Robert P. George is McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University and founder and director of its James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions. Over thirty years, he has written extensively on moral philosophy, constitutional law, political philosophy, and legal theory and participated in several important contemporary moral-political debates.
George is the leading American exponent of a contemporary natural-law ethic rooted in the thought of Aristotle and Aquinas, and a distinguished champion of its positions on bioethics, marriage, sexuality, and religious liberty. He has also drawn on this scholarship to write and speak for broader audiences around the world and serve on U.S. and U.N. commissions on civil rights, science and ethics, and religious freedom. His arguments for the rational superiority of Judeo-Christian over secular-liberal positions on a number of issues have been widely noted, leading the New York Times to dub him America’s “most influential conservative Christian thinker.”
George has deployed and helped to develop a moral theory called “New Natural Law Theory,” which was first sketched by Germain Grisez. It draws on (and extends, and on some points departs from) the natural-law theories of Aristotle and Aquinas. George’s view of the nature of law, of its proper scope and rationales, and of its proper content in several areas flows from this contemporary moral theory. His signal contribution has been to apply it to a range of important contemporary issues.
New Natural Law theory provides an alternative to two normative ethical theories that have long dominated academic philosophy, consequentialist theories and deontology. Consequentialist theories (like utilitarianism) tell us to maximize the value of our actions’ effects, by any means. In this view, intentionally killing people (for example) is usually wrong because its harms usually outweigh its benefits. But whenever an act or policy offers a net surplus of value, it is morally obligatory. So deliberately killing an innocent person would be required where, say, its benefits to science outweigh its costs to the victim and others. In general, for consequentialists, an act or policy’s moral status always depends on the circumstances—on the action’s net sum of benefits to harms.
By contrast with consequentialism, New Natural Law theory holds that the basic goods for which we act are in certain key respects incommensurable—incapable of being summed, netted, and compared along a single scale of value. So morality can’t be simply about achieving the most value. It is about promoting but also always respecting (i.e., never directly attacking) different basic goods at stake. Unlike consequentialism, then, this theory recognizes some moral absolutes, such as the prohibition on deliberately killing people (that is, making someone’s death the precise object of one’s choice, though it is sometimes morally right to accept death—one’s own or another person’s—as a side effect of an action whose object is something else).
Yet New Natural Law theory also differs from the second set of views familiar to academics today, which likewise yields moral absolutes. Deontological theories focus on principles for action that make no reference to substantive goods. Kant, for instance, posited that we should act only on those principles that we can consistently will for everyone to adopt. Murder is wrong, on this view, because it flouts that basic requirement of formal consistency: killing to achieve some end, and willing that others do the same, would be self-defeating.
Unlike deontology, New Natural Law theory sees morality (regarding murder or anything else) as a matter of our proper concern for the good. As is true of Aquinas’s theory, its master moral principle is acting on right reason: on our rational appreciation of the true human goods at stake, undistorted by contrary emotions like partiality or hostility. But it goes beyond Aquinas in trying to spell out this overarching principle’s more specific implications.
It derives moral norms (like that against murder) by applying these implications to all the basic human goods to which reason directs us. These include, according to New Natural Law theory, knowledge, life and health, aesthetic experience and skillful performances of various types, inner peace or personal integration, friendship, religion, and marriage, the latter defined as a relationship between oneself and someone to whom one commits in the kind of all-encompassing union inherently apt for procreation and family life.
George provides his account of natural law in, among other places, his John Dewey Lecture at Harvard Law School (“Natural Law”). He engages its critics in his book In Defense of Natural Law and essays in volumes that he has edited, including Natural Law Theory: Contemporary Essays. Against subjectivists, he affirms that certain conditions can be good for us, whatever our subjective attitudes. But against certain Neo-Scholastic thinkers, who would secure morality’s objectivity by attempting to derive its principles from a metaphysical theory of human nature, he argues that moral and other practical principles have their own rationally identifiable but indemonstrable starting-points. Finally, against the same Neo-Scholastics—who like Aristotle consider theoretical contemplation the highest good—he argues that the basic goods as they figure in options for morally significant choice are incommensurable in value.
