A Decade of Debates

The team at Public Discourse doesn’t pretend to have all the answers, but we do think we’re asking the right questions, and getting the right thinkers to propose some of the answers. That’s one thing that we hope will always be our hallmark: thoughtful, reasoned discourse, which is rigorous yet still accessible to the educated layman.

When we launched Public Discourse in 2008, the original tagline was Public Discourse: Ethics, Law, and the Common Good. At our tenth anniversary last year, we wanted to emphasize our connection to the Witherspoon Institute, so we became Public Discourse: The Journal of the Witherspoon Institute. Still, the original tagline had its merit: not only did it emphasize the subject matter of PD, but it highlighted that ethics, law, and the common good are intimately related.

A decade ago, creating a site for long-form essays about the connection between ethics, law, and the common good was intentionally to defy prevailing trends. It still is. We live in an emotive, attention-deficit age in which tweets are the currency of discourse. PD, by contrast, takes a longer, slower approach, where reason is the coin of the realm. Our readers and writers agree that we should take the time to carefully think through difficult issues. We live in a skeptical, relativistic age, in which knowledge of the common good is denied, and discussion of law is supposed to be separated from discussion of ethics. By contrast, we at PD believe that knowledge of the good, including the common good, is not only possible, but essential. In fact, we believe that without it you can’t properly understand either ethics or law, let alone the relationship between the two.

While it may still be a minority view, it’s been gratifying to see certain voices in American public life come to similar conclusions. The following are just a few of the topics on which PD essays have provided—and continue to provide—valuable guidance.

On Pornography

Earlier this month, four members of Congress wrote to Attorney General Bill Barr, calling on him to enforce our nation’s obscenity laws against pornography. Their letter followed the script set by Notre Dame Law Professor Gerard Bradley in his September 2019 PD essay “Stigmatizing and Prosecuting Pornography.”

Gerry’s essay is one in a long line of PD essays devoted to the moral, legal, cultural, and scientific questions surrounding pornography. Consider three early essays: Patrick Hough’s  2010 essay “The Social Costs of Pornography,” Robby George’s 2011 essay “Pornography, Public Morality, and Constitutional Rights,” and Patrick Trueman’s essay in our 2012 Election Symposium “End Child Pornography: Enforce Adult Pornography Laws.” Earlier this year, we were fortunate to publish Adam Carrington’s “Humanly Speaking: Aristotle, the First Amendment, and the Jurisprudence of Pornography.” Carrington explained why pornography should not, and does not, merit First Amendment protection.

On Economics

In 2019, we were also honored to publish Senator Marco Rubio’s lecture on “Common Good Capitalism and the Dignity of Work.” This, too, built on a decade’s worth of essays devoted to integrating natural law thinking with economic topics. I’ve tried lending my voice to some of these discussions with my 2011 review-essays of Martha Nussbaum, Arthur Brooks, and Pete Wehner. See my “Human Development and Human Flourishing: Creating Capabilities Isn’t Enough” and Conservatives and Social Justice,” along with my 2017 essay “Natural Law, Social Justice, and the Crisis of Liberty in the West.” Our editor, Serena Sigillito, has also weighed in with her essay from earlier this year, “Dear Senator Warren: Don’t Penalize Moms Who Choose to Stay Home with Their Kids.”

Other PD essays worth re-reading include Patrick Fagan’s 2013 “The Wealth of Nations Depends on the Health of Families,” Jay Richards’s 2018 “Integrating Catholic Social Teaching With Economics and Natural Science,” and Patrick T. Brown’s 2018 “Man Does Not Live By Economic Growth Alone.” You would also profitably benefit from rereading Kishore Jayabalan’s duo of 2019 essays “Thomas Aquinas on the Just Price” and “The Economics and Ethics of ‘Just Wages.’” And, of course, an entire decade of Sam Gregg’s PD essays is waiting for you to revisit.

Of course, it is not true that any proposal that carries the name “common good” actually serves the common good. And so, over the past several years PD has also argued for the importance of economic freedom, opportunity, and markets as important institutions that serve the common good. In particular, see Robert Miller’s “Notes from Reality About Economic Regulation: What’s Wrong with First Things’ Anxious Anti-Capitalism” and his “Economic Freedom and Economic Opportunity: R. R. Reno Discovers Economic Growth, Blames Capitalism.” Likewise, consider re-reading Sam Gregg’s “First Things and the Market Economy: A Response to R. R. Reno.”

