The Dynamic Unity of Conscience

Many times in public discourse one finds oneself repeating the old line from The Princess Bride: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” We disagree about the terms of the debate, but also fail to address the more substantive disagreements that lie below the surface. Few thinkers speak as clearly as Robert P. George, the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University. “Self-awareness is, indeed, an obligation of democratic citizenship,” George writes. By that reckoning, he is a model democratic citizen. George’s newest book, Conscience and Its Enemies: Confronting the Dogmas of Liberal Secularism is a collection of essays that have appeared in various books and academic and popular journals. As such, they repeat themselves frequently, and one imagines that a research assistant could have further streamlined the collection as a whole. That complaint aside, the book offers some of the strongest arguments at all levels of public discourse, from anthropology to the meaning of conscience and marriage.

George first argues that behind the surface issues of the cultures wars lies a fundamental disagreement about the nature of the human person. In short, philosophical anthropology matters a great deal. The orthodoxies of the left are founded on a dualistic conception of the human person in which

the person is understood as the conscious and desiring aspect of the self. The person, thus understood, inhabits a body, but the body is regarded (if often only implicitly) as a subpersonal part of the human being—rather than part of the personal reality of the human being whose body it is.

To put it another way, on the dualistic account, my mind or consciousness is the part of me that is really me. And within my mind, my desires are what is really me. Therefore, according to this view, using my body for the gratification of my desires becomes the highest form of authentic self-realization.

Against this view, George holds that “a human person is a dynamic unity of body, mind, and spirit. The body, far from being an instrument, is intrinsically part of the personal reality of the human being.” Moreover, authentic self-realization consists in placing reason in control of desire and guiding the person, body and soul, to discern and live out what is right. It is a matter of conformity to the good, not self-creation. George ascribes this view to “the central tradition of western thought,” although in part that is contestable. Plato’s Phaedo, for instance, offers a much more dualistic account than George’s more Aristotelian one. That aside, his account captures well the anthropological disagreement lying at the center of our cultural conflicts.

George next offers an account of human morality based on practical reason’s discernment of the data of our experience. To put it more simply, he examines what people choose and why they choose it, those motives for which we act in pursuing the good as human beings. Those things that we choose in our pursuit of the good for their own sake he calls intrinsic or basic goods. These include knowledge, friendship, marriage, religion, aesthetic expression, and play. Embracing these goods—pursuing knowledge, being a friend, being united in marriage, worshipping God—constitutes what it means to be a flourishing human being.

For George, these human goods give shape and content to human rights, which are moral principles that protect the goods. Take, for example, the basic good of religion, which George defines as “the human person’s being in right relation to the divine—the more than merely human source or sources, if there be such, of meaning and value.” This includes raising the deepest questions of human existence, honestly searching for answers, and fulfilling one’s duties in light of those answers. Pursuing the basic good of religion is an important part of being a flourishing human being, and in order to be authentic, it requires freedom to engage in the religious quest and live out the results of that quest. Hence we deem religious freedom a fundamental human right that protects the pursuit of the human good of religion.

Note that George does not view freedom as good in and of itself, nor does he think that religious freedom is based on the unknowability or non-existence of religious truth. Rather, he argues, we must be free to search, assent, and live out the dictates of our consciences in order to pursue knowledge and right religion. But what is conscience? The popular sense of the term defines conscience as “the right of self-will,” to use John Henry Newman’s phrase. This makes conscience a matter of feeling or emotional desire, not reason. As George says, conscience is my right to sort out my feelings and do what feels good: “It licenses behavior by establishing that one doesn’t feel bad about doing it. . . .”

George, following Newman, argues that in fact conscience is not about permissions, but duties. Conscience is one’s best judgment on the principles of good one has discovered, not made up: “The right of conscience is a right to do what one judges oneself to be under an obligation to do, whether one welcomes the obligation or must overcome strong aversion to fulfill it.” Conscience is about seeking what is good, irrespective of one’s feelings, so that one can do it.

Freedom of conscience is an outgrowth of the principle of human dignity, the understanding that every member of the human family is “a subject bearing profound, inherent, and equal worth and dignity.” In George’s broader theory of politics, this is the first pillar of any decent society. Marriage comes second, since no other institution matches the healthy family in its capacity to transmit the values and virtues on which all other institutions of society depend. Third, societies need fair and effective law and government. Social decency lays the foundation for social dynamism, but this requires two additional pillars: institutions of research and education to push back the frontiers of knowledge and businesses that will generate, distribute, and preserve wealth.

