Politics & Policy

What ‘Conscience’ Really Means

Toward a reintroduction.

‘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.”

Today, the enemies of conscience trample on those sacred rights in a wide variety of ways — everything from the odious Department of Health and Human Services abortion-drug and contraception mandates to the abuse of anti-discrimination laws to drive religiously affiliated adoption services out of business or to harass caterers, florists, and others who cannot, in conscience, provide their services for ceremonies they judge to be immoral. Another way that they assault conscience is by stigmatizing as a bigot anyone who dissents from their views on morally divisive issues. Unfortunately, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy sinks to this tactic in his recent opinion in the Defense of Marriage Act case. Instead of grappling with the evidence and arguments advanced by supporters of the Act, he characterized them, in the words of dissenting Justice Antonin Scalia, as “enemies of humanity.” The Left has become quite adept at this strategy of defamation and intimidation (though, to be fair, it has been denounced by honorable people on the Left as well as by conservatives). And they have in some cases been politically successful in using it. It’s pathetic to see a Supreme Court justice — indeed a Reagan appointee — deploying it.


LOPEZ: You lay out the “pillars” of a “decent society.” What are they?

GEORGE: To me, the pillars of a decent society are (1) respect for the human person (and that means every member of the human family, including the child in the womb, the mentally and physically impaired, and the frail and elderly); (2) the marriage-based family and the other institutions of civil society, religious and secular, that support and assist the family in its essential health, education, and welfare functions; and (3) a fair, uncorrupted, and effective system of law and government.

Perhaps the clearest way to understand the meaning of a decent society is to look at what happens when these pillars are not in place. Consider just the first pillar: respect for the basic dignity of the human person. This means treating the individual human being as an end and not as a mere means to collective goals. When that is knocked down, societies come to regard human beings as mere cogs in the larger social wheel. Modern totalitarian regimes, for example, reduced the individual to an instrument to serve the ends of the fascist state or to bring into being the future Communist utopia. Moreover, as we know all too well today, cultures in which religious fanaticism has taken hold have sacrificed the dignity of the human person for the sake of tragically misbegotten theological ideas and goals. In a liberal democratic society in which a utilitarian ethos has become dominant, liberalism (in the classic Madisonian and Tocquevillian sense) degenerates into the illiberalism and inhumanity of the abortion license, for example.

It should not be controversial to say that a decent society is one that does not regard anyone as disposable or intolerably burdensome. Such a society honors the profound, inherent, and equal worth of every member of the human family. And that is why such a society will, among other things, respect citizens’ basic civil liberties (the freedom of religion, speech, and assembly, for example) and rights of political participation.


LOPEZ: Who’s informing consciences anymore?

GEORGE: Well, that’s a good question, and there is a related and even deeper question that should be asked along with it: Who is shaping people’s ideas of what conscience is? People pick up their beliefs and values from where you would expect: families, religious institutions, friends, schools, the news media, the entertainment industry, and so forth. The great advantage enjoyed by liberal secularism at this point in our history is its near hegemony in the elite institutions of culture. Look at universities, for example, or the educational establishment generally, or the news and entertainment media, or the vast majority of major philanthropic foundations and professional associations. Partisans of liberal secularism are fully in control. Conservative parents and clergy find it extremely difficult to compete with that kind of cultural power.

One of the dogmas of liberal secularism is the belief that liberal moral convictions on certain disputed issues, such as those pertaining to marriage and sexual morality, represent the only reasonable positions — therefore dissenting opinions need not even be seriously entertained. They can be dismissed as “bigotry,” or the like, and shut out of the discussion without liberals’ feeling guilty about violating their self-proclaimed commitments to free speech and the preservation of a robust marketplace of ideas (especially in universities and the news and information media). The problem is not that liberal secularists are moral relativists, as conservatives sometimes suppose, but something very much like the opposite: Lots of liberal secularists these days are un-self-critical moral absolutists. Many contemporary liberal secularists are so certain that they understand moral truths correctly, and that their opponents are unreasoning fools, that they are willing to exclude proponents of opposing views from the discussion, and impose their beliefs on society by non-democratic means (by agency rule-making or judicial fiat, for example). Look no further than the HHS mandates and the Supreme Court’s abortion and marriage jurisprudence to see what I mean.

