In the latest installment of our Public Discourse interview series, PD Editor Serena Sigillito talks with Robert P. George about whether it’s possible to uncover the truths of natural law in our secular culture, the problem with appealing to “neutrality” in the identification of principles of justice and the design of political institutions, and the proper role of judges in promoting the common good. Professor George is the Herbert W. Vaughan Senior Fellow of the Witherspoon Institute, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and Director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University, and a frequent contributor to Public Discourse.


Serena Sigillito: Thanks so much for taking the time to answer my questions today, Robby! In this interview, I’d like to focus on the prospects and possibility of natural law reasoning in today’s political and cultural climate.

You are well-known and widely respected for your passionate advocacy of the natural law and its potential to help people of good faith to reason well together, even on contentious questions like the nature of marriage. Over the course of your career, you have helped to build impressive institutions such as the James Madison Program and The Witherspoon Institute (the home of Public Discourse and my own employer). Both the JMP and Witherspoon work with intelligent and motivated young people who are passionate about pursuing the truth. They are often people of faith, who hold traditional views on topics like abortion, contraception, marriage, sex, and gender. Yet I have found that many—perhaps most—of these young people are very pessimistic about the prospects of using natural law argumentation to persuade their peers on these questions.

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Why do you think this is? What are they missing?

Robert George: Secular progressive ideology is ascendant in the elite institutions of our society: the federal government, many state governments, universities, news and entertainment media, the arts, professions and professional associations, labor unions, charitable foundations, major business corporations, and on and on. David Brooks rightly says that this gives the “Woke” a monopoly, or near monopoly, on cultural power. Obviously, it enables the transmission of Woke ideology—a fundamentalist and increasingly militant pseudo-religion—to rising generations and makes it difficult for dissenters to challenge that ideology and, indeed, to survive without being subjected to discrimination and even “cancellation.”

Those of us who do challenge it, whether in the name of natural law and natural rights or from some other perspective, are fighting what amounts to an intellectual guerrilla war against an extremely powerful and deeply entrenched adversary. That it is an intellectual war—a war for hearts and minds—doesn’t make it any easier. One would expect a certain amount of pessimism in these circumstances.

SS: In a discussion about advocacy for traditional marriage, one Princeton graduate student told me that she was uncomfortable with the idea of trying to convince others to oppose same-sex marriage by appealing to social science or the kind of arguments you have articulated in What Is Marriage. Although she herself is Catholic, to this student, such an approach felt deceptive—like smuggling in religious precepts under the guise of neutrality and disinterested intellectual inquiry.

How would you respond to her? Is it intellectually honest to make arguments based on natural law or social science for positions you only hold because of your own religious faith?

RG: From your description of her, it sounds like the graduate student you were talking to doesn’t understand the teachings of her own Catholic faith when it comes to the nature of morality, moral questions, and moral judgments, including those concerning marriage. Catholicism self-consciously embraces and proposes a certain understanding of marriage and the norms shaping and protecting it for reasons—reasons that are in principle accessible to anyone, Catholic or not. The point of What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense was to articulate, explain, and defend those reasons.

Catholicism is not a fideistic religion. Quite the opposite. Its basic view of marriage as conjugal union (and not a mere form of sexual-romantic companionship or domestic partnership), for example, is not a matter of “religious precepts” that we (or the pope, or the Church) know because God has communicated them to us only by special revelation. Your friend may happen to believe what she believes about marriage because that is what the Church believes and teaches; but the Church herself believes and teaches what she believes and teaches on the subject for reasons that by the Church’s own lights—and her teachings—are available to be understood by “disinterested intellectual inquiry.” These reasons are matters of natural law.

Interlocutors, however wide and deep their substantive philosophical or other differences, need to share the conviction that business between them is to be conducted in the proper currency of intellectual discourse—namely, reasons, evidence, and arguments.