On Liberalism and Nationalism

Debates over government regulation of pornography and common good capitalism are part of a larger reconsideration taking place within American conservatism on the nature of America, classical liberalism, and the role of government. PD has been hosting these discussions from the beginning. Consider just a few of the exchanges we’ve published.

In 2012, Phillip Muñoz, Patrick Deneen, and Nathan Schlueter engaged in a rigorous round of debates on this topic. See Muñoz’s “Why Social Conservatives Should Be Patriotic Americans: A Critique of Patrick Deneen,” Deneen’s “Better than Our Philosophy: A Response to Muñoz,” Schlueter’s “Natural Law Liberalism Beyond Romanticism,” Muñoz’s “ Sustaining American Liberalism in Principle and Practice,” and finally Deneen’s “Liberalism’s Logic and America’s Challenge: A Reply to Schlueter and Muñoz.”

In 2017 and 2018, many of these same voices went another round, adding Robert Reilly and Adam Seagrave to the mix. See Deneen’s “Corrupting the Youth? A Response to Reilly,” Reilly’s “Fools or Scoundrels? A Response to Patrick Deneen,” Seagrave’s “Christianity and American Founding Principles: A Response to Patrick Deneen and Robert Reilly,” and Schlueter’s “Three Questions for the New Antiliberals.” 2018 also saw a symposium on Patrick Deneen’s book Why Liberalism Failed: Micah Watson’s “Prisoners in the American Cave,” Samuel Gregg’s “Patrick Deneen and the Problem with Liberalism,” Anthony Esolen’s “Patrick Deneen, The Little Sisters of the Poor, and Libertas Idiotica,” and Patrick J. Deneen’s “On Christian Liberty and Lockean Liberty: A Grateful Response to Micah Watson, Samuel Gregg, and Anthony Esolen.” All of these essays merit rereading.

In 2019, we also focused on the new debates about National Conservatism. If you’re still trying to think through these questions, consider rereading Joseph Hebert’s “Yoram Hazony, ‘Conservative Democracy,’ and the Classical Tradition of Reason and Liberty,” Serena Sigillito’s “Should Social Conservatives Embrace Nationalism?,” Luma Simms’s “Conservative Women and the Intra-Conservatism Debate,” Ashleen Menchaca-Bagnulo’s “Who Is ‘Like Us?’: American Diversity as Heritage,” Matthew Shadle’s “A Catholic Republicanism?,” and my own “False Dichotomies, the Common Good, and the Future of Conservatism.”

On Free Speech

The essays on government regulation and suppression of pornography, common good capitalism, and the future of conservatism highlight how a proper understanding of liberty distinguishes it from license. They also help us to see that constitutional protections for liberty must also be able to distinguish liberty from license.

These debates have played out in the pages of PD over the past decade, particularly in regard to the freedom of speech. Start your list of readings with Hadley Arkes’s 2010 essay “Swastikas, Burning Crosses, and ‘God Hates Fags,’” then follow up with two essays by Will Haun: “Free Speech, the Supreme Court, and Neutral Principles” and “An Originalist Critique of the Court’s Free Speech Tradition.” Wrap it all up with an exchange between Robert Miller and Hadley Arkes: “Free Speech and the American Experiment” and “Free Speech, Ordinary People, and Ordinary Judgments: Hadley Arkes responds to Robert Miller.”

On Church and State

The debates over liberty and license in free speech jurisprudence have a clear parallel in religious liberty cases. Here, PD has a large archive of essays.

Consider just a few, including another exchange between Miller and Arkes: “Professor Arkes and the Law” and “Judging Beliefs and Shaping Laws: A Reply to Robert Miller.” And two essays from Phillip Muñoz: “The Religious Liberty Case Against Religious Liberty Litigation: Non-Universal Exemptions and Judicial Overreach” and “The Religious Liberty Case Against Religious Liberty Litigation: Renewed Focus on Reasonable, Not Sectarian, Arguments.” Or consider my own response to Arkes, “The Right to Be Wrong,” and my appeal to Trump, “Make Religious Freedom Great Again.”