Many of those who exercise their conscience rights in opposition to the views of what Professor Angelo Codevilla has labeled “the ruling class” are, of course, people of faith. And it is true, or so I argue in the book, that religious liberty is a fundamental human right, and a flourishing religious life a human good. I make no secret of the fact that I myself am a Christian or that on the great moral issues of our day I enthusiastically make common cause with devout Jews, Mus­lims, and other people of faith. But when it comes to informing consciences, religion is far from the only source to consider. Indeed, one need not base arguments on theological claims or religious authority to challenge liberal-secularist dogmas. The idea that “reason” and “science” are on the side of liberal secularism is another of its dogmas — a self-serving myth. One of my central aims in Conscience and Its Enemies is to explode the myth.


LOPEZ: You write that “secular liberal views are so widespread as to go largely unquestioned.” Are there exceptions?

GEORGE: I have found that socially liberal ideas function as the rough equivalent of religious dogmas of a certain sort in elite circles — in universities and among scholars, public intellectuals, and others with whom I have worked or whom I have debated. In my experience, many in these circles are simply unaccustomed to hearing the sorts of arguments I put forward in Conscience and Its Enemies. Their minds are filled with caricatures — cartoons, really — of what conservatives, and especially social or religious conservatives, think.

There are, of course, exceptions: To take only one example among many, I have taught undergraduate seminars (and will teach another one in 2015) with my dear friend and former Princeton colleague Cornel West, a man of the Left (though definitely not a secularist) with whom I disagree on many issues. In our classroom work together, and in our many conservations, Cornel has been completely willing to engage on these issues, and examine his own philosophical assumptions, even as he invites me to examine mine. It’s a side of Cornel not seen by those who are familiar only with his fiery oratory at Occupy Wall Street rallies and the like.

And, of course, beyond the narrow (but influential) circles about which I’m speaking, there are many others who question liberal-secularist dogmas. Given the way so many (though, again, not all) secular elites deploy their nearly hegemonic cultural power against anyone who does not toe the line, however, they often feel embattled. With this book, I address both groups — liberals unaccustomed to hearing reasoned arguments for traditional values, and defenders of traditional morality who perhaps don’t realize how strong the case against the dogmas of liberal secularism truly is.


LOPEZ: If the family is indispensable in “any decent society,” why not embrace the expansion of varieties of families, by embracing gay marriage?

GEORGE: Redefining marriage to eliminate the norm of sexual complementarity is certainly not an “expansion” of marriage. Strictly speaking, it isn’t even a redefinition. Rather, it is an abolition of marriage and its replacement with a form of sexual-romantic companionship or domestic partnership to which the label “marriage” is then reassigned. The trend in the direction of this replacement, quite independently of the question of same-sex partnerships, has already proven disastrous — for children, for communities, for society as a whole. In effect, locking it in by redefining marriage, as the ruling class seems determined now to do, rather than rolling back the tide by getting about the business of rebuilding a flourishing marriage culture, will only make a bad situation worse. It will make the rebuilding project more difficult and delay it into the indefinite future.

We would all do well to remind ourselves of what marriage is and why law and the state have any legitimate interest in it at all. It is a uniquely comprehensive sharing of life (a bodily union, and not merely a union of hearts and minds) made possible by the sexual-reproductive complementarity of man and woman that enables the act that makes spousal love to be the same act that makes new human life. Marriage brings together a man and woman as husband and wife to be father and mother to any children who may come of their congress. Where all goes well, it provides those children with the inestimable blessing of being brought up in the committed bond of the man and woman whose union gave them life and to whom they are related in the most comprehensive way — biologically and emotionally. Characteristically — and understandably — children long to know and be known by and to love and be loved by the mother and father who are their progenitors. Where that is not possible, we do the best we can. Adoption, for example, is a wonderful thing that enables children to have loving parents when their “birth parents” are, for whatever reason, not in the picture. But we should strive to ensure that as many children as possible are given the gift of being brought up in the marital bond of the mom and dad whose love gave them life.

Incidentally, these insights into the nature of marriage as a conjugal union and a human good require no particular theology. As the eminent Oxford legal philosopher John Finnis has shown, ancient thinkers untouched by Jewish or Christian revelation — including Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, Musonius Rufus, Xenophanes, and Plutarch — distinguished conjugal unions from other partnerships and forms of companionship or association, just as do many nonbiblical faiths to this day.


