American Liberal Arts Blog

Teaching the Liberal Arts in the American Context
An Interview with Professor Robert P. George
Print
By Laura Inglis, September 12, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

1) What led you to become a political philosopher?

The intellectual experience that changed my life, placing me on the path to becoming a professor and a political philosopher, was reading Plato's dialogue Gorgias in a political philosophy seminar I took as an undergraduate at Swarthmore.  Socrates's questions to Gorgias and his other interlocutors in the dialogue led me to question my own beliefs and values. They made me think about existential, social, and political questions that I had not before paused to consider. My encounter with the dialogue caused me to see, for the first time, the overriding value of truth and the importance of the pursuit of truth, not merely as a means to other ends, but above all for its own sake.

 

2) What three literary works have most impacted you and why?

1. Plato's Gorgias

2. Aristotle's Nicomachian Ethics

3. St. Thomas Aquinas's "Treatise on Law" in the Summa Theologiae

 

3) What led you to focus so much of your writing on natural law?

My focus on natural law reflects my desire to understand what can be known by rational inquiry, understanding, and judgment about how we as individuals should lead our lives and how we as members of communities should order our lives together. 

 

4) Does belief in natural law require any prior beliefs? More specifically, how can natural law be made accessible to people who a) don't acknowledge moral absolutes or b) don't acknowledge the basic value and dignity of all human beings?

A theory of natural law will propose (1) reasons for believing that there are indeed objective moral norms, including certain exceptionless norms ("moral absolutes"), and (2) reasons for believing that human beings, as free and rational agents--agents capable, in a sense that though limited is real, of transcending the order of causality--possess a profound, inherent, and equal dignity. At its foundation, our dignity is rooted in the fact that our nature as human beings is a rational nature. Human beings, unlike brute animals, are creatures who (unless prevented or impeded by violence or disease) naturally develop to fruition their inherent capacities for rational deliberation and judgment and free choice.

 

5) How do you think natural law should affect a) judges and b) legislators in their day-to-day work?

Legislators should always be guided in their deliberation, judgment, and action by principles of natural justice.  Their exercises of prudence in protecting and advancing the common good, must always be shaped by their grasp of what is due to citizens as a matter of right and wrong, a matter of justice.  As for judges and their day to day work, the role of principles of natural justice is less straightforward.  Certainly in a constitutional system such as ours, judges are not authorized to play a legislative role or to substitute their judgments of what natural law and respect for natural rights requires for the contrary judgments of those empowered by the Constitution to legislate for the sake of the common good.  The mission of judges is not to make law, but, rather, faithfully and impartially to apply the law as made by the ratifiers of the Constitution or legislators acting pursuant to the Constitution.  Judges go wrong--they act in violation of the Constitution--when they usurp authority vested by the Constitution in other officers (i.e., legislators and executive officers).  In interpreting the Constitution, fidelity to the Rule of Law, which is itself a key principle of natural law, requires that judges respect the constitutional limits of their own authority. 

 

6) What is your current research project?

 I'm working on the law and philosophy of marriage as well as on some emerging issues in bioethics.

 

7) What do you consider to be the most significant political issue facing the American people today and why?

Preserving the institution of marriage, and rebuilding a vibrant marriage culture.  Just about everything else—including the important goals of restoring limited government, rebuilding civic virtue, revitalizing our economy, and lifting large numbers of people out of poverty—depends on that.

 

8) What advice would you give to new Ph.D.'s looking for jobs in the current economic climate?

Tackle difficult and controversial issues.  Study them carefully and think about them deeply and rigorously.  Then be bold.  Take risks. Speak your mind. Challenge prevailing academic orthodoxies.  Refuse to be intimidated.  Earn the respect of those who disagree with your views and values by making arguments so compelling that your opponents are forced to question the validity of their own beliefs.  Smile and be friendly, to be sure, but don’t be overcautious. Go for it!

 

9) What advice would you give to junior faculty members on how to become excellent teachers?

Reflect on what made the inspiring teachers you've known great teachers.  Don't simply mimic them--that won't work--but learn from them.  Make sure that in forming your self-image, you view yourself as--and pride yourself on being--a teacher, not just a scholar.  Give teaching the time and attention it deserves.  Take pride in the achievements of your students.

 

10) What was the most recent book you read and what did you think of it?

The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris by David McCullough.  I loved it.  Like all of McCullough's books, it made a moment in our national history come to life.  It is beautifully written and wonderfully evocative of a period (1830-1900) when an astonishing number of gifted and supremely promising young American men and women made their way (usually with financial and other difficulties and always with the great risks attendant upon crossing the Atlantic in those days) to Paris to receive the best education available anywhere in the world in subjects ranging from art and architecture to medicine and technology.  Of course, today people would come to Princeton.  (Just kidding.  Sort of.)

Tags: No subjects

2 Comments
John on Sep 12, 2011 at 6:05 pm

The response to question 4 should also include (3) belief in an omnipotent providential God and (4) belief in the immortality of the soul.

Lee Trepanier on Sep 14, 2011 at 4:35 pm

Great interview! I especially appreciate George's insight to learn from your great teachers but notn to mimic them.

about the author

Laura Inglis
Laura Inglis

Laura Inglis completed her D.Phil. in American Constitutional History at Oxford University. Her doctoral thesis traced the origins of substantive due process, the legal doctrine that has enabled the U.S. Supreme Court to establish a host of new constitutional rights, such as the right to abortion, recognized in Roe v Wade (1973), and the right to sexual privacy, recognized in Lawrence v. Texas (2003). She demonstrated that this controversial doctrine was invented in the mid-19th century by the courts of New York State, in order to protect private property from expropriation by the state legislature.

Laura's research interests focus on the growth of judicial power in the United States, with particular emphasis on the doctrinal contributions of the state courts. She also holds an M.Sc. in Economic History from Oxford University and a B.S. in Economics from George Mason University.