Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Reason As The Source Of Natural Law

Father Geoff Farrow has an insightful take on the theology of Robert P. George. George is supposedly the Catholic neocon replacement for Fr. John Neuhaus. The New York Times writer, David Kilpatrick, did an extensive piece on George in December. Fr. Farrow's post deals with specific quotes from the article. It's well worth taking the time to read.

In my own writing today, I want to deal with something else about Dr. George's thinking. It's his insistence that man's faculty for reasoning is the shining light which illuminates the truth of George's natural law position. This optimisitic assessment of reason is the ground on which the rest of George's position on moral issues resides. Somehow the light of reason is immune from the dulling aspects of Original Sin:

I asked George several times if he was really hoping to ground a mass movement in abstract principles of reason so at odds with the prevailing culture. It was a bet, he said, on his conviction about the innate human gift for reason. Still, he said, if there was one critique of his work that worried him, it was the charge that he puts too much faith in the power of reason, overlooking what Christians describe as original sin and what secular pessimists call history.

It is a debate at least as old as the Reformation, when Martin Luther broke with the Catholic Church and insisted that reason was so corrupted that faith in the divine was humanity’s only hope of salvation. (Until relatively recently, contemporary evangelicals routinely leveled the same charge at modern Catholics.) “This is a serious issue, and if I am wrong, this is where I am wrong,” George acknowledges. (Well, you are wrong, but not for the reasons that worry you.)

Over lunch last month at the Princeton faculty club, George noted that many evangelicals had signed the Manhattan Declaration despite the traditional Protestant skepticism about the corruption of human reason. “I sold my view about reason!” he declared. He was especially pleased that, by signing onto the text, so many Catholic bishops had endorsed his new natural-law argument about marriage. “It really is the top leadership of the American church,” he said.
“Obviously, I am gratified that view appears to have attracted a very strong following among the bishops,” he went on. “I just hope I am right. If they are going to buy my arguments, I don’t want to mislead the whole church.”


Dr. George is wrong about reason because it is not the penultimate intellectual capacity of humanity. It is just one crayon in the whole box of crayons of human neurological ability. The only way it becomes the brightest crayon in the box is to arbitrarily dismiss the importance of any of the other crayons, especially the crayons whose colors are the foundation for that penultimate crayon. Dr. George does this especially in regards to emotional intelligence. This is a typical statement of his: In a well-ordered soul, reason’s got the whip hand over emotion,”.

Kilpatrick then illustrates more of George's 'reasoning': In George's view, if I have no rational basis for picking one goal over another, then I have no free choice, only predetermined “passions” — the result of genetics, a blow to the head, whatever made me prefer either curing the sick or killing the Jews. We have reason and free choice, he teaches, or we have amorality and determinism.

One of the flaws in Dr. George's position is his dismissal of emotion. His emphasis on the importance of reason makes him feel more comfortable and less anxious. In other words, I could just as easily state that in his case, leaning on his reason is a method of reacting to the the emotion of confusion, fear, and the subsequent anxiety these emotions generate. In this case 'reason' is a tool of his brain operating in reaction to his fears.

The scientific fact is the higher reasoning functions of the neo cortex are built over and connected to the lower or more primitive reptilian hind brain and the reptilian hind brain is quite concerned with over all organism survival. It generates a number of neuro chemicals associated all of our survival needs and often times those invoke fear. The neo cortex, in many many ways, serves the activities of the reptilian hind brain in alleviating those fears. Reason does not control the emotions of the hind brain. It can however, construct ideas which serve to mitigate the chemical processes these meta concerns of the hind brain generate.

Unfortunately for Mr. George, reason does not operate in altered states of consciousness like dream states, highly emotionally charged events, or young children where the neo cortex is not really on line. In these states the emotive hind brain and it's meta programs just keep on keepin on and reason is overwhelmed or inoperative. The hind brain reacts to the concepts of the neo cortex really well when one lives in a highly safe and controlled world like Princeton or Cathedral chanceries in the wealthy and stable west. It's a different story elsewhere.

