Princeton professor Robert P. George takes students’ questions
Robert P. George, the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University, is one of America’s most prominent public intellectuals. He has been hailed by everyone from Supreme Court justice Elena Kagan (who praises “his sheer brilliance, the analytic power of his arguments, the range of his knowledge”) to talk show host Glenn Beck (who calls him “one of the biggest brains in America”). Professor George recently took questions from ISI students about undergraduate education, the conservative movement, his new book, and much more.
What advantage does a liberal arts education offer over preprofessional programs? —Adam Schwartzman, Dartmouth
Robert P. George: The fulfillments on offer in a liberal arts education are fundamentally intellectual. The intellect is a spiritual faculty. So the advantages of a liberal arts education are, at their core, spiritual. True liberal arts learning is soul enriching. It broadens and deepens us as free and rational beings—beings who are not determined by external or internal forces beyond our control, but who believe and act for reasons. At its best, this broadening and deepening helps us to succeed in meeting the basic spiritual and moral challenge facing every human being—making reason the master of passion or desire. Thus liberal arts learning offers the promise of liberation from the most abject form of slavery: slavery to self.
Many conservatives are comparing the current climate of the marriage debate to the climate of the abortion debate ten years before Roe v. Wade. What do you see as the future of the marriage debate? Do you think gay marriage will be legalized nationally? —Kelsey Rupp, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
RPG: Social life is shaped by the deliberation, judgments, choices, and actions of human beings. Contrary to the teachings of figures such as Hegel and Marx, there is no “dialectic of history.” Nor is history some sort of quasi-divine force that renders final judgments on the truth or goodness or justice of this or that cause. Human beings are rational and free. They are not determined. What individuals and societies do or will do is not inevitable. Social life and “history” are filled with contingencies. Huge consequences can flow from the choices and actions of a small number of people. What will happen to the institution of marriage is up to us. Marriage has, there can be no doubt, been deeply wounded by the sexual revolution. A reform movement, led by people of conviction and determination, may yet preserve the basic definition of marriage and restore a healthy and vibrant marriage culture in the United States and elsewhere. Or marriage may be abolished, at least as a legal category, and replaced by something else (e.g., one form or another of sexual-romantic domestic partnership) to which the label marriage is reassigned). I certainly hope that we take the former course, not the latter; but neither is inevitable.
And, yes, you are right to draw the comparison with the abortion debate in the late 1960s and (especially) the 1970s. Acceptance of abortion was, its advocates insisted, inevitable. The pro-life cause, they said, was doomed. It would soon be swept away and abortion would become fully accepted in American politics and culture. The debate would be over. In the mid-1970s, we were told that the overwhelming majority of young people were all for the “right to abortion.” They regarded it as essential to women’s freedom and equality. No nonreligious arguments could be made against it. It was only a few elderly priests and religious fundamentalists who were holding out against it, and they would soon be gone. (Does any of this sound familiar?)
But, of course, things did not turn out that way. Forty years later, abortion has not been accepted. It has not gone away as a cultural and political issue. The debate is anything but “over.” The pro-life movement remains strong and viable. A majority of Americans are pro-life, and today’s young people are more pro-life than their parents’ generation was.
Students of a conservative mind-set are often wary of speaking up against an opposing campus culture, whether in academic or nonacademic forums. What would you prescribe as an antidote for this problem, if in fact you do see it as a problem? —Tony Alimi, Princeton
RPG: One doesn’t know what it really means to have fun until you’ve had the pleasure of puncturing a prevailing campus orthodoxy or disrupting campus group-think. It’s a great feeling to stand up for what one believes to be true in the face of campus conformism. Of course, one does it for the principle of the thing, not for the fun or feeling. But it is great fun and a nice feeling nevertheless! Of course, I recognize that it’s not easy—at least at the beginning. You worry about damaging your reputation, inviting a bad grade, even losing friends. You will find, however, that standing up for your principles elicits the respect of the people whose respect is worth having, even if they do not share your convictions.
