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‘The Conservative-Christian Big Thinker’


Over the weekend, the New York Times Magazine ran a lengthy profile of Princeton professor Robert P. George. Having collaborated closely with George over the past few years, I couldn’t help but wince at some of the distortions and oversimplifications in the article — but then again, any journalist trying to repackage academic philosophy for a newspaper audience is likely to get some things wrong. Nevertheless, the article is pretty evenhanded and provides a nice overview of the academic and political work that George is doing.

Calling George “the Conservative-Christian Big Thinker,” the Times concludes that when it comes to intellectual leadership for social conservatism, George is the quarterback: “With the death of the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus . . . George has assumed his mantle as the reigning brain of the Christian right.” I lived with and worked for Fr. Neuhaus for the last two years of his life, and this judgment seems about right. Maybe the Times understands us after all . . .

But the Times profile did misunderstand one pretty important aspect of George’s work.

Throughout the article, George is depicted as having manufactured an entirely new moral and political philosophy, which he now “sells” to the leading Evangelicals and Roman Catholic bishops of America to advance social-conservative causes.

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.”

– Ryan T. Anderson is editor of Public Discourse: Ethics, Law, and the Common Good, an online publication of the Witherspoon Institute.