Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Artifice of Natural Law

I was going to comment on this NYT piece when I read it a few days ago, but I've been finishing up some work, and now Sully's beaten me to the punch. It's a profile of Robert George, the Princeton professor and natural law theorist. George's advocacy of natural law makes him something of an anachronism among philosophers (at least at secular institutions) and something of an icon among conservatives. I first became familiar with his work a couple of years ago when I began to delve more deeply into the intersections of political theory and theology, and he's doubtlessly one of this generation's most important scholars of religion and politics.

His approach to the subject also happens to be phenomenally misguided - and, it increasingly seems, openly ideological.

Let me explain a little bit, since this article gives (it seems to me) an unhelpfully shallow explanation of some of the major issues at play. Early on, the article begins to list some of George's biggest fans:
He has parlayed a 13th-century Catholic philosophy into real political influence. Glenn Beck, the Fox News talker and a big George fan, likes to introduce him as “one of the biggest brains in America,” or, on one broadcast, “Superman of the Earth.” Karl Rove told me he considers George a rising star on the right and a leading voice in persuading President George W. Bush to restrict embryonic stem-cell research.
Ok, so what is this "13th-century Catholic philosophy" that has Major Intellectual Figures such as Glenn Beck, Karl Rove, and George W. Bush so enthralled? It's natural law - so we might call George, as Sullivan does, a "natural lawyer." The proponents of natural law include a long list of major Catholic philosophers - including Thomas Aquinas and Francisco de Vitoria. Let's assume that Glenn Beck has never read Francisco de Vitoria. What does he find so appealing about this philosophy?

At its core, natural law is basically the idea that the natural world, since it was created and ordered by God, exemplifies God’s wisdom and intent. The artificial order, then, should be modeled after the natural order, in order to reflect the plan and genius of God. I recently noted, in a paper on this subject, that "the considerable persuasive and explanatory power of this theory lies in its appeal to deeply-held convictions and its power to develop theories that seem intuitive." Sullivan's post echoes this point:
But my deeper point is actually an agreement of sorts: there does seem something intuitively right about seeing our "nature" as some sort of guide to the way we should live our lives. But this is the beginning of an argument, not an end to it. What do we mean by nature? How do emotion and reason interact? How precise and universal can we be in adducing morals from something as diverse and varied as the fruits of natural selection? How can we be sure we aren't smuggling in all sorts of pre-existing views of what nature is and what morality is when we declare something "unnatural"?
This does a neat job of summarizing the immediate problems that arise from removing natural law from abstract speculation and actually using it to guide politics. Sullivan's main beef with George and the natural lawyers is their approach to homosexuality, and indeed, it's a revealing look at the way a supposedly intuitive, rational approach to politics quickly becomes arbitrary, gnostic, and theocratic.

The official Catholic position on homosexual sex is that it's "unnatural" - referring, quite literally, to the notion that sex is by nature procreative and physically unitive of male and female, and since homosexual sex doesn't fit that definition, it's inherently incompatible with what is "natural" - and therefore ordered by God, since God created the natural order. This is, to put it lightly, a fraught position, as numerous writers have demonstrated. It's not necessary to revisit their points here (but if you're interested in more reading on the topic, see Jon Corvino, Jeffrey Siker, and others). Suffice it to say that, as is plainly evident from this line of argument, it's impossible to have natural law without a certain requisite amount of theology.

That's why this claim, recently made by Justin Rigali, a conservative cardinal closely associated with George (and in a speech that the article suggests George wrote) is so frustrating and misleading:

These principles did not belong to the Christian faith alone, the cardinal declared; they rested on a foundation of universal reason. “They are principles that can be known and honored by men and women of good will even apart from divine revelation,” Rigali said. “They are principles of right reason and natural law.”
This is completely wrong and intellectually dishonest. Those principles do belong to divine revelation. Natural law is by definition impossible without divine reason, so either Rigali doesn't understand natural law or he's just being a liar. I'd actually be hard-pressed to say which. People tend to defer to scholars with George's pristine credentials (including degrees from Oxford and Harvard), and it's tempting to argue that one's own views are accessible to anyone employing right reason.

