Intellectual Encounter with Prof. Robert P. George
September - 2017
We met up with Professor Robert (“Robby”) George, Visiting Professor at the Harvard Law School for the Fall 2017 Term, at our offices at 14 Arrow St. in Cambridge. Fresh off teaching his first class the previous evening at the Harvard Law School, Robby agreed to speak to us about his formative intellectual influences and to reflect more broadly on contemporary cultural trends in the academe and in the country. The conversation has been slightly edited and abridged.
AAI: We are delighted to welcome Professor George to the Abigail Adams Institute this morning. Robby, you are our inaugural interlocutor for Intellectual Encounters.
R. George: Thank you for the opportunity, Danilo. I am glad to be part of your efforts here at the Abigail Adams Institute.
AAI: You hold the McCormick Chair of Jurisprudence at Princeton University. What are your main research and teaching interests?
R. George: I am interested in the moral foundations of law. I am interested in the relationship of law and morality and other normative systems. I see my job as seeing that students understand the principles of the American constitutional system, not only the latest Supreme Court cases or recent developments in public law. You can call it a theoretical approach.
AAI: What was the theme of your earliest scholarly work?
R. George: My dissertation was on law, liberty, and morality in some contemporary natural law theories. It was really about the police powers of the state, powers to protect public health, safety, and morals, and my special focus was on public morals. The dissertation was a defense, in principle, of the concept of morals legislation –that government can concern itself rightly not simply with health and safety issues but with the moral well-being of people, including by prohibiting acts that are corrupting, such as prostitution, gambling, drug taking, that sort of thing, which then, as now, was a controversial argument since a lot of people imagine that public morals legislation is somehow unjust, that it is an intrusion into the private sphere.
AAI: Tell us about your early intellectual influences.
R. George: It was my encounter with a particular thinker that fundamentally altered my attitude toward intellectual life. It put me on a path toward what would become my vocation as a scholar and a teacher. And that was Plato. It was reading Plato’s Gorgias in an otherwise unremarkable introductory survey course in political philosophy when I was an undergraduate at Swarthmore. Plato made me think for the first time in a serious way about what learning and talking and arguing and thinking was for. I had, prior to that encounter with Plato, tended uncritically, with scarcely giving the matter a thought, to think of knowledge as purely something of instrumental value. Knowledge enables you to solve problems, knowledge enables you to rise up in the world, knowledge enables you to get a good job, have a good profession, make a good impression; knowledge has all these instrumental benefits.
Now, I wasn’t wrong about that, knowledge does have those instrumental benefits. But what I learned in Gorgias is that there is something more fundamental than that, and that’s the intrinsic value of knowledge, that knowledge is inherently enriching of the human person, and that it’s a mistake to think of knowledge as having only or primarily instrumental value.
That led me to understand that central to the education of our young people must be the focus on the humanities. Education that is directed towards the acquisition of skills its important, but students need a grounding in the humanities for the inherent enrichment, for engaging with great thinkers about great issues and learning about how they thought about them so that we can ourselves think about them.
AAI: Do particular teachers stand out?
R. George: I had two phenomenal teachers at Swarthmore. On was named Lynwood Irwin, he is still alive, very elderly. He was a teacher of medieval philosophy. Once Plato had opened my eyes to the importance of humanistic learning I started getting interested in all the great thinkers, including the medieval thinkers. The second, also still alive, though retired, is the man named James Kurth, who was a Professor of Political Science, absolutely a brilliant man, masterful teacher, and I think he really inspired me to be a teacher. I so admired and looked up to him, learned so much from him even though he wasn’t teaching in fields of my special interest. And yet his example as a teacher, his example of someone who was a truly critical thinker, was crucial for me. I kind of apprenticed my mind to him. I tried to learn everything he knew about how to think.
AAI: You are frequently described as a Natural Law thinker. What is Natural Law?
R. George: It is one of the great traditions of thought about personal and political morality. Its roots are in the Greek philosophers and Roman jurists, in the thought of people like Plato and especially Aristotle, and Cicero and other Roman thinkers. One might characterize the Natural Law tradition as the tradition of thought that is concerned to identify what can be known about the human good and about right and wrong without appeal to any authority beyond the authority of reason itself, that is without appeal to religious authority or to revelation or to anything like that. That is not to suggest that anything in the Natural Law tradition is hostile to religious faith or to religious authority; quite the contrary. Some of the great Christian thinkers have been natural law philosophers.