Legal and Political Theory
Deploying this moral theory, George has advanced criticisms of major positions in contemporary legal and political theory, including legal positivism (on the nature of law) and anti-perfectionism (about law’s proper scope and rationales). These are based on his view of law as creating the conditions under which individuals and private communities can pursue and realize human goods for themselves.
Unlike some positivists, who think law has no important conceptual connection to morality, George defines laws and other social institutions with reference to their end. For George, as for the Oxford legal theorist John Finnis (who, with Joseph Raz, supervised George’s doctoral dissertation), law in the paradigm case involves a recognized authority’s just rules for the political community’s coordination—rules, in other words, that really do serve the common good. For George, unjust laws are real but watered-down cases of law, as they fail to serve the purpose that justifies having law at all. By implication, just laws embody the natural law more or less directly. And we can best account for their paradigmatic features only from the internal perspective of those who support and obey them for the sake of the common good.
George’s legal theory leads him to reject anti-perfectionism—roughly, the view that the state ought to remain neutral among competing visions of a valuable and morally worthy life in settling its basic laws and policies. He grants that law cannot and should not try to promote all the virtues or ban every vice. But if the proper end of law is human flourishing, those making law should surely take moral truth into account.
Likewise, George affirms the legitimacy of invoking controversial moral and religious views in policy debates. John Rawls argued that fairness requires citizens and lawmakers in pluralistic societies to refrain from settling constitutional essentials based on principles they cannot reasonably expect fellow citizens to accept. George challenges Rawls’s claim that the resulting set of legitimate or “public” reasons would exclude arguments drawn from “comprehensive views” such as natural law moral philosophy. Natural law principles, he argues, are accessible to rational beings as such and are therefore public in the crucial sense.
George also rejects as question-begging or untenable the distinction Jürgen Habermas draws between putatively illegitimate appeals to one’s personal goals or self-respect (“ethics”)—including Catholics’ beliefs about the injustice of abortion—and legitimate appeals to the interests of others (“morality”). On similar grounds, in an essay in his book Conscience and Its Enemies, George rebuts the arguments of politicians (most famously, New York Gov. Mario Cuomo) who profess personal moral opposition to abortion while supporting legal access to it.
Indeed, George thinks, the state may (subject to prudential limits) promote the human good even by means of morals laws that ban immoral acts in order to discourage vices. In Making Men Moral, George observes that even immoralities that seem to harm only the person committing them (“self-regarding” acts, like private recreational drug use) can, in the aggregate, harm a society’s moral ecology. On this and other grounds, he argues that morals laws are not unjust in principle—against several contemporary liberal arguments.
Contemporary Moral-Political Debates
Beyond making these general points about the nature, scope, and proper grounds of law and politics, George has employed New Natural Law theory to advance influential arguments on matters of life and death (embryo-destructive research, abortion, euthanasia and capital punishment), sex and marriage, and rights of conscience and religious liberty. On moral questions surrounding life and sexuality, George’s work is shaped by his conception of the human person, most extensively outlined and defended in his book with Patrick Lee, Body-Self Dualism in Contemporary Ethics and Politics.
George and Lee argue that conceptual thought and free choice are performable only by creatures with an immaterial aspect, a soul that reflects our rational nature. This grounds our dignity, and the wrong of intentionally harming us. But we are not just souls that inhabit bodies. They argue that we are also our bodies. Bodies are parts of us as persons, not just our instruments. We come to be when our organism does, ceasing to be only when it dies.
It follows, George and Lee argue, that to intend to kill a human embryo or fetus, the elderly, senile or handicapped, or even criminals convicted of capital offenses, is to intend basic harm to a human person—a rights-bearer. Defenses of these practices, they argue, must implicitly deny the equality of human persons, embrace an untenable body-self dualism, or both.
For a wider audience, George applies this argument to human embryos, with a careful review of the relevant developmental biology, in Embryo: A Defense of Human Life, coauthored with Christopher Tollefsen. Alone and with coauthors, he has also defended pro-life positions against various objections in a number of essays.
George’s view of the human person also has consequences for the proper understanding of sexual ethics and marriage. In Conjugal Union: What Marriage Is and Why It Matters, George and Lee argue that marriage is a basic human good, which consists in the partners’ consenting to and living out a uniquely all-encompassing union. Because we are bodily, this requires bodily as well as emotional and volitional unity. Bodily union between two people, like the union of parts within a person, involves coordination toward a single bodily end (in the couple’s case, reproduction).
