Richard Neuhaus”€”The Failures of a “€œPublic Intellectual”€

Under Discussion: American Babylon: Notes of a Christian Exile, Richard John Neuhaus, Basic Books (2009), 270 pages.

Richard Neuhaus, the recently deceased editor of First Things, acquired in his life a remarkable number of famous friends, as well as a few enemies. He knew Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, and Avery Cardinal Dulles was a close collaborator. His admirers found him warm and engaging, but he could be a rough customer when at odds with someone. In a notorious incident, the Rockford Institute in 1989 abruptly fired him as head of its Center for Revolution and Society and locked him out of his New York office. He started First Things soon afterwards.

He made two great changes in his life. In religion, he began as a Lutheran and, like his father, became a Missouri Synod pastor. Late in life, he converted to Roman Catholicism and wound up as a priest. Politically, he started as a man of the Left, and throughout the 1960s was an activist in the civil rights movement and a friend of Martin Luther King.

Legalized abortion and efforts to remove religion from the “€œpublic square”€ moved him rightward; and, to the extent First Things under his direction had a political position, it was neoconservative. How much Neuhaus himself shifted, though, remains open to question. In his last article, “€œThe Pro-Life Movement as the Politics of the 1960s,”€ published in The Wall Street Journal, January 9, 2009, he found it odd “€œthat the pro-life movement is viewed as a right-wing cause.”€ He compared the movement to the participatory democracy of the 1960s, with obvious approval for the latter.

Aside from the issues just mentioned, Neuhaus didn”€™t display an overwhelming concern with politics. He did not see his changed religious affiliation as a sharp discontinuity either. In American Babylon, he asks, how should Christians, who do not regard the secular realm as their true home, act politically? Neuhaus read widely and wrote with facility on an enormous variety of topics. Unfortunately, he thought that he knew enough about philosophy to write about it, and therein lies his downfall. His book is a philosophical disaster area. He does not understand the arguments he discusses and commits elementary blunders. He has nothing to offer conservatives or libertarians, and those sympathetic to his views on pro-life issues and on the public place of religion are well advised to look elsewhere.

Let us begin with the ethical issue that concerned Neuhaus more than any other: abortion. He rightly thinks that Roe v. Wade was a constitutional disaster; nothing in the Fourteenth Amendment can reasonably be taken as a grant to women to terminate their pregnancies. Further, Justice Blackmun made a major error in his majority opinion. He claimed that it was a matter of dispute when human life begins. This is surely wrong. If the life that begins at conception is not human, what is it? (Some room for argument exists, though, because of the possibility of twinning, whether a single human life is present in the first few days after conception.)

But the moral dispute over abortion does not lie here. Rather, opponents of abortion contend that once a human life is present, it has human rights. Most of those on the other side, such as the controversial Princeton philosopher Peter Singer, do not accept this. They distinguish between human beings and persons. To be a person requires more than just human life; other attributes, for example, self-consciousness, are also needed. (Furthermore, some philosophers think there can be non-human persons, so human life is not a necessary condition for personhood.). The fetus does not, in this view, acquire a right to life until it becomes a person. Singer thinks that newly born babies are not persons either and thus supports infanticide in some circumstances.

To reiterate, opponents of abortion, such as the Princeton political philosopher and First Things contributor Robert P. George, think that once human life is present, there is no further question about the moral standing of the fetus. (His book Embryo: A Defense of Human Life, written with Christopher Tollefsen, gives a good presentation of this position.) Defenders of abortion think there is. Neuhaus, does not realize this and inadvertently goes over to the other side:

And, contra the [Supreme] Court, the moral and legal question is not when a human life begins. That is a biological and medical question on which there is no serious dispute. The crucial question is: At what point in its existence ought we, and for what reasons ought we, recognize that a human life should be protected in law? On this issue, if no other, Peter Singer has it right… [quoting Singer] “€˜unless we separate these questions”€”when does life begin, and when does it merit protection?”€”we are unlikely to achieve any clarity about the moral status of embryos.”€™”€

In saying this, Neuhaus has surrendered the pass before the battle begins.

Neuhaus does no better on his other preoccupation, the place of religion in the public square. Here, in my view rightly, he rejects the doctrine of “€œpublic reason,”€ famously defended by John Rawls, which forbids, or at least drastically limits, appeals to religion in public discussions of political issues. Unfortunately, Neuhaus does not understand the rationale of public reason. He thinks that it stems from secularist hostility to religion.

