject the teaching authority of the Church’s Magisterium. Such theologians often encourage disobedience to the Church’s teachings on doctrine and morality, setting themselves up as an “alternative” teaching authority. When faced with a “choice” between the two disagreeing authorities, many Catholics have chosen to ignore the Church’s teachings, and have further favored eschewing any other morality which they dislike, be it Biblical, traditional, or other.

Finally, the Church has created a problem of its own, with the US Bishops effectively shooting themselves in the foot. Prior to the second Vatican Council, the USCC issued on average 2-3 pastoral letters each year; during the tumultuous years immediately after the council, this number ballooned to about 7, and dealt with a wide range of topics, from the culture of life and sexual morality to taxes and immigration. The mistake made by the Bishops was in issuing specific policy measures, with which faithful Catholics could legitimately disagree. “Dealing with a very wide range of social problems, and attempting to resolve questions on which faithful Catholics might differ…the bishops set themselves up for respectful disagreement by manifestly faithful Catholics on issues of social fact and prudential judgment on which the bishops could claim no special expertise or teaching authority.” Worse still, these policies often favored liberal proposals on such issues as war, immigration, and tax policies, which meant that rather less faithful Catholic politicians were easily able to exploit the disagreement between otherwise loyal Catholics and the bishops on such issues to justify their own dissention on matters such as abortion or sexual morality.

Professor George aptly defends the rationality of the Judeo-Christian orthodoxy against the rival secular orthodoxy of modern liberalism. His expounding of the natural law tradition is both enlightening and thought-provoking. “The Clash of Orthodoxies” is a must-read for anyone who believes in the truth of the Judeo-Christian worldview, and should prove invigorating to those who are undecided between this traditional orthodoxy and the orthodoxy of modern liberalism.
If you like this post and want to read more, here are some related posts:
The Line Through the Heart (Book Review)
What We Can't Not Know (Book Review)
The Revenge of Conscience (Book Review)
Love and Responsibility (Book Review)
Disorientation: A Review in Four Parts (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4)
My review of The Limits of a Limitless Science and Other Essays (Nicene Guys)
My review of Three to Get Married (Nicene Guys)

1 comment:

  1. An informative review. One small typo to correct: "as people have to moral responsibility to protect the sanctity of human life."

    You should look at, an excellent site in its own right, but also of interest to Catholics and conservatives for its user groups. In particular look at the Political Conservatives Group on LibraryThing, where you will find several erudite co-thinkers.