In this episode of High Noon with Inez Stepman, Inez interviews Professor Robbie P. George of Princeton University. Professor George outlines why he hasn’t given up on the academy, and how he and an ideologically diverse group of professors are fighting back against cancel culture. Stepman and Professor George also discuss the importance of seeking truth over victory, and the courage necessary to jump into the fray in censorious times.
Professor George is the sixth McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions, which he founded, at Princeton University. He is also a frequent visiting professor at Harvard Law School and has been the recipient of numerous appointments and awards, including serving as Chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, and the President’s Council on Bioethics. He is also the author of numerous articles, essays, and books on many subjects, including human dignity, sexual morality, and other now-controversial topics.
High Noon is an intellectual download featuring conversations that make possible a free society. Inviting interesting thinkers from all parts of the political spectrum to discuss the most controversial subjects of the day in a way that hopes to advance our common American future.
Welcome to High Noon, where we talk about controversial subjects with interesting people. My guest today is Professor Robbie P. George. Professor George is the sixth McCormick Professor of jurisprudence and the director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions, which he founded. And then that’s his normal post at Princeton University, although he is also a frequent visiting professor at Harvard Law School. And he’s also been the recipient of numerous appointments and awards, including serving as the chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, the U.S. Commission of Civil Rights, he served there as well, and the President’s Council on Bioethics.
Professor George has authored too many books, and essays, and talks to even list here, but no doubt you have read or heard from him at some point if you focus on some of the subjects that he focuses on like ethics, especially biomedical ethics, as well as religious freedom, the dignity of life, all these kinds of issues he has written extensively over the years. So, welcome, Professor George, to High Noon. It’s a real pleasure to have you on.
Thank you, Inez. It’s an honor to be on the show with you.
So I think you’re one of the few people who can with a straight face and fairly make the claim to be a public intellectual.
You’re going to accuse me of that.
That’s the true American response. That’s the true American response. But you did grow up in West Virginia where your grandparents were both coal miners, at least for some time in their lives. Could you start out just by telling us how and why you chose the life of the mine that you currently lead?
Well, sure. I did grow up in West Virginia. I was born there. Brought up there. I was one of five sons. We were all boys. I was the oldest. I’m the oldest. And it was a sort of a Huck Finn boyhood growing up, hunting, and fishing and hiking through the woods, and playing bluegrass music, which I still do. I’m a banjo player and I play a lot of bluegrass music. And that was an important part of my life growing up, playing it. Square dances at fire halls and Rod and Gun clubs, or at county fairs, things like that. Bluegrass festivals.
And it was a wonderful boyhood. I did not, I guess, receive a first-class education growing up in West Virginia. I did manage to learn to read and write, but I was in for a bit of a shock when I arrived at college and found out how far behind my classmates I was. But I had a wonderful experience growing up. It truly was a wonderful boyhood.
My four younger brothers, like I myself, went away to college and law school, went out of state to college and law school, but I’m the only one who remained in exile. The other four returned to West Virginia. And three are lawyers there in the town of Charleston. And one is in business in the north-central part of the state where I grew up in Morgantown.
My parents are still there. My father is just about to turn 96. He’s one of the last of the greatest generation, the World War II generation. Drafted into military service to serve in the Normandy Campaign in 1944 right out of high school. In fact, he hadn’t even finished high school. They sent his parents a diploma.
And it was really because of the war and the fact that my father was drafted to serve in the war that I’m not in the coal mines today, I think because he went off to serve in World War II. And he came back and with some skills and with a different situation, he didn’t have to go into the mines. Because he didn’t go into the mines, I’m not in the mines. He was not, though, able to go on for a college education to take advantage of the GI Bill and so forth. He found he had to go pretty much straight to work. And he and my mother, who also didn’t go to college, wanted their boys to have college educations. That was a very important thing growing up.
They aspired us, as parents aspire especially those who are themselves not especially well educated or affluent for their children to rise up in the world to take advantage of this wonderful thing we have in the United States, social mobility, to have a profession, a higher paying job maybe than parents have, more social status, higher social status, influence, even prestige.
And so I went off to college. Really, and as with those ambitions in mind, I wanted to be a good student. I wanted to do well. I wanted to achieve. I wanted to fulfill my parents’ aspiration for me and for my brothers to have a materially better life and have greater status in society than what they were able to have.
But then something happened to me that is the pivotal event in my intellectual life. And since you asked me about it, I’ll tell the story. I’ve told it many times, but I never fail to appreciate it. And that is when I was a sophomore in an ordinary course and political theory. It was a survey course beginning from the ancient Greek and Roman writers and going all the way up to contemporary writers. It was a good course. The professor was a good professor. But it wasn’t a special course. But in that course, I was assigned for the first time, one of Plato’s dialogues.
