As an atheist, a liberal, and a philosopher, I suppose I’m as likely as anyone to qualify as a proponent of Robert P. George’s “secular orthodoxy” (“A Clash of Orthodoxies,” August/September 1999). As such, I’d like to say a few words in defense of that orthodoxy. I want to raise three categories of objection to Professor George’s comments: first, that his characterization of that orthodoxy is highly tendentious; second, that the philosophical failings of that orthodoxy are not nearly so numerous as Prof. George takes them to be; and third, that the corresponding philosophical triumphs of the “Judeo“Christian” worldview are not so triumphant as he represents them.
Prof. George feels that committed members of the secular orthodoxy hold a number of unpalatable views. We are supposed to reject the “condemnation of . . . infanticide of so“called defective children,” and to believe that “marriage . . . is a legal convention whose goal is to support a merely emotional union”; that there should be “not even an opportunity for silent prayer in public schools”; that there should be “no legislation based on the religiously informed moral convictions of legislators or voters”; that a person desiring but unable to commit suicide is “entitled to assistance”; that if such a person “is not lucid enough to make the decision for himself, then judgment must be substituted for him by the family or court”; that reason is purely instrumental; and that persons lack free will (to pick a few of the ascriptions that struck me as most objectionable).
I suppose Prof. George is free to define his target category of “secular orthodoxy” in any way he sees fit, but if he wants his “orthodoxy” to be in any real sense an orthodoxy, I’m afraid he has set up a straw man. While I suppose I could hunt down individuals holding each of the views listed above, I think it’s clear that all of the above views (with the regrettable exception of the view that reason is slave to the passions, and even there I think recent work on externalism in practical reason is beginning to turn the tide) are extreme minority views. Were they not, Peter Singer’s notoriety would be hard to understand. If Prof. George is genuinely out to compare the prospects of secularism and Judeo“Christianity as philosophical foundations of morality, both charity and good academic practice would seem to require focusing on the best that secularism has to offer, rather than on its extremists.
The characterization of the so“called secular orthodoxy (I’ll suggest below that there’s good reason to doubt that there is such a thing) is, however, the least of my three complaints. Let’s now consider more substantive issues, beginning with the particular philosophical charges that Prof. George raises against secular orthodoxy. According to him, those of us doing our moral reasoning within this tradition are guilty of the following crimes: endorsing a mind/body dualism, rejecting (in a self“contradictory manner) free will, eliminating any intrinsic reason for pursuit of the moral good, and embracing relativism. All of these charges are, I think, wholly false.
Prof. George claims that secularists who believe that bodily life is not intrinsically valuable are committed to mind/body dualism. The secularist view in question here holds that the mere fact that an organism is alive and of the human species is not enough to endow it with (full) moral worth”other qualities, such as consciousness, phenomenology, or future“directedness, are needed also. Since, however, mind/body dualism is almost entirely a dead philosophical position these days, secularists who have thought through their position carefully also believe that whether an organism has these further characteristics is entirely a function of the physical structure of that organism (as well as, perhaps, the causal imbedding of that organism in some larger environment). Believing that these structural features are important to moral worth no more commits one to mind/body dualism than does believing that the structural features that come with life morally differentiate a person from a corpse. Views on when morally protected personhood begins and ends can vary greatly”at conception, at birth, after birth, before death, at death, after death”without in any way endorsing a metaphysical separation between person and body.
Deciding that not all living organisms of the human species are persons is dangerous territory, of course, and we must be guided by the terrible misdeeds of the past that have frequently come under the banner of denying full personhood to various groups. But the line must be drawn somewhere by everyone, so mere accusations of line“drawing can carry no weight. And just as there is a price to pay for drawing the line too narrowly, there is also a price to pay for drawing the line too widely, since the moral duties owed toward persons can place a heavy burden on others. Thus there is reason to try to find the right place to draw the line, and not to fence about the law too broadly.
