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Professor George’s Unnatural Reasoning

Some of us know Professor Robert George as the ultraconservative Catholic bioethicist from Princeton. It could hardly be said that his writings have dominated discussion in contemporary ethics. It is thus slightly surprising to find out, in recent profile in the New York Times, that Professor George is a thinker of immense influence—the mastermind of the conservative side of the culture wars in the US, having the ear of rightwing political leaders and religious authorities, even of TV commentators. What is Robert George’s exciting new idea? There is nothing terribly surprising about his views. He is of course vehemently opposed to abortion, stem cell research, homosexuality, and same-sex marriage. What is supposed to be exciting is that he claims to demonstrate the truth of these familiar conservative views using natural reason alone. Finally conservatives can conclusively prove that liberals are dead wrong, and they don’t even need to mention tradition and religion. Well, Professor George’s arguments might have awed George W. Bush, but on inspection they turn out less than impressive.


This is not the space to analyse these arguments in detail. But I want to remark on a point that Professor George apparently often repeats. Religious leaders, he argues, should stop making all this noise about poverty and injustice. They should focus instead on ‘moral social issues’ such as abortion and same-sex marriage. Why? Because how to achieve social justice is matter of public policy (and messy empirical fact) which cannot be conclusively decided by reason (or ‘Gospel principles’). Reasonable people can disagree on, say, whether the health care system in the US is atrocious or wonderful. But they can know with crystal clear certainty that abortion and same-sex marriage are wrong. So this is what they should really worry about.


This is a poor argument. The moral importance of an issue is one thing, how certain we are about it another. We might know with certainty some trivial things, and be full of doubt about questions of great moral importance. Professor George’s argument would work only if we already thought that social justice is of little to no moral importance (as seems to be his view), or if we didn’t have the slightest clue what is more or less just. Neither assumption can be taken seriously.


But then, the absolute certainty of Professor George’s moral conclusions is itself dubious. His argument assumes a strange contrast. There is the world of empirical fact, on which reasonable people can agree to disagree because it is so hard to reach any justify conclusions; and the world of ethics—of ‘natural reason’, where we can enjoy utter certainty. Well, many questions of empirical fact are indeed very difficult, though in most cases we have a good enough idea how to decide them objectively. If we don’t have a firm enough opinion about such questions, this will often be because we’ve not yet seriously sought the relevant evidence. If we spend all our time worrying about homosexuality, we probably won’t have much time to form a reasonable opinion on question of social justice.


As for a priori questions, and in particular questions about the foundations of morality—well, these are notoriously subject to deep disagreement between intelligent and reasonable people. The history of philosophy is the history of such disagreement. The idea that the a priori is also always certain and indubitable is a view that has not been taken seriously for at least a century (philosophers do agree on some things).


Indeed, when we turn to consider Professor George’s actual arguments (some are sketched in the article), one hardly finds deductions of mathematical precision, but obscure, vague, metaphoric and highly dubitable (if not dubious) statements. Many moral philosophers have criticized these arguments, and they have persuaded few within the large community of ethicists. But apparently for Professor George when it comes to matters ethical, to be unreasonable simply means ‘to disagree with Professor George’. How easy it is to be certain when one wants to! (I should add that Professor George sometime gives the impression that those who disagree with his arguments—and who do not accept his Aristotelian-Thomist framework—must be followers of Hume who thinks that morality is mere emoting. Whether or not this does justice to Hume’s views, it is certainly a preposterously uninformed view of the range of options in metaethics, both past and present.)


Having read all of these pronouncements about natural law, reason and moral certainty, one is staggered to discover, at the end of the article, the Professor George isn’t entirely immune to doubt. He sometimes worries that Luther was right, and human reason is corrupted. And so the article ends with remarks by Professor George that are, quite certainly, self-defeating: “I just hope I am right. If they are going to buy my arguments, I don’t want to mislead the whole church.” Professor George is apparently so morally certain, that he can tell everyone else how to live their lives. It’s just that he’s sometimes not so certain that he’s certain.

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1 Comment on this post

  1. Cloning is a good thing not a bad thing .Legalizing cloning is the right thing to do. Cloning organs and kidneys is ok but cloning a human is not right or moral. Cloning is not used for being god. Cloning is for helping people live longer. Cloning organs, kidneys, and hearts can save thousands of lives. Cloning animals can also be useful. When you clone enormous amounts of animals it could prevent extinction and could prevent starvation. I do not believe in human cloning because I believe there will be chaos and riots and problems of clones being identical. Cloning animals for food on the other hand can prevent extinction and prevent starvation with the cloning of animals.
    If you had a parent who was waiting for an organ, kidney, or heart transplant and was waiting on a list wouldn’t you do anything to help your parent even use a clone of an organ, kidney, or a heart to make sure they live longer? The evidence speaks for itself if you clone the right things it can save thousands of lives. Cloning will save thousands of lives and change people’s lives around the world and for people struggling to afford food for their children.

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