I’m sure I had never heard of Plato when I entered college. I went to Swarthmore College outside of Philadelphia. But among the many things I was introduced to in college was Plato’s thought. And this was the first dialogue. It was called The Gorgas. It’s a well-known, very important Platonic dialogue.
And in the dialogue, Plato through his protagonist, Socrates invites us to think about why we pursue discourse, dialogue, discussion, debate. Why we engage in the pursuit of knowledge. Why we aspire to learn things. And of course, one possibility that’s obvious is an answer to that question is well for instrumental reasons. Think of all the things that can be gained or accomplished using knowledge as a means.
And when it comes to debate and discussion, this was especially true, of course, for upper-class Athenians in Plato’s day. While being a good speaker, being a good debater, being an impressive person in discussions would enable you to rise in Athenian society, if you were a young man, would enable you to maintain you and your family standing in society. And so these characters, this office, these characters, this office, were paid by wealthy Athenian families to teach their sons to be good rhetoricians so that they could have the advantages.
And so people were taught, this office taught people how to win debates. And the point of discussion and debate and discourse was victory and all the social status and so forth that comes along with that. But in the dialogue, Plato says he teaches us to ask and he suggests the answer. Maybe that’s not the whole story. In fact, maybe that’s not even the most important part of the story. In fact, that might not be the fundamental reason for debate and discussion and discourse and dialogue and seeking knowledge, seeking truth. Rather, it might be that knowledge is most fundamentally valuable for its own sake, for its inherent enrichments.
And maybe we shouldn’t be engaging in dialogue and debate and so forth to win. Maybe our goal shouldn’t be victory for ourselves so that we get more social standing or prestige or for our tribe or our clan or our group, maybe we should be entering dialogue, discussion, and debate for the sake of truth, where the object that we share as a goal, even if we disagree, is getting at the truth of things, where we’re examining questions, debating questions that get at the truth because of our understanding and appreciation of the inherent value of truth, the enrichments that are on offer in the truth-seeking process.
When we grasp the truth, always in a limited way, of course, never completely, but where the truth is understood as inherently enriching of ourselves as rational creatures, as human beings, as truth seekers, people who are fulfilled, in part at least, by seeking and gaining knowledge of truth. Well, that was transformative for me in this. I mean, I’d never thought of that before. I hadn’t even asked the question, what’s the point of truth-seeking? What’s the point of debate and discussion? It just seemed obvious to me that the answer that I later saw was the softest answer was the correct answer. We do it in order to get its instrumental benefits.
But Plato taught me something different. He took me by the lapels and shook me and said, “No, no. Think about this more deeply. Think about it more deeply.” It’s not just its instrumental value. That’s not even the most important part. That’s not what’s fundamental. It has plenty of instrumental value. It can give you all those things for which it can be used as a means, and it’s not wrong to seek them, but you need to understand that first and foremost and most fundamentally, truth-seeking is valuable for its own sake because the truth is valuable for its own sake. And it was that Inez, to my very great surprise and not anything I would ever have anticipated or predicted put me on the path to what became my vocation as a scholar and a teacher.
The business I’m in is truth-seeking. I seek it myself in my writing, in my scholarship, in my research. And I try to teach my students, by both precept and example, to be genuine truth seekers. Not to understand knowledge as merely instrumentally valuable, not just as a means to winning arguments for your tribe or your group or your clan or your side, or rising in the world yourself, or maintaining your social status and professional standing and high income and all that stuff. It’s not bad, it’s not wrong, but that’s not the inherent value of knowledge. It’s not fundamentally what it’s about. What is fundamental about knowledge is that it’s something worth pursuing something good in itself for its own sake, for its inherent enrichment.
So that basically is the story of my intellectual conversion, putting me on the path to the life I’ve lead as a scholar and teacher, and if you insist, even a public intellectual.
You’ve actually over the years, although you’ve written and spoken extensively about some of the rising trends on campus and why they worry you, I would say you’ve been on the whole more bullish on the academy, right? And obviously, the university and the academy has had such an incredible impact on your life, but I wonder how that vision that you have as being part of the academy, your goal being truth-seeking, how you see that continuing or whether it can continue as the vast majority of universities and the most of the people at those universities, first of all, don’t think that objective truth exists to seek, and second, of course, we see survey after survey, its sort of trite to repeat at this point, most students self-censor before they even get to the classroom and have those disagreements and be challenged. They won’t even put forward what they originally think in order to be challenged.