That is why I urge students who dissent from campus dogmas to be bold. That does not mean to be reckless. What’s the difference? It is reckless to speak out when one doesn’t know what one is talking about; it is bold to defend unpopular truths when one has equipped oneself by understanding the evidence and mastering the arguments on the competing sides of the debate. In the defense of marriage, for example, the arguments for redefining marriage are, on the merits, extraordinarily weak. But to reveal their weaknesses, one needs to equip oneself by looking at writings by the leading authors on the competing sides. Once one has done that, it is not at all difficult to make the case intellectually, though it will still take courage (the virtue that underwrites boldness) publicly to question the dogmas and disrupt the group-think.
What is the conservative movement most in need of? How can young conservatives who aspire to a political or intellectual role in defending ordered liberty best prepare themselves to be of use? —Bijan Aboutorabi, Yale
RPG: The conservative movement needs what every social-reform movement needs: dedicated, well-informed, intellectually sophisticated, bold young activists. We’ve got lots of them at Princeton. I know that there are many at Yale. Another thing we need more of is supportive faculty members. Conservative students and student groups at those colleges and universities that have a critical mass of such faculty members really flourish. The support and mentorship makes a huge difference.
What do you see as the political future of social conservatism, particularly with respect to the age disparities in approval of homosexuality and same-sex marriage? —Michael Cowett, Harvard
RPG: Young men and women today were formed in a culture in which it is difficult not to absorb the premises of sexual revolutionary ideology. Even conservative young people often don’t realize that they are uncritically buying into premises about human nature and the human good that are profoundly questionable—premises put into place by such dubious figures as Margaret Sanger, Alfred Kinsey, and Hugh Hefner. They take for granted ideas that have no more right to the status of orthodoxies than does belief in the virtues of central economic planning or faith in the collective ownership of the means of production. This is an enormous achievement by the Left, and an enormous failure of the modern conservative movement—and of religious institutions of nearly every tradition. The situation can be reversed only by prosecuting a war of ideas—exposing the errors (and absurdities) of me-generation liberalism and credibly proposing and defending a superior set of ideas about sexuality and marriage. This will not be easy. The Left has no intention of giving up its victories or yielding ground. And its control of the institutions of elite culture—including educational institutions at every level—will enable it to punish and persecute dissenters, thus intimidating many people into silence or even conformity. So the question is, will there be people of courage who will stand up, speak out, and fight?
Your new book, Conscience and Its Enemies, challenges the “dogmas of liberalism.” What do you mean by liberal dogmas? Don’t liberals like to say that reason and science are on their side, while it is conservatives who cling to orthodoxies? Does this connect to what Pope Benedict XVI once called “the dictatorship of relativism”? —Lillian Civantos, Intercollegiate Studies Institute
RPG: Contemporary left liberals are hardly relativists! I often wish they were. They are moralists—moralists on a mission. The mission is to shape political and social life, and, to the extent possible, individual belief, in line with their passionately held moral convictions. One sees this everywhere, beginning with the war waged by the Obama administration on the Catholic Church—the largest and most important institution whose moral teachings stand in conflict with left liberal beliefs about the status of nascent human life, the nature and meaning of marriage, and religious liberty.
These are not people who deny that there are moral truths. On the contrary, these are people who affirm that there are moral truths and are so certain that they understand them correctly that they are willing to impose them on society. What are some of those “truths”? The absolute right to abortion. The right to conduct one’s sexual life however one pleases, so long as one refrains from obtaining sex by coercion or deception. The conviction that “marriage” is the union of two people (or more) without regard to gender. The idea that the state legitimately may and even should use its coercive powers to prohibit whatever counts in liberal ideology as a form of discrimination. The idea that anyone who disagrees with them about the things they most care about is a “bigot.” And on and on.
As for liberal claims that science is “on their side,” the aim of Conscience and Its Enemies is to show why that can only be regarded as laughable. Consider the unwillingness of so many liberals to face up to the undeniable fact that abortion takes the life of a living human being—a fact established not by theological reflection or religious authority but by modern human embryology and developmental biology.