TCS Daily


Defending Socrates... and My Friends

By Paul Seaton - March 12, 2004 12:00 AM

It is often hard to tell the very first casualty in the culture war battles, but one can safely maintain that truth and fair play will suffer in due course. Recently the liberal Left and libertarian Right (L-L's) converged to throw lots of smoke and fire at the President's Council on Bioethics -- the Kass Council -- but shed next to no light. Normally I am a sidelines observer in these wars. But recent ignorant and barbed words from members of the media and the L-L chorus hit close to home, wounding me in my professional pride, not to mention sapping some of my hopes for the possibilities of productive democratic debate. They also caricatured two of my friends.

I am a political scientist by training and trade. I am very familiar with the work, as well as intellectual and moral character, of the two political scientists just named to the Council, Diana Schaub and Peter Augustine Lawler. They are also friends. Contrary to L-L wisdom, the addition of these two very independent minded political scientists actually enhances the breadth of perspective on the Council. Here is what you have not heard from media reports and the blogosphere about Schaub, Lawler, and what political science informed by political philosophy can contribute.

The Full Range of Human Goods and Practices

Political science's first master practitioner, Aristotle, called it the "architectonic" or comprehensive discipline. He did so because it considers the full range of human goods and practices and the conundra connected with them. That is what the Kass Council is charged to do. This is a key point that critics have missed, such as Jacob Levy who claimed instead that "these changes have the clear intent and effect of making the advisory council more intellectually homogenous" (Volokh Conspiracy, March 1, 2004).

Levy damned with faint praise Schaub and Lawler, acknowledging that they are knowledgeable "in the history of political philosophy." He went on to deny they have the credentials, that is, the intellectual ability and habits to handle the tough scientific and ethical issues the Council confronts. "[I]t's different when someone whose specialty is the history of political thought is asked to sit on a council that must judge highly complex and technical issues in both ethics and biomedical technology. Then, it seems to me reasonable to suspect that the criterion for selection was 'moral and ideological precommitments shared with the council's chairman.'" (Volokh Conspiracy, March 2, 2004). But Levy merely demonstrated his own biases in making that inference as the contrary is true.

The quickest way to make the point of political philosophy's relevance is to ask, would political philosophers Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, or the scientific-martyr Bacon and the physician-philosopher Locke, be unqualified to be members of such a deliberative body? They and their ilk, however, are canonical members of "the history of political philosophy." Those who seriously study such authors continually wrestle -- at the highest level -- with issues of science, ethics, the political community, and the human and social good. In the expansive understanding of political science and political philosophy practiced by Schaub and Lawler, one is as apt to study Descartes's Discourse on Method or Bacon's New Organon or Heidegger's Question concerning Technology as Plato's Theatetus or Book VI of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics (in which he analyzes various forms of human cognitive endeavor and achievement, including "science"). Questions of science and the human good have eternally preoccupied political philosophy.

Wrestling with these texts and issues inculcates habits of mind that are relevant to the Council's deliberations. One in particular comes to mind. Following in the footsteps of Socrates and Aristotle, Schaub and Lawler are very fine "dialectical" listeners and interlocutors. If you have something to say, they are prepared and able to listen. Both bend over backwards to have the best possible statement of a position before them. But you also have to be willing and able to respond to queries. Merely ex cathedra pronouncements do not work for those who have seriously studied Socrates or Aristotle.

Speaking of Socrates, Schaub and Lawler are particularly Socratic in their attention to various "soul-types," distinctive configurations of thought, character, and personality into which humanity -- ancient and contemporary -- ranges itself. It is here that people like today's humanitarian scientists and partisans of the autonomous self get uncomfortable with Socrates and those who follow his interrogatory practice. His probing questions force them "to give an account" of their views, their agendas, and themselves. That is tough to do, of course, and not everyone goes away grateful for the experience. Lawler in particular for some time has been querying both of the above-mentioned types who have large stakes in the biotechnical/bioethical debates. After all, they claim a particular expertise in truth and knowledge, freedom, and the human good or goods. They're worth examining and cross-examining. That is how science and human wisdom progress, isn't it?

In addition to these general strengths of their field and training, each new member brings a distinctive set to the common tasks of the Council.