Dr. George's use of his dominant reason has led him into what a psychologist could only call compartmentalization and rationalizing. The are two very important defense mechanisms used by reason to ignore conflicting reality. Take this for instance:

On the question of capital punishment, George says he is against it but he considers it a matter of interpretation about which Catholics can disagree. The intentional killing of innocent civilians in war is as grave a moral crime as abortion, George says, but what constitutes a “just war” is a more complicated judgment call. Before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, he wrote an op-ed article in The Wall Street Journal arguing that the attack was not necessarily unjust and might even be a moral obligation. “On the evidence that Hillary Clinton voted for the war on and George Bush went to war on, I thought it was justified,” he told me.

The “rights” to education and health care are another matter, George told his seminar. “Who is supposed to provide education or health care to whom?” George asked. “Health care and education are things that you have to pay for. Resources are always finite,” he went on. “Is it better for education and health care to be provided by governments under socialized systems or by private providers in markets or by some combination?” Those questions, George said, “go beyond the application of moral principles. You can get all the moral principles dead right and not have an answer to any of those questions.”

In my opinion Dr. George has a problem here. He can't reasonably get around the fact that the intellectual attribute of reason necessitates education of some sort in order to construct solutions and be communicable. Additionally, a lack of consistent health care is a survival issue. Reason does not operate well if the brain is compromised by poor health or is in a continual survival mode. Reason does not function in a physiological vacuum. Precisely because it is a latter development of the neo cortex it necessitates the providing for the necessities of the lower states. A starving sick body with it's starving sick brain will not reason well. Nor will a poorly educated one. Perhaps this is why Jesus made healing and educating prime directives of His personal mission.

Reason, as a justification for natural law, is only available to those whose brains are healthy, fed, secure, and educated. In this sense, it is only the spiritual tool of an elite population. Perhaps this is why the spiritual intellect transcends reason and takes into consideration the totality of human need and experience. The spiritual intellect does not seek just reasonable truth. The spiritual intellect understands that truth is far more than reasonable. It needs to be holistic and incorporate more than the skills of the neo cortex.

There is truth in the emotional intellect every bit as much as there is truth in the rational intellect. That's probably why Jesus taught the meta organizing principle is love. Jesus wasn't talking about love as need fulfillment, which is the understanding of the hind brain, nor love as a controlled emotion of reason. He was talking about love interpreted by the spiritual intellect which expresses love as connection and compassion. He was talking about intellectual assessments which see similarities in others and does not seek out and isolate differences.

He encouraged His disciples to question accepted reason as well as unfettered emotion. He consistently showed them, and made them live the fact, that what they thought was the truth of their world was not the whole truth. Not gravity, not solidity, not sound, not light, not resource scarcity, not even death. He told us the one constant thing about our universe is love. He mandated providing for the survival needs of the poor, and the teaching of His principles. It was in this way that everyone would know His definition of love and overcome sin.
Perhaps the problem for some of us is that His definition of love is not 'reasonable'.


  1. I was disturbed by one other aspect of his position - his definition of "natural law" as obviously arrived at by reasoning. Example - he cites abortion as against natural law and posits that any rational being would arrive at this point.
    What concerns me is that natural law is discovered by reasoning but also by history, experience, experiments, trial and error, it evolves - it is not static. If natural law was static, then we would still have slavery; the earth would still be the center of the universe. His arguments do not stand up to the test of time - the human race has evolved especially in terms of our own self-understanding of sexual ethics - when does a human being exist? at conception? the science (reasoning) of genetics would not agree with this for multiple reasons. His de-emphasis on social evils is also concerning - 25,000 children per day die because of poverty, disease, war, etc. Is this not also reasoning? and yet, there appears to be no place in his natural law for these facts.

  2. Another link to an excellent synposis of the various distinctions and levels that reasoning has in natural law using abortion as the example: http://www.catholica.com.au/peregrinus/045_pere_230507.php

  3. This is all very disturbing. The Manhattan Declaration and its authorship by George illustrate the retrograde movement of the Church is now total and complete.
    George sounds about as unsophisticated as Peter Kreeft, spouting boiled over Thomistic bromides that were published in booklets for the masses in the early 20th century.

