Conscience and Its Enemies: Confronting the Dogmas of Liberal Secularism. By Robert P. George. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2013. xii, 290 pp. Hardcover, $29.95.
Robert P. George is the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton and is evidently regarded as a leading Christian conservative “intellectual.” In this new book, he seeks to shatter a number of “dogmas” espoused by “liberal secularism,” but he claims not to do so from religious presuppositions, since of course his opponents would not accept criticism on this basis. He asserts magnanimously that “I do not base my arguments on theological claims or religious authority”; instead, he maintains that he is only using science (in some cases “new” scientific evidence) to support his views. But in reality, George has cherrypicked those scientific “facts” that he believes support his own dogmas and prejudices while ignoring or downplaying others that would qualify or altogether undermine them. The result is a sadly tendentious and disingenuous screed that is not likely to convince anyone not already on George’s side.
Most of George’s book is devoted to attacking same-sex marriage and legalized abortion. He bases many of his arguments, especially on abortion, on “natural law” philosophy derived chiefly from the Christian tradition. I will state bluntly that I flatly reject this conception. I am happy to be one of those “moral skeptics who deny that there are moral truths,” since to me it is plain as can be that all ethical systems are culturally conditoned preferences (whether “rationally” arrived at or not) to which standards of truth and falsity do not and cannot apply—any more than they can apply to my preference for chocolate ice cream over vanilla ice cream. I have made my arguments on this point elsewhere and do not have the space to elaborate them here. In any event, George’s stance leads him to assert (and to do no more than assert) that human beings accordingly have “intrinsic value”—that, indeed, “man is made in the image of God”! (Somehow I thought he was going to present his arguments without relying on theological claims or religious authority, but let that pass.) In my view nothing in the universe has any “intrinsic” value; indeed, the very formulation is oxymoronic. To say that something has “value” is not to utter a fact; it is to utter a subjective preference. A gemstone only has (monetary) value because we, as a society, collectively agree to grant it such. George is free to base a philosophical theory on this principle, but he should be prepared to have his views rejected tout court by those who don’t accept his premise.
In any case, let us consider what objections George has to same-sex marriage. I have read and re-read the several chapters of his book on the subject and still find myself befuddled as to what his precise argument is. He apparently wishes to maintain that only a man and a woman, because of the “complementarity” of their sexual organs, can achieve full “bodily union” and therefore become, in the biblical phrase, “one flesh.” Silly me! I just thought this was a poetic metaphor. Does any couple ever become “one flesh” during coitus (or any other time) except moony teenagers and characters in Harlequin romances? George seems to think so, and presents the grotesque spectacle of making this metaphor the basis for a restrictive and prejudicial social policy. For after all, gays don’t have the right (i.e., complementary) sexual organs! If he thinks he can win any adherents with this line of reasoning, he must be more delusional than I thought he was. His reasoning (if it can be called that) on marriage is so arid, abstract, and theoretical that it fails utterly to consider how marriage (including heterosexual marriage) is actually conducted in present-day society. Let me quote a representative sentence: “The central and justifying point of sex is not pleasure, however much sexual pleasure is rightly sought as an aspect of the perfection of marital union; the point of sex, rather, is marriage itself, considered as an essentially and irreducibly bodily union of persons—a union effectuated and renewed by acts of sexual congress.” If you can attach a coherent meaning to any of this, you are doing better than I. And I still fail to see why either gays or unmarried straight couples cannot achieve this “bodily union,” and why only heterosexual married couples can.
George denies that marriage is “a mere legal convention or cultural artifact,” but of course it is exactly that. And more, it has historically been used as a license for sex, as even his own scripture declares (see Paul’s celebrated comment “It is better to marry than to burn”). But now that the irrational stigma over pre-marital sex has dissipated (the very word “fornication” can now only be used parodically), marriage itself has lost a bit of its overriding rationale. I suspect that much of George’s ire against same-sex marriage, as against other forms of “non-traditional” unions, is their implicit (and sometimes explicit) rejection of religion’s stranglehold on marriage practices and on human relations altogether.
George attempts to frighten his conservative readership with the specter of “polyamory” if same-sex marriage gains wide acceptance. Let it pass that this also has biblical precedent, if the many wives of David, Solomon, and other worthies are considered. In reality, there is no legitimate (i.e., non-religious) objections to any such arrangements that people willingly enter into. As Ambrose Bierce repeatedly said, I have no objections to polygamy so long as it is not compulsory. (“Polygamy” needs to be understood not only as one man with multiple wives but one woman with multiple husbands, or any other combination thereof.)
The plain fact that George refuses to countenance is that marriage (whether heterosexual or homosexual) is now only one of several viable means of forming the family unit—including unmarried but committed gay or straight couples, single parents, and so on. George whines that “ideologies hostile to marriage” are causing or augmenting all manner of social ills; but the problem is not with marriage (or the lack of it), but with poverty. George must know that unmarried couples and even single-parent households of the more affluent sort are doing just fine in regard to childrearing, largely because they have the resources to secure day care and other services—something the poor cannot manage. So the solution is not simply to encourage poor people to get married, but to put measures in place to get them out of poverty.
In the matter of abortion, it is not what George says that is of interest, but what he doesn’t say. In all his laborious and repetitious discussions of the matter (which include a tedious and largely irrelevant disquisition on embryology), one reasonably significant figure in the whole debate is noticeably absent. George devotes not one sentence to the moral, legal, or even biological role of the pregnant mother. It is as if the fetus magically develops on its own with no input from the mother carrying it. One typical sentence states that the embryo, “if left to itself in a suitable environment” (my emphasis), will develop normally. So now the pregnant mother is reduced to a mere “environment”! This fanatical focus on the “personhood” or “humanity” of the fetus, and the implicit denial of the humanity of the mother, is typical of the misogyny at the heart of the anti-abortion movement. It is no accident that abortion was legalized during the height of the feminist movement of the 1970s, and that it is opposed by those who continue to find female independence disturbing and even vaguely sacrilegious. George’s stance to the bizarre conclusion that “we were never parts of our mothers; we were, from the beginning, complete, self-integrating organisms that developed to maturity by a gradual, gapless, and self-directed process.” Is that so? Then I suggest that George take a three-day-old (or even a three-month-old) fetus, abstract it from its mother’s womb, place it on a table, and see how well it “develops” on its own.
What all this means is that the fetus cannot possibly be regarded—legally, morally, and biologically—as an independent entity until it is capable of living outside the mother’s womb. George, who thinks he has science on his side, does everything he can to obfuscate the only scientific fact of any relevance to the public policy debate about abortion—the fact of fetal viability. He does so because he would otherwise be forced to admit that, according to well-established science, the fetus is not viable until the third trimester—and that is exactly why the Supreme Court correctly decided on this boundary line as the threshold for legalized abortion. Before viability, the fetus can only be regarded as a part of the mother, to be dealt with as she sees fit. Anything else would lead to intolerable tyranny over pregnant women.
Consider the scenario in a world run by Robert P. George. Here is a living, breathing woman who for years or decades has been making independent moral decisions for herself and, perhaps, for other members of her family; but the moment she becomes pregnant, she suddenly loses her moral autonomy—in effect, her “personhood”—and becomes nothing more than an incubator, and a ward of the state. So much for the “limited government” that George trumpets in other contexts! Conversely, if the fetus is a “person” from the moment of conception, what follows? Should we give it a Social Security number? Should the parents receive a child tax credit from the moment of conception? Shall a pregnant mother, in filling out a census form, say that there is already one extra person in the household?
The underlying fact that those in the anti-abortionist camp (and perhaps some in the abortion rights camp also) fail to grasp is that pregnancy is an anomalous condition that requires careful deliberation and compromise. The idea of any kind of equivalency between a living, mature woman and an entity that is not even born is absurd on its face; and even if we grant some kind of “personhood” to the fetus, we must also acknowledge that the woman also has some rights, as opposed to no rights as under George’s scheme.
George’s other concern in this book is to raise the specter of repeated and intolerable infringements on the “conscience” of religious people as a result of liberal “dogmas” on abortion and other issues. It is, however, odd that George never specifies what conscience exactly is, nor does he specify exactly where it comes from. I imagine his answer to the latter question is that it comes from God. Of course it does; how could I forget? But doubts linger… Once again, is it not evident that the content of our consciences is entirely time-bound and culture-bound? My conscience tells me that religion is the greatest evil the world has ever known and that I should devote my life to working toward its eradication. So where does my conscience come from? The Devil? Maybe so…but I suspect it comes more plausibly from my genes, upbringing, education, and my place in history—just as George’s own does.
But let that pass. Exactly how are the consciences of religious people being infringed upon? He cites the notorious instance of the “pharmacist who declines to dispense abortifacient drugs,” going on to say that this denial “coerces no one.” But of course it does, and the one being coerced is not the pharmacist (no one, after all, is forcing her to take the drug). Remember that we are dealing with a legally available medical product that any woman has a right to secure. Why should she be forced to go to some other pharmacy to secure it? What if she lives in a remote part of the country where the next-closest pharmacy is 30 or 50 or 100 miles away? Are we now to call up our pharmacists ahead of time and ask them, “Oh, by the way, are you morally or religiously opposed to filling my prescription?” What if the pharmacist objects to dispensing drugs to treat schizophrenia and other mental illnesses? After all, it was long the teaching of the Christian church that such ailments were indicative of demonic posession (and the church for centuries stood in the way of the rational and humane treatment of mental illness), so maybe this pharmacist thinks that the luckless patient would be better off going to a priest and getting an exorcism. We can, I think, all agree that the pharmacist could do everyone (including herself) a favor by finding a different line of work.