But think about the fundamental arguments behind natural law: we know what to do because of what we see in creation. Yet why should creation have any meaning? Why should nature hold any authority? I addressed this question a few months ago:
The Christian idea of a world created ex nihilo is not a world that precludes contingency, but it is a world where the contingent embodies (in some way) a divine idea or image, if not divine intent. It is a world in which, as Louis Dupré writes, "nature retains an intrinsically normative character," a "further stage in the process of revelation." For Christian thinkers of centuries past, nature was filled with meaning, if not intentional structure. Again, as Dupré puts it, "the epistemic apriori imposed no categorical structure upon the real, but a perspective for reading what was directly, but never simply or exhaustively, given."
Natural law is essentially one step beyond this position - there is a categorical structure given in nature, because nature reflects the intent of God. It is therefore impossible to conceive of natural law without believing that a) God exists and b) God created the universe. The idea that this is possible, as Rigali says, without religion, on a foundation of universal reason, "even apart from divine revelation," is ludicrous.

The political implications, of course, are too tempting for any social conservative to ignore, so they insist on this insulting farce. All while ignoring the fundamentally theological presuppositions and consequences of their argument. After all, can
anyone convincingly explain how a system of government and laws based on clerical interpretations of God's intent can avoid being - at the very least - a soft theocracy? And a gnostic one at that? Someone has to interpret what is natural and what is not; what counts and what doesn't; what reveals God's intent and what is simply an anomaly. This will require people with some religious training. Right reason, separate from religion, indeed.

But nonetheless, the battle lines have been drawn, and the political consequences are clear. Christians of various stripes have come together to push this idea - hey, all it takes is a common enemy in the dreaded gays for conservative Christians to discover ecumenism. And they have every right to push these ideas in the political square.

Just don't try to argue that they're not fundamentally religious arguments. It's insulting.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

I Could Do This Punditry Thing..., Ctd.

Again, some better-known, more talented writer anticipates yours truly. Here's Jonathan Chait on the Republicans' healthcare blunder:

The United States is on the doorstep of comprehensive health care reform. It's a staggering achievement, about which I'll have more to say later. But the under-appreciated thing that strikes me at the moment is that it never would have happened if the Republican Party had played its cards right.

At the outset of this debate, moderate Democrats were desperate for a bipartisan bill. They were willing to do almost anything to get it, including negotiate fruitlessly for months on end. We can't know for sure, but Democrats appeared willing to make enormous substantive concessions to win the assent of even a few Republicans. A few GOP defectors could have lured a chunk of Democrats to sign something far more limited than what President Obama is going to sign. And remember, it would have taken only one Democrat to agree to partial reform in order to kill comprehensive reform. I can easily imagine a scenario where Ben Nelson refused to vote for anything larger than, say, a $400 billion bill that Chuck Grassley and a couple other Republicans were offering.

But Republicans wouldn't make that deal. The GOP leadership put immense pressure on all its members to withhold consent from any health care bill. The strategy had some logic to it: If all 40 Republicans voted no, then Democrats would need 60 votes to succeed, a monumentally difficult task. And if they did succeed, the bill would be seen as partisan and therefore too liberal, too big government. The spasm of anti-government activism over the summer helped lock the GOP into this strategy -- no Republican could afford to risk the wrath of Tea Partiers convinced that any reform signed by Obama equaled socialism and death panels.


The Republicans eschewed a halfway compromise and put all their chips on an all or nothing campaign to defeat health care and Obama's presidency. It was an audacious gamble. They lost. In the end, they'll walk away with nothing. The Republicans may gain some more seats in 2010 by their total obstruction, but the substantive policy defeat they've been dealt will last for decades.

As I noted just over a week ago, I made this exact point back in October, two months before David Frum and Jonathan Chait got around to it. Just sayin'.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Brilliant Idea!

So Kos and John Aravosis (of AMERICABlog) have apparently decided that Congressional Democrats (especially in the Senate) have compromised on too much and it's time to kill healthcare reform. Great plan. After a grueling, eighteen month-long primary campaign arguing about competing health care reform plans, a grueling general election campaign arguing about whether to enact meaningful health care reform at all, and nearly a year of legislative haggling over a massive (and massively-important) piece of legislation - with all the attendant promises, deals, spent political capital, hours of analysis and argument and hard work - let's just throw the whole damn thing out so a bunch of pissed-off lefties who have never had the responsibility of governing can enjoy a temper tantrum with an even bigger-than-usual dose of self-righteousness. All while thousands of Americans continue to die each year because they don't have health insurance, and millions more live in crippling financial insecurity because of skyrocketing costs. Both of which are problems that this bill would solve.

It's perfectly reasonable to be upset that some reforms have been watered down, but it's completely childish to argue that a good bill that will vastly improve the current system is worth scrapping simply because the left didn't get everything on its wish list. I've spent no small amount of time criticizing the Republican base for its stupid, immature, fantasy-land approach to governance, and the same message applies to the netroots in this case: Grow. Up.

