Robert P. George is a Princeton professor, first Vice President of the Society of Catholic Social Scientists, and a member of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. In this book, he has done an admirable job of combining his fields of philosophy (John Finnis was his mentor), law, and political science to analyze the difficult question of how liberal democracy can enact laws that seek to promote civility and personal goodness while upholding basic individual liberties. Although much of the work critically examines the thought of various contemporary legal philosophers and scholars (all of whom oppose, for the most part, the notion of morals legislation) and can be tedious in places, it is fairly easily readable for the layman.
The book is laid out in three parts. The first reviews the thought of Aristotle and St. Thomas–what George calls the “central tradition of western thought” about the interrelationship of morality, politics, and law. George labels the perspective they propounded as “perfectionism,” which, in short, held that politics and law are rightly concerned about the “moral well-being” of people and should seek to make them virtuous. While certainly agreeing with this central premise of the tradition, George says that Aristotle’s thought is deficient in that, even acknowledging his claim that there are natural excellences of human conduct, he had too narrow of a view of the acceptable range of ways of life and did not explain how those not capable of the highest way of life–i.e., essentially that of the eminently virtuous philosopher–could fit into a political order committed to it. Aquinas’ insufficiently developed notion of religious liberty makes his “semi-theocratic (or sacral/consecrational) view of political community and authority” problematic. In sum, the tradition is right to urge that law promote perfectionism, but does not provide adequate grounds for it or a guide for the extent it should be done in a pluralistic political society.
The central and by far the longest part of George’s book is the critique of the various thinkers: H.L.A. Hart, Patrick Devlin, Ronald Dworkin, Jeremy Waldron, John Rawls and Joseph Raz. George gives a thorough statement of the thought of each and carefully and incisively examines their crucial assertions.
In the final chapter, George sketches–he cautions the reader to realize that it is merely that–what he calls a “pluralistic perfectionist theory of civil liberties,” that is, one which explains how and to what extent law can be used to promote personal moral goodness in a modern pluralistic setting and with full regard for deeply embedded principles of civil liberties. He makes clear his intention to provide much more detail to his theory and many more specific applications of it in future works. He considers why each of the following generally accepted civil liberties involve worthwhile human goods which should be promoted, and how the theory plays itself out with each of them: freedom of speech, freedom of press, privacy, freedom of assembly, and freedom of religion.
His attempt to reflect about the nature of each of these rights and why, properly understood, they help promote the good of man both individually and in the community, is a valuable and needed contribution at a time when frenzy, blind emotionalism, and ideological imperatives seem to dominate most of the discussion on this subject. George provides some interesting insights in this part of the book, such as with his argument for freedom of political speech even in non-representative regimes (e.g., restrictions will prevent a monarch from receiving enough of the correct information he needs to govern well).
Throughout this chapter, George shows that he approaches the question of rights and the citizen’s relationship to the political community squarely in light of the notion of the common good of each individual and of the community of which he is a part. There are a few assertions that George makes which, while seemingly true for the most part, necessitate empirical support which he fails to provide (e.g., that any attempt by government to coerce religious faith and practice “is likely to impair people’s participation in the good of religion”).
There is pitifully little literature on this subject of civil liberties which approaches this problem or takes the stance that Robert George does. More broadly, what is so commendable and critical about his effort in this book is the following: He considers how the perennial insights of the great realist tradition of philosophy and what has been called the “Great Tradition” of political philosophy can be applied to modern conditions. He points to insufficiencies in those traditions and suggests needed adaptations and modifications where possible. He supplies necessary theoretical reflection to help actual practice to develop better than it might by itself. And, simply, he works to fashion theory which can feasibly be put into practice. More works like this in more areas are needed to demonstrate why perennial truths and the greatest social-political-philosophical-legal insights remain such and are not incompatible with modern life–and to provide a basis for a restoration of sound culture after the ashes of our cultural malaise have finally been cleared away.