January 19, 2007

Rawls, Habermas and Hobbes- an article by Professor George

Robert George, Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton, has aimed his guns at Jurgen Habermas and John Rawls- his critique of their ideas aims at the ways that Rawls and Habermas want to understand the role of religion in contemporary society. Professor George sees Rawls and Habermas as attempting to answer the great question of our time- how do religious people reasoning from religious axioms coexist within a society with those who disagree with them about religion and who therefore disagree with their reasoning. How does a Catholic whose central conception of human kind is as flawed individuals, tainted by the fall, and only redeemed by the saving grace of Christ, coexist in a society with a liberal individualist who argues that humanity's faults are soluble by social engineering and that human nature is a fiction. Its difficult to think of points they would hold in common, its difficult to conceive of ways that each could understand the other's argument. The difficulty on abortion is an obvious one: on the one hand you have the religious person who is essentially arguing about the presence of a soul within an embryo and on the other you have the secularist who doesn't beleive in souls but is interested in the right of a woman to control her own body. Accusations of murderer and sexist fill the air- but neither position in its own terms is about murder or sexism- what we have is a clash of languages.

Professor George states that Habermas and Rawls failed in their attempts to find common ways of arguing about politics. He argues that they failed largely because they failed to comprehend the nature of the Catholic challenge to their own liberalism. He argues that they arbitraryly divide rational from irrational arguments- moral from ethical arguments- to exclude those arguments based upon religious principle from their remit. Professor George doesn't face the problem that they describe- save in a very limited way- reccomending the revival of the idea of natural law- something I will come onto. What he does is severely criticise Rawls and Habermas for excluding from public reason the religious. Professor George therefore leaves us with two possibilities- the first is that religious and irreligious people cannot live together in society (something one Anglican authoritarian recently told me was possibly true) and the second being that we should withdraw to Catholic natural law as our basis for argument.

Invoking natural law though doesn't really help anyone. Professor George is right to say that natural law has been used by thinkers of all Christian traditions, Jewish traditions and by at least one reputed atheist, Thomas Hobbes. But he is completely wrong to say that what they produced was something that could be accepted by anyone as a basis for argument no matter what their political principles. I study natural law as part of my work- and the natural law that 17th Century English Revolutionaries argued for was a natural law based solely upon the bible. If you didn't beleive in the bible then you couldn't join the argument from that perspective. Thomas Hobbes on the other hand has a completely different idea of natural law- he uses the term- but Hobbes does not derive his natural law from the Bible at all- his one natural right (the right to preserve one's own life) is derived from an insight into the biological and mechanical operations of the human brain not from Leviticus or Deuteronomy. Replacing our doubts with the word natural law just moves the debate on a step- all it does is involve us all in a discussion of what natural law is. Whether it is the law of human nature, whether it is the law of what we biologically do, whether it is the law of what we can do in our modern society. Ultimately what do you mean by nature and is it static?

Thomas Hobbes offers a very different route out of this dilemma to us. Hobbes in the Leviathan argued that there is no summum bonum, no utmost ayme. His argument was basically that instead of aiming for that that is your ultimate good in society- political action should be about the preservation of society. The worst thing is civil conflict- the best is unattainable. Hobbes's doctrine has all kinds of problems- is living under Hitler worse than anarchy- the woman raped in Berlin in 1945 might say it isn't but the Jew definitely will say it is. Hobbes does offer some kind of a way forward though- because what we are trying to do is find that minimum that within a society which includes people who beleive very different things about the world and human nature, can provide a basis of discussion and argument. It may be that its time that we return to the old Hobbesian question of what minimum people with very different ideas of the world can beleive in and find to argue from.

Professor George's solution to the problems of Rawls and Habermas can be easily discarded. Ronald Dworkin's latest book focuses upon this issue- and I'm just beggining to read it and try and understand it and I promise a review when I've done that. But definitely the idea of what it takes for people with different ideas to live together and fashion a political community, that is at a minimum level, satisfying to a large majority of those involved, is a fascinating issue. Hobbesian political theory can only take us so far- he afterall was thinking about a very different society- but it might be time to turn back to the old master and read him in conjunction with Rawls, Habermas, George, Dworkin and anyone else who seeks to solve this question.

PS Can I make a brief apology- it seems that the article from Professor George now is behind a subscription wall at First Things- I accessed it yesterday via the political theory daily review (linked to in the sidebar) but it seems that now that route has been blocked- so you can't check the actual article- apologies guys.


james higham said...

Hobbes is constantly misinterpreted and misused. Called atheistic, most scholars conveniently ignore parts 2 and 3 - 'Of a Christian Commonwealth' and of 'the Kingdom of Darkness.'

Besides, he went a bit troppo later on.

Also, he was at his best whilst partnered by Sutcliffe. [Ignore this last facetious remark.]

james higham said...

Sorry, I meant parts 3 and 4.

edmund said...

I agree entiely with you James and I suspect gracchi will at least in part.

