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One cheer for George Will’s The Conservative Sensibility

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.

George Will in a 2011 photo. (Wikipedia)

I have been following George Will’s thought for a long time. I’m old enough to remember when his column occupied the last page of Newsweek magazine every other week and when he sat in the chair of conservative thought on David Brinkley’s Sunday morning political talk show. I have long admired his graceful literary style and his clipped, smart manner of speech. Will was always especially good when, with lawyerly precision, he would take apart the sloppy thinking of one of his intellectual or political opponents. When I taught an introductory course in political philosophy at Mundelein Seminary many years ago, I used Will’s book Statecraft as Soulcraft to get across to my students what the ancients meant by the moral purpose of government.

And so it was with great interest that I turned to Will’s latest offering, a massive volume called The Conservative Sensibility, a book that both in size and scope certainly qualifies as the author’s opus magnum.

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. Accordingly, it is certainly good that government’s tendency toward imperial expansion be constrained.

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.

Catholic social teaching has long been suspicious of just this sort of morally minimalist individualism. 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.

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. George Will quite rightly excoriates the neo-gnostic program of contemporary “progressivism,” but he oughtn’t to conflate that dysfunctional philosophy with a commitment to authentic freedom in the public square.

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. 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. Catholic social teaching would argue that the rhetoric of the Founders regarding the relation between inalienable rights and the will of God is not pious boilerplate but indeed the very foundation of the democratic political project.

So perhaps one cheer for The Conservative Sensibility. Will gets some important things right, but he gets some even more basic things quite wrong.


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About Bishop Robert Barron 160 Articles
Bishop Robert Barron is an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries. He is the creator of the award winning documentary series, "Catholicism" and "Catholicism:The New Evangelization." Learn more at www.WordonFire.org.

12 Comments

  1. Mr Will is at best a RINO at worst a socialist/democrat.Who has removed his mask to reveal a lost soul with a truly bitter,hateful message to pass onto the shock troops of Antifa,and 26% of Americans who follow his wrong headed ideology.Stick to Baseball stories,and articles about that sport.

    • There is something amusingly sad to witness in an individual whose knee-jerk response to an article is to load it up with meaningless and tedious American political jargon. “At worst a socialist/democrat” – lol at the boomers who think this passes for an expressed thought.

      As a peace offering though, I agree that Will should stick to writing about baseball, since his politics are poisonous and he has long since outlived his purpose as a talking-head stooge on news networks selling us on welfare cuts!

      I hope Bishop Barron finds brighter minds to pick apart than hoary old George Will. Or Jordan “Lobsters” Peterson.

  2. Thank God for Bishop Robert Barron. He will, as is his habit, accept good wherever he finds it. As he points out, there is much to like in the thoughts of George Will. However a world without God is a world without truth. And a world without truth cannot survive. If we search our hearts, honestly search our hearts, this is the only conclusion we, as intelligent people can conclude. Thank you Bishop Robert Barron for your brilliant analysis of George Will’s very excellent “Conservative Sensibility”

  3. Bishop Barron, I’m a huge fan of the work you do- but you’ve been misled in your reading of Jefferson and the Founders (perhaps you’ve been reading Dreher or Deneen on this?). While George Will may be a “moral minimalist”, which I agree a Catholic cannot be, the Founders Will claims to follow were resolutely not Hobbesians.

    For the clear example of the rich moral anthropology presupposed by all of the major Founders of this country, read the words of Alexander Hamilton’s famous “Farmer Refuted” pamphlet against someone who WAS a Hobbesian:
    “There is so strong a similitude between your political principles and those maintained by Mr. Hobbs, that, in judging from them, a person might very easily mistake you for a disciple of his. His opinion was, exactly, coincident with yours, relative to man in a state of nature. He held, as you do, that he was, then, perfectly free from all restraint of law and government. Moral obligation, according to him, is derived from the introduction of civil society; and there is no virtue, but what is purely artificial, the mere contrivance of politicians, for the maintenance of social intercourse. But the reason he run into this absurd and impious doctrine, was, that he disbelieved the existence of an intelligent superintending principle, who is the governor, and will be the final judge of the universe….
    Good and wise men, in all ages, have embraced a very dissimilar theory. They have supposed, that the deity, from the relations, we stand in, to himself and to each other, has constituted an eternal and immutable law, which is, indispensibly, obligatory upon all mankind, prior to any human institution whatever. This is what is called the law of nature… Upon this law, depend the natural rights of mankind, the supreme being gave existence to man, together with the means of preserving and beatifying that existence. He endowed him with rational faculties, by the help of which, to discern and pursue such things, as were consistent with his duty and interest, and invested him with an inviolable right to personal liberty, and personal safety.”

    And even better yet, read Theophilus Parson’s “Essex Result”.

  4. I praise the Lord that I am part of this Golden Age of the United States of America; If one bothers to take a look at the rest of the world one will see how good we have it here and now – A prosperous nation consisting of a glorious, peaceful dialectic of many cultures and ideas, global history, (Don’t let the media have you think otherwise, This is a blessed time of peace). But entropy is reality, you will see that the same signs of moral, political and economic decay that destroyed other great civilizations are also on the horizon for our precariously fragile republic, (1 Corinthians 15:34 Especially for those of us who of us who cling to the preservation and continued dissemination of The Way). I believe that if we continue to be faithful to the teachings of Jesus Christ, adhere to the commandments, and continue to make a better Catholic Church in America we can prolong the great cultural earthquake that threatens Christendom. I also hope that when that day comes that the Lord will give us the wisdom to respond collectively and United as American Catholics. In this regards I thank you ‘Catholic World Report’for your vigilance and forum to think and act in a decent Christian manner.

  5. A fine article by Bp Barron. I would add that it would be good for him now, to comment on why both protestant and Catholic leaders basically surrendered to the SCOTUS in their 1948 ruling: McCollum v. Board of Education. They pulled the bible from all public schools, now our schools are Godless. We should have run the court out of town on a rail.

  6. Thank you to Bishop Barron for helping us understand what has seemed to me to be an abandonment of conservative principles by George Will. Will’s embrace of Hobbes and Lockean thought has been evident for a long time. But, it was his virulent anti-Trumpism that helped me to decide not to buy his latest book. Sad to read about his atheism though–sad for him and for all of us. We are becoming a nation of unbelievers as the statistics on the increasing numbers of those claiming to be atheists or agnostics are alarming. I appreciate everything Bishop Barron is doing to help bring them back to the Church.

  7. To summarize Bishop Barron. “I like and agreed with George Will for a long time…..until I found out he was an atheist.” Now that….is sad.

    • You mean: “To unfairly and inaccurately summarize Bishop Barron…”

      Barron states, midway:

      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.

      And then unpacks this. Then he notes:

      vWhen 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. The problem here is twofold. …

      In other words, he is both fair and accurate in how he approaches Will’s beliefs and logic.

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