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George Speaks on Religious Liberty

May 3, 2013

 Last night, Robert George, the McCormack Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton, spoke "Two Concepts of Liberty and Conscience" at the Salt and Light Conference honoring the legacy of Charles Colson.  In his talk, George compared and contrasted two worldviews regardings rights and conscience.  Both of these view harken back to two preeminent English philosophers in the 19th Century, John Stuart Mill and Cardinal John Henry Newman.  

George began his talk focusing on Mill and his conception of rights.  Mill, the author of On Liberty, provides the philosophical foundation for rights and freedom of conscience that liberals use today.  Most of these arguments are based on Mill's harm principle that says "the actions of others should only be limited if they harm others."  From this idea, we have liberals claim the right for same sex couples to marry, the right to abortion, the right to smoke marijuana, and other things.  Since the people are autonomous individuals who can make decisions for themselves, they should be allowed to do what they choose because their actions do not harm anyone else.  

Next, Professor George discussed the problems with the liberals interpretation of Mill.  First, George pointed out that Mill isnot just concerned about government limiting the rights of people but the passion of the majority.  Consequently, true Mill supporters should oppose the political correctness that leads liberals to denounce evangelicals as bigots for opposing same sex marriage, as waging a war on women over abortion, etc.  Second, he argues that liberals focus on the harm principle but forget its foundation.  Mill bases his harm principle on the ethical theory of utility which is based on "the permanent interest of man as a progressive being." What this means is that if an activity harms society at large, then it can be restricted because your right to engage in an action is based on social benefit not abstract rights.  Liberals never argue for expanded right as good for society as much as good for an individual.  

Third, Mill wrote that the harm principle only applied to mature societies like England and other developed societies.  Therefore, this means that societies that fall into barbarism no longer have the freedom to act unimpeded because it no longer advances the nation.  Fourth, Mill had an optimistic view of human nature that saw humanity constantly progressing.  He could believe this because of the advances he saw in the Industrial Revolution and other reforms in Britain.  However if you take into account WWI and WWII, totalitarian regimes, genocide throughout the world, and other atrocities, it is hard to argue that society will constantly improve. Finally, he says that Mill does not base his theory on abstract rights to do something, as liberals claim. but instead rights are based a person's value as a person. 

Having finished his discussion and critique of Mill, George began to explain how Cardinal Newman offered a better way forward in defining conscience.  First, George argues that Newman and Mill both reject abstract rights as the basis for conscience.  Moreover, Newman's belief in the fall means that he has a more accurate view of human nature and does not suffer the naivete that Mill demonstrates as the possibility of humans constantly progressing.  Instead, Newman bases rights on human flourishing. This basis provides strong rights to prevent us from descending into barbarism but are positive for human flourishing.  

Second, Newman argues that all rights come with responsibilities and that is too often ignored.  This focus on duty is where conscience comes in.  Most liberals see conscience as the right to do as one pleases. This conception transforms conscience from stern monitor of self-will to the liscence.  However, Newman argues that conscience is one's best judgment informed by faith and reason about what one must and must not do.  The focus on what one must not do is important because of the importance it places on duty/responsibility of the person engaging in a right.  

As he ended, Professor George talked about how basic civil liberties support each other.  For example, freedom of speech is usless is one cannot assemble and petition the government. Thus, we consider the First Amendment freedoms as the bedrock of our nation.  But if we look at the First Amendment, the first right listed is the freedom of religion.  Freedom of religion is so important because it determines our conscience and the way that we live our life and thus how we use our freedom. Thus, it shapes out other rights.  Finally, George discussed the public benefit of religion as a reason to support religious liberty.  Religious groups are intermediary institutions that serve as buffer against state power because they are a competing source of power by promoting a separate morality that constrains government power.  If you get rid of religion, then the state defines our morality which leads to no restraints on government. Plus, religious communities are dedicated to helping others and it is person interaction with people, not government payments, that show value to people and helps them improve.

A video of his talk is available at http://new.livestream.com/uu/saltandlight