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Tearing Down Robert P. George’s Scaffold (Part One)

December 23rd, 2009 9 comments

The puff piece on Robert P. George in last Sunday’s NY Times Magazine was one of the more infuriating things I’ve passed my eyes over in some time. At many points I found myself wishing for the kind of critical perspective that a similar, personality-based piece would have gotten in, say, the New Yorker or the Atlantic. Instead, David Kirkpatrick’s article was a weird mixture of amanuensis-like reporting of George’s point of view and unexpected instances of the writer’s occasional, startling snarkiness at his subject. (Example: “I met George 20 years ago, when I was a Prince­ton student and he was praying for tenure.”) There was so much to dig into, but Kirkpatrick barely lifted a spade.

And surprisingly, still there’s been but little written in opposition to the positions that George put forward. (Here‘s one game effort at deconstructing his arguments, from Kathleen Reeves.) But there’s so much wrong with what he’s saying that I can’t sit by idly and let this go unanswered. It’s clear that George is providing an intellectual scaffold to prop up a host of right-wing views and talking points. But the support he provides is rickety.

So, as my last serious work before taking a short Christmas break, I’ll have a go at George’s views (with a focus on marriage) and their intellectual pedigree. This will require more than one post.

Let’s start with the purported distinction between Humeans and Aristotelians that George (via Kirkpatrick) describes, and that is vital to his world-view. After setting forth Hume’s view that the emotions are the seat of decision-making, and Aristotle’s preference for an objective moral order that  can be known through the rational mind, George casts himself as a neo-Aristotelian whose mission is to restore the primacy of reason to moral (and political) decision-making. For George, it’s one or the other: emotions or reason.

Unfortunately, this simple “either-or” disregards increasingly well-accepted findings from the field of neuroscience. If you’ve never read Antonio Damasio’s ground-breaking yet accessible work, Descartes’ Error, promise yourself to correct this omission in 2010. Damasio’s work with brain-injured patients showed this: Those whose emotional capacities had been shut down could not make rational decisions. It turns out that we need emotions to bring our otherwise potentially endless ratiocination to some kind of conclusion — for us to get up and do something. The always-curious David Brooks further popularized this insight in a column last year:

Over the past several years, the momentum has shifted away from hard-core materialism. The brain seems less like a cold machine. It does not operate like a computer. Instead, meaning, belief and consciousness seem to emerge mysteriously from idiosyncratic networks of neural firings. Those squishy things called emotions play a gigantic role in all forms of thinking. Love is vital to brain development.

[P]eople seem to have deep instincts for fairness, empathy and attachment.

So this Aristotelian-Cartesian idea that truth can be known purely through reason is so yesterday.1 The purportedly syllogistic logic that leads George to his definition of marriage (one that — surprise! — ends up walling out same-sex couples) is driven by complex emotions that neither George nor sophisticated neuroscientists as yet fully understand.

This isn’t to give up the project of judging arguments grounded in logic and reason, but to provide context for them: The arguments we choose to make, and the ways we present them, aren’t the products of pure reason, because…there’s no such thing. And once we get into the specifics of George’s natural-law position on marriage — which by the way is nothing new — we can see how his complex construction is anchored in a biological, reductive model of humanity  that is hardly the product of “reason” at all. It’s an article of emotion or of faith; take your pick, because they amount to the same thing.

In my next post, I’ll pursue this natural law argument further.

Update: The second post on this topic, which will address Andrew Sullivan’s response to George as well as George’s natural law arguments, will be up early tomorrow.

  1. But  yesterday is, of course, where George proudly abides. From the Kirkpatrick piece: “George’s admirers say he is revitalizing a strain of Catholic natural-law thinking that goes back to St. Thomas Aquinas.”