SS: Thomas Aquinas began the Summa Theologica with the admission that it is very difficult to discover many of the most important truths by means of our reason alone, writing: “Even as regards those truths about God which human reason could have discovered, it was necessary that man should be taught by a divine revelation; because the truth about God such as reason could discover, would only be known by a few, and that after a long time, and with the admixture of many errors.” That’s why, for example, God revealed through the ten commandments that we must not lie or steal, even though those are prohibitions that should theoretically be discoverable through reason alone.

In your book Making Men Moral, you have written about the ways that the law can help direct human beings toward what is good. Today, however, our society’s most influential educational institutions and governing bodies are dominated by a deeply flawed vision of what it means to be human and how one ought to live. Many conservatives have become so disheartened at the ways that the character and intellects of their fellow citizens have been malformed that they have given up trying to persuade them through reason. Others express doubts that most people actually make decisions based on reason at all.

Yet you have exhibited a fierce optimism about the possibility of reasoning together in a spirit of intellectual friendship. I think, for example, about your long-time friendship with Cornel West. What makes such a friendship possible? Is it your shared Christian faith that enables you to maintain such affection and respect for each other in spite of your deep and lasting disagreements? In an increasingly secular culture, in which disagreement is often interpreted as existential violence, do you think most people are still capable of reasoning together in this way?

RG: I’ll plead guilty to hope—not optimism (or pessimism). Hope is a virtue, and we should all have it. Despair is the sin against the Holy Ghost. Hope moves us to act—trusting in God much more than in our own poor abilities and efforts.

Cornel West is a dear, dear friend—truly a brother. At the foundation of our friendship, our fraternal bond, is a love of truth and commitment to truth-seeking. That, obviously, is connected to our shared Christian faith, and our belief that the ultimate truth, the supreme truth, is not a proposition (or set of propositions) but, rather, a person—Jesus Christ, who is the way, the truth, and the life. Our work together—including in the classroom—is underwritten and sustained, despite our various political and other differences, by this sharing.

You ask whether such work and reasoning together can be done by people “in an increasingly secular culture, in which disagreement is often interpreted as existential violence.” Well, the lack of something like shared faith makes that difficult, but my own experience is that where there is a mutual commitment to truth, and truth-seeking, relationships can be built between religious believers and secularists, and they can indeed reason together and even collaborate on some important matters. The minimum condition is this: interlocutors, however wide and deep their substantive philosophical or other differences, need to share the conviction that business between them is to be conducted in the proper currency of intellectual discourse—namely, reasons, evidence, and arguments.

SS: You have spent your career as a prominent critic of the kind of Rawlsian liberalism that attempts to push Christian belief and practice into a completely private sphere. At the same time, you have been a champion of the kind of liberalism defended by John Courtney Murray, one that sees freedom of religion as vital to a flourishing society. Many young conservatives today, influenced by figures like Patrick Deneen and Alasdair MacIntyre, argue that this latter kind of liberalism reduces to the former. Put differently, they argue that American liberal institutions ultimately lead to a supposedly neutral public square that in fact denies the legitimacy of Christianity and forces it into a ghetto. As proof, they use cases like Bostock and Obergefell and President Biden’s recent executive order mandating that schools must force women to compete against men with gender dysphoria in sports.

What do you think distinguishes your form of liberalism from this kind of Rawlsian liberalism? What is it about your form that you believe would robustly defend against evils such as abortion, pornography, the sterilization of children under the guise of “gender affirmation,” and ultimately the suppression of Christian religious expression?

RG: I built my scholarly career as a critic of liberalism, but that does not mean that I reject everything liberals stand for or support everything they oppose. Some of what they believe, or have traditionally said they believe, I believe. For example, they have traditionally said they believe in freedom of thought and speech. So do I. They have said they believe in religious liberty. So do I. They say they believe in the equal dignity of all human beings. So do I. Sometimes we do actually believe in the same principles—even if our reasoning to the affirmation of those principles differs somewhat (or even a great deal). Sometimes we have dramatically different conceptions of principles for which we use the same labels (e.g., equal dignity).

