Respect for the dignity of the human being requires more than formally sound institutions; it also requires a cultural ethos in which people act from conviction to treat one another as human beings should be treated: with respect, civility, justice, compassion,” Robert P. George writes in his new book, Conscience and Its Enemies: Confronting the Dogmas of Liberal Secularism.
He works toward rebuilding just this ethos as a professor of jurisprudence at Princeton and a visiting professor at Harvard, and in his public writing and speaking. What is conscience? Who is shaping how we think of it? George discusses these questions — along with controversies over marriage, immigration, and religious freedom — and his latest book with National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: Can conscience have enemies if we don’t even agree on what conscience is?
ROBERT P. GEORGE: Sure. But one’s identification of the enemies of conscience will depend on one’s view of what conscience is. Today, many on the Left and even some on the Right imagine that “conscience” is a matter of sorting through one’s feelings to see whether one would feel badly about doing something — badly enough, that is, that one would prefer the option of not doing it. Where one strongly desires to do something, and especially where one sees some advantage to oneself in doing it, “conscience,” understood in this way, tends to be reliably permissive. If one wants to do something badly enough, “conscience” can pretty much be counted on to produce a “permission slip” — especially if one can manage to conceptualize the conduct in question as purely “self-regarding.”
This conception of conscience, which one finds, for example, in the magazine Conscience, produced by the ostensibly Catholic, but in truth anti-Catholic, pro-abortion organization “Catholics for Choice,” is rather obviously associated with ethical subjectivism (i.e., the idea that ethical beliefs are projections of feeling, not objective principles of what Aristotle called practical reason) and with a view of “liberty” as the right to do as one pleases whatever one pleases, so long as one doesn’t cause immediate and palpable harm to someone whose existence and rights one is prepared to recognize. If one buys into this constellation of ideas, then one will likely suppose that the “enemies of conscience” are those who call for limits on individual autonomy and “lifestyle freedom.” The distinction between liberty and license — a distinction critical to the thought of the founders of our nation and the architects of our Constitution — loses its intelligibility, and those who defend traditional notions of morality, virtue, and the common good come to be perceived and derided as reactionaries, and even “bigots” and “haters.”
As I argue in Conscience and Its Enemies, however, this is a false and indeed corrupt conception of conscience. Authentic conscience is not a writer of permission slips to act on feelings or desires. Rather, in the words of the brilliant 19th-century English intellectual John Henry Newman, “Conscience is a stern monitor.” It is one’s last best judgment — an unsentimentally self-critical judgment — informed by critical reason and reflective faith of one’s strict duties, one’s feelings or desires to the contrary notwithstanding. Authentic conscience governs — passes judgment on — feelings and desires; it is not reducible to them, and it is not in the business of licensing us to act on them. And, as Newman observed, “Conscience has rights because it has duties.” Those moral duties reflect our reasoned judgments of what respect for human dignity and integral human well-being requires.
James Madison observed that the Constitution guarantees to each individual the security not only of his person and his property but also of “those sacred rights of conscience so essential to his present happiness and so dear to his future hopes.” By “happiness” he did not mean the mere satisfaction of wants or appetites. The concept as understood by 18th-century thinkers retained moral content. It referred not to a desirable psychological state (one that might just as well be induced by a drug or be the product of licentious conduct or ignorance of unwelcome truths), but rather to the virtuous pursuit of worthy ends. The moral inflection of that concept of happiness is still intelligible to us when we read sentences like “Happy the man who walks on the paths of justice and righteousness.”