Furthermore, while secularists may deny the intrinsic value of bodily life by way of denying that all human life enjoys the full moral protection of personhood, they are not thereby committed to denying that persons have intrinsic value. This leads to the broader point of whether secularists must lose entirely the concept of intrinsic value. Prof. George seems to feel that they must, but I admit I see no reason why this is the case. It is true that British Empiricism left philosophy with a legacy whose twin denial of the motivational power of reason and of epistemic access to objective normative facts made it hard to find conceptual room for intrinsic values (although these difficulties hardly stopped people from trying). However, under the corrective influence of philosophers such as W. V. O. Quine, Wilfrid Sellars, and Donald Davidson, strict empiricism has largely been abandoned as a philosophical position, and (while the philosophical problems certainly have not been fully resolved) a more full“blooded epistemology, which allows for real knowledge of moral facts, has been widely adopted. Similarly, Bernard Williams’ work has led to a revival of interest in the broadly Socratic idea that reason can be intrinsically motivating.
Thus it is not at all true to say that secular orthodoxy possesses no resources for answering the question “Why should I respect the rights of others?” We can offer both the “internal” reason that I should do so because it would be wrong to do otherwise, and at least the beginnings of an external reason based on considerations about the nature of agency. The latter reason is far from complete as of yet, but if one considers the corresponding questions about theoretical reason””why should I obey the rules of logic in my thought?””and looks at work arguing that it is in the nature of being a holder of beliefs (as opposed to wishes, desires, etc.) that one is committed to certain norms governing beliefs, the outlines of its future directions may become clear. That we don’t yet have all the answers is, I take it, not a very serious charge against secular orthodoxy (especially since, as I’ll suggest below, the same is true of the Judeo“Christian philosophical foundation).
Prof. George’s charge that secular orthodoxy is committed to relativism I find particularly baffling, both because he gives no reason to think that this is the case, and because it runs so counter to my experience as a professional philosopher. Anyone who has spent time teaching in the philosophy classroom can tell you how much effort is devoted to trying to convince students that it’s not acceptable to talk blithely about what’s “true for you” and “true for me.”
Prof. George’s further charge that secular orthodoxy is committed to the denial of free will I also find baffling, since the view that there is no free will is an extreme minority position in philosophy. As I read Prof. George, we secularists are supposed to reject free will because it comes into conflict with “hard” or “soft” determinism. However, the dominant (although hardly universal) view among philosophers these days is that there is no genuine conflict between determinism and free will. Donald Davidson, for example, has said that arguments for that supposed conflict are no more than “superficially plausible.” Far from being “written off as an illusion,” free will is alive and well under the secularist orthodoxy.
The argument that the denial of free will is “rationally untenable,” by the way, is fallacious. While it may well be the case that, if there were no free will, there would be no point in announcing that there is no free will, or even that the nature of our subjective experience is such that none of us can seriously doubt the existence of free will, this does nothing to show that there is free will. Those few who become philosophically convinced that there is no free will might be correct in what they announce, even if there’s no point in telling us and even if, like Hume, they immediately slip back into their pre“philosophical endorsement of free will.
I fail to see, then, that Prof. George has provided any evidence that secular orthodoxy suffers from philosophical bankruptcy. As I have said, the philosophical foundations of morality are a work in progress, and we certainly don’t claim to have all the answers yet, or even universal agreement about the right directions to go in, but I don’t see any reason to think that we’re obviously on the wrong track.
Let’s look now at some of the supposed philosophical successes of the Judeo“Christian orthodoxy: its account of free will, its defense of the rights of others, its explanation of the intrinsic value of bodily life, and its account of the intrinsic value of marriage. I don’t mean in any case to claim that the Judeo“Christian framework is a failure on these issues, but I do want to try to show that that framework is subject to the same difficulties as the secular framework.
Prof. George chastises secular orthodoxy for its (supposed) abandonment of free will in the face of determinism, but he gives no indication of how the Judeo“Christian framework will escape any threat that determinism poses to free will (if there is no threat, of course, there’s no problem for secular orthodoxy either). Will he deny determinism? This is a hard row to hoe in light of what we now know about the connections between brain states and mental life, and (as many philosophers have argued) it doesn’t seem to help with the underlying issues anyway. Will he appeal to “rationally motivated action”? Then he needs a theory of reason to back up this possibility, and an explanation of why deterministic control of which reasons we act on doesn’t threaten our freedom. None of these things appear (or are even alluded to) in the article.
