Monday, July 22, 2013

Review of George

My review of Robert P. George’s recent book Conscience and Its Enemies: Confronting the Dogmas of Liberal Secularism appears in the August 5 issue of National Review


  1. Aren’t “final causes” the same as “efficient causes” except that the term “final causes” exposes or reveals the fact that natural laws are effectively coordinated to produce higher modes of existence? From this perspective choosing freely to line up our efforts with this natural coordination (ethical conduct) would be more reasonable than choosing to hinder or frustrate the same.

  2. Anon,

    A final cause is a goal or purpose that precedes and animates an efficient cause. An efficient cause is simply the particular way that the motion brought about by the final cause is undertaken. They are completely different.

  3. Rank Sophist: Nicely and succinctly explained.

  4. Natural laws are not only multiple and complex but they are also coordinated. This is not difficult to see, I hope. If natural laws are coordinated, common sense tells you that there is a mind doing the coordination and doing it for a purpose. This is an idea that even we engineers can understand. The word “cause” put next to the word “final” does not provide an intuitive meaning; especially when you have been trained to think of causes as efficient causes. “Efficient causes” sounds like pushing and “final causes” sounds like pulling. I would prefer a term more intuitively close to “pushing in coordination”.

  5. Well, "end cause" is also used for "final cause". The end for which is a different sense of - and therefore a different sort of - cause than the agent doing, but still answering the question "why". Why did Event A happen? "It happened because Agent A made it happen" is different from "it happened so that in the end Effect E would come about."

    The end does lend itself to the sense of coordination, because the end cause is the coordinating principle for multiple steps or multiple means used to achieve the end. The end cause is the cause which makes doing A, and then B at the same times you do C and then D, all to achieve E worthwhile, so that the end E makes the coordination intelligible.

  6. A good review, and consistent with what you've written on your blog before and in TLS. Professor George's critiques are indeed devastating to the current progressive liberal positions on these issues.

    But as someone who's moderately well-read in both George's and your works, I can't help but feel as though some of your characterizations of George's positive arguments are misconstrued and misrepresentations and are often already preemptively addressed by him. Sure, some aspects of his reasoning seem to embrace the more popular analytic and continental strands of philosophy that he attempts to reconcile with the more classical methods within the scholastic brand of philosophy. I have not agreed with all of his reasoning, nor have I approved every line of argumentation he's followed. But I have found many of his positive arguments to have merit, and agree with most of his conclusions.

    In regards to the sexual ethics:
    1. He has written many times about instrumental goods as opposed to intrinsic goods. The difference between these types of goods are what he is referring to. His point was not that the person engaging in homosexual acts was using his body as an instrument outside of the self.

    2. George repeatedly clarifies that the fitting of "fleshy bits" is not equivalent to what he dubs a "one-flesh" union. That conjugal union, he elaborates, is comprehensive, or a union across many tiers or dimensions, bodily, mentally (consensual), and emotionally.

    Have you read the short book that he coauthored and released a year ago, entitled "What is Marriage"? He thoroughly dismantles the common objection which you voice that " the partners’ fleshy bits can be as snugly fitted together in homosexual acts as in heterosexual ones, and with as much romantic passion." Only in coitus do *two* people realize part of an inherently coordinated bodily process. And organic unity can be genuine without being all-encompassing: two organisms can be organically united for some purpose while remaining separate and self-sufficient in other respects. He argues that the coordination towards a common biological end unites two people bodily. This conception clearly allows for partial biological unity in respect of coordination towards some but not other biological ends.

    3. So, George does not maintain that a copulating heterosexual pair makes up a "single organism". He says that they form a (organic) unity, much like one's organs form a unity by coordinating for the biological good of the whole. In his words, the bodies of a man and woman form a unity by coordination (coitus) for a biological good (reproduction) of their union as a whole. (This in my mind, certainly invokes the classical understanding of final causes, and doesn't seem to beat around the bush or eschew the teleological element of traditional natural-law theory.)

    He also makes the same scholastic arguments for procreative and unitive ends that you make here, on your blog, and in TLS and other writings, several times in his other books, including "Clash of Orthodoxies". I think his positions regarding sexual ethics are firm and clear, and neither obscure, nor reactionary (in the sense of sophistic rationalization), unless you mean reactionary in a looser sense in which case, you must concede that scholasticism, and other modes and manners of philosophy haven't been "reactionary" to the present and prior thought and methods of their day and age.

    Beyond these (not so trivial) quibbles, I admire your work and appreciate the work you've done recently regarding defending Natural Law reasoning in your replies to Hart. Best of regards, and keep up the good work!