(And, of course, Toby Ziegler has already said this better than I can, so I leave you with this! The best bit starts at 1:15.)

"And if you think demonizing people who are trying to govern responsibly is the way to protect our liberal base, then speaking as a liberal, go to bed, would you please?"

Saturday, December 12, 2009

A Just War?

Michael Walzer, who knows a thing or two about the topic, raises some questions about Afghanistan:
After all the mistakes, the cost of “winning”—significantly reducing the strength of the Taliban, stimulating local resistance, training a national army, working with Pakistan to shut down al Qaeda havens across the border—may now be too high. The number of troops that would be necessary to “win” may be far greater than the number the president has committed and far greater than the American people would be willing to commit. And if that is true, then the continuation of the war can’t be justified—for it is one of the key criteria of a just war that there be a realistic possibility of achieving a just peace.
This sums up my own attitudes about the strategic costs/benefits of Afghanistan pretty well. But Walzer points out that there may be another, more convincing argument for seeing things through:

Things have not gotten better for most Afghans in those years, and for many of them, who live in the battle zones or who endure the rapaciousness of government officials, things have probably gotten much worse. At the same time, however, there have been some gains, in parts of the countryside and in the more secure cities. American and European NGOs have been doing good work in areas like public health, health care, and education. Schools have opened, and teachers have been recruited, for some two million girls. Organizations of many different sorts, including trade unions and women’s groups, have sprung up in a new, largely secular, civil society. A version of democratic politics has emerged, radically incomplete but valuable still. And all the people involved in these different activities would be at risk—at risk for their lives—if the United States simply withdrew. Given everything we did wrong in Afghanistan, the work of these people—democrats, feminists, union activists, and teachers—is a small miracle worth defending against the Taliban resurgence.

Indeed, I think we have an obligation to do that—and I also think that most of these people would agree (they should be asked). And it is here that there is a realistic possibility of success: the cities can be held, civil society fostered, and NGO projects in the countryside protected, even with fewer troops than the president has committed. But for this work there is no obvious end; a year and a half won’t be enough.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

I Could Do This Punditry Thing...

Or this think-tank thing. Or this presidential speechwriting thing. (Ok, maybe not.)

But I was still a few weeks ahead of David Frum when I wrote (regarding healthcare):
Salam is right to note that if you think an idea will be bad policy, it is responsible to oppose it. But think of the nature of Republican opposition and its likely consequences. Leading Democrats from President Obama down have all repeatedly stated that they want a bipartisan bill, but at the end of the day they'll pass healthcare reform with or without Republican input. There have been minor substantive ideas from Republicans (namely, tort reform), but overall, the Republican "contribution" to this debate has been scaremongering and demagoguery led by the likes of Sarah Palin and Betsy McCaughey - with their ridiculous lies about death panels, euthanasia, abortion, socialism, etc. Republicans had their chance to make real contributions to healthcare reform. They had the opportunity to ensure that the final bill, even if they found it objectionable, would at least be mitigated by some conservative provisions. But they never took that opportunity. For the most part, they've been content to sit on the sidelines and throw spitballs. Since the passage of healthcare is nearly guaranteed, they are being profoundly irresponsible, and yes, nihilistic, if they refuse to try and positively change something that they believe will be disastrous.
Yesterday, Frum, in a post about healthcare and global warming legislation, expressed similar sentiments about the results of what he called Congressional Republicans' "'no, no, no' policy":

Republicans could have been architects of improvement, instead we made ourselves impotent spectators as things get radically worse. [...]

The furious rejectionist frenzy of the past 12 months is exacting a terrible price upon Republicans. We’re getting worse and less conservative results out of Washington than we could have negotiated, if we had negotiated.

As is, we’re betting heavily that a bad economy will collapse Democratic support without us having to lift a finger. Maybe that will happen. But existing party strategy has to be reckoned a terrible failure. Most Republicans will shrug off that news. If polls are right, rank-and-file Republicans feel little regard for the Washington party, and don’t expect much from it. But it’s the rank-and-file who are the problem here! Republican leaders do not dare try deals for fear of being branded sell-outs by a party base that wants war to the knife. So we got war. And we’re losing. Even if we gain seats in 2010, the actions of this congressional session will not be reversed. Shrink Medicare after it has expanded? Hey- we said we’d never do that.

I hear a lot of talk about the importance of “principle.” But what’s the principle that obliges us to be stupid?
I confess that I don't know, but I'm sure Sarah Palin is somehow involved.