LOPEZ: Section Three of the Defense of Marriage Act was struck down by a bare majority of Supreme Court justices in a recent decision. What does that mean?

GEORGE: Assuming that a future Republican president does not return to the strictly limited view of the power of judicial review held by the greatest of Republican statesmen, Abraham Lincoln, it means that the federal government from here on will comply with the Court’s command to recognize for federal purposes those same-sex “marriages” contracted in (or of people domiciled in) Massachusetts and other states that have, whether by legislation or judicial imposition, redefined marriage. This will create problems for chaplains and others in the military and elsewhere, as it will, no doubt, be deployed to erode the rights of those who cannot in good conscience accept the new orthodoxy that the Obama administration will seek through various legal and administrative mechanisms to impose.

The worst part of the actual decision by the Supreme Court was the scandalous character of Anthony Kennedy’s opinion for the majority. It is probably the most shameful opinion the Court has issued since Roe v. Wade in 1973. That the Court reached the wrong decision is not what I am complaining about here, though that is an unfortunate thing whose consequences will be very bad. But reasonable people of goodwill can disagree about how the case was resolved. What should be condemned by everyone are the following two things: 1) Justice Kennedy’s abject failure to consider and respond to the actual arguments advanced by those making the case for upholding the section of the Act that the Court struck down; and 2) his defamatory insinuations that supporters of conjugal marriage are motivated by bigotry or hatred — a sheer desire to “harm,” “demean,” or “humiliate” others. Kennedy’s conduct fully merited the severe rebuke he received from Antonin Scalia in a scathing dissent.

As to how the courts should handle challenges to laws upholding marriage as the union of husband and wife, Justice Samuel Alito hit the nail on the head, as he so often does: There is a conflict today between two competing visions or understandings of marriage. Nothing in the text, logic, structure, or original understanding of the Constitution resolves the issue between them or forbids the national government to define marriage for purposes of federal law as a conjugal union. A settlement of the definition of marriage one way or another cannot be imposed by the Court without the justices’ importing into their reasoning extra-constitutional notions about the moral meaning and social role of marriage. Doing that is constitutionally illegitimate. It is a usurpation of the authority of the people to govern themselves. Under our Constitution, the choice between the historic understanding of marriage as a conjugal union and the revisionist understanding of marriage as a form of sexual-romantic companionship is left for resolution by the people, acting either on their own through the processes of initiative and referendum, or through their elected representatives in the state legislatures and the Congress.


LOPEZ: You write, “As an advocate of dynamic societies, I believe in the market economy and the free-enterprise system. I particularly value the social mobility that economic dynamism makes possible.” But doesn’t the dignity of man get lost in the midst of capitalist competition?

GEORGE: That is an entirely legitimate worry, and modern popes and others have been right to warn us of the danger. But a dynamic society need not be one in which consumerism and materialism become rife and in which moral and spiritual values disappear. We can strongly support a market-based economy (properly regulated to protect public health, safety, and morals and to preserve fair conditions of exchange), and defend it as part of a larger whole in which moral values and virtues are honored and nurtured. We can affirm the commercial economy, and welcome the upward social mobility it makes possible, without fearing that it will necessarily take us down the road to corruption — but only if we vigilantly protect the autonomy and integrity of the marriage-based family and other key institutions of civil society that transmit and uphold essential virtues.


LOPEZ: In writing about immigration in America, you write that “faithful Catholics wanted to be, and not merely to be seen to be, the very best of good American citizens. And as they saw and see it, that doesn’t require the slightest dilution of their Catholic faith.” How has that changed?

GEORGE: In most cases, I believe, it has not changed. People from many different nations, representing different traditions of faith — not just Catholics, but Protestant and Eastern Orthodox Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists — come to America in the hope, and with the intention, of becoming citizens and being (and bringing up their children to be) loyal Americans. Of course, they wish to preserve their customs, traditions, and religious and ethnic identities, but there is nothing wrong with that! It has, in fact, always been part of the immigrant experience in America, and historically it has been a source of strength for our nation. In recent decades, however, it has become popular in certain circles — mainly elite intellectual circles — to promote a version of “multiculturalism” that rejects the idea of a primary and central political allegiance to the United States and its ideals and institutions. This ideology is sometimes pushed to the point of denying the fundamental goodness of America’s principles of political and civil liberty. Needless to say, my patience with this sort of thing is limited.