And on the flip side, majorities show that reporting offensive language or offensive behavior, they think that that’s a positive thing. I mean, I wonder how this vision of truth-seeking and as the academy as a place to seek truth can survive those trends, at least in the organized university. Obviously, there have always been people outside of the university and inside of it who individually create a space for that. But in a sort of institutionalized way, how do you see that surviving?
Well, you’re certainly right that there are attitudes that are now widespread on campuses, held not just by students but by many faculty members. And this is also something very important and often neglected by administrators, by people who occupy important offices in universities. Attitudes that are simply toxic, poisonous to truth-seeking, antithetical to the mission of universities as truth-seeking institutions. Attitudes, trends that are causing teaching to degenerate into indoctrination, which not only is not teaching, not education. It’s the very antithesis of education. I’d rather people be ignorant than indoctrinated. Knowledge is the overcoming of ignorance, but it’s certainly not indoctrination. So we’ve got a serious problem.
And there are two ways it manifests itself. And sometimes in the same people, as contradictory as these will appear to be. One is a kind of radical, acidic skepticism, the denial that there’s any such thing as truth. So that we’re left only with the thought that it’s all about power. There’s no such thing as truth. Truth-seeking is a waste of time. Truth-seeking is a mirage. Truth-seeking is a pretext that covers for power-grabbing, power hunting. That kind of skepticism is like an asset. It destroys something very precious, and that is the idea of truth and our will and determination to pursue the truth. That’s one thing.
The other thing is a kind of radical dogmatism where people become ideologues. In effect, so persuaded that they have the truth and have the whole truth and have nothing but the truth, that they, for all intents and purposes, whatever they might say in response to a question about it, for all intents and purposes, they regard themselves, they treat themselves as infallible. Thinking they have nothing to learn. They’ve already got the truth. They don’t have to listen to anybody else. And they don’t even have to allow other people to speak because other people are wrong, other people are in error, other people are mistaken, other people are mean-spirited, other people are ill-motivated. We can shut down their speech because we’ve got the truth. We don’t have anything to learn.
That dogmatism and that skepticism are, in a certain sense, two sides of the same coin. And they are poisonous, they are toxic to the mission of universities, to the truth-seeking mission of universities, and the truth-seeking vocation of scholarship, and to genuine non-indoctrinating teaching.
Real learning means considering the best that is to be said on both or all sides of difficult questions. The true truth seeker not only can answer the question correctly, are you infallible by saying, no, I am not infallible. I could be wrong. The true truth seeker has the genuine intellectual humility that comes from more than merely notionally, but really understanding his or her own fallibility. And that person because he or she knows she may be wrong, may not have the whole truth, will all be eager, not only willing, eager to listen to somebody who challenges him or her, even on important questions, even with respect to his most cherished, deepest held, even identity-forming beliefs.
Now, we human beings find it hard to accept those challenges. And that’s for one simple reason. It’s the way we’re built. It’s the way we’re constructed. And that is we tend to wrap our emotions more or less tightly around our convictions, around our beliefs. And that is not bad in itself. In fact, just in itself, it’s a good thing. We want people to be people of convictions. We want people to invest in their beliefs. We want people to be willing to act on their beliefs.
If you have beliefs but you have no real emotional investment in your beliefs, you’re not going to get anything done. Whether it’s some acting on behalf of some noble cause one beliefs in or if it’s just doing one’s job, raising one’s family, getting through the day, doing things that you think are worth doing. You need some emotional investment in your beliefs to get up and running.
But here’s the problem for we frail fallible, fallen, finite human creatures. If we yield to the temptation to wrap our emotions too tightly around our beliefs, we become dogmatists. We become ideologues. We fall into the error of not listening to other people who challenge our beliefs, not willing to allow our beliefs to be challenged, not letting people who hold different beliefs or beliefs that are contrary to our own even to be heard. We’re tempted to try to shut them down lest they sow error in our community or among our students.
If we’re truth seekers, we’re not going to allow our emotions to be wrapped so tightly around our convictions that we’re going to become dogmatists. And if we’re going to teach our students and not indoctrinate them, teach them, and teach them to become life-long learners, we’re going to have to impart to them those virtues, open-mindedness, intellectual humility, genuine love of truth, that will enable them to avoid turning their own opinions into idols. We can fall into an idolatry of our own opinions. We can value our own opinions, even above truth.