Prof. George also suggests that Judeo“Christian moral foundations enjoy an explanatory advantage over the secular orthodoxy in that they are able to explain why one ought to respect the rights of others”by showing that these rights are “rooted in intelligible and basic human goods.” However, rooting the rights in basic human goods does nothing to solve the problem if there is not some further reason why we ought to pursue the good. If Judeo“Christian philosophy provides such a reason, Prof. George has made no mention of it. If it provides no such reason, then it is unclear why basic goods are any better than basic rights as a foundation that must be respected.
Prof. George also holds that Judeo“Christian philosophy, through its rejection of mind/body dualism, upholds the intrinsic value of bodily life. As I have argued above, there is no intimate connection between one’s views on mind/body dualism and the intrinsic value (or lack thereof) of the body. To show that bodily life is intrinsically valuable, one must give some explanation of the source of its intrinsic value; merely saying that there is no person separate from the body does nothing to provide such an explanation. Judeo“Christian philosophy, as I understand it, traditionally finds the roots of the intrinsic moral value of the human person in the scriptural assertion that humanity is created in God’s image, but until it is specified in what way we are in God’s image, conclusions about what aspects of our existence give rise to our intrinsic value are premature.
Finally, Prof. George holds that Judeo“Christian philosophy can provide an explanation of the intrinsic value of marriage. Details of this explanation are sketchy in his article, but it would seem that the explanation derives from the biological fact that we come in two sexes who interact sexually. This fact, however, would seem to leave us very far from the desired conclusion. Some explanation of why this particular feature of our biology is normative (and normative only when sexuality manifests itself in the heterosexual variety) must be added, as well as a demonstration that the purported normativity of the biological facts requires the institution of monogamous and indissoluble marriage.
My own inclination would be to locate the intrinsic value, and non“conventionality, of marriage in (or at least in part in) the objective obligations incurred through the marital vows, but this is clearly common secular territory, and does little to capture specifically heterosexual or monogamous marriage.
Again, it is not my intention to claim that the secular orthodoxy is free of philosophical difficulties or that Judeo“Christian philosophical foundations are hopelessly flawed. My impression, rather, is that both philosophies are faced with many serious questions to which they lack complete answers, but few (if any) issues that threaten a complete overturn of the program. Indeed, I find it revealing that, for the most part, the very same questions hound both programs.
I want to close by commenting briefly on whether there is such a thing as “secular orthodoxy,” and on whether such a thing could provide neutral territory for the pursuit of public debate. In my view, what is orthodox, and common ground for all, are the rules of right reason that situate the various philosophical tensions in conceptual space and provide the rules for navigating among those tensions. Provided one rejects (as I think one should) the pseudo“Kierkegaardian idea that religious faith is a rationally unwarranted leap into the dark, this orthodoxy is open to secularists and nonsecularists alike, because our reason is both universal and prior to our particular convictions as Christians, Jews, atheists, etc.
An orthodoxy based on rationality provides us a common arena in which to do battle, but I think it is an error to believe that any one view will emerge victorious from that arena. That’s just not the way reason works. As Peter van Inwagen so eloquently observes, reason, outside of special fields like mathematics and logic, rarely delivers unequivocal responses. The typical situation is that many views will be rationally permissible, not that one will be rationally compelling. How to construct public policy when we cannot expect our best reasons to convince all good“willed rational agents is a problem to which I don’t have a solution, but one that our sadly limited epistemic status seems to force on to us.
Josh Dever is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin
I am grateful to Josh Dever for his thoughtful challenge to my essay “A Clash of Orthodoxies.”
Professor Dever states candidly his religious views and moral“political commitments: he is an atheist and a liberal. He begins by proposing to defend the secularist orthodoxy, though later he suggests that no such orthodoxy exists. With a single exception”which, interestingly, Prof. Dever himself considers to be “regrettable””he claims that the positions I have attributed to secularist liberalism are, in truth, “extreme minority views.” The most he is prepared to concede is that one could probably “hunt down individuals holding each of [these] views.”
I’m afraid I cannot yield to Prof. Dever’s claim. Perhaps things are different at the University of Texas, but even on a rainy day when most people stay indoors I could “hunt down” dozens of people who hold these views simply by taking a stroll across the Princeton campus.