However I do think there is a case that people were right to call Hobbes an atheist- in the late 17th century I think atheist is used for people who deny the basic tenants of orthodox Christianity e.g redemption, incarnation, Virign Birth, Resurrection, biblical miracles, judgment ect and there's case Hobbes was sufficently orthodox to be "atheist" under such a definition.

Gracchi said...

I agree with you both- notice I said reputed atheist not atheist. I think its chapter 13 of Book One where he defines God as that of which we do not know- and he is definitely an adherant of the first mover idea. Furthermore yes I agree Parts Three and Four are important- the point I wnated to make though was that many accused him of atheism at the time- including the people I study. His natural law is based on his definitions of human nature not upon the bible which say makes it very different from some of the guys I study. Hobbes's view of Israel is fascinating- whether God was sovereign etc? Anyway I agree with both of you.

Gracchi said...

Oh and James I think he was at his best when partnered with Calvin!

Anglican anti-authoritarian said...

I wouldn't call myself an Anglican authoritarian-and would be interested how you would justify that claim. If I did say that my point was different it was that in a society with a lot of religious and secular people it's very difficult for the governed not to favour one over the other-and the larger the government the less easy it is and the more the government controls and dominates life the harder it is for

This can be seen if say the government spends 50% of GDP that means that in ways that go far beyond law and order. So if say a 1/3 of the workface works for the government does the govern allow hardliner racists to work them hard core chrisoms, homosexual special right activists, Islamises? If the government tries to take a relaxed view allowing them full freedom to behaviour as they wish in their spare time and even freedom in employment it will stop not escape this dilemma-because it means unpopular groups are now having their membership protected finachialy , socially etc from the state-so the larger govern is the more likely is to intrude in questions of culture and ethics-and thus inevitably take sides.

Gracchi said...

The problem is is politics a zero sum game like you envisage within your post for the control of society or is it the provision of rules for debate which allow us all to function according to our acceptable moral codes and what does that word acceptable mean. I don't provide an answer here merely open up the question.

Anglican non-authoritarian said...

but Grachhi while I accept your latest point is an importnat one- I think it leads to exactly the same conclusion in diffent language. The more tightly government decides the rule of the game-that is the more they go from setting a framework of rule of law and property rights and the more they try and either set substnative outcomes eg eliming "discrimation" or the more tightly they limnit the space of non state decison making the more such a cultural clash is inevitable- in other words the more govern does the more ireconcibality of values matter

edmund said...

There's a lot in here! I'm assuming you're referring to a George article on this subject i've read- since it's behind the subscripton wall as you say.

On a specific note you misstate the Catholic positon on abortion at least -as wel as those of many other "religou person". The catholic church9and many other religous groups ) does not hold that abortion is wrong because embryos have a soul-that's an open question. It thinks abortion is murder because it argues killing all human beings without just cause is murder it it's not because foetus have a soul but because thye're human beings/ homo sapiens ect

It's also worht noting there are pro life feminists and depending on your defition of feminism (say "feamale equality" or even Pankhurt style "female superitioriy) I don't see why they have to support abortion.

Isn't Geoge right to say that the divisoin between moral and ehtical and Rawls similar one is a case of someone "arbitarily divide" ? if not why not?

I think it's important to realize his not saying natural law has to be Catholic. see "these reasons, embraced and proclaimed by the Catholic Church, can be, and have been, affirmed by people who know nothing of, or do not accept, Jewish or Christian revelation or the authority of the Church or any other institution."

Ironically I think one also has to understand Catholic natual law- the idea is that there are cerin universal truths determinable by reason and others which are not- the former is not based on religous revelation though iut may be affimed by it > i should add I have a lot of problem with this system.

George and others (Finnis most importantly) have attmepted to build up a system of modern natual law-it's worth reading about. They base a poltiical theory based on ceritn universal goods/ universals (eg helath, life ect) . I think it's far from perfect- it suffers from the problem of any poltiical theory which is not based clearly on a metaphysical base but I think it makes a better job of it than Rawls or Habermas. I fail to see how your post gives the grounds for saying This "can be easily discarded."

Now obviously you're right that natual law has been used in manny differen senses- but George is rather ahistorically not talking about Roundheads here , it's just like Rawls "liberalism" is not Gladstone's it's annoying for the histian but I don't think is a big critique of the belief. That doen mean there arent' any-there ceratial are for Rawls but that his liberalim is not that of Gladstone or even Mill is not.

I think you have a point about Hoobes but in many ways Locke or Nozick I think also have a big role because they minimize the role of govern in interfering with indivial automany. The problem is wiht hObbes that saying you should submit to government does not expalin what that governn should do-and saying it should be as united, and powerfull as possible is dangerous for obvious reason which you holocaust example illustrate.

Gracchi said...

The substance of this point I think lies around the issue of natural law- the problem is that I know little about Finnis but I think the problem with any system of natural law which is based on reason and not as Hobbes's on appetite is Vico's whose reason and how come such a system was never discovered by intelligent men in the past. Furthermore why should law derive from nature and not from human desire.