LOPEZ: How is dependency “an equal-opportunity soul destroyer”?

GEORGE: Dependency, where one is perfectly capable of taking responsibility for oneself and meeting one’s own needs and the needs of one’s family, leads to many bad things, typically including resentment as people develop an “entitlement mentality” and persuade themselves that they are not getting ahead because those who are already better off are manipulating the system to hold down people at the bottom of the ladder (who depend on entitlements). Dependency has nothing to do with race or ethnicity as such. We’ve seen its damaging effect in largely minority urban centers and also in non-minority rural areas. We’ve even seen its soul-destroying effects in the lives of children of the rich whose parents have let them become dependent on familial wealth, rather than instilling in them a sense of the importance of initiative, personal responsibility, civic-mindedness, and hard work. I hope it goes without saying that the avoidance of dependency and an entitlement mentality is never an excuse for a failure of generosity to people who are genuinely in need. Nor may it legitimately be used to justify greed or abuses of the market system, such as the widespread “crony capitalism” that invariably develops when the principle of limited government is lost and big government and big business become conjoined twins. My former student Senator Ted Cruz often shocks people on both the Right and the Left when he says that the first thing we should ask about any proposed legislation or policy is how it will affect the poorest and most vulnerable members of our community. I agree with him. This is part of what the tradition of Catholic social thought has in mind when it speaks of a “preferential option for the poor.” Ted is also right to observe that it is a mistake, however, to suppose that applying that principle generates left-wing economic and social policies. Such policies more often than not hurt the people they are supposed to help. We need policies that will create more opportunity for people at the bottom end of the scale and less dependency — policies that will facilitate upward social mobility by rewarding initiative, creativity, responsible conduct, hard work, and other virtues. I should add that we don’t need policies that reward leaders of large businesses (those that are allegedly “too big to fail”) for poor decision-making and irresponsible conduct. On that point, Professor West and others on the Left are correct; and those of us on the conservative side should not hesitate to say so.


LOPEZ: Should we all be rereading Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” right about now?

GEORGE: The “Letter” is a timeless reflection on the obligations of citizens in the face of legal injustice. I have long recommended it to my students, and I would indeed commend it to all my fellow citizens. As I point out in Conscience and Its Enemies, Dr. King drew a crucial distinction between just and unjust laws — laws that uplift the human spirit and those that degrade it, laws that honor people’s dignity and rights and those that violate them. King observed that “a just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law.” King was right: The choices and actions of political institutions, like the choices and actions of individuals, can be morally good or morally bad. There is a natural law — an objective order of right and wrong — by reference to which human law must be judged. Where “positive law” is found wanting by the standard of natural law, Dr. King observed, it must be reformed; and where we cannot but judge it to be gravely unjust and contrary to the common good, it cannot legitimately be obeyed. That was his teaching — a teaching very much in line with the ideas of the Catholic saints whose authority he invoked in the Letter.

Now someone might raise an objection: “Yes, but people disagree about justice and injustice, right and wrong. So who is to say? And wouldn’t it produce anarchy for people freely to disobey laws they disagree with?” On the question of “who is to say,” the answer is that each of us must, in conscience, decide for himself. There is no other way, and no way around it. And since we are fallible beings, we have no guarantee of getting it right. Still we must do our best. It is both a right and a duty of democratic citizenship. On the question of “anarchy,” the answer is that it is our duty to obey the law, even if we don’t like it and are working to change it, up to the point at which conscience simply no longer permits compliance — because obeying the law would make one complicit in violating human dignity and harming the common good or because the law imposes on the subject a legal obligation to do something morally unacceptable. It is at that point, and only there, that non-compliance is justified and called for.

I should note that it is the duty of government to avoid to the extent possible imposing on its citizens in such a way as to bring them to such a pass. That duty is recognized, for example, in the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which imposes on the federal government stringent standards that must be met in order to justify the imposition on people of laws that require them to violate precepts of their faith.



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