Let’s consider some of the specific positions I attributed to the secularist orthodoxy. I said that orthodox secularists “reject traditional morality’s condemnation of abortion, suicide, infanticide of so“called defective children, and certain other life“taking acts.” That the overwhelming majority of Prof. Dever’s fellow atheists and liberals support abortion and suicide is hardly a disputable proposition. Indeed, Prof. Dever himself doesn’t dispute it. He complains about my claim that orthodox secularists reject the “condemnation of . . . infanticide of so“called defective children.” Readers will take note of what is omitted in the ellipsis.
What about infanticide? Is the “letting die” (as the more squeamish insist on describing it) of mentally retarded or severely physically handicapped babies an “extreme minority view” among orthodox secularists, as Prof. Dever maintains? It must be, he suggests, for otherwise “Peter Singer’s notoriety would be hard to understand.” It is true, of course, that Singer has been a particularly vocal (and notably non“squeamish) defender of infanticide. Nevertheless, Prof. Dever could not have chosen a worse piece of evidence for an alleged consensus among orthodox secularists against the killing of handicapped newborns. Opposition to Singer’s appointment as DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton has come entirely from outside the University faculty, mostly from outside the University community, and mainly from believing Jews and Christians. Among orthodox secularists at Princeton and elsewhere, Singer’s appointment is uncontroversial. With the single exception of John DiIulio”the eminent social scientist (and devout Christian) who has, alas, since resigned from the Princeton faculty to accept a new chair in faith and public policy at the University of Pennsylvania”I know of no member of the Princeton faculty who has publicly spoken out against Singer for his defense of infanticide.
I have no doubt that there are secularists who have qualms about killing handicapped newborns. (Prof. Dever himself suggests that infanticide is not part of “the best that secularism has to offer.”) Some”perhaps many”secularists believe that Singer’s defense of infanticide goes too far and would permit the practice in too many cases. But there are two points worth making.
First, even those secularists who oppose infanticide generally admit, in defending abortion, that it is difficult on their own premises to identify a mistake in Singer’s argument that newborns”particularly severely handicapped newborns”do not suddenly become “persons” merely by emerging from the womb. Second, the secularist orthodoxy”like any orthodoxy”consists not only of those views that all members of the group share, but also of those views that are considered within the group to be reasonable and acceptable to hold, even if not everybody in the group happens to share them. (For example, Catholic orthodoxy holds that the Virgin Mary was, at the end of her life on earth, assumed bodily into heaven. Although most orthodox Catholics believe that Mary’s assumption occurred after her death, it is a mark of Catholic orthodoxy to consider it reasonable and acceptable to believe, as others do, that Mary was assumed into heaven without dying.) No one can doubt that, among orthodox secularists, Singer’s willingness to defend infanticide in the case of severely handicapped newborns is considered reasonable and acceptable in a way that it is not among observant Jews and Christians.
Another position that Prof. Dever insists is held only by “an extreme minority” of orthodox secularists is opposition to “even an opportunity for silent prayer in public schools.” On this point, I must say, I am astonished by Prof. Dever’s claim. The Supreme Court’s anti“school prayer decisions, beginning with Engel v. Vitale in 1962, and including its 1985 ruling in Wallace v. Jaffree striking down even a minute of silence for “meditation or voluntary prayer” in public schools, have been joined by every liberal justice on the Court and applauded by liberals of every stripe. Neither Prof. Dever nor I would have the slightest difficulty “hunting down” secularist liberal pundits, constitutional scholars, political theorists, and others who enthusiastically support Jaffree and the other school prayer decisions. Indeed, the true challenge would be finding a few secularists who actually oppose them. Theirs would be an altogether un orthodox secularism.
Yet another issue Prof. Dever raises is assisted suicide and “substituted judgment” for mentally incapacitated people who are not able to make the decision whether to end their suffering by suicide. As with infanticide, I have no doubt that there are dissenters among secularist liberals on this issue; but the consensus is plainly in favor of assisted suicide and substituted judgment. Prof. Dever’s field is philosophy. He is certainly aware of the celebrated amicus curiae brief filed by Ronald Dworkin, John Rawls, Robert Nozick, Thomas Nagel, Tim Scanlon, and Judith Jarvis Thomson”arguably the six most influential liberal moral philosophers in the United States”asking the Supreme Court to invalidate laws prohibiting assisted suicide and to establish a right to assistance in dying. Dworkin is the author of a much admired book defending euthanasia and substituted judgment. No one I know thinks that Dworkin’s advocacy of a “right to die” places him on the extreme fringes of the liberal camp. I doubt that Prof. Dever actually thinks that.
