The work of Princeton professor Robert P. George has now spanned three decades and addressed several subjects, including, among others, analytic philosophy, constitutional law, philosophy of law, bioethics, and natural law theory. His discussions of these topics have been marked by two common principles—the perfectionist principle and the reason principle—both enjoying an august philosophical heritage, even as they have more recently fallen into disfavor. These principles, first expounded upon in book form in his 1994 work Making Men Moral: Civil Liberties and Public Morality, were the subject of a recent conference at Union University commemorating the 15th anniversary of that book.
We might articulate the perfectionist principle in this way: “religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools, and the means of education, shall forever be encouraged.”
Such was the position of the United States Congress as expressed three years before the Constitutional Convention in the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. The exact nature of the encouragement is not as important as the principle underlying it: republics depend on a virtuous citizenry and thus it is in the interest of the government to promote virtue. It is necessary, then, for government and law to partner with the institutions of religion, morality, and knowledge toward the perfectionist end of “making men moral.”
While the carrying out of this task is difficult and calls for principled and prudent leadership, the principle itself is much more controversial than it used to be. Objections arise from the libertarian right and the liberal left. Libertarian-minded conservatives, or conservative-minded libertarians, understandably blanch at the prospect of government engaging in what they consider soulcraft. If government is at best a necessary evil, how can one trust it to inculcate the good?
Many liberals, in contrast, purport to reject a perfectionist role for government in the name of individual autonomy. In reality most do not object to government promoting an idea of the good as such. Rather, they worry about the content of what passes for good when traditionalists argue for a government role—they seem to have no problem when the government advances a liberal conception of the good life. Nevertheless, many liberals speak as though the role of government is to enable individuals to pursue their own understandings of the good life and this approach is in tension with the principle espoused by the 1787 Congress.
The second principle is a bit more complex. If the perfectionist principle holds that the government should play a role in encouraging citizens to be good, the reason principle holds that we can identify that good through careful deliberation and the exercise of universally available human reason. As with the perfectionist principle, this position is also expressed in a seminal document of the American founding. In the first essay of the Federalist Papers, which were notably devoid of religious language, Alexander Hamilton wrote:
It has been frequently remarked, that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country to decide, by their conduct and example, the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not, of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend, for their political constitutions, on accident and force.
It is important to note what this principle does and does not exclude. It rejects the notion that politics is a mere hurly-burly power struggle in which the tribe, race, class, or church with the most strength determines success. In emphasizing the role of reflection and choice as such, it also rejects the idea that divine revelation is the only source for knowledge of justice and virtue. At the same time, however, philosophers like George see no necessary conflict between the reason and perfectionist principles and a role for divine revelation.
These two principles, then, were among the main themes discussed at the conference. The speakers at the conference offered papers that addressed how and in what ways these principles are worked out in public policy, analytic philosophy, and cultural apologetics. While many conferences have a specific theme, the broader mandate of this gathering produced an eclectic set of presentations (audio available here). Consider some of the presentations:
Intellectual historian Paul Kerry opened the conference with an overview of George’s intellectual project. Political scientist James Stoner suggested that George adopt a version of John Rawls’s abandoned Aristotelian principle—basically the notion that human beings enjoy the use of their higher faculties in community—to augment his natural law theory. Jean Bethke Elshtain, drawing from her recent book Sovereignty: God, State, and Self, argued that an untethered pursuit of individual autonomy has led to not only an impoverished civil society, but to some of the worst excesses of the last century. Theologian Russell Moore spoke about the prospects of evangelicals and Catholics continuing to work together for the common good. Gregory Thornbury, dean of the School of Christian Studies at Union, drew on the work of Carl F.H. Henry to cast a warning about the efficacy of human reason and an overly sanguine reliance on natural law.
Philosopher Christopher Tollefsen argued that a natural law approach best grounds the common conviction that disabled individuals are fully valued members of the political community and can participate in human flourishing. Jewish philosopher and theologian David Novak considered how it is that he and George can differ to some degree on their underlying theoretical positions while agreeing on practical moral truths. Political philosopher Hadley Arkes, stepping in for the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, reminded the audience of the necessity of engaging in moral discourse, weaving together the various strands of moral and logical argument, and working to realize Fr. Neuhaus’s conviction that “we can still turn this thing around.”
These addresses, disparate as they were, all touched in one way or another on the two key principles. The perfectionist principle, whatever its standing in the wider academic world, was not terribly controversial among this group of scholars. The same could not be said, however, about the reason principle. Understanding this relationship between reason and revelation with regard to pursuing the public good was perhaps the central theme underlying the varying papers presented at the conference.