As the generative act seals marriage, so the latter is fulfilled by the generation and education of children and inherently calls for total (permanently exclusive) commitment, which no-fault divorce undermines. Yet marriage is valuable in itself, not just as a means to children: thus, George and Lee argue at length, infertility is no impediment to it.
They also argue that to seek sexual satisfaction apart from a marital act is to seek the mere illusion of the good of marriage, or to use the body as a mere instrument, which violates its status as an essential part of the person. Either way, non-marital sex involves acting on emotions at odds with reason and with our dignity as rational beings.
Moreover, marriage affects the common good. It serves children’s development by linking them to their mothers and fathers in a stable bond. Laws that redefine marriage as nothing more than sexual-romantic companionship (same- or opposite-sex) teach that marriage has no intrinsic link to the stabilizing norms of permanence and exclusivity, and that mothers and fathers are replaceable. As these teachings are absorbed, George argues, children will be less likely to be reared by their own mother and father in committed love. The redefinition of marriage undermines children’s rights and harms the common good in several ways, George argues with Sherif Girgis and Ryan Anderson in What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense.
In still other works and collections such as The Clash of Orthodoxies: Law, Religion, and Morality in Crisis and Conscience and Its Enemies, George explores these themes as well as the role of religion in public life and offers natural-law arguments for the importance (and proper understanding) of religious liberty and the rights of conscience.
Robert George defends efforts to shape positive law by the natural moral law. Yet he denies that it is best—or, under our system, legally proper, or fair—for judges in interpreting statutes or the Constitution to substitute their own moral or policy judgments for those of the people and their elected representatives. The moral principle enjoining respect for the rule of law requires judges to refrain from legislating under the guise of giving effect to pre-existing legal or constitutional norms.
In constitutional law, he argues that judges should be guided by the text, logic, structure, and historical understanding of the Constitution. He also denies that the judiciary’s interpretation of the Constitution should always be treated as supreme, beyond the particular cases before it. Drawing on the example of Lincoln, he urges that the political branches ought to apply their own Constitutional interpretation within their own domains.
Applying these structural and methodological points, George has written on substantive constitutional questions in several essays. He has questioned the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence on affirmative action; criticized its privacy jurisprudence; defended its narrow construal of the Constitution’s guarantee of free exercise of religion (while also defending robust legislative protections of religious liberty); and argued that as originally understood, the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause prohibited only a national religious establishment and federal interference with state establishments.
On ethics, law, sex and marriage, human life and religious liberty, the judiciary and the Constitution, George has written extensively and influentially throughout his career. And if one theme colors all his work in these areas, it is a confidence in, and focus on, our natural ability to reason about the human good and what to do in light of it.
That confidence, that focus, is what makes the internal perspective and common good central to George’s philosophy of law. It grounds his response to liberal theorists about the scope and limits and grounds of law and policy. It motivates his emphasis on political self-determination in defending what he regards as the American legal system’s limits on judges. And it shapes both the substance and methods of his arguments for the protection of human life and against non-marital sex (where our dignity as beings with a rational nature is a central principle) and in defense of religious liberty (where our ability to reason about ultimate matters grounds a duty to reason, and to live by our conclusions).
This same focus has also shaped less extensive contributions over the years. Thus, George has written essays arguing that economic and social conservatism have common philosophical roots in our dignity as rational agents; that civil society therefore depends on thriving cultures of business, religion, and the rule of law; that cloning and other artificial reproductive technologies involve relating to new human beings as manufacturers to products, in violation of their basic dignity; that to use our rational capacities to achieve the intellectual ends of academic community, we need wide-ranging academic freedom; and that a liberal arts education liberates us precisely by giving us the resources to assess and order our desires—again, by the standard of reason.
He has also published appreciative tributes to—or critical sketches of—major figures in these debates, including Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, Justice Harry Blackmun, and several others. These offer insightful perspectives on people who have shaped discussions of how we ought to order our common life—a class of figures to which George himself already certainly belongs.
–Essays by Sherif Girgis