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.@GeorgeWill — Getting The Basics Wrong

15 September 2019 @ 17:51

Over at Aleteia, Bishop Robert Barron, Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese Of Los Angeles, has written a review of George Will’s latest book.

Entitled One Cheer For George Will’s ‘The Conservative Sensibility’, it shows why Will’s philosophy ultimately fails and, perhaps more importantly, why he deserves a most-guarded cheer.¹

From the review:

Will’s central argument is crucially important. The American experiment in democracy rests, he says, upon the epistemological conviction that there are political rights, grounded in a relatively stable human nature, that precede the actions and decisions of government. These rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are not the gifts of the state; rather, the state exists to guarantee them, or to use the word that Will considers the most important in the entire prologue to the Declaration of Independence, to “secure” them. Thus is government properly and severely limited and tyranny kept, at least in principle, at bay.

In accord with both Hobbes and Locke, Will holds that the purpose of the government finally is to provide an arena for the fullest possible expression of individual freedom. Much of the first half of The Conservative Sensibility consists of a vigorous critique of the “progressivism,” with its roots in Hegelian philosophy and the practical politics of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, that would construe government’s purpose as the reshaping of a fundamentally plastic and malleable human nature. What this has led to, on Will’s reading, is today’s fussily intrusive nanny state, which claims the right to interfere with every nook and cranny of human endeavor.

With much of this I found myself in profound agreement. It is indeed a pivotal feature of Catholic social teaching that an objective human nature exists and that the rights associated with it are inherent and not artificial constructs of the culture or the state….

Indeed.  That word ‘secure’ is very important as it implies that certain Rights are always in existence for Human Beings whether there is a government of some sort or not.  The state does not create Rights.

More from Bishop Barron:

But as George Will’s presentation unfolded, I found myself far less sympathetic with his vision. What becomes clear is that Will shares, with Hobbes and Locke and their disciple Thomas Jefferson, a morally minimalistic understanding of the arena of freedom that government exists to protect. All three of those modern political theorists denied that we can know with certitude the true nature of human happiness or the proper goal of the moral life — and hence they left the determination of those matters up to the individual. Jefferson expressed this famously as the right to pursue happiness as one sees fit. The government’s role, on this interpretation, is to assure the least conflict among the myriad individuals seeking their particular version of fulfillment. The only moral bedrock in this scenario is the life and freedom of each actor.

Such a belief will eventually lead to Relativism, where [as we see in this Age] people now speak as untethered  separate units [EX: ‘Well…my truth is that…blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.’]

There are no shared guiding set of Principals to bring a nation together.

More from The Bishop [emphasis mine]:

…Central to the Church’s thinking on politics is the conviction that ethical principles, available to the searching intellect of any person of good will, ought to govern the moves of individuals within the society, and moreover, that the nation as a whole ought to be informed by a clear sense of the common good—that is to say, some shared social value that goes beyond simply what individuals might seek for themselves. Pace Will, the government itself plays a role in the application of this moral framework precisely in the measure that law has both a protective and directive function. It both holds off threats to human flourishing and, since it is, to a degree, a teacher of what the society morally approves and disapproves, also actively guides the desires of citizens.

Here is the key to the argument against Will’s Philosophy:

But beyond this, mediating institutions—the family, social clubs, fraternal organizations, unions, and above all, religion—help to fill the public space with moral purpose. And in this way, freedom becomes so much more than simply “doing what we want.” It commences to function, as John Paul II put it, as “the right to do as we ought.” For the mainstream of Catholic political thought, the free market and the free public space are legitimate only in the measure that they are informed and circumscribed by this vibrant moral intuition….

Russell Kirk called it The Moral Imagination

We must always be on guard against ourselves acting against the Mediating Institutions.  Leftism seeks to Destroy these utterly, but the kind of Libertarian Philosophy [and that’s what it really is] Will promotes will ultimately have the same effect [as we are seeing now].

More from Father Barron:

When we come to the end of The Conservative Sensibility, we see more clearly the reason for this thin interpretation of the political enterprise. George Will is an atheist, and he insists that, despite the religiously tinged language of some of the Founding Fathers, the American political project can function just fine without reference to God.

All that rubbish about ‘Divine Providence’ is just an empty Bromide, eh, George?…a rhetorical flourish designed to Deceive Americans?


The problem here is twofold. First, when God is denied, one must affirm some version of Hobbes’ metaphysics, for, in the absence of God, that which would draw things together ontologically, and eventually politically, has disappeared. Secondly, the negation of God means that objective ethical values have no real ground, and hence morality becomes, at the end of the day, a matter of clashing subjective convictions and passions.

In other words: Relativism rules.  There are no standards, no worthy Traditions passed down from our Ancestors, no canons for us to share and live by, and nothing to pass along to our Posterity.

This is absolutely not Conservative.

As The Bishop concludes: ‘…Will gets some important things right, but he gets some even more basic things quite wrong’.

You don’t have to be a Catholic to agree with Bishop Barron.  All of us who believe in The One True God can join with him.


¹ I think Will is also being Arrogant in the title he has chosen.  He presents his philosophy as if it is the last word on conservative Intuitions and Insights.  Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind presented the philosophies of some conservatives who Mr. Kirk either disagreed with, in part, or in whole, but he did it Fairly so that we, the readers, could make up our own minds.  Therefore the ‘The’ in the title is appropriate.  Not in George Will’s case.  There’s a certain Pretentiousness it here.  Though he may have a Brillant Mind, Will has always come across as a Stuck-Up, Egotistical, and Haughty Ninny.

² Russell Kirk on The Moral Imagination:

The moral imagination aspires to the apprehending of right order in the soul and right order in the commonwealth.

By this “moral imagination,” Burke signifies that power of ethical perception which strides beyond the barriers of private experience and momentary events “especially,” as the dictionary has it, “the higher form of this power exercised in poetry and art.” The moral imagination aspires to the apprehending of right order in the soul and right order in the commonwealth. This moral imagination was the gift and the obsession of Plato and Vergil and Dante. Drawn from centuries of human consciousness, these concepts of the moral imagination—so powerfully if briefly put by Burke—are expressed afresh from age to age. So it is that the men of humane letters in our century whose work seems most likely to endure have not been neoterists, but rather bearers of an old standard, tossed by our modern winds of doctrine: the names of Eliot, Frost, Faulkner, Waugh, and Yeats may suffice to suggest the variety of this moral imagination in the twentieth century.

It is the moral imagination which informs us concerning the dignity of human nature, which instructs us that we are more than naked apes. As Burke suggested in 1790, letters and learning are hollow if deprived of the moral imagination. And, as Burke suggested, the spirit of religion long sustained this moral imagination, along with a whole system of manners. Such imagination lacking, to quote another passage from Burke, we are cast forth “from this world of reason, and order, and peace, and virtue, and fruitful penitence, into the antagonist world of madness, discord, vice, confusion, and unavailing sorrow.”

Reclaiming a Patrimony (Washington, DC: The Heritage Foundation, 1982)

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