I could make similar points about the issues of marriage and legislation based on religiously informed moral judgments, but at this point let me go straight to some of the big philosophical issues to which Prof. Dever devotes most of his space.
He concedes that most secularists subscribe to the “subjectivist” or “noncognitivist” view of practical reason as purely instrumental”the “slave of the passions,” in Hume’s famous characterization”though he himself happens to deviate from the secularist orthodoxy on this particular question. Indeed, he regrets the continuing dominance of the instrumental view of practical reason and hopes that the tide will soon turn against it. (This is the “regrettable exception” I made reference to at the beginning of these remarks.)
However, Prof. Dever thinks that I am wrong to ascribe to secularist liberals the belief that people lack what he calls free will (and what I call free choice). But if, as he concedes, the instrumental view of practical reason remains dominant among secularists, then what grounds could those who hold to it possibly have for believing in free choice? The problem is that free choice is impossible if practical reason is purely instrumental. One chooses freely if, and only if, one has, is aware of, and chooses for the sake of more“than“merely“instrumental reasons for action. If reason is merely passion’s ingenious servant”if rationally motivated action is impossible because our ultimate ends are necessarily provided by feeling, emotion, or other sub rational motivating factors”then even externally uncoerced action cannot be truly freely chosen. Rather, our actions are the products of”are determined by”such factors.
Of course, people often cling to beliefs that are incompatible with other beliefs that they hold, but among those philosophers, social scientists, and people in other fields who subscribe to the instrumental view of practical reason, I perceive little evidence for Prof. Dever’s claim that “free will is alive and well under the secularist orthodoxy.”
Indeed, that claim is all the more remarkable in view of Prof. Dever’s admission that secularist liberals, including himself, are in fact determinists. His method of squaring this particular philosophical circle is by endorsing what he says is now the “dominant (although hardly universal) view among philosophers these days . . . that there is no genuine conflict between determinism and free will.” According to this view, our actions can be both determined and freely chosen. Determinism must be true, he suggests, in light of “what we now know about the connections between brain states and mental life.”
But on both counts Prof. Dever is mistaken. An action is truly freely chosen if and only if two things are the case: 1) the choice to do it is between (or among) alternatives considered in deliberation, and 2) both (or all) of those alternatives are really possible in the sense that only the choosing itself settles which alternative will be realized. And nothing “we now know” about brain states, mental life, and their connections compels the conclusion that our actions are determined rather than freely chosen in light of reasons that provide motivation but do not compel a decision one way or another.
Prof. Dever bluntly claims that the self“referential argument I sketched to establish the rational untenability of the denial of free choice is “fallacious.” He supposes (mistakenly) that my claim is merely that it is pointless for people who deny that there is free will to announce their denial , since “if there were no free will, there would be no point in announcing that there is no free will.” He then replies: “Those few who become philosophically convinced that there is no free will might be correct in what they announce.” But my argument had nothing to do with “announcements.” Its focus is the activity that Prof. Dever misleadingly puts into the passive “becom[ing] philosophically convinced.”
Philosophical reflection is a matter not simply of passively receiving the truth about, for example, free will. It is an activity in which one has every opportunity of falling into error unless one is willing to pursue truth with an energy and care that only devotion to truth can sufficiently motivate. In this activity, anyone motivated by concern for truth will be guided not only by the requirements of logic but also by the less formal norms of rationality that enable us to distinguish sound from unsound investigative procedures in science, history, philosophy, etc. These norms direct sound thinking, but they can be violated, and are violated, in all shoddy investigations and inquiries in any and every field of intellectual endeavor.
The question whether people can make free choices is not a question settled by formal logic alone; rather, the investigation of it is addressed also by norms of rationality. Everyone who engages in this reflective investigation has the opportunity of violating those norms in the interest of reaching answers that his prejudices favor, or of taking short“cuts for other motives. Everyone is confronted, right here, with the opportunity of choosing to respect, or not to respect, rationality’s norms.