I certainly disagree with anyone who in the name of liberalism (or anything else) endorses abortion, pornography, “gender affirmation” surgery, or the suppression of religious expression. I also disagree with anyone—the late Professor Rawls, for example—who holds that sound principles of justice and the common good can be identified, or that political institutions can and should be designed, without reference to the human good (or disputed questions of the human good).

The fundamental error in the forms of liberalism that have been dominant in academic philosophy and political theory in my lifetime has been the belief that, in constitutional essentials and matters of basic justice, it is necessary for law and government to retain a stance of neutrality on questions of what makes for, or detracts from, a valuable and morally worthy way of life. So my conception and defense of equality, for example, or my conceptions and defenses of basic civil liberties such as freedom of speech and religious liberty, are natural-law conceptions and defenses—they reflect judgments about human goods and how best to protect them; they are not shaped by, or grounded in, appeals to an alleged requirement of moral neutrality.

The fundamental error in the forms of liberalism that have been dominant in academic philosophy and political theory in my lifetime has been the belief that, in constitutional essentials and matters of basic justice, it is necessary for law and government to retain a stance of neutrality on questions of what makes for, or detracts from, a valuable and morally worthy way of life.


SS: Recently an intra-conservative debate has arisen between strict originalists and what your friend Adrian Vermuele has called “common-good constitutionalists.” Here at Public Discourse, we recently ran an exchange between Josh Hammer, who calls for a judicial philosophy of “common-good originalism,” and Ed Whelan, who finds this position incoherent and imprudent.

Strict originalists like Whelan and Scalia argue that a judge’s job is exclusively to apply the law as written, and that it is the legislature’s job to make judgments of the rightness or wrongness of a given law. Common-good constitutionalists, on the other hand, argue that there is no such thing as value-free application of law. They argue that judges must be well-formed in order to make good political judgments in each particular case. In their view, if conservatives stick with strict originalism, we will continue to lose every important political battle, because we are not making a substantive argument for why a policy is good. As a result, progressivism will continue to transform our culture in deeply damaging ways.

What is your pitch to young conservatives, especially young law students and judges, to embrace strict originalism instead of common-good constitutionalism? If legislators have consistently failed to craft laws in ways that incline citizens toward the good and the separation of powers has essentially collapsed, why not use the judiciary and the administrative state to make our society more conducive to human flourishing?

RG: Originalism is now a well-developed theory (or family of theories) of constitutional interpretation. Its strengths and weaknesses are well-known. Its leading exponent—the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia—described it as “the lesser evil.” “Common-good constitutionalism” has historic roots, but as a constitutional interpretative theory it is still being worked out. It will be interesting and instructive to observe its development in the hands of first-rate thinkers such as Professor Vermeule.

I’ve already indicated that I believe that justice and the common good require that laws and policies be shaped in light of our best judgments of what makes for and detracts from a valuable and morally worthy way of life. Law cannot be, and must not aspire to be, substantively neutral—that is, neutral on questions of morality and human well-being and fulfillment. That, however, is a view about lawmaking. It does not propose an answer to the question of the role of the judge in our legal system or any other; nor does it offer a theory of the proper allocation of lawmaking authority among various institutional actors (including judges) in a political system.

Fundamentally, I do not think that the scope of authority of judges is settled by principles of natural law; rather, that is a matter that any particular system resolves by positive law, and may legitimately settle in different ways. There is no single, uniquely correct resolution or settlement that provides a fixed standard of justice for all societies.

My own view of the proper interpretation of the Constitution of the United States is that the judge (or other interpreter) should be guided by the text; the logical implications (and presuppositions) of its provisions; its structure and the structure of its various provisions (as well as the structure of the complex system of government it establishes); and the public meaning of its terms at the time of their ratification. I don’t know what this makes me, as far as labeling is concerned. It does preserve in general (and in principle) the distinction between legislation and adjudication, and between the legislator, as lawmaker, and