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.

Comments

  1. says

    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 the ultimate in human indignity.

    If Christians cared about human dignity, they wouldn’t be fighting against LGBTQIA people having equal rights and access to healthcare. They wouldn’t be treating women as second class citizens who deserve no bodily autonomy or equal access to opportunities in life. They wouldn’t be supporting racism. They wouldn’t support various forms of child abuse like spanking.

    The only conclusion I can make is that Christians do not care about “the dignity of human persons,” they only care about the dignity of white, straight, cis, wealthy, Christian males.

  2. brucegee1962 says

    I also like the way, in this definition

    “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”

    he manages to use the undefined word “spiritual” twice. It’s turtles all the way down.

  3. leerudolph says

    In my field, junk as bad as this just could not get published in a reputable journal

    From the journal’s website: “The Saint Anselm Journal is a refereed journal of articles, discussion papers, and book reviews that examine the life, thought, teachings, and spirituality of Saint Anselm of Canterbury as well as proceedings of programs sponsored by the Institute for Saint Anselm Studies at Saint Anselm College.” Further digging around there reveals that “All submissions will be reviewed by members of the editorial board and will be adjudicated on the basis of scholarly merit” (but no listing that I could find of who those members are) and that it’s an “Open Access” journal.

    I think the evidence is weak that this is “a reputable journal”.

  4. Lee Rudolph says

    Andreas Avester@1: “they only care about the dignity of white, straight, cis, wealthy, Christian males”.

    You might add “adult” to the qualifiers, since as you noted earlier, they “support various forms of child abuse like spanking”, and they very definitely do not refrain from spanking their own male children. Spanking is both physically and psychically abusive, and a large component of its psychic abusiveness is its attack on the victim’s dignity. The state of Ohio, where I was born and raised, finally prohibited public schools from using “corporal punishment” (not limited to spanking!), but it was in place, and regularly (though not frequently) applied to me, during my entire time in the hands of the Cleveland Board of Education (1954–1965): in elementary school I was slapped (on the face) and spanked by hand (on the buttocks); in junior high school I was spanked with a wooden paddle and subjected to some ingenious tortures by one science teacher in particular (he would have his victim stand facing the blackboard and touch their nose to the slate; then he would draw a small chalk circle half an inch higher than the mark, instruct the victim to stand on their toes just enough to put their nose inside the circle, and leave them standing there for several minutes: it is incredibly painful after a short while); and in high school I was spanked (just once) with a large wooden paddle with holes drilled through it (“to decrease air resistance”), by an assistant principal who preceded the final strike of the paddle on my buttocks by swishing the paddle through the air towards me several times while explaining that if I didn’t “maintain the position” he might accidentally break my spine and leave me paralyzed. Note the lack of any consideration for the victim’s dignity throughout these examples!

     

    It’s a fair bet (though not a certainty) that all of those tormentors, women (in elementary school) and men (in junior and senior high school) were good Christians (for instance, the woman who slapped me in second grade was the wife of a Lutheran pastor). And the citizenry of Ohio who repeated endorsed corporal punishment by large majorities, until eventually they didn’t, were certainly majority Christian. The “dignity” of (even white!) children was not a concept that had much of a constituency then and there. Maybe “wealthy” children (I and all my public school classmates were of socio-economic classes well below “wealthy”) got better breaks, but again, I doubt it (then and there).

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