Wednesday, March 17, 2004

Getting educated w/ the help of Robert P. George & Andrew Sullivan

Relative to the current debate on same-sex marriage I've picked up Andrew Sullivan's Same-Sex Marriage: Pro and Con - A Reader (Vintage, 1997) and Robert P. George's Clash of Orthodoxies: Law, Religion and Morality in Crisis (ISI Books, 2001).

I confess to having a very limited awareness of the arguments being asserted by both parties -- ignorance which I hope to remedy by Sullivan's anthology, having heard that it was a decent introduction. From a cursory look at the contents, he appears to have fairly presented both sides of the issue. 1

Robert P. George is Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton. Clash of Orthodoxies is actually a compilation of revised articles and essays, a few which I've previously encountered previously in First Things but merit re-reading. Judging from the reviews I think it will help provide some philosophical context for the "culture wars" we're witnessing today and thus a fitting compliment to Sullivan's reader.

What I immediately like about George is that he believes in taking the offensive. Far too long, he insists, have we let the media and liberal critics portray the issue as a dispute of faith and reason: "enlightened liberalism" vs. "the religious right" -- when, George contends, it is those who affirm the Judeo-Christian moral tradition who have the rationally-defensible upper hand. A characteristic insight from the first chapter:

Orthodox secularists typically say that we should respect the rights of others, even as we go about the business of satisfying our own desires. Ultimately, however, secularism cannot provide any plausible account of where rights come from or why we should respect others’ rights. Of course, most secularists emphatically believe that people have rights. Indeed, they frequently accuse Christians and other religious believers of supporting policies that violate people’s rights. We are all familiar with the rhetoric: You religious people shouldn’t be imposing your values on other people. You are violating their rights! If it is between consenting adults, stay out of it! Any two (or more?) people have the right to define "marriage" for themselves. Women have a right to abortion. People have a right to take their own lives. Who are you to say otherwise?

But on the presuppositions of the secularist view, why should anybody respect anybody else’s rights? What is the reason for respecting rights? Any answer must state a moral proposition, but what, on orthodox secularist premises, could provide the ground of its moral truth?

. . . Secularism, at least in its liberal manifestations, makes the rights of others the principle of moral constraints upon action, relativizing allegedly self–regarding actions. But it generates a critical question it has no way of answering: Why should anyone respect the rights of others? 2

A good question, I think. I'm curious if Mr. Sullivan has an answer. And it will be interesting to read the various arguments proposed in Same Sex Marriage: Pro & Con, keeing in mind the underlying question of the fundamental basis for asserting one's rights . . . or lack thereof.

  1. Selections from William Bennett and Crisis magazine columnist Prof. Hadley Arkes are always a good indication.
  2. From "A Clash of Orthodoxies", First Things 95 (August/September 1999): 33-40. If you can't afford (or don't have time for) the book, you can find many of George's articles compiled here.

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