Those who deny that people can make truly free choices cannot claim that the truth of their position is established by bare formal logic. They must contend that those who assert the possibility of free choices are failing to attend with sufficient care to the evidence (regarding, e.g., brain states, mental life, and their connections), and ought to think the issues through more carefully, listen to reason, etc. By that ought they concede the very claim they are concerned to deny: the claim that one can choose between, say, lazy reaffirmation of one’s prejudices or wishes and authentic philosophical reflection and pursuit of truth. Thus their concern that they and we should get to the truth of the matter about (not simply “announce”) freedom of choice refutes their own denial that free choices can be made, and sometimes are made. (The argument that I have here been able to do no more than sketch is fully set forth by Germain Grisez, Joseph M. Boyle, Jr., and Olaf Tollefsen in their book Free Choice: A Self“Referential Argument .)
Prof. Dever is also critical of my claim that the secularist denial of the intrinsic, and not merely instrumental, value of human bodily life entails a rationally untenable dualism of “person” and “body.” “Mind/ body dualism,” he says, “is almost entirely a dead philosophical position these days.” It is true that most philosophers have concluded that certain positions falling under the label “dualism” (including some, such as Cartesianism, that were once widely entertained) are untenable. But there is a particular form of person/body dualism that is far from uncommon today. It reduces the person to the intermittently conscious (genderless) subject, which regards its (male or female) body as a possession or instrument that unlike other property or tools is untransferable, though discardable by suicide. My claim is that the denial of the intrinsic value of bodily life which underwrites the secularist defense of abortion, infanticide, euthanasia, and other forms of homicide entails precisely this form of dualism.
Either the body is a part of the personal reality of the human being, in which case the human person, properly speaking, is a dynamic unity of body, mind, and spirit, or the body is a subpersonal dimension of the human being that functions as an instrument at the service of the conscious and desiring aspect of the self”the “person,” strictly speaking, who controls and uses the body. The secularist position on issues such as abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia straightforwardly treats the body as a subpersonal reality: a living human body is not a person, or, at least, is not a person until it comes to be associated (somehow) with a mind or other center of conscious self“awareness; and a living human body ceases to be a person not necessarily by dying, but at any point at which it loses this association, which may be long before death. The body, as such, according to secularists, lacks the dignity of personhood”that is why they believe it isn’t necessarily wrong to kill “pre“personal” or “post“personal” human beings (fetuses, handicapped infants, the irreversibly demented, or other human “nonpersons”).
Prof. Dever seems to suggest that the secularist position avoids dualism because its understanding of human beings and their attributes and capacities is purely materialist or physicalist. But that is, if I may borrow a term from Prof. Dever, fallacious. He says that “whether an organism has [these] further characteristics” that give it (full) moral standing and a right not to be killed (e.g., “consciousness, phenomenology, future“directedness”) “is entirely a function of the physical structure of that organism (as well as, perhaps, the causal imbedding of that organism in some larger environment).” Note well: “a function of.” Of course, Prof. Dever wants to avoid the claim that the “physical structure” as such gives the organism moral standing. Rather, it is something else , albeit something which on Prof. Dever’s account is “a function of” the organism’s physical structure, that works the magic of converting what would otherwise be a mere physical organism with no right to life (e.g., a fetus, a severely demented person, etc.) into a “person” with a dignity so profound that it is morally wrong to kill it (e.g., a healthy infant, a normal adult).
The dualism of orthodox secularism is not erased by the materialist insistence that the attributes of personhood are “entirely a function” of the physical structure of the human organism. For secularist liberals, it is the conscious, desiring, self“aware, and future“directed part of the human being that is truly the “person”; it is the psychological attributes of consciousness, self“awareness, etc. that confer “moral standing.” By contrast, the living body, as such, is not part of the personal reality of the human being. And it is the status of the body as subpersonal that accounts for the willingness of secularists to authorize the killing of human beings before they become “persons” (fetuses and even infants) and after they cease being “persons” (the demented, the permanently comatose, etc.). The dualism of orthodox secularism consists in treating the “person” and the “mere living body” as really separable. “Persons” have dignity and rights; (their) “mere” living bodies do not.
