Home | Reviews | Blog | Daily | Glossary | Orrin's Stuff | Email

We all have our personal favorite essayists, and I confess that Mr. Lawler is one of mine. In recent years his essays have been compiled into three books--Aliens in America, Homeless and at Home in America, and now Modern and American Dignity--that form a now completed kind of triptych concerned with the interstices of religion and politics in America. The starting point for this installment is the author's contribution to the collection of essays published by President Bush's Council on Bioethics and then his response to the curious screed published in the New Republic by Steven Pinker attacking the Council and what Mr. Pinker labelled "The Stupidity of Dignity." Considerations of Socrates, de Tocqueville, Solzhenitsyn, John Courtney Murray and human dignity approached from a number of angles follow. And the book concludes with an expansive look at the future of liberalism.

Part of Pinker's attack is driven by the assertion that the concept of "dignity" is too amorphous to be the basis of public policy, and the Council's book was motivated, at least in part, to put meat on the bones of dignity. But, in fact, we all know what it is that we mean by dignity and why it is such a red flag for the New Atheist types. As Mr. Lawler describes the situation in his response:

[T]he defense of human dignity started to rise to prominence after the Second World War—in, for example, the 1945 United Nations Charter and the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. These documents do not claim to depend on any clear consensus about why we have dignity or rights, but they sprang from a new awareness that rights are insecure without some deeper notion of dignity. Human dignity also became a special concern of the Christian Democratic parties in Europe and was the foundation for religious liberty in the Second Vatican Council. We are dignified, the Vatican Council document said, because we are open to the truth about God and the human good. The Catholic emphasis came to be on the natural dignity of the whole human person—in opposition to the modern view that our dignity resides only in our autonomy. Christian thinkers generally began to distinguish between dignity and (the illusions of) autonomy. Secular or Kantian thinkers either identified dignity with autonomy completely or else stopped speaking of dignity at all, because it had come to mean something other than autonomy. For the Kantians, anyone with an integral view of human dignity had fallen victim to “religious prejudice” incompatible with modern scientific materialism. But our scientists actually tend to say that there is no reality that corresponds to either autonomy or dignity. In their view, both ideas are based upon illusions about our moral freedom.

When Leon Kass wrote Life, Liberty, and the Defense of Dignity, he was dissenting, as a scientist, from the scientific denial of dignity. He was reflecting on what he could see with his own eyes about the unique place human beings have in nature. For most scientists, the discrediting of traditional religion has made all views of “human distinctiveness and special dignity” incredible, leaving us with the “scientific” conclusion that “[h]uman capabilities appear to differ in degree, not in kind, from those found in the higher animals.” For Kass, the inability to see the dignified difference that separates us from the chimps and the dolphins is not genuine science, but “soulless scientism.”[

The Christian thinkers and Kass agree that we have dignity, and that dignity is more than our productivity or autonomy. But their concerns about dignity differ, at least in emphasis. The Christians’ concern is for the equal dignity of all human beings against the ideological and scientific destruction of unfit or inconvenient human lives. They uphold the dignity of every human being against euthanasia, “death with dignity,” denial of equal treatment to the disabled or otherwise “unfit,” murderous eugenics, abortion, and the scientific destruction of human embryos. Actually, not all the writers in this ­category are Christian, and many of them show with considerable credibility that theirs is the genuinely scientific view.

The special concern of Kass and others like him is that modern biotechnology will destroy the social conditions and natural capabilities that make a dignified ­human life possible—a concern more classical than Christian. They hold that a large part of human dignity is living well in the acceptance of necessity, and not in the undignified effort to throw every resource into fending off death, eradicating every form of human suffering, and creating for oneself an absolutely secure environment. The dignified flourishing of human beings is based on using our natural gifts well—not in replacing natural meritocracy with techno-equality. We assault our dignity, for example, when we chemically alter our memories and moods to make ourselves happy and proud without enduring relationships or any real accomplishments. These classical concerns are given a new urgency in Kass’s writing by the Nietzschean fear that we might actually be capable of transforming ourselves into contemptible “last men” living in a Brave New World of chemically induced contentment. In a certain way, Kass writes to defend the natural inequality of human dignity; he writes to fend off the degradation that would make absolute equality all too real.
What we have here is essentially a dispute between Christianity, and its fellow-travelers, vs. Materialism/Scientism. Whatever anyone's doubts over the precise meaning of the term "dignity," no one can question who the fight is between or what it is over. And while Mr. Lawler does not claim as much of the field as Mr. Pinker is ceding, it seems fair to say that the scientific denial of dignity is central to American anti-intellectualism and the divide between the average American and the believers in Scientism on every issue from Darwinism to climate change. Most importantly, that denial renders it impossible for Mr. Pinker and his ilk to subscribe to the American Founding, with its starting point of all men being Created equal and having inalienable rights. It makes Scientism literally un-American or even anti-American.

