Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Dueling Dualism

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Dueling Dualism

Article excerpt


LIKE IT OR NOT, the dominant mode of philosophical reflection in the English-speaking world is Anglo-American analytical philosophy. Although this is sometimes characterized as a method rather than as a set of doctrines, it has its own prevailing orthodoxies-including the view that we are entirely material objects, exclusively the products of a series of physical processes reaching back into cosmic history. In questions of value and conduct, the prevailing analytical orthodoxy is that ethics is about promoting or respecting the good of persons, where that good is understood as consisting in the satisfaction of considered preferences.

Putting these orthodoxies of human nature and value together yields consciousness-centered utilitarianism or, equivalently, hedonistic consequentialism. That theoretical mix has been brewing for over a century, with the vapors seeping from the philosophy journals into the classroom and the public culture. Over the last half century, Western societies have been moving toward the same conclusion: Human beings are subjects of consciousness residing in the extended bodies that also serve as instruments for the production of gratifying experiences.

It is no small task to challenge these orthodoxies in a serious and sustained way-which makes all the more welcome the new volume from Patrick Lee and Robert P. George, Body-Self Dualism in Contemporary Ethics and Politics. The book falls into two parts. Chapters 1 and 2 present an essentially Thomistic alternative to the contemporary philosophy of mind. Chapters 3 to 6 then apply the results to a range of ethical issues: drug taking, abortion, euthanasia, and sex. The discussions are academic in character, detailed and sometimes abstract, and dialectical in presenting and countering lines of objection and reply. In later chapters, particularly that on sex, there are also hermeneutic and phenomenological strainsexploring the meaning of human experience, describing its structure in sensitive and pastorally useful ways.

The favored account of human beings is inspired by Thomas Aquinas' avowedly anti-Platonic argumentation in the Summa Theologiae. For St. Thomas, it is one and the same subject that senses, dunks, and acts. Accordingly, since what sees and walks is a sentient animal, so too is what thinks and deliberates: Thus human beings are animals. Lee and George elaborate and defend this position through a sustained criticism of present-day philosophical views. Central to this is the telling point that explanations of features and activities- seen as aspects rather than simply coincident but independent phenomena- call for the identification of functional and substantive unities. And since these aspects are extended over time, the principles of unification need to inhere in enduring substances. This conclusion also tells against contemporary versions of Hume's view that persons are collections of experiences associated with bodies.

There is a version of philosophical materialism, called "whole-person physicalism," that could accept much of what is argued to this point. Lee and George turn therefore to establishing that some powers of human persons transcend materiality. Apart from the intrinsic interest of such a possibility, they evidently take the point to be necessary for the claim that human beings are the kinds of things that merit full moral respectthe kinds of beings requiring never to be treated merely as means. Nonmaterialism also seems a requirement for a range of reUgious ideas about the origin, dignity, and destiny of humankind.

Plenty of moral philosophers share the position about the special moral status of human beings while remaining agnostic about the metaphysics of personhood. Lee and George, however, are committed to a high view of morality as involving absolute obUgations of respect toward human persons, and they take this to imply a radical difference in kind between human beings and other animals. …

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