Rawls does not argue in this way at all. Rather, he thinks that, in circumstances where people in a society profess different “€œcomprehensive doctrines,”€ respect for others requires everyone to limit himself to considerations that everyone else could accept as reasons. Public reason not only excludes appeals to religious doctrines but also appeals to the truth of atheism in the style of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens.

Neuhaus notes, “€œit is sometimes said that religious folk have an obligation to present their arguments in a form that is genuinely public, meaning that they are accessible to all reasonable parties. That is a demand that is both unreasonable and unfair. It is a demand that is not imposed on any other sector or institution of society.”€ Neuhaus is utterly wrong: the demand to which Neuhaus refers, the essence of Rawls’s account, does apply to everyone. That is its point.

In a particularly egregious display of ignorance, Neuhaus ascribes the “€œmethodological atheism”€ that he thinks is behind public reason in part to a misguided tendency to emulate the physical sciences. He then quotes an eloquent passage from Thomas Nagel that criticizes reductionism. But Nagel is in fact, after Rawls, the leading philosophical advocate of public reason: that view, whatever its failings, has nothing to do with scientific reductionism.

Neuhaus does not confine his misrepresentations to contemporary philosophers. In his chapter, “€œCan Atheists be Good Citizens?”€ he botches John Locke’s view of toleration. Locke’s argument against extending toleration to atheists is a simple one. Atheists do not believe that God rewards and punishes us after we die for our conduct on earth. Lacking this belief, an atheist will not have a motive to keep a promise when doing so goes against his self-interest. Hence, atheists cannot be trusted and will not make good citizens.

Neuhaus, as usual, gets things wrong. He thinks that Locke is arguing that an atheist cannot believe in objective truth. “€œAs a generality, can people who do not acknowledge that they are accountable to a truth higher than the self, a truth that is not dependent upon the self, really be trusted? John Locke, among many other worthies, thought not… “€˜The taking away of God dissolves all“€™ [quoting Locke]  Every text becomes pretext, every interpretation a strategy, and every oath a deceit.”€  But Locke is not arguing that an atheist cannot distinguish a true statement from his own opinion. Nothing prevents an atheist scientist, for example, from trying to arrive at true theory of the world. Locke’s argument is that other people do not have good reason to trust atheists; it is not a claim about the cognitive limitations of atheists.

Neuhaus is overly anxious to turn his opponents into subjectivists. He says that Peter Singer “€œcalls his approach “€˜preference utilitarianism,”€™ in which moral truth”€”if it still makes sense to speak of moral truth“€”is what we prefer it to be.”€ As Wolfgang Pauli would say, this is so bad, it’s not even wrong. Utilitarianism holds that the good is what maximizes happiness. To the utilitarian, this contention is not a subjective preference; it is intended as an account of the real nature of goodness. Preference utilitarians argue that the way to maximize happiness is to satisfy people’s preferences to the greatest extent possible. (There are disputes among them about whether to consider people’s actual preferences or what their preferences would be under certain conditions). But this view does not make moral truth a matter of choice: to the contrary, preference utilitarians think that it is objectively the case that we ought to act as their theory dictates.

Neuhaus does not confine his blunders to ethics and political philosophy. To his credit, he makes some good points against Richard Rorty in a long chapter devoted to him; but he gets completely backward Rorty’s most fundamental argument. He says: “€œRorty’s course of radical skepticism rejects all “€˜correspondence theories”€™ of truth, whether the “€˜realist”€™ correspondence of subject and object or the “€˜mentalist”€™ correspondence of intrinsically coherent thought. He claims that we can say nothing about “€˜reality,”€™ about what is “€˜out there”€™”€”or at least nothing to which it is appropriate to attach terms such as “€˜true”€™ or “€˜false”€™ in intersubjective (public) discourse.”€ Quite the contrary, Rorty’s rejects skepticism. His claim, following Donald Davidson, is that our concepts cannot be separated from the world. He is not arguing that we are confined to our own ideas, cut off from reality: this is exactly what he rejects.

Neuhaus finds it strange that scientists pursue materialistic accounts of mind but at the same time appeal to the “€œanthropic principle”€: “€œOn the one hand, it would reduce reason and consciousness to nothing more than matter in motion; on the other, it explores the anthropic prejudice built into reality by which man participates in the logos of all that is.”€ Once more, Neuhaus does not know what he is talking about. The anthropic principle, controversial within physics, requires cosmology to account for the presence of life, including consciousness, on earth. It says nothing at all about whether consciousness has a material basis.

Neuhaus used his immense energy to become a leading “€œpublic intellectual”€; but as a genuine thinker, he does not exist.



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