    - Jon

  7. Hello Jon,

    Keep in mind that that was a book review, with a word limit, in a non-technical context. Naturally, I couldn't address everything there.

    I do say a lot more about the NNLT approach to sexual morality in my article "In Defense of the Perverted Faculty Argument," forthcoming in a volume from the National Catholic Bioethics Center. (The current issue of the NCBQ has an excerpt from it, but it dos not include any of the things I have to say about the NNLT.)

    The trouble with the NNLT approach to these issues, in my view, is that (a) its criticisms of the "old" natural law/perverted faculty approach are aimed at straw men and uncharitable readings (and sometimes obnoxiously expressed to boot) and (b) while its own approach tries to incorporate some of the nuances you refer to, it cannot do so coherently unless it implicitly brings in precisely the "old" natural law theory kind of metaphysical assumptions that Grisez and Co. are trying to avoid. Hence it ends up being obscurantist.

    I explain all this in the forthcoming article.

  8. Jon, I am fine with using the expression "one flesh" in a way that is proper to a heterosexual union, a sense that cannot be applied to a homosexual union. But I think that that specific meaning for "one flesh" remains an improper sense, or at least a derived sense, that depends WHOLLY on the PROPER sense of "one flesh" in child generated, the child which really is one single organism uniting something from the father and something from the mother. If it weren't for that definitively proper and really united flesh, the sense applied to the coital union of the father and mother would be merely metaphorical. The heterosexual union isn't merely metaphorically one flesh solely because it both points to and is causal of the real united flesh.

    Only in coitus do *two* people realize part of an inherently coordinated bodily process. And organic unity can be genuine without being all-encompassing: two organisms can be organically united for some purpose while remaining separate and self-sufficient in other respects

    The fact that the united purpose comes out of (is achieved through) the act of placing the two physically together does not constitute an organic unity, but only a functional unity. Two people can make their bodies co-operate coherently toward a common goal, an operation that requires the close physical proximity of the two bodies, without the end being any "one flesh" result, and without there being any basis for calling the operative act an "organic unity." Organic unity implies a principle of integration that unites them as an organism. That there is a common end does not justify calling the physical co-operation "one flesh," certainly not in any proper, primary sense.

    It is only because the child is properly a single, integrated "one flesh" that the coital act is a sort of "one flesh" that is not simply poetic. Which means that the meaning of coitus as a "one flesh" union is entirely teleologically driven. If Dr. George is OK restricting his reference to the sense and type of unity achieved in the "one flesh" of coitus as a teleological sense based directly on the child that is the end of the act, that's great.

  9. Thanks Prof. Feser! I understand about the limitations of the review, and I was hoping for an engagement of the "nitty gritty" specifics of their very nuanced arguments. And I just reread your previous blog post on July 15th, in which you said "many topics not addressed there, including responses to various objections, are dealt with in the forthcoming longer article, which is the most detailed and systematic thing I’ve written on the topic of sexual morality." So, I'm really looking forward to reading it!

    Tony, I do agree, yet I think George does argue, though perhaps not in "Conscience and its Enemies", that the use of "one flesh" union is a literal as well as metaphorical sense. The term is a beautiful play on the Genesis phrase which captures the essence of the conjugal union of the marital couple and teleological product of that type of union.

    I think I understand what you are getting at regarding "organic" unity, and I think that functional unity nicely captures that the teleological aspect of coitus. But I'm still of the mind that organic unity also adequately describes the conjugal union.

    You are speaking in a strict sense of organic unity, uniting them (parts) as an organism. But the term "organic" has other implications such as "having systematic coordination of parts", and "forming an integral element of a whole". And it is especially this second sense in which George bases his use of organic unity. He writes that they are biologically united "... similarly to the way in which one's heart, lungs, and other organs form a unity: by coordinating for the biological good of the whole." He makes the point that reproduction is the only biological function of the human body that is not contained and realized by one human person. The function in question is one that serves the good of a male-female pair as a whole, and the product of offspring as the inherent purpose of reproduction.

    And just to clarify, Germain Grisez is the one quoted describing the copulating male and female as one organism, while George says that the mating pair is an organic unit, engaging in organic union in the sense above.

  10. Ed,

    In the review you say: "..traditional natural-law theory holds that capital punishment is permissible in principle even if not always in practice, while Grisez, Finnis and George maintain that it is always and in principle wrong."

    All these guys (as best I recall) are Catholic. On what grounds could they possibly believe this?