And that’s what happens when you fall into dogmatism. And not just religious dogmatism here. Talk about dogmatism generally on political beliefs, cultural beliefs, social beliefs, and so forth. And again, that’s toxic to something very, very important. And that is the truth-seeking enterprise, the truth-seeking project for us as individuals and for institutions that are dedicated as central to their mission to truth-seeking.
So you famously have a good working relationship, as well as, I think a personal friendship with Cornell West, who’s obviously a man of the left. And on the other hand… I guess, on the one hand, there always have been some fringe views that what we might call today would be canceled, right? There have never been no consequences to your job, for example, even in the heyday of free speech, showing up to your work with a Nazi armband. It is likely you would get fired for doing that. So there have always been some kind of boundaries on what’s considered reasonable, even if the first amendment allowed for speech that was overwhelmingly found extremely offensive or dangerous.
But on the other hand, now we have an increasing push to foreclose larger and larger topics of conversation or views that are held by a large minority or even a majority of Americans. Couple examples off the top of my head would be any discussion of downsides as opposed to upsides of large waves of immigration, colorblindness is an ideal to strive for. These are just a couple examples of subjects that seem to be foreclosed by “reasonable conversation,” even though they encompass the views of large, large numbers of Americans.
So who decides then… If we take for granted that there will be some boundaries to what’s considered reasonable or polite debate, by what process do we decide where those boundaries are and who does get to decide where those boundaries are? Because it seems to me that the problem in front of us is that there is a relatively small minority, although that minority is its const in the academy, in government agencies, in what we might call the managerial class, increasingly CEOs, and boardrooms, Facebook, Twitter, right? That is a minority that is attempting to put parameters on the debate that exclude what I would call very reasonable views, but not just what I would call reasonable views, but I think the vast majority of Americans would call reasonable views.
Yes, you’re absolutely right. Well, Cornell West and I are very dear friends, brothers. We teach together. We go around the country lecturing together. We write together. We sing to grad together. We’re both Christians. We pray together. Despite our rather profound disagreements about political and even some important moral questions, but with any friendship, with any partnership, there’s got to be some common basis, some common ground, some things that are shared.
And for Cornell and myself, even going beyond our shared Christian convictions, there is the belief in the central importance of truth-seeking. Everything I’ve said so far in our conversation Inez about the truth-seeking vocation of scholarship and what it requires, the truth-seeking mission of universities, and the conditions of freedom of thought and inquiry and discussion that are required for that mission to be prosecuted, Cornell would a hundred percent agree with. And not only agree with, he’s out there just as vigorously, and just as emphatically, and just as loudly as I am preaching this gospel. That shared ground.
We’re both fundamentally Socratic. We may fail, we may fall, we may do it wrong sometimes, we may fall short, we may sometimes do things we ourselves in a sober moment regret, but we do our best to try to be genuinely Socratic, genuine truth seekers, to practice what we preach. And I admire that enormously in Cornell. And he’s got intellectual integrity. And that’s something I aspire to have in any truth seeker needs. You can’t do without it. You don’t have it. You’re not a truth seeker. It’s that simple.
So those are really the foundations of the bond of fellowship between us that enables us to work together so productively despite our disagreements. I mean, he is pretty far to the left. I mean, he’s the honorary chairman of Democratic Socialists of America. That’s pretty far left. I’m a traditional Conservative. So we’re not in the same place politically. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t have a deep sharing. When it comes to other important things above all, the importance of truth-seeking and of the maintenance of the conditions that are necessary, both existentially for people as individuals and institutionally for colleges and universities, to be dedicated to truth-seeking.
Now, today, you’re absolutely right. There is an enormous and immense assault on the freedoms, freedom of thought, freedom of inquiry, freedom of discussion, freedom of expression, that are necessary if scholars are to pursue their truth-seeking vocation, if students are to become true learners, scholars themselves, whether they go into careers in academia or not is irrelevant. If there to be thinkers, scholars in that sense. If institutions like colleges and universities are to be truth-seeking institutions.
And all the dimensions of the problem are the ones that you have mentioned. It goes far beyond the academy, into corporate life. Woke capital is as destructive of the truth-seeking mission as the bad stuff that goes on in universities. And we’ve got a huge challenge here.
Now to meet that challenge, we need a couple of things. I’m going to give you the easier one first, but the easier one is pretty hard. And that is building infrastructure for genuine truth seekers so that they can flourish. Beginning with building infrastructure within academic institutions, programs like mine, the banners behind me. The James Madison Program and American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton is a very good example.
There’s some infrastructure within a very distinguished prestigious elite university trying to help to fulfill the university’s own-stated admission of being a true seeking institution, one that is committed as our university is formally committed to principles of freedom of thought and freedom of inquiry and freedom of discussion and freedom of expression.