Because all five pillars must be present for a decent and dynamic society, George argues that social and economic conservatives are not in a marriage of convenience. Rather, the two are intimately intertwined because they share the same principles and goals. George quotes Paul Ryan at length in this regard:

A “libertarian” who wants limited government should embrace the means to his freedom: thriving mediating institutions that create the moral preconditions for economic markets and choice. A “social issues” conservative with a zeal for righteousness should insist on a free-market economy to supply the material needs for families, schools, and churches that inspire moral and spiritual life. In a nutshell, the notion of separating the social from the economic issues is a false choice.

George concludes: “The two greatest institutions ever devised for lifting people out of poverty and enabling them to live in dignity are the market economy and the institution of marriage. These institutions will stand together, or they will fall together.”

George also cautions that, as much as economic freedom and limited government are important, society must maintain a healthy moral ecology. Furthermore, the government has a legitimate role to play in “supporting the nongovernmental institutions that shoulder the main burden of assisting those in need.” That said, this much is clear to George: healthy families and non-governmental institutions mean less room for government expansion. Or to put it negatively, when the family breaks down, its health, welfare, and education functions will need to be undertaken by someone—and that someone will sooner or later be the government.

Healthy families require a healthy marriage culture and that, in turn, requires a right understanding of what marriage is. Most people agree that marriage is a relationship in which two persons are fully united. Recall that George understands a person as a body–mind composite, not a personal consciousness inhabiting a nonpersonal body. Personal union, therefore, entails organic bodily union as well as emotional union. This bodily union is possible because, when they mate, a man and a woman unite organically. They perform a single reproductive act as a single reproductive principle. Quoting Germain Grisez, George argues that though normally a male and female are complete individuals with respect to their bodily functions—such as digestion and locomotion—they are only potential parts of a mated pair: “Even if the mated pair is sterile, intercourse, provided it is the reproductive behavior characteristic of the species, makes the copulating male and female one organism.” George concludes,

What is unique about marriage is that it truly is a comprehensive sharing of life—a union not only of hearts and minds (as friendships and other types of relationships also are) but of bodies as well. Indeed, this comprehensive sharing is founded on the bodily union made uniquely possible by the sexual-reproductive complementarity that allows a man and woman to become, in the language of the Bible, “one flesh.” This one-flesh union is the foundation of a relationship in which it is intelligible (not a matter of subjective preference) for two persons to bind themselves to each other in pledges of permanence, monogamy, and sexual fidelity.

It is this conjugal view of marriage, and only this view, George argues, that successfully explains why marriage is different from other relationships. It is only this view that explains the traditional norms of permanence, monogamy, and exclusivity, norms that must still be enforced in law in order to help the family fulfill its function. This is also why, George further argues, same-sex marriage does not simply expand marriage to a larger pool of eligible couples, but rather redefines it to be about adult emotional satisfaction, not one-flesh union, and why prominent proponents of gay marriage seek to do away with those norms or make them optional.

Needless to say, George has found many detractors. His Princeton colleague Stephen Macedo asks about sex between couples who are infertile. Are they not having sex for the same reasons as gay couples, and therefore, effectively, the same thing? No, George argues, because marital sex is not instrumental. The comprehensive, one-flesh union that husband and wife attain in marriage and consummate and actualize in the sexual act is an intrinsic good. Conjugal sex is not good because it brings pleasure or procreation; it is good because it instantiates a union that is good in and of itself. Moreover, he writes:

Western matrimonial law has traditionally and universally understood marriage as consummated by acts fulfilling the behavioral conditions of procreation, whether or not the nonbehavioral conditions of procreation happen to obtain. By contrast, the sterility of spouses—so long as they are capable of consummating their marriage by fulfilling the behavioral conditions of procreation (and, thus, of achieving true bodily, organic unity)—has never been treated as an impediment to marriage, even where sterility is certain and even certain to be permanent.

In his final chapters, George offers valedictories to men and women he admires as heroes of conscience, who risked the hatred of the intellectual establishment to pursue the truth with zeal. These tributes make clear the meaning of the book’s title. Enemies of conscience are not simply those who disagree with George. In fact, he maintains strong friendships with many who disagree with him on any number of things. Rather, enemies of conscience are people who obfuscate their views and others, who are not willing to consider the strongest arguments of the other side, and who try to shut down the quest for truth with ideology and power politics.