For guidance on where to go from here, I recommend reading Gerry Bradley’s 2017 essay “Religious Liberty and the Common Good,” Margaret McCarthy’s 2017 essay “Considering Our Options: Deepening Religious Freedom, Witness, and Argument in the Public Square,” Daniel Mark’s 2018 essay “Domestic Challenges to Religious Liberty—From Left and Right,” and Archbishop Charles Chaput’s 2019 essay “Building A Culture of Religious Freedom.” It is a distinct honor that we’ve been able to publish over a dozen essays from Archbishop Chaput in less than a dozen years at PD. You can read his very first PD essay, “Little Murders” and all the others right here.

The debates over liberalism and religious liberty gave rise to another series of related considerations, about the relationship of church and state. PD here, too, has hosted a vigorous exchange, with more coming in 2020. Here are five essays from the past two years to consider: Joseph Trabbic’s “The Catholic Church, the State, and Liberalism,” Robert Miller’s “Integralism and Catholic Doctrine,” Chris Tollefsen’s “Can States ‘Confess’ Religious Belief? Should They?,” Thomas’s Pink’s “In Defence of Catholic Integralism,” and Matthew Shadle’s “Religious Freedom, the Church, and State Coercion.”

On Human Dignity

PD has always been a place for conservatives to think out loud with each other on how we face the future on questions where we don’t yet know what the right answer is—and where we might not (yet) see eye to eye. It’s also always been a place for all of us to better understand—in order to better respond—to pressing questions of human dignity where we’re fairly confident about what the right answers are. Whether this was our early work on bioethics, abortion and marriage, or more recent work on assisted suicide, when it comes to such fundamentals, PD takes a strong editorial stance.

Most recently, this has been the case with transgender questions, where we’ve been fortunate to draw from experts in medicine, science, philosophy and law, while also sharing first-person personal accounts. Although this topic has recently exploded in the public consciousness, PD was ahead of the curve in warning of the tragic human costs of this social contagion.

On the Transgender Moment

Back in 2015, we published Jean Lloyd’s  “The Girl in the Tuxedo: Two Variations on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity,” and Walt Heyer’s “I Was a Transgender Woman.” These personal stories help humanize a struggle that many people find difficult to understand. 2015 also saw Walt Heyer’s response to the Bruce Jenner primetime interview, “‘Sex Change’ Surgery: What Bruce Jenner, Diane Sawyer, and You Should Know.” Dr. Paul McHugh—America’s leading psychiatrist who shut down the sex-reassignment clinic at Johns Hopkins back in the 1970s—also wrote an essay for PD titled “Transgenderism: A Pathogenic Meme.” Dr. McHugh’s essay seems to have struck a particularly strong chord, inspiring well over a million people to read it. Margaret Hagen, a JD PhD and professor of psychological and brain sciences at Boston University, then wrote an essay for us explaining that “Transgenderism Has No Basis in Science or Law,” while Dr. Monique Robles wrote a guide to “Understanding Gender Dysphoria and Its Treatment in Children and Adolescents.”

In 2019, one of our most widely read and shared essays was Jane Robbins’ long-read: “The Cracks in the Edifice of Transgender Totalitarianism.” We were also fortunate to publish two crucial essays from Mark Regnerus, exposing politicized science: “Does ‘Conversion Therapy’ Hurt People Who Identify as Transgender? The New JAMA Psychiatry Study Cannot Tell Us” and “New Data Show ‘Gender-Affirming’ Surgery Doesn’t Really Improve Mental Health. So Why Are the Study’s Authors Saying It Does?” Finally, I’ve tried to make my contributions to these questions here at Public Discourse, with “The Philosophical Contradictions of the Transgender Worldview,” “Sex Change: Physically Impossible, Psychosocially Unhelpful, and Philosophically Misguided,  “The New York Times Reveals Painful Truths about Transgender Lives,” and an essay this year co-authored with Robby George: “Physical Interventions on the Bodies of Children to ‘Affirm’ their ‘Gender Identity’ Violate Sound Medical Ethics and Should be Prohibited.”

Staying True to Our Mission

We hope you find revisiting these essays to be beneficial as you think through what we should do—individually, and as a nation—in this unique historical moment. The team at Public Discourse doesn’t pretend to have all the answers, but we do think we’re asking the right questions, and getting the right thinkers to propose some of the answers. That’s one thing that we hope will always be our hallmark: thoughtful, reasoned discourse, which is rigorous yet still accessible to the educated layman. That means no bomb-throwing, no ad hominem attacks, and no click-bait.

In 2020, we plan to stay true to our mission, even as we respond to new and challenging questions. If you value what we do, please help us continue to elevate our nation’s public discourse by contributing to our year-end campaign.

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