But the Natural Law is the principles of right and wrong, of good and bad, of just and unjust, of the principles that are knowable by the human intellect on the basis of rational inquiry, understanding and judgment. My particular take on Natural Law is that its first principles, its foundational principles, are those principles directing us toward what is intelligibly wantable because humanly fulfilling, what can be called goods that are intrinsically valuable, like friendship, the pursuit of intellectual knowledge, the appreciation of beauty, the acquisition of critical skills, virtue which is its own reward.
AAI: Unlike most academics, you are active in the intellectual sphere outside the walls of the academe. Would it be accurate to describe you as a public intellectual?
R. George: I write for the three- or four-hundred colleagues in my relatively narrow field but I also write for a broader, non-specialist audience. I suppose that is what a public intellectual is supposed to do. I do think it’s very important for a public intellectual to be an intellectual more than to be public. I know a lot of young people aspire to be public intellectuals. I always tell them that their work is only going to be useful to the broader public if it is intellectually excellent. It is comparatively easy to say something provocative and get your name out there, and get a lot of people reading your book. But that does not advance the cause of education or public learning very much. If your work is not up to the highest intellectual standards, I would advise people to keep their noses to the grindstone and don’t worry about developing their brand as a public intellectual.
It is also important to always have a serious academic project going so that they are not tempted just to drift off onto the talk show circuit or the TV circuit where they are giving their canned two minute spiel about this or that. I think it is important to be writing articles for peer-reviewed journals, writing books for academic presses, things that demand intellectual rigor and seriousness. The temptation is to wing it and get lots of attention. That’s not constructive. It’s not good for you as an intellectual, and it doesn’t contribute anything to the public weal.
AAI: Some of your major intellectual contributions have been in the area of so-called social issues, such as life, same-sex marriage, public morality. What do you say to those who like to label these moral and political issues as Christian, or as Catholic?
R. George: Well, my arguments are what they are. They are either persuasive or they are not. The arguments that I put out in the public square do not appeal to religious authority or to revelation. I don’t have any problem with public arguments that appeal to religious authority or revelation. I am not a theologian. My areas of scholarly expertise are in moral and political philosophy and the philosophy of law. My job is to argue on the basis of publicly accessible reasons. I consider myself to be in the same position as the secular philosopher is in.
It’s also worth remembering that most Americans are religious. The majority of Americans are still believers. It doesn’t bother them that person making an argument is religious, whether that person happens to be of their religion or not.
AAI: Abraham Lincoln famously accused Stephen Douglas of debauching the public mind by legitimizing slavery in the United States. What do you make of the sociocultural trends in twenty-first century United States, and who, if anyone, can or should be held accountable?
R. George: It is true that there’s a dominant ideology in the elite sector of the culture, and roughly speaking, it is the ideology that the late Robert Bellah described as expressive individualism. It functions as a kind of religion in people’s lives, even the lives of great many people who are formally affiliated with a traditional religion. And people tend to accept this expressive individualist ideology quite uncritically; it’s not something that they’ve thought about very much. They’ve grown up with it and it has shaped their assumptions, their basic understandings, the premises of all their other thinking. The task for people like me is difficult because we are trying to question, to disturb those fundamental assumptions about which people have thought very little. What I try to do is get them to think about this, to decide whether they really buy into this.
The ideology of expressive individualism is deeply flawed. I think it has tragic consequences. I think it is fundamentally incompatible with the integral flourishing of human beings. One might even say with Lincoln that the ideology of expressive individualism debauches the public mind. And yet it is transmitted through the media of culture. It’s the dominant position in the elite sectors of the culture, and it underwrites the ideas of many people, especially among the most privileged and affluent, and highly educated members of the community. It permeates their thinking.
AAI: You are co-teaching a course at Harvard this year (with Professor Adrian Vermeule), which is titled Law and Catholic Social Thought. Would you like to tell us about some of the themes you are considering?
R. George: Starting in the early 1890s, Popes began issuing encyclicals and other letters on questions of social justice. These were originally directed to Catholics, and they are still primarily directed to Catholics. Popes teach Catholics. Increasingly, they are directed to communities generally, offering what the Catholic Church believes is wisdom on the rights of workers, the rights of the poor, the right of immigrants, migrants, refugees, the obligations to justice that business interests and wealthy people have to other people, offering advice on how society is best organized when it comes to questions of political economy. These questions draw on the Natural Law tradition but also on the Gospel, on the scriptural witness. It is a fascinating body of thought that is critical both of unrestricted capitalism and socialism. It defends private property but defends private property because when it’s properly regulated it tends to the benefit of the larger community. So there is a lot of interest in Catholic Social Thought as presenting a sound alternative to the extremes of libertarianism and socialism.