07 March 2008

Richard John Neuhaus disagrees with me for the right reasons

I'm pleased to report the endorsement of The Secular Conscience by one of America's leading religious public intellectuals. Well, partial endorsement. In a review for First Things, Richard John Neuhaus, author of The Naked Public Square, disagrees with me about the right things:

On almost all the hot-button issues—abortion, embryo-destructive research, same-sex marriage, Darwinism as a comprehensive philosophy, etc.—Dacey is, in my judgment, on the wrong side. But he is right about one very big thing. These contests are not between people who, on the one side, are trying to impose their morality on others, and people who, on the other side, subscribe to a purely procedural and amoral rationality. Over the years, some of us have been trying to elicit from our opponents the recognition that they, too, are making moral arguments and hoping that their moral vision will prevail. But in the world of secular liberalism, morality is the motive that dare not speak its name. Austin Dacey strongly agrees.

Are my secularist friends reading First Things? They should be. I sent the below letter to editor.

To the Editor:

It is not always easy to get my secular liberal friends to read First Things as often as they should. Happily, I now have an additional occasion to persuade them: Richard John Neuhaus’ review of my book, The Secular Conscience: Why Belief Belongs in Public Life. Of course, my fellow travelers may stop speaking to me once they discover that Mr. Neuhaus there refers to me as an "ally." Nevertheless, it is a designation I proudly accept, inasmuch as we both endorse a polity that engages with questions of conscience in public life rather than vainly insisting on "privatizing" them.

As an ally, I must clarify one misstatement of my views that appeared in this fair and thoughtful review. Mr. Neuhaus claims that I offer "a vigorous critique of the limitations" of John Stuart Mill’s thought. In fact, my aim is to rescue Mill the moral realist and objectivist about value from a superficial understanding that takes the wrong lessons from the Harm Principle. To adapt Bacon’s line: a little Mill inclineth man’s mind to subjectivism, but depth in Mill bringeth about men’s minds to objectivism.

Mill could not be clearer in On Liberty that his principle is not "one of selfish indifference, which pretends that human beings have no business with each other’s conduct in life, and that they should not concern themselves about the well-doing or well-being of one another, unless their own interest is involved." Instead, we "owe each other help to distinguish the better from the worse, and encouragement to choose the former rather the latter." For Mill, we protect conscience from coercion not so that it may be private, but so that it may be open, open to public scrutiny and revision in light of objective standards. Liberty of conscience matters because for creatures like us it is essential to a life well-lived.

In this way, Mill’s liberalism, like Spinoza’s, supplies the antidote to the philosophical and moral infirmity that besets too many of their secular liberal descendents. It is one of the chief of aims of my book to make us all closer allies to them both.


Austin Dacey


Kate said...

Ah, that's spot on. I quite like First Things; it's smart... even if there's a inordinate amount of copy on abortion. But as a secularist, I usually get it at the library.

Jay said...

Yeah, First Things is a good pub to look at. If you want to see something completely different (loony Catholicism), check out www.newoxfordreview.org