Prof. Dever concedes that we enter “dangerous territory” when deciding that not all living organisms of the human species are persons. (Note, once again, the fruit of the dualistic presuppositions: there are “persons” and then there are “living organisms of the human species””e.g., unborn and some newborn human beings, the demented, those in permanent comas”who are human beings but, according to orthodox secularists, not persons.) But, he insists, “the line must be drawn somewhere by everyone, so mere accusations of line“drawing can carry no weight.” The fact, however, is that we needn’t and shouldn’t draw this line. The reasonable standard”the one that follows from a proper rejection of person/body dualism”is that living members of the species Homo sapiens are persons whose dignity is incompatible with a license to kill them.
Prof. Dever”believing that it is necessary to draw a line between “persons” and certain living human beings who are nonpersons”warns that “just as there is a price to pay for drawing the line too narrowly, also there is a price to pay for drawing the line too widely, since the moral duties owed to persons can place a heavy burden on others.” I’m worried, on the other hand, about our natural human desire to be free of the moral duties we owe to others”particularly the weak, the infirm, and the dependent”a desire that tempts us to credit the idea of a distinction between “persons” and human nonpersons. The supposition that such a distinction can rationally be drawn does not merely place us in “dangerous territory,” it perforce implicates us in a form of injustice against the most vulnerable of our fellow human beings.
Prof. Dever professes bafflement at what he takes to be my charge that secular orthodoxy is committed to relativism. As a professional philosopher, he reports, he is at pains to talk his students out of the mindless relativism they bring to the classroom. On this point, however, he seems not to have understood my claim. Indeed, I went so far as to say that “the mainstream of orthodox secularism at the end of the twentieth century has become self“consciously moralistic and nonrelativistic .” The defense of relativism, I said, is today largely confined to “cocktail parties and undergraduate classrooms.” (On this score, at least, it sounds as though things don’t vary much between Austin and Princeton.) At the same time, I asserted that secularism remains in significant respects a relativistic doctrine. And how could it be otherwise, if, as Prof. Dever freely concedes, the mainstream of secularist thought clings to the Humean subjectivist account of practical reason and morality?
One area in which this subjectivism makes itself felt is by relativizing allegedly self“regarding conduct. The familiar idea here is that what goes on between consenting adults simply isn’t subject to critical moral evaluation. A moral issue arises only where the “rights of others” are violated or placed in jeopardy. Why, though, on a secularist understanding, should people restrain themselves”and even bear the sometimes heavy burden of moral duties”out of regard for the rights of others? On purely atheistic and materialistic premises, how can it be rational for someone to bear heavy burdens and suffer great cost”perhaps even death”to honor other people’s rights? No satisfactory answer is forthcoming. None, I submit, is possible.
Prof. Dever suggests that when Judeo“Christian philosophy confronts the same question, it relies for an answer on the bare “scriptural assertion that humanity is created in God’s image.” But here, as elsewhere, Jewish and Christian thinkers find in revelation the confirmation, but not the root, of their philosophical affirmation of the nature and value of the human person”an affirmation found clearly (though not unmixed with error) in the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle, as well as in the thought of the greatest Roman jurists. Christian philosophers in particular hold that there are sound philosophical reasons”having to do with the contingency and intelligibility of the universe”to judge that God is personal in nature, that is, able to envisage and choose between intelligible options.
In concluding, let me return to that point about the nature of practical reasoning on which even Prof. Dever regrets the established orthodoxy of secular liberalism. He is part of a “moral realist” movement in contemporary analytic philosophy that seeks to dislodge “the twin denial of the motivational power of reason and of epistemic access to objective normative facts” that is a central “legacy” of British Empiricism. As Prof. Dever himself recognizes, this makes him something of an unorthodox secularist. Fine. I wholeheartedly approve his heresy. But until this movement gains the upper hand, it remains the case that secularist orthodoxy, on its own terms, “possesses no resources for answering the question ‘Why should I respect the rights of others?’” And, should it succeed in overcoming the Humean hegemony, it will be interesting to see whether the logic of moral realism begins to undermine the practical atheism, materialism, and, with them, the moral“political liberalism that are the defining features of contemporary secularism.
For my part, I am hopeful that people who come to see that the Humean tradition has been wrong, and that the Judeo“Christian tradition has been right all along, about the possibilities of free choice, rationally motivated action, and objective moral truth, will soon come to the realization that these possibilities point beyond themselves to a more“than“merely“human source of meaning and value, a divine ground of human intelligence and free will who freely discloses Himself to us when we are prepared to open our minds”and hearts”to Him.
Robert P. George is McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University.