So that’s one thing to do. It’s hard. It’s hard to build them. You get a lot of resistance when you try, but we need to be trying everywhere we can. And around the country, I am heartened to see such infrastructure being built. Sometimes at famous institutions. Sometimes at less famous institutions. Sometimes at private colleges and universities. Sometimes at state colleges and universities. But I’m glad to see it where I find it. And I’m finding more of it. I’m seeing more of it. I’m trying to help those who are trying to build in various places around the country. But as I say, that’s the less hard part. Hard as it is.
The second thing is really hard. It takes courage. And courage, I’m afraid, Inez is a virtue that is always and everywhere in short supply. And we certainly don’t have enough of it today. People, including people in academic institutions, are scared. They’re frightened. They fear that if they express a dissenting viewpoint, if they say the “wrong thing,” or even they say the “right thing” in the “quote wrong way,” or even if they fail to say something, remaining silent, when the woke demand for them to speak, expect them to speak, to say the magic words, they fear that they will be canceled, that their careers will be ruined, that their lives will be ruined, that they will be left friendless and jobless and hopeless.
Now in the face of that fear, you will either capitulate with very bad consequences for your character and everything else, or you’ll be courageous. But if you’re courageous, that means taking the risk. And there is no guarantee, I can give you no guarantee that if you’re courageous and you take the risk, everything’s going to come out okay. I wish I could, Inez, but I can’t. Because it might not. In all great causes there end up being martyrs. People who do pay a very, very heavy price for behaving courageously, for modeling that virtue of courage.
I, myself have been very fortunate, indeed blessed. I have not been asked to pay that price. I have been teaching at Princeton for 36 years, Inez. And while I have seen even at my own institution, bias against conservatives, prejudice against people who dissent from the progressive secular orthodoxies on campuses like this, while I’ve seen it, I’ve never suffered it. In my 36 years, as outspoken as I have been on the most controversial questions. touching the third rail time and time again, I’ve never been discriminated against, held back. Quite the contrary.
This university has allowed me to say whatever I want to say, however, I want to say it, no policing in my language. Teach whatever I want to teach. Teach the things I love in the way I love. Decide what goes on my syllabus as readings and what doesn’t. It has permitted me to found my own program, the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions. And to run it the way I want it to be run. To make it a bastion for freedom of thought and inquiry for viewpoint diversity and the expression of ideas that challenge dominant ideas on campus.
The university has treated me well. It hired me. It promoted me. It gave me tenure. It installed me in one of the university’s most prestigious chairs. It allowed me to build the Madison Program. It showered every honor it has on me teaching awards and everything else. So I cannot complain. I cannot say I’m a victim. I’m not. But I also can’t say that you’re going to have the good luck that I have if you do what I did if you challenge the orthodoxies if you are outspoken. I wish I could again, I wish I could, but I can’t.
But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try or that you shouldn’t exemplify that courage. You need to, all human beings need to be true to yourself above all. By being true to yourself, it doesn’t mean being true to your desires. It means being true to your highest aspirations and ideals to the things you really believe in. And I hope you believe in truth-seeking. And if you believe in truth-seeking, you’ve got to be a truth speaker, not just a truth seeker. And if you’re a truth speaker, there can be bad consequences. You might not be as lucky as I have been, but I want you to do it anyway.
And for the rest of us, for people like me, it’s really critical that we support those people who do step forward, touch the third rail, exemplify that courage, model it for their students and for others. We need to stop running away, we academics, when a fellow academic or a student comes under attack from a cancellation mob. Instead of running the other way, fearing that we’ll be next, or fearing to be associated with the person because we’ll be judged guilty by association, we need to rally to that person. Stand in solidarity with that person. Show some courage ourselves.
We academics have been like zebras. When the lions attack, the zebras flee in all directions. Let the poor, innocent victim, usually, a young one or one with a broken leg or an injured one or sick one, get devoured by the lions. We need to stop being like zebras and start being like elephants. You know what happens Inez when an elephant herd is attacked by of those same lions? They don’t flee to the four winds. They circle around the victim. It might be a baby elephant or an injured elephant. They circle around the victim. And they charge us. Some of them protect, let’s say the baby in the circle, others charge out at the lions. And they push the lions back, and they push the lions back, and they push the lions back.
And after the sixth or seventh try, you’ve probably seen these National Geographic shows, you know what happens. The lions sculpt away. When they attack a zebra herd, they always get a meal. When they attack an elephant herd, they never get a meal. We academics need to be the elephants and stop being the zebra. So it takes courage. And as I say, it’s always in short supply.
I can’t agree with you more about supporting people and also about feeling blessed myself to not… Not that I have a prestigious chair at Princeton, but I do have both social and financial networks that are not dependent on what I would say or cancellation mobs, right? And that is a real privilege, I think today and allows us to speak freely. But of course, I’m very cognizant of most people not having that. And I agree with you we need to build infrastructure for those people. We need to try to be the elephant and to circle around them.
Can I say a word about the Academic Freedom Alliance?
I had the privilege of joining with a number of my colleagues. We began here at Princeton and then spread out to bring aboard academics from around the country. In an alliance of professors of all ranks, at all sorts of institutions, and from across the ideological spectrum to become the elephants actually. So join with each other in a kind of NATO pact. The idea was originally suggested by Neil Ferguson out at Stanford at the Hoover Institution. NATO was built on that principle. I think it’s article five of the treaty that says an attack on one will be treated as an attack on all. That’s why we deterred conventional Soviet aggression during the Cold War. An attack on one is an attack on all.
Well, that should be the principle that we have as academics. And it’s what the Academic Freedom Alliance, which you can find at academicfreedom.org, stands for. We do treat an attack on one academic for exercising his free speech rights as an attack on all. And here we have very broad understanding of free speech. It extends to people on the left and extends to people on the right. It is non-sectarian. It is not associated with any party or any particular ideology. Cornell West is a member, I’m a member. Orlando Patterson is a member. My conservative colleague John Lawndrigan is a member.
We’re from across the political spectrum, but we’re dedicated to speaking out, standing up, not only for our own rights but for the rights of all academics, even those who are not in our Alliance. We want to create a deterrent to the bad behavior we have seen from grievant administrators under pressure from cancellation mobs. We want to deter it the way the NATO Alliance deterred Soviet aggression during the Cold War.
And one of our principles is this, that we need to recognize the legitimacy, whether we agree or disagree with the substantive content of a person’s views. We need to recognize the legitimacy of their right to speak. And in fact, we need to be willing to engage them as honest truth seekers. So long as they are doing business in the proper currency of intellectual discourse, which is a currency consisting of reasons, arguments, and evidence.
Just as the American monetary currency is dollars and cents and the British is pounds and pence, the currency of intellectual discourse is reasons and arguments, and evidence. So if someone is doing business in that currency, even if they’re advocating the position that I abominate, that I think is horrible, that I think is immoral, unjust, one that I find scandalous, I will defend that person’s right.
For example, I defend the rights of free speech, I do it all the time of my Princeton colleague, Peter Singer, who’s got views as far away from mine on fundamental issues of human life. As far away from mine as they could possibly be. Cornell West and I don’t disagree nearly as much as Peter Singer and I disagree, but Peter singer, who’s also a member of the Academic Freedom Alliance, does business in the currency of intellectual discourse, reasons, arguments, and evidence, even though he advocates positions that are very shocking to me and that I fight against every day of my life.
For example, the radical idea that not only is abortion morally permissible, infanticide is morally permissible. Singer believes that infanticide is morally permissible because even infants, not just unborn children, but even infants aren’t yet persons. They’re human beings, but he just draws a distinction between human beings and person. And some human beings, those who’ve developed or have a certain level of mental functioning are persons and other human beings are not, or not yet, or no longer persons, and therefore they can legitimately be killed.
I couldn’t disagree with that more strongly. And I fight against it every day, not just in my intellectual work, but in my own political advocacy. And yet when, as happens every few years, disability rights advocates, with whom I’m in much sympathy, come to Princeton, protest, chain themselves, some in the wheelchairs, to the gates at Princeton University and demand that professor singer be fired and his tenure be revoked, I’m out there saying, no, he does business in the proper currency of intellectual discourse. He reaches conclusions that are antithetical to my own, and that I fight night and day against, but he’s got the right to speak. He’s got the right to hold his position and advocate his position.
And I learn and I benefit, and my students learn and they benefit from engaging him from listening to his arguments, from assessing the evidence that he adduces to support his position, figuring out where the problems are in it. It deepens their understanding at the issues to hear an intelligent, a very radical person attacking their views. That’s I think the position we need to take.
One of the intellectuals, I think fellow travelers of Peter Singer is on some of these subjects is the Ezekiel Emanuel, who, although they disagree on some things as well. But I’m here thinking about the argument that is Ezekiel Emanuel advanced in the Atlantic. It has been a few years. At least it’s been several years. I think it was like 2014 or 2015.
Life ends in your seventies.
