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Give ‘Em Enough Rope


This largely fawning Times Magazine profile of Robert George nonetheless manages to be quite damning. George’s purportedly major intellectual contribution, Fitzpatrick explains, is to apply tautology and bare assertion natural law to contemporary questions of jurisprudence and political theory. You will probably not be surprised to learn that this would-be modern Aquinas has discovered that “natural law” and “practical reason” reveal…a near-perfect photocopy of the 2008 Republican platform:

Last spring, George was invited to address an audience that included many bishops at a conference in Washington. He told them with typical bluntness that they should stop talking so much about the many policy issues they have taken up in the name of social justice. They should concentrate their authority on “the moral social” issues like abortion, embryonic stem-cell research and same-sex marriage, where, he argued, the natural law and Gospel principles were clear. To be sure, he said, he had no objections to bishops’ “making utter nuisances of themselves” about poverty and injustice, like the Old Testament prophets, as long as they did not advocate specific remedies. They should stop lobbying for detailed economic policies like progressive tax rates, higher minimum wage and, presumably, the expansion of health care — “matters of public policy upon which Gospel principles by themselves do not resolve differences of opinion among reasonable and well-informed people of good will,” as George put it.


The “rights” to education and health care are another matter, George told his seminar. “Who is supposed to provide education or health care to whom?” George asked. “Health care and education are things that you have to pay for. Resources are always finite,” he went on. “Is it better for education and health care to be provided by governments under socialized systems or by private providers in markets or by some combination?” Those questions, George said, “go beyond the application of moral principles. You can get all the moral principles dead right and not have an answer to any of those questions.”

It is to his credit, I suppose, that he’s so straightforward about his cafeteria Catholicism. But it is nonetheless clear that the argument he’s making fails on its own terms. Surely the truism that “you can get all the moral principles dead right and not have an answer to any of those questions” applies no less to abortion policy than anything else, which makes it highly relevant that George’s preferred policy mix (draconian criminalization of abortion, reactionary gender politics, minimal welfare state) in fact has a notably dismal record even when it comes to reducing abortion rates. Indeed, there’s much better evidence that robust welfare states reduce poverty than that abortion criminalization substantially reduces abortion rates (as opposed to the incidence of safe abortions.) Moreover, it seems rather clear that grubby politics rather than natural law is the primary factor in determining why George and his adherents are more concerned with same-sex marriage than, say, no-fault divorce when addressing alleged offenses against traditional marriage.

As a punchline, I’ll also highlight this tidbit: 

Later that year, when Bill Clinton denied Casey a chance to speak about abortion at the 1992 Democratic convention, it was George who had helped to write Casey’s speech.

Yes, the fact that Casey was denied that speaking slot sure was an outrage…

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