Schaub and Lawler

Diana Schaub is a thoughtful explorer and fierce defender of the moral dignity of human beings and the moral equality of all humans. Her writings are among the most elegantly written in our field. (She won the prestigious -- and lucrative - Richard M. Weaver Prize for Scholarly Letters (2001) for precisely this rare combination of qualities. She also is an eloquent lecturer.) Two of her heroes are Walt Whitman's "Captain," Abraham Lincoln, and the Captain of the star-ship Enterprise, James T. Kirk. This is only apparently an odd couple. What they have in common is that their superiority is displayed and at work in the service of the shared equality and freedom of all human beings. "As I would not be a slave, nor would I be a master" declared the Great Emancipator. Schaub accordingly is particularly sensitive to theoretical denials and practical attacks on the individual's equal moral dignity (including the great denial in American history, chattel slavery). In bioethical matters which centrally involve questions of human dignity and moral status her work and her concerns are most relevant and should be welcome.

Her deep moral convictions, moreover, are connected with a great appreciation of the variety exhibited by humanity. Her fine work on Montesquieu is rooted in her sympathy with the French philosopher's endeavor to combine a love of human liberty with a love of human differences. His "erotic liberalism" (the title of her well-regarded book on Montesquieu) complements Lincoln's moral equality liberalism. And while I think that in that work she displays too uncritical a sympathy to Montesquieu's Enlightenment attitude toward Christianity and Biblical religion tout court, this at least should immunize her from any charge of smuggling religious beliefs into her thinking and arguments. All in all, a sturdy moralist, a connoisseur of human differences, a teacher devoted to liberal education and reflection, a professional academic whose every written and public word has been marked by courtesy, courage, and conviction: this is the Diana Schaub I know from her writings, the professional performances I've attended, and conversations.

Peter Lawler is perhaps even more impressive. He is prolific, having written over one hundred articles and written or edited nine books. He is the editor of one of the best journals in the field, Perspectives on Political Science, which regularly focuses on the connections between political philosophy and public policy. All that, however, does not convey the man and the mind. He is a wit, but not without purpose. As a good teacher (I have met many of his students) and fine lecturer, he does like pithy and arresting formulations. (A recent book by him was wittily entitled Postmodernism Rightly Understood.) But only those looking to commit a hatchet job will fail to connect his bons mots with their corroborating thought. And there is always a lot of thought there.

These thoughts come from a distinctive, as he would say, "personal point of view." The personal, even idiosyncratic character of his thinking especially belies any effort to pigeonhole him with labels such as "Straussian" or "conservative." Nor is he in lockstep with the head of the Council, Kass himself. Of course he admires Kass's intellectual probity and moral seriousness. Most people -- even his critics -- do. But Lawler finds Kass's published philosophical anthropology too naturalistic, too Aristotelian, and he is on record as believing that Kass's published speculations and fears about a possible Brave New World scenario are overwrought and "unrealistic." They are unrealistic because Lawler believes that our humanity -- that paradoxical combination, self-conscious mortality -- is a mixture of traits good and bad that will continue to exist problematically even in an increasingly technological and humanly manipulated future. The last thing Peter Lawler could be said to be is anyone's intellectual clone.

What he is, is a partisan -- like one of his heroes, Alexis de Tocqueville -- of human liberty and dignity. The subtitle of his book on Tocqueville is "on the origin and perpetuation of human liberty." In his view Tocqueville and modern day Tocquevillians such as the philosophical-novelist Walker Percy are among our best guides to our democratic-and-scientific circumstances and what they offer in terms of good and bad to our humanity. As he likes to say, "things are always getting better and worse."

In keeping up with that ambiguous flow, his scholarly work has been "trendy" in the best sense. During the Cold War he was an exponent of the insights of "the dissidents" (especially Vaclav Havel) as they defended the human person from totalitarian ideology. In the post-Cold War period he has commented upon many of its important intellectual events and movements, from "the end of history" debate and the ascendancy of sociobiology to more recent debates about psychotropic drugs and their contribution to alleviating the miseries of the human condition. He also is a part-time movie critic, incisively writing on Whit Stillman's oeuvre and the American classic, Casablanca, for example. And he has often and well written on the variety of "American views of liberty" (the title of a collection of essays). All in all, in my view he is one of our best cultural critics. As such it is fitting that he contribute his talents, learning, and unique perspective to the Presidential Council.

For the Council itself is a fine model of genuinely pluralistic discussion, debate, and deliberation. It certainly is more open to the spectrum of real views held by members of the polity than one typically finds inside or outside the ivory tower. And with these two appointments a good thing just got better. We all would benefit from its example and its actual discussions and products. This, though, requires a big "if" -- that we choose to set aside ideological blinders and litmus tests and genuinely listen in on what is actually said by its members, not merely reported by uninformed or biased media or partisan spectators.

Paul Seaton, Ph. D., teaches in the Political Science Department of Fordham University.


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