Right. And I don’t think I’m unfairly misconstruing him here when I say that he wrote that essentially after 75, not that medical care should be triaged or rationed if there’s a limited amount of that care available, but actively that it’s a bad thing to keep people alive after 75 and “75 is a good age to die.” What is your response to the arguments that he advanced there even laying… I take for granted that he has the right that you would defend his right to make that argument. But on the substance of the argument, how would you argue against that kind of utilitarian thinking?
Well, there are lots of problems with utilitarianism. I’ve written about them in my scholarly writings and to people who are associated with me and sympathy with the approach to ethical reasoning that I hold have written some wonderful things about them, including about utilitarianism, including direct critiques of Singer and Ezekiel Emanuel. One fundamental problem is if you make the consequences of actions the sole criterion for judging the legitimacy of actions, you have a big problem because you really can’t predict what the consequences of actions will be. You have a very, very limited power of prediction.
Still more fundamentally, I have to get into the weeds a little bit here, I’ll try to avoid going too deeply, utilitarianism or any consequentialist ethic, that is an ethic that treats as the master principle of moral decision making that you should choose that option when you’re forced to choose among competing options in morally significant situations of choice. Choose that option which overall and in the long run promises the net best proportion of benefit to harm however benefit and harm are defined.
And different utilitarian’s define benefit and harm differently. Some say it’s all about pleasure and pain. Benefit is pleasure, harm is pain. Jeremy Bentham, the founder of the utilitarian tradition took that point of view. Others have what I think is a more sophisticated understanding of benefits and harms. But whatever it is, it assumes a commensurability among the different forms of human benefit or human good. A commensurability that enables us to weigh different kinds of things. Things that seem to be different in kind. Very fundamentally different things against each other to make the calculation workable, thus reducing ethics to a matter of calculation. And I don’t think that commensurability obtains. And I think it can be shown, and much of my work is devoted to showing that it can’t be maintained. So I think that’s a fundamental problem right at the heart of utilitarianism.
Not unrelated to that is my view that there’s an inherent dignity to human life. Utilitarianism always reduces everything to instrumentality. Everything, in the end, is an instrumental good. And it has trouble identifying. In fact, I think it can’t logically, in the end, identify anything really that’s definable that becomes treated as good in itself. The thing to which other things remain, but the thing that itself is not reducible to the status of a mere means.
Now, I think one of the things that is not reducible to the status of a mere means is a human life. Human beings, the creatures we are, are inherently and not merely instrumentally valuable. That accounts for why we believe we shouldn’t enslave people. At least we don’t any longer believe we shouldn’t enslave people. Reduce them to the status of objects, instruments, means. We reject slavery. I’m sure Ezekiel Emanuel would. We reject it, but we reject it not because it’s inefficient, not because it’s ugly, although it is ugly, not because of sentimentality. We reject it because we recognize the inherent dignity of the human being. The human being is an end in himself and not in your means to other ends.
But once you’ve got the concept of inherent dignity, then it means the worth, the value, the dignity in the human being is in no way dependent on any factor that’s merely incidental like race, sex, ethnicity, age, size, stage of development, condition of dependency. If we have inherent dignity, if we follow, say, Leon Kass, a great thinker on these issues, critic of Ezekiel Emanuel, critic of Peter Singer. Someone I think has got it exactly right.
If we follow Dr. Kass’s idea of the inherent dignity, which is also I think the biblical idea, I think it’s the idea that’s really at the heart of our civilization, even of our own polity, the idea that is, in essence, articulated in the Declaration of Independence, that human beings are not reducible to ends, I’m sorry to mere means, they are really fundamentally ends in themselves, then there’s no way you can say because you’re 75, you no longer have the same dignity as a 16-year-old, or a 38-year-old, or something like that.
Age can’t count any more than sex, race, condition of dependency, stage of development. None of those things. Those are incidental to who the human being is. What’s not merely incidental is the fundamental dignity of the human being.
One of the topics that I can’t stay away from on this podcast has been family breakdown and alienation and individualism. Often, I think in the past decade, the right has wanted to avoid some of the subjects that you touch on regularly, right? Like the conversation, we were just having, subjects of marriage, sex differences, sexual morality. Talk about the third rail that you were talking about, having the courage to touch.
A two-part question here. First, has it been particularly difficult being an open social conservative in the academic space as opposed to economic? And where do you… On those kinds of issues themselves, give me some optimism, professor. I mean, where do we go from here on those kinds of issues at a time where it seems like conservatism has truly been routed, for example, on issues of sexual morality or marriage?
