Robert George on Mill and Newman

Every so often, the Catholic Church goes through the bizarre process of elevating one of its adherents to the status of saint. This absurd spectacle demands that the wannabee-saint be responsible for at least two miracles. Now it’s the turn of John Henry Newman (1801-1890), a British theologian. For some inexplicable reason, although Newman died almost 130 years ago, it’s only quite recently that prayers that invoked his name have had the desired effect.

Jack Sullivan supposedly had back pain, and he claims to have been cured after praying to Newman. Well, it’s not like spontaneous remission of back pain ever happens, right? It must have been a miracle!

Melissa Villalobos supposedly had internal bleeding while pregnant. She also prayed to Newman, and claimed to be healed. It must have been a miracle! No one could possibly come up with any other explanation, right?

Recently on twitter, Princeton professor Robert George celebrated this momentous event by recalling his paper on John Stuart Mill and John Henry Newman. I have to admit, I am not usually in the habit of reading papers published in obscure religious journals, but I was intrigued. So I read it.

That was a mistake.

It is pretty bad. Here, very briefly, are just a few of the things wrong with it: it’s sloppily proofread; it uses private redefinitions of basic terms; it doesn’t so much as argue as just make assertions; it’s full of bafflegab; it doesn’t adequately support its main contention; and it fails to be a scholarly contribution.

Sloppy proofreading: I’ll just cite two instances (there are others): “defenses f freedom” in the very first paragraph! Then, later on, “neither to each other not to some common substance” (“not” instead of “nor”). Did anyone — author or publisher — make even the most cursory effort here?

Makes assertions instead of argues: “Christian philosophical anthropology … has proved to be far more plausible and reliable than the alternative that Mill, quite uncritically, accepted”. No actual argument or citation provided.

Private redefinitions of basic terms: religion is defined as “the active quest for spiritual truth and the conscientious effort to live with integrity and authenticity in line with one’s best judgments regarding the ultimate sources of meaning and value, and to fulfill one’s obligations (spiritual and moral) in both the public and private dimensions of one’s life”. A dishonest rhetorical ploy: define “religion” so broadly it encompasses nearly every action by an ethical person.

Bafflegab: top, p. 42: George uses 17 lines to make the trivial observation that happiness and human flourishing are functions of multiple variables with no obvious way to compare or weight them, in order to achieve a maximizing outcome everyone will agree with. Then why not just say that?

More bafflegab: “the dignity of human persons” (p. 44). “Dignity” is the ultimate weasel word; what you regard as essential to human dignity (e.g., forbidding contraception) I could just as easily regard as an example of human indignity.

Very few citations: e.g., George mentions criticism of Mill by Hart (but doesn’t bother to give a citation). This is not scholarly behavior.

The main point is not adequately supported: Why exactly do duties automatically confer rights? Adherents of the religion of Christian Identity believe black people are subhuman and one has a duty to subjugate and exterminate them. How does this confer a right to do so?

Let’s face it: the Christian account of morality is competely unsupported and incoherent. Some philosophers still have a medieval view of man’s nature that is completely unmoored from modern discoveries of evolution and psychology.

Man is not a “rational creature” as George claims, and this absurdly bad essay is proof of that. In my field, junk as bad as this just could not get published in a reputable journal, and if it does somehow manage to, everyone would laugh.