Posts Tagged ‘Robert George’

What the NYT missed about Robbie George

Thursday, December 24th, 2009


The Sunday NYT had an interesting article on Princeton University’s professor Robert George, The Conservative-Christian Big Thinker.

Professor George uses the ages-old process of human reason for his theological and moral arguments that retired Princeton professor John Fleming referred to in our conversation two years ago,

Fausta: And if I remember correctly, St. Augustine emphasized reason as a means of getting closer to God.

John Fleming: Absolutely. We’re used to the idea that there’s some great divide or conflict between faith and reason. This idea, in a sense, grew in the Late Middle Agesn when Thomas Aquinas and other great theologians of that period had to deal with the rediscovery in the Latin West of Aristotle and a system of moral theology that seemed to be totally independent of the Christian revelation.

But, say, for Augustine, and for most of the early fathers of the Church, there was no conflict between faith and reason because faith seemed, on the basis of their empirical experience, a reasonable proposition. So, although Augustine would never do what Thomas Aquinas did, which is to sit down and in academic fashion try to prove the existence of God, you find in the Confessions and elsewhere lines of argument that basically are doing the same thing: argument by design. Some of this is highly relevant to theological controversy even today.

The NYT article seems to miss that very important point. However, Ryan Anderson, writing at The Corner, points out

Without a doubt, George and the other so-called “new natural lawyers” are innovative, but their innovations are in the service of reviving and refining what Isaiah Berlin called the central tradition of Western philosophy, the tradition that runs through Aristotle and Aquinas. Rather than manufacturing novel philosophical theories, George and his colleagues see themselves as appropriating and building on the wisdom of the ages to tease out the purposes and meanings of various social practices. In other words, this is philosophically critical conservative thought at its best.

This is most apparent in George’s arguments over abortion and sexual morality. Few citizens could explain to a sophisticated skeptic’s satisfaction why all people deserve the equal protection of the laws, or why cold-blooded murder is wrong. When the question is put to them, their likely response is that “they just do; it just is.” The right to life for the adult is just one of those self-evident propositions. So, too, with equal protection. You either see it, or you don’t.

Philosophers like George help make explicit the implicit judgment of the ordinary citizen. We ought not to murder adults because they possess intrinsic worth by virtue of the kind of creature that they are — rational and free animals. They are beings possessed of a rational nature. We ought to provide equal protection of the laws to all people because while they may vary in their gifts and talents, at their core all people possess the same fundamental dignity; each life is thus equally worthy of protection and promotion. But what is true of human beings in mature stages of development, George observes, is no less true of them in earlier developmental stages. What is true of the adult is also true of the unborn child. Any basis for distinguishing the two would, his arguments show, be unjustly arbitrary and have abhorrent logical consequences. The conclusion is straightforward: No human being may legitimately be harmed or denied the equal protection of the laws on account of such morally arbitrary features as age, size, stage of development, or condition of dependency. Championing the embryological science that conclusively demonstrates that the developing embryo and fetus is a whole member of the species Homo sapiens, George simply applies the same moral reasoning implicit in our Western legal and political tradition to the contemporary question of the dignity and value of unborn human life.

The same is true for marriage. Yet the Times is particularly keen to push the view that George has developed and sold a new conception of marriage. But a social practice such as marriage has its own intrinsic rationality, based on the nature of the human person and the goods that fulfill people. This rationality is usually only implicitly grasped, frequently thought to be common sense and self-evidently true. As a result, it becomes embodied in legal, political, and religious institutions. As George and I argued a few years ago in NRO, none of these institutions created marriage. Rather, they all recognized this pre-political (and even pre-religious) natural institution and provided it with legal support and religious solemnization. George’s philosophy seeks to articulate the implicit rationality in these social and legal practices to explain and make explicit why marriage — the moral reality that our traditions track — has the structure that it does and is relevant to the political common good in the way that it is.

While he certainly would not have been installed in one of Princeton’s most celebrated professorial chairs without having produced more than a few important insights and powerful original arguments, his contributions build on the wisdom of those who have gone before — Plato and Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas, Locke and Montesquieu, Coke and Blackstone. They are certainly contributions that justify the Times in calling him “the Conservative-Christian Big Thinker.”

Indeed, it is a philosophy for our time.


In a lighter mode, the NYT also missed that Prof. George also plays the banjo:

Plato, Arisotle, and dueling banjos.

Dr. Fleming is blogging at Gladly Lerne, Gladly Teche, a wonderfully learned and entertaining weekly (Wednesdays) must-read.