Yeah. Well, I’ll tell you, I really love being a social conservative, a full-born social conservative in contemporary academia, especially in elite academia. I love it. It’s more fun than a human being should be allowed to have as Rush Limbaugh used to say. And that’s because 95% of my colleagues completely disagree with me. And they’ve got nothing but lousy arguments.
So I have the fun of blowing holes in these arguments all the time. Now it’s hard to persuade them because they’re deeply, emotionally invested in their opinions about abortion and the sanctity of human life, the nature of marriage, is it a conjugal union of husband and wife, or is it mere sexual romantic companionship or domestic partnership? Gender identity real. Is there such a thing as gender, as opposed to sex? Are we fundamentally male and female because of how we feel or is it about the way we are made biologically?
I, of course, represent the social conservative view on all those. And I get to argue with my colleagues about it, and challenge their views, and poke holes in their views, and raise really difficult questions for them. Questions they have one devil of a time answering all the time. It just doesn’t get more fun than that.
And what about where we go from here on some of those topics in terms of, let’s say, for example, gender identity is the rising or the most kind of on the firing line, I would say, on the division of the culture wars now? Do you have hope of convincing enough people, especially of my generation and the younger one, Gen Z, that for example, biological sex is substantive and real and does shape our lives in important ways at a time where even saying that just it’s… I mean, if you look at survey, after survey, after survey, folks younger than 45 are not at least going in with that view.
Well, here again, is where we need the courage. I need a lot more people to come in and have fun with me. One of the problems is that people who do share my views are afraid to articulate them. I think they would be less afraid if they did a little reading, did a little more thinking, and came to see that they’ve got really powerful arguments and that the positions on the other side are really held up by the status, by the prestige of the people and institutions associated with them, and it’s not the strength of the arguments for them that is holding them up at all, they are extremely vulnerable arguments.
So come on in. The water’s fine. You have a good time. Show some courage. I know it takes some courage. I know you worry that you’re going to get canceled. You’re going to get attacked. They’re going to call you names and so forth. Let’s have some courage come in. Join the fun. Help me in taking on these arguments that richly deserve to be challenged and questioned and poked and blown up really.
Now, it’s not that there are no good arguments, there are some good arguments on the other sides of these questions, but there are none that can’t, I think legitimately and successfully be challenged. At least that’s my view. So what I’d like is just more help. The other side, I think, on these issues is really being sustained by the fear they’ve managed to induce in people who, at some level at least, know that, for example, you’re not a male or female because of how you feel. You’re a male or female because of your biological reality.
I mean, most people, even today, even younger people, at some level know that, but they fear that they’re not allowed to say it. They fear that they’re really not allowed to think it, even though at some level they can at help but thinking it. And we need to help people to overcome that fear. They need the courage to be able to speak their mind. As you said and as the polling data here is pretty clear. And that is that a lot of students, a lot of young people, not just young people, but an awful lot of young people are censoring themselves.
Now that must mean that they’re believing stuff that they feel they can’t say, right? They wouldn’t be censoring themselves if they really believed stuff that the elite want them to believe. They’d go ahead and speak their minds. If they tell us they’re censoring themselves, they’re also implicitly telling us they believe some things that they feel they can’t say challenging elite opinions, secular progressive opinion on gender identity, let’s say, or abortion, or marriage, or sexual morality, or whatever it is.
We need to help put the courage in them to speak their minds, to speak up, to challenge, to poke, to prod. That’s what the word encourage means. Put courage in. We need to encourage our students. Put courage in our young people. Part of that is teaching by example. Doing it. Standing up and doing it. Students will rally to that. That’s been my experience. I’ve got all these incredibly brilliant students and former students out there, Sherif Girgis, Ryan Anderson, Melissa Moschella, Anna Samuel, Daniel Mark, Meir Soloveichik, I could go on and on. Just my own students who I’m so proud of out there showing that courage.
And they tell me it’s not just the precepts that they were taught, but the example of people they admire who exemplified that courage themselves that has given them the courage to be as outspoken and effective as they are. Look at somebody like Ryan Anderson as a very good example of that.
I can’t think of a better note to wrap up on. So, Professor George, thank you so much for taking the time to join us here on High Noon. It was a real pleasure to have you.
My pleasure, Inez. Thank you.
And thank you to our listeners. High Noon with Inez Stepman is a production of the Independent Women’s Forum. As always, you can send comments and questions to [email protected] Please help us out by hitting the subscribe button and leaving us in comment or review on Apple Podcast, Acast, Google Play, YouTube, or iwf.org. Be brave, and we’ll see you next time on High Noon.