This relationship was the topic of Professor George’s chapel address on the final day of the conference. Speaking explicitly as a Christian to a Christian audience, George expounded on the role that faith plays in the life of the believer. George told the students in the audience that unlike their secular counterparts, the Christian knows that God has a plan for his life and religion provides an overarching purpose. Moreover, the Christian understands himself to participate, even on a small scale, with God’s cosmic plan for the universe.
At the same time, however, reason is available to the human being as such. While divine revelation is surely needed to communicate theological truths such as the Trinity and the Communion of Saints, with regard to moral truths the content of revelation reinforces and illumines what we can work out using our reason. Our reason is flawed, to be sure, and so when our reason is not up for the task revelation can play a supplementary role. Nevertheless, unaided human reason is sufficient to understand morality and make principled and prudential judgments about the common good and the public square.
Despite common ground on hot-button issues and many shared theoretical commitments, this understanding of reason and revelation is one side of a fissure between otherwise like-minded thinkers and communities. For many evangelicals, the notion that divine revelation acts as a failsafe for when our reason is not up to the task seems to elevate man’s thinking over God’s acting to reveal himself. Such was the argument of Gregory Thornbury’s address invoking Carl Henry and Karl Barth, who both famously rejected natural law.
David Novak also addressed this issue, noting that philosophy done well attempts to discern the reasons God himself has for the morality he has revealed. At the same time, the vast majority of us will come to our moral beliefs through a religious framework and then exercise our reason to try and understand moral truth. As such, the reasonableness of morality is prior to the historical revelation of the moral truths (God knew the reason why murder was wrong before he revealed it), whereas psychologically many of us come to know these moral truths through the revelatory teachings of our respective religious communities (we are taught “thou shall not kill”) and then reflect on the foundational truth that human life is a basic good.
Philosopher Justin Barnard also raised questions about the sufficiency of natural law in his response to Christopher Tollefsen’s paper on how we are to understand human flourishing of severely disabled persons. Barnard agreed with Tollefsen that natural law provides a much better account of our moral intuitions than the liberal cosmopolitanism of Martha Nussbaum, but wondered if natural law leaves out the most important part of the human story. While agreeing that natural law can work from the basic good of human life to the conclusion that severely disabled persons are indeed persons worthy of our care and respect, Barnard argued that there are other salient truths—that such persons are created in God’s image and have an eternal destiny—that are only available through divine revelation.
One might wonder about how such theologically involved conversations fit into George’s larger project given his defense of reason and its availability to all persons irrespective of religious faith. There are (at least) three reasons why we should engage with this ongoing discussion regarding reason and revelation.
First, religion is a public good and a matter for public deliberation. The freedom to practice one’s religion, change religions, or reject religion altogether, is a freedom intrinsic to both the common good and the American political tradition. Indeed, George concluded Making Men Moral with a perfectionist argument that situates the good of religion not in individual autonomy but as a basic good; the basic good of considering the ultimate transcendent reality in the universe and ordering one’s life accordingly. Moreover, one need not be a believer in the traditional sense to recognize the value of religion both to individuals and to the larger society.
Second, as a practical matter anyone who has an interest in America’s public life must take into account the pervasive and overwhelming religiosity of her citizens. This discussion about reason and revelation encompasses Roman Catholics, Orthodox Jews, Latter-Day Saints, Evangelical and Mainline Protestants, and other believers of various stripes. These groups compose some of the intermediary institutions that Tocqueville thought were so crucial to the health of a democracy. One cannot get a handle on the religio-political landscape of America without some understanding of what matters to the various players. This means adopting what legal philosopher H.L.A. Hart referred to as “the internal point of view.” It means, in other words, delving into the seemingly non-public discourse for the sake of better understanding, and influencing, public discourse.
Third and finally, it’s important to discuss the limits of reason and revelation if for no other reason than understanding what truly counts as public knowledge. Some critics of natural law claim not so much that natural law is false, but that some truths of divine revelation are also accessible to human beings as such. James Stoner made the case that a fundamental cause of the naked public square and the decline of the modern university has been the relegation of theology from a discipline that claimed objective knowledge to “merely an elaboration of belief.” Whether the critics of natural law, or Stoner in a somewhat different claim, are correct is not the point. The point is simply that it is only by engaging in such discussions that one can speak meaningfully about the distinction between public and private reasons.
With this particular topic, and with the several others addressed at the conference, the participants contributed to a very high level of discourse. If George’s Making Men Moral made the theoretical case for influencing the culture’s mores, the discussions at Union University centered on how best to go about making that case given the countervailing currents in law and culture. These discussions, available online, continue the work and legacy of Fr. Neuhaus, Professor George, and their fellow travelers while offering a model of how Catholics, Evangelicals, Jews, and others of good will can, without compromise, engage the culture for the sake of good and for the sake of the common good.
Micah Watson is Director of the Center for Politics & Religion and Assistant Professor of Political Science at Union University in Jackson, Tennessee.