    If reason has "the whip hand on emotion", what does this say about people who are more emotionally expressive - let's be perhaps a bit non-PC and say, what about women? It seems to me that George's ideas (and much of the history of philosophy) consider women weaker because they don't appear to be whipping their emotions into shape. It all feels like so much desperate hyper-rationality in the face of challenges to real growth.

    George et al. have blinders on. They do not want to acknowledge that for some time now, philosophy has ceased to be the handmaiden of theology; experience now plays that role, and has for a while.

  4. George is definitely in the running for Frank Cocozzelli's "Coughie" award, and the institutional church continues its march backward in time....

  5. I agree with anonymous. Even reasoning cannot be static.

    George seems to have an audience with some frozen, yes static, American bishops.

    George really is on shaky ground. He seems to admit it when he says: “Still,if there was one critique of his work that worried him, it was the charge that he puts too much faith in the power of reason, overlooking what Christians describe as original sin and what secular pessimists call history.”

  6. "the human race has evolved especially in terms of our own self-understanding of sexual ethics"

    Has it "evolved?" Whether one talks about predatory priests, craven bishops - or world-famous golfers (to say nothing of politicians of both parties in America) - a short, sharp, shock of reason, momentarily de-coupled from the impulses of the hind-brain would have been very helpful.

    The biggest problem with the so-called "perfectibility of man" is thinking I'm the finished product of that process.

    And, to the 1st Anonymous, if I wasn't human at conception I can't be human now, can I?

  7. Colleen, this is an excellent analysis of George's idea of reason. I hope to see this piece appear in other places--it deserves a wide hearing, in my view.

  8. Mark, I really do think our understanding of sexual ethics has evolved. That doesn't necessarily mean that the hormonal influences have innately changed. What it does mean is that there is a construct accepted by the neo cortex that can serve to structure the expression of the hormones.

    The problem is that most of our moral reasoning is based on male sexuality and structuring the correct expression of orgasm. In men orgasm and ejaculation go hand in hand and so the procreative aspects of male sexuality are directly tied to the orgasmic pleasure.

    This is not true for women. Pregnancy can have, and frequently does have, nothing to do with sexual pleasure or orgasm. Pregnancy is not some nine month mystical orgasm. It's a biological process and too frequently not a welcome process.

    We have evolved to the point where society does not condone indescriminate pursuit of male orgasm by exploitative methods. At the same time we evolved an understanding of women's sexuality which recognized the capacity for women to enjoy sex irrespective of pregnancy. So while society accepted putting brakes on indescriminate male sexuality as a moral good, western society was taking the brakes off of female sexuality and giving women the choice to experience sexual pleasure without pregnancy.

    A crash was bound to occur and it seems to me that gays and to some extent women are paying the price.

    What we need is a mutual path and not a reassertment of the exclusively male reasoned path.

  9. I think there's a danger in criticising George's reliance on "reason." One risks creating the appearance of conceding that he is, in fact, being reasonable.

    His problem is not simply that he exaggerates the importance of reason -- which is pretty important, when it's limits and scope are understood. His problem is that he thinks he's being reasonable when in fact he's not.

    This idea that morality can be determined solely on the basis of reason, without consideration of largely non-rational values, is not itself reasonable.

    Furthermore, his insistence that sexual acts must be "procreative-type" sex acts (his term) according to the "natural law" runs into the difficulty that the vast majority of sex acts (even those considered morally licit by the Vatican) do not result in "procreation." There is no causal relationship between insemination and conception, as his hero Aristotle failed to notice, and as the Catholic tradition has generally failed to notice along with him.

    The "natural law" argument against contraception was ably dismantled by Jesuit Fr. Bernard Lonergan (as summarised here on my own blog), and I would argue that the same argument can be applied to any position claiming to be of "natural law" that depends on the mistaken (and unreasonable) notion that each and every sex act has a "procreative sense."

  10. Gosh, if reason were enough, there would be no need for therapy! You could call me up, give me the scoop, listen to "clear reasoning" - and that would enough! But it's not!

    How naive some people can be....