This divide is on full display in Mr. Lawler's final essay on The Future of Liberalism, which differentiates between the bleak prospects of secular Europe and the rather sunnier future of still God-centered America:
[A]merica has not really engaged in the effort to stabilize free, personal life in the absence of a personal God. The American view has tended neither toward the death of God nor His reconfiguration as the foundation of some American civil religion. Writers often discuss the American civil religion, but generally describe it as some variant of Biblical religion with an active God.

From the beginning, Americans have not grappled in the same way with the contradiction between intense personal longings and impersonal science or theology. Consider our Declaration of Independence. The theoretical core of the Declaration—on self-evident truths, unalienable rights, and instituting government—speaks of “Nature’s God,” a Deist creator, the source of the impersonal laws of nature. Christian members of the Continental Congress insisted that two other references to God be added to the eminently modern Jefferson and Franklin’s draft, and so the rousing conclusion, ending with “sacred Honor,” speaks of a Creator-God as the “Supreme Judge” of us all and as the source of “divine Providence.” Thanks to this legislative compromise, the Declaration offers up a “Nature’s God” Who also knows and cares about each of us. Through most of our history, such compromises between modern and Christian Americans have considerably reduced the distance between Christian and modern views of the person’s natural and theological environment.

So Americans view political life, in part, as the free construction of self-interested individuals securing their material being in a hostile natural world. But they also, in part, regard it as limited by the conscientious duties persons have to their personal Creator. Political life is both dignified and limited by the real existence of dignified creatures. The most admirable and powerful American efforts at egalitarian reform have had religious origins, but religion has also acted (as Tocqueville explained) as a limit on the American spirit of social and political reform. Americans have plenty of confidence in progress, but present persons are not to be sacrificed to some vague historical future. Because Americans don’t really believe people are radically, miserably alienated from God and nature now, they don’t think it is their job to transform existence itself to save people from their misery.

Consider today how Americans are divided over the truth of modern, impersonal natural theology or science. Some Americans believe that we should take our social and moral cues from the evolutionary science of Darwin. In their eyes, we are not qualitatively different from the other animals; basically, they assert with pride in their sophistication, we are chimps with really big brains. This variety of American is also usually quite proud of his autonomy—his freedom from nature for self-determination. If men really are the same as chimps, however, then human autonomy is nothing but an illusion. Strict materialism and evolution cannot really account for free, personal existence. So these sophisticated Americans, despite themselves, can’t help but be in fierce rebellion against impersonal nature. They are well on their way to reducing all morality to fanaticism about personal health and safety. In their social behavior, they increasingly resemble the Europeans—and like the Europeans, they are not having enough children to replace themselves.

Meanwhile, other Americans still believe that their personal existence is supported by a personal God, often a God Whose intelligence exhibits itself in the design of nature. Although they typically believe their true home is somewhere else, these are clearly the Americans most at home as members of families, churches, and their country. Generally speaking, they have more than enough babies to replace themselves, raise them comparatively well, and do not seek as urgently to fend off their inevitable biological demise. Most at home with the irreducible alienation that comes with being a person, they seem best able to see the good about their familial and political existence for what it is. In our country, personal theology seems an indispensable support for the future of the nation.
That sort of optimism will appall some conservatives--and its basis in theology will make it unacceptable to most liberals--but I think it's spot on. It also puts Mr. Lawler firmly in the rank of generally Christian and usually progressive-conservative thinkers identified by Russell Kirk as contributing to the uniquely Anglospheric form of the Conservative Mind. He is a real joy to read.


Grade: (A+)