George similarly complains that, with the advent of same-sex marriage in some states, private individuals and companies are now being forced to serve such people when their “conscience” objects to it. This line of reasoning also gets George into trouble. He knows that the courts have declared that discrimination on the grounds of race, religion, and sex is in most contexts no longer permissible, even if a religious rationale is brought forward; and he himself states that religious “freedom” has its necessary limitations. Let us take the example of a devout Christian who operates a flower shop. A menstruating woman, an atheist (or some other “heretic”), and a person who regularly violates the Sabbath by working for a living on that day wish to purchase some flowers. Now from the point of view of scripture, all these individuals are just as much personae non gratae as a gay married couple (or, in fact, a homosexual of any sort); indeed, the Bible specifically decrees the death penalty for heretics, Sabbath-violators, and gays. Why does George not complain about the menstruating woman, heretic, or Sabbath-violator being served, but only about the gay couple? The only answer is that prejudice against homosexuals is one of the last vestiges of bigotry deemed permissible in some quarters, and so George leads a rearguard defense of it. But scripturally speaking, it has no more or less validity than prejudice against those other undesirables.
And, of course, George repeats the tired canard that the Affordable Care Act will force private companies to provide contraception for their female employees in defiance of the “conscience” of the bosses. But whose conscience is being violated? No one is forcing bosses to use contraception if they don’t wish to do so; and no one is preventing bosses from speaking out against the “evils” of contraception. On the other hand, are we to countenance a situation where a female employee is at the mercy of her boss as to whether she secures contraception or not? Is this something a woman will need to raise at a job interview? It is all too absurd. I suppose it is to be expected that George nowhere mentions the plain fact that increased use of contraceptives (most of which are not in fact “abortifacients”) materially reduces the very abortions he abominates. But this whole kerfuffle about contraceptives is, in the twenty-first century, simply a piece of lunacy. One might as well object to the proposition that the earth revolves around the sun (an objection that in fact has scriptural support: the Catholic church did not acknowledge the truth of the heliocentric theory until 1822).
George also appears to believe that the very existence of legalized abortion constitutes some sort of infringement on his “liberty of conscience.” He himself is not a woman; even if he were, no one (certainly not the government) is forcing him to get an abortion if he doesn’t want one. And no one (certainly not the government) is forcing him to approve of abortion or is suppressing his ability to speak out against it if he so chooses. So where is the infringement? Conversely, there would be an intolerable infringement if a woman who wished to terminate her pregnancy in the first two trimesters was legally prohibited from doing so. Support for abortion is (pace George) not self-evidently vicious, and it is held by hundreds of millions of people around the world. What right has the government to intervene in the matter except under certain specified conditions (i.e., the third trimester)?
In other words, George is in the position of sensing an infringement on his conscience by the mere existence of other people being legally allowed to believe and act in ways he does not approve of. The classic definition of fascism is that you are not satisfied in acting or thinking in a certain way yourself; you require that everyone act and think in that way, especially on controverted subjects where uniformity is difficult or impossible to obtain. By this definition, I am sorry to report, Robert P. George is a fascist.
George, as I say, thinks the facts are on his side; but these moral issues are not themselves facts, only value judgments. It is not a “fact” that gay people can never establish “bodily union,” or that “bodily union” (whatever it may be) is the only legitimate basis for marriage; it is not a “fact” that abortion constitutes the “death of a child” (this loaded and prejudicial language is typical of the anti-abortionists’ attempts to argue rhetorically rather than logically). All these things are merely George’s tortured interpretation of the facts, and that does not give him the right to impose those views, by statute or legislation, on others who disagree with him.
The uncomfortable position in which George finds himself in this entire treatise is that he is attempting to use reason and logic to defend the irrational. He has brainwashed himself into toeing the Christian party line on all manner of subjects and now seeks to find pseudo-intellectual arguments to justify them. But he fails at every turn. He proclaims his support for “governmental respect for individual freedom,” but this principle falls to the ground on issue after issue (abortion, same-sex marriage, euthanasia) at exactly the point where it needs to be sustained. And it does so because sustaining it would lead to conclusions precisely opposite to those he holds.
There are many other silly and objectionable stances in George’s book, but they are largely incidental. He has a brief and cranky chapter on a few conservative professors who have presumably been dismissed or censured merely for their opinions (although in one instance—that of Crystal Dixon, who publicly denied that sexual orientation should be included along with race, religion, and sex in anti-discrimination statutes—we appear to be dealing with both an idiot and a bigot). But George must know that cases of this sort are, historically speaking, far more likely to involve the left than the right, as the instances of social activist Scott Nearing, the many intellectuals destroyed during the McCarthy era, and the recent case of Ward Churchill attest.
And George is either staggeringly naïve or plainly disingenuous when he asserts that conservative Catholic priests’ threats to deny communion to (mostly Democratic) politicians who support abortion rights is not being political, writing blandly: “No one is compelled by law to accept ecclesiastical authority.” Surely George is aware that these threats always surface conveniently around an election and are manifestly meant to sway the election. And George remains stonily silent on the fact that such pious clerics never make such threats to the many (mostly Republican) politicians who support the death penalty—a violation of the Catholic “pro-life” stance quite as severe, it would seem to me, as support for abortion.
George provides a predictably superficial and misleading account of the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act, claiming that for the first time in history people will be penalized for “inactivity” (i.e., the failure to purchase health insurance). But he fails to grasp the obvious fact that, in the matter of health care, this “inactivity” is only on the surface, and that it has serious economic consequences that Congress can legitimately legislate. Everyone will use health care at some point or other; and the great majority of the uninsured are not able to pay for it, especially if a serious illness or injury occurs. Who then does pay for it (when, e.g., the uninsured go to the emergency room)? We all do. Gee, that sounds an awful lot like socialism to me! Does George really want tens of millions of the uninsured freeloading on the health care system, creating immense waste and inefficiency? What is his solution to the crisis? It is exactly what other conservatives have offered—i.e., nothing at all.
And George is living in a dangerous fantasy world if he thinks that the “much maligned” Tea Party (which, as I write, is hurtling this nation recklessly into the abyss of a government shutdown and default) has any concerns about the constitutionality of the individual mandate (which, as he fails to point out, was a conservative invention—cooked up by the Heritage Foundation in the early 1990s) and is not in reality guided by purely ignorant, selfish, and hypocritical motives (who can forget the exquisitely oxymoronic demand: “Hands off my Medicare!”)—to say nothing of the fact that the Tea Party is largely funded by equally self-serving right-wing individuals and organizations.
George writes repeatedly, as if it were a mantra by which he is attempting to convince himself, that heterosexual marriage and the free enterprise system are “the two greatest institutions ever devised for lifting people out of poverty and enabling them to live in dignity.” Really? Has George paid attention to the fact that, for the first several centuries of industrial capitalism, both here and in Europe, the working classes suffered grinding poverty of the sort that we cannot even imagine—saved in part only by the slow emergence of the labor union movement and sane laws enacted by governments (minimum wage, limitation of working hours, old age pensions) that properly curtailed “free enterprise”? Or has he considered that, during the past forty years, the top 1% of the population has seen its income increase by more than 400% whereas the incomes of everyone else have largely stagnated, resulting in increasing inequality that is destablizing the entire society? It is now the view of a fair number of economists that the one time when capitalism delivered prosperity proportionately to the entire populace (the 25 years following World War II) was an historical aberration, and that capitalism cannot deliver these boons unless it is strongly reined in by government and other forces. I daresay George and his party will be slow in absorbing these plain truths.
I am a liberal, so my heart bleeds—and it bleeds for Robert P. George. He must be a very unhappy man. On multiple fronts, his side is not winning, and he is angry and resentful. Secularism is growing by leaps and bounds; “limited” government (if it means a government before the necessary reforms instituted by FDR and his successors) has been permanently consigned to the dustbin of history; same-sex marriage is set to become universal throughout the West; and even abortion in some form is still supported by a majority of the American population and is likely to remain legal, especially as the crassly political attempts by some states to curb abortion rights are systematically being shot down by the courts.
George is one of those many conservatives who live in the past—and, moreover, a past that never existed. For all his avowed advocacy of a “dynamic” society, he looks back to a time when safely married heterosexual couples raised happy and well-adjusted children; when government weighed lightly on people’s (and especially corporations’) backs (aside from minor incursions upon individual liberty such as African American slavery, prohibition of women to vote or own property, and attempts to ban the consumption of alcoholic beverages); and when religious institutions were looked upon with respect (in spite of trivial derelictions such as support for slavery, hostility to freethinkers, women, immigrants, and other dubious characters, brainwashing of children into religious dogma, and embarrassing revelations of clerical malfeasance).
If Robert P. George is the best “intellectual” that Christian conservatives can produce, then their movement is in deep trouble.
 See my God's Defenders: What They Believe and Why They Are Wrong (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2003), 269-79; The Unbeliever: The Evolution of Modern Atheism (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2011), 226-31.