Robert George’s Conscience and Its Enemies is a primer in civics and a guide to addressing the cultural Leviathan.
By Carrie Gress, Ph.D.
The well-known plot of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice revolves around a terrible mix-up by the heroine, Elizabeth Bennet. The dashing Mr. Wickham convinces poor Lizzy that Mr. Darcy is a man of malice, something she is already prejudiced to believe, in part due to his own reserve. As such, she feels no remorse in refusing Mr. Darcy’s ill-fated (and ungentlemanly) marriage proposal. Darcy, stinging from Miss Elizabeth’s refusal, writes our heroine a letter to dispel Wickham’s lies. The rest of the tale unfolds with Elizabeth discovering just how mistaken she had been.
What would have happened to Miss Elizabeth Bennet, one wonders, if Mr. Darcy had decided to not write her that letter? What if, out of his own pride and contempt for those “decidedly beneath him,” he had simply not bothered to engage the truth?
In his latest offering, Conscience and its Enemies: Confronting the Dogmas of Liberal Secularism, Robert George, the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University, pens a new sort of letter from Mr. Darcy.
While it is difficult to collapse entire groups into the persona of a 19th-century gentleman, there are striking similarities that come to the surface in George’s defense of those who believe in what James Madison called “the sacred rights of conscience.” On the one hand, the “Wickhams” tend to use charm and deception to convince their audiences of their moral certitude and high ground, while the “Darcys” tend to say little until they get to the point where they simply must say something (which is often too little too late).
“I have found that secular liberal views are so widespread as to go largely unquestioned,” George explains in his book. “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.”
Many Lizzys and Larrys of our day—the lo-fos (low-information voters)—are ensnared in the culture that idolizes celebrity, charm, glamour, and polish, communicated in the short sound-bite or tweet. These habits don’t provide room for longer or deeper explanations that get to the truth. Unfortunately, their avoidance of substance leads them to the Wickhams of the world while the Darcys remain silent—or are persecuted into silence.
As George explains, through close scrutiny of the Wickham-types, we learn “that it is their own views that are thinly supported—that are, as they might say dismissively, nothing but articles of faith.”
And yet while many liberal arguments rest on shallow footing, when it comes to issues of conscience— such as marriage, abortion, freedom of religion—George makes it clear that conservatives are not the underdogs, that principled positions have an intellectual pedigree worth defending that simply does not match up to the emotive or baseless arguments its opponents make it out to be.
A primer on pressing issues
The book is divided into four sections. The first section, “Fundamentals,” fills in many of the blanks some of us may have from forgotten civics lesson or books we never read. Most of us simply just don’t know where to start when facing the cultural Leviathan.
These first several chapters are solid bricks laying the groundwork to understand how the elites silence conscience, especially through judicial overreach.
The second section, “Morality and the Public Square,” engages the issues surrounding immigration, marriage, and freedom of religion. Here George addresses the definition of conscience, which liberals and conservatives define differently. On the one hand, the liberals use conscience as “a type of permission slip” that justifies any behavior. They can do so because they ultimately root it in an understanding of an individual’s unlimited autonomy. This view is evidenced in the Supreme Court ruling in Planned Parenthood v. Casey concerning “the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe and of the mystery of human life.” On the other hand, conservatives generally think of conscience along the lines of Cardinal John Henry Newman: as “a stern monitor.” In this view, George explains, “it is one’s last best judgment specifying the bearing of moral principles one grasps, yet in no way makes up for oneself, on concrete proposals for action.” Conscience, therefore, “identifies one’s duties under the moral law. It speaks of what one must do and what one must not do.”
The third section, “Life and Death,” runs the gamut of life issues from the embryonic stage to the end of life. Like the rest of the book, it uses strong rational argumentation and reveals many of the liberals’ double standards.
The section also includes a chapter entitled “The Fallacies,” which looks specifically at trite lines used by liberal politicians to justify their actions. Mario Cuomo’s “while I’m personally opposed to abortion” line is in there, as are some lesser-known illogical zingers.
The final section, “Good Guys and Not So Good Guys,” is a collection of culture-war heroes (guys and gals). The late, great Father. Richard John Neuhaus is a giant for the good. Among the anti-heroes we find Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun. The Supreme appeared to be a classic (and quite boring) conservative who was contemptuous of liberals, but his decision in Roe v. Wade elevated him to the status of liberal icon.
Overall, the book serves as an important primer on the most pressing issues of our time, and it provides keen insights about many of the ironies of those on the opposite side of the issues. It is also a very timely book, released in the same month as the Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage in Windsor v. The United States. In his decision, Justice Anthony Kennedy employed the classic liberal tool (which George exposes) of making bigots out of those who are opposed to gay marriage.
Wide but not always deep
Some might fault this book for failing to be something that it is not intended to be. It is a primer and, therefore, a teaching tool. Those who want to dig deeper into George’s thought on, say, the new natural law theory, will not be particularly interested in this offering. (George does discuss the theory, but not in any great depth.) On the other hand, George’s incomparable expertise will give even the most seasoned reader new insights on these well-trod topics.
Perhaps more serious is George’s limited discussion of the common good. He tends to avoid this fundamental element of Catholic social thought, opting instead to speak about a public good. George is far from alone in avoiding the common good: communism has made it something of a hot potato over the last 75 years. Nevertheless, a deeper understand of the common good seems crucial to overcoming the radical individualism espoused by liberal secularists.
George does, however, use the public good argument to good end. By recalibrating “civil unions” in light of the public good, he argues that they ought to be forbidden. His position is far from that of many conservatives who simplistically try to escape the thorny gay marriage problem by allowing for civil unions. Given that this issue is unlikely to go away any time soon, further insights here would be welcomed.
Casting a wide net
Perhaps unsatisfied with merely reaching “the choir,” George clearly makes an effort to reach those who may not be naturally inclined to read his book and to help balance the debate and inform the uninformed. Back-cover blurbs from Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan as well as the New York Times Magazine certainly cross partisan lines in a way not frequently seen.
Moreover, George calls upon other conservatives to enter into the debate and not sit quietly on the side waiting for someone else speak up. Such is the obligation of democratic citizenry. He explains:
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 or even bluntness.
Indeed, Mr. Darcy would agree.