Peter Lawler Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Peter Lawler
    -TRIBUTE: In Fond Memory Of Peter Augustine Lawler Upon His Sudden Death (Yuval Levin, MAY 24, 2017, The Federalist)
    -BLOG: Postmodern Conservatism (Peter Augustine Lawler, First Things)
    -BLOG: Rightly Understood (Peter Augustine Lawler, Big Think)
    -BOOK SITE: Modern and American Dignity (ISI Books)
    -BOOK SITE: Homeless and at Home in America<>/a> (St. Augustine's Press)
-FACULTY PAGE: Peter Augustine Lawler (Dana Professor and Chair of the Department of Government and International Studies at Berry College)
    -Peter Augustine Lawler (New Atlantis)
    -Peter Augustine Lawler (ISI)
    -Peter Lawler (professor) (Wikipedia)
    -The President's Council on Bioethics: Peter A. Lawler, Ph.D.
    -Peter Augustine Lawler (Intercollegiate Studies Institute)
    -BLOG: No Left Turns (
    -ETEXTS: Peter Augustine Lawler (Google Books)
    -PODCAST: Peter Augustine Lawler (Discerning Hearts)
    -ESSAY: Modern and American Dignity (Peter Augustine Lawler, PCBE)
    -ESSAY: The Human Dignity Conspiracy (Peter Augustine Lawler, 04/17/09, First Principles)
    -ESSAY: Why We Need a ‘Stuck with Virtue’ Science (Peter Augustine Lawler, Summer 2011, New Atlantis)
    -ESSAY: Tocqueville’s Machiavellianism (Peter Lawler, March 2015, National Review)
-ESSAY: Locke, Darwin, and America’s Future (Peter Augustine Lawler, Winter 2011, New Atlantis)
    -ESSAY: Human Dignity and Higher Education (Peter Augustine Lawler, Fall 2009, New Atlantis)
    -ESSAY: 1968: Scarcity and Decade Analysis (Peter Augustine Lawler, Fall 2008, Intercollegiate Review)
    -ESSAY: Being at Home with Our Homelessness: Why we're happier knowing our happiness is inseparable from our misery. (Peter Augustine Lawler, October 27, 2008, Culture 11)
    -EXCERPT: The American Individual Today (Peter Augustine Lawler, Iintroduction from Stuck With Virtue: The American Individual and Our Biotechnological Future)
    -ESSAY: Conservative Postmodernism, Postmodern Conservatism (Peter Augustine Lawler, Intercollegiate Review)
    -ESSAY: Francis Fukuyama as Teacher of Evil (Peter Augustine Lawler, Winter 2000, Modern Age)
    -ESSAY: The Candidate's Religion (Peter Augustine Lawler, January 2008,
    -REVIEW ESSAY: Atticus Finch's American Stoicism (Peter Augustine Lawler, 7/21/15, Law & Liberty)
    -AUDIO LECTURE: Tocqueville, Biotechnology, and the Future of Human Liberty (Peter Augustine Lawler, ISI)
    -ESSAY: "Nature, Grace, and The Last Days of Disco" (Peter A. Lawler, Spring 2000, Intercollegiate Review)[PDF]
    -LECTURE: Is a Market in Kidneys a Violation of Human Rights or Human Dignity? (Peter Augustine Lawler and Sally Satel, First Principles)
    -LECTURE: The Limits of American Utopian Imagination: Reflections on David Brooks, Poet of Our Middle Class (Peter Augustine Lawler, ISI)
    -LECTURE: Tocqueville, Biotechnology, and the Future of Human Liberty (Peter Augustine Lawler, ISI)
    -ESSAY: Francis Fukuyama as Teacher of Evil (Peter Augustine Lawler, Winter 2000, Modern Age)[PDF]
    -ESSAY: "Bloom on Socrates and America" (Peter Augustine Lawler, Winter 1988, Modern Age)[PDF]
    -ESSAY: Filibuster Fallacy: David Brooks distorts the debate (Peter Augustine Lawler, 5/06/05, National Review)
    -ESSAY: Orestes Brownson and the Truth About America (Peter Augustine Lawler, December 2002, First Things)
    -INTERVIEW: WHY ORESTES BROWNSON BELIEVED THE U.S. NEEDED THE CHURCH (Professor Peter Lawler on a 19th-Century Philosopher, 7 NOV. 2003, ZENIT)
    -INTERVIEW: TDR Interview: Peter Lawler: Stem Cells, Nanobots, and God (A. Brock Kraebel, November 22, 2005, Dartmouth Review)
    -INTERVIEW: Peter Augustine Lawler on the Declaration of Independence, The Last Days of Disco, 'Big Country People,' and manliness (Liturgical Credo, June/July 2007)
    -ESSAY: "Under God" and Meaning It: The Supreme Court should fix past precedent. (Peter Augustine Lawler, 6/21/04, National Review)
    -ESSAY: The Rise and Fall of Sociobiology (Peter Augustine Lawler, Spring 2003, New Atlantis)
    -ESSAY: Restless Souls (Peter Augustine Lawler, Winter 2004, New Atlantis)
    -ESSAY: Homeless on "Paradise Drive" (Peter Augustine Lawler, Intercollegiate Review)[PDF]
    -ESSAY: The Libertarian Threat to Human Liberty (Peter Augustine Lawler, May 2002, Ashbrook Center)
    -ESSAY: Supreme Mocking: Scalia on the Court (Peter Augustine Lawler, 10/27/03, National Review)
    -ESSAY: Pursuing Happiness: An age-old question, updated (Peter Augustine Lawler, 12/22/03, National Review)
    -ESSAY: Back to Nature: We shouldn't forget about the natural basis of national security (Peter Augustine Lawler, 10/13/04, National Review)
    -ESSAY: Our Proud Human Future (Peter Augustine Lawler, Fall 2007, New Atlantis)
    -LECTURE: The Problem of Technology (Peter Augustine Lawler, 8/6/2004, ISI Honors Program, Oxford, England)
    -LECTURE: Does Human Nature Have a Future? (Peter Augustine Lawler, 10/26/2001, Fordham University)
    -LECTURE: Putting Locke Back in the Locke Box: Nisbet and the Emerging Communitarian Coalition in America (Peter Augustine Lawler, 4/16/2005, ISI Spring Leadership Conference)
    -REVIEW: Saving Liberalism from Itself: A review of Natural Law Liberalism, by Christopher Wolfe (Peter Augustine Lawler, October 1, 2007, Claremont Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: Where's the Love?: A review of American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville, by Bernard-Henri Lévy (Peter Augustine Lawler, July 13, 2006, Claremont Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: Last Man Standing: A review of Richard Rorty, by Alan Malachowski (Peter Augustine Lawler, October 8, 2004, Claremont Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: Bobo Virtue and the Future of Human Liberty: A review of Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There by David Brooks and The Virtue of Prosperity: Finding Values in an Age of Techno-Affluence by Dinesh D'Souza (Peter Augustine Lawler, May 24, 2001, Claremont Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of Embryo: A Defense of Human Life, by Robert P. George and Christopher Tollefsen (Peter Augustine Lawler, City Journal)
    -ARCHIVES: Peter Augustine Lawler (Mars Hill Audio)
    -ARCHIVES: Lawler (First Things)
    -ARCHIVES: Peter Augustine Lawler (New Atlantis)
    -ARCHIVES: Peter Augustine Lawler (Claremont Institute)
    -ARCHIVES: Peter Augustine Lawler (National Review)
    -ARCHIVES: Peer Augustine Lawler (American Enterprise Institute)
    -ARCHIVES: Lawler (Ashbrook Center)
    -ARCHIVES: "Peter augustine lawler" (Find Articles)
    -TRIBUTE: Wondering and Wandering: Peter Augustine Lawler’s Higher Ed Heresies (James Patterson, May. 17th, 2022, Public Discourse)
    -TRIBUTE: Neither a Flatterer nor a Lockean Be: Peter Augustine Lawler as a Catholic Political Philosopher (Daniel J. Mahoney, May. 16th, 2022, Public Discourse)
    -TRIBUTE: Reflections on Natural Law, History, and the Enduring Legacy of Peter Augustine Lawler (Grant Havers, 5/22/22, University Bookman)
    -TRIBUTE: Recovering the American Proposition with Peter Augustine Lawler (Richard Reinsch|May. 18th, 2022, Public Discourse)
    -ESSAY: The Top Five Lawler Books And the Origins of the Postmodern Conservative Tag (Carl Eric Scott, PoMoCon)
    -TRIBUTE: Peter Lawler’s Tocquevillian Adventure through Pop Culture (TITUS TECHERA, 6/13/22, Public Discourse)
-REVIEW: of Modern and American Dignity by Peter Augustine Lawler (RICHARD M. REINSCH II, University Bookman)
    -ESSAY: A House Divided: Peter Lawler's America, Rightly Understood (Patrick J. Deneen)
    -REVIEW: of Postmodernism Rightly Understood, by Peter Augustine Lawler (Robert P. Kraynak, Modern Age)
    -REVIEW: of Aliens in America: The Strange Truth about Our Souls (Damon Linker, First Things)
    -REVIEW: of Aliens in America: The Strange Truth About Our Souls by Peter Augustine Lawler. and Stuck With Virtue: The American Individual and Our Biotechnological Future by Peter Augustine Lawler. (Christopher Beiting, New Oxford Review)
    -REVIEW: of Aliens in America (Peter-Christian Aigner, Townhall)
    -REVIEW: of Aliens in America (W.J. Rayment, Conservative Monitor)
    Toward a Conservative Postmodernism: a review of Postmodernism Rightly Understood: The Return to Realism in American Thought, by Peter Augustine Lawler (ROBERT P. KRAYNAK, Modern Age)
    -REVIEW: of A Constitution in Full: Recovering the Unwritten Foundation of American Liberty by Peter Augustine Lawler and Richard M. Reinsch II (Reviewed by Luke C. Sheahan, University Bookman)
    -REVIEW: Of The Restless Mind: Alexis de Tocqueville on the Origin and Perpetuation of Human Liberty by Peter Augustine Lawler (Bruce Frohnen, Imaginative Conservative)
    -ESSAY: Indignity and Bioethics : Steven Pinker discovers the human-dignity cabal. (Yuval Levin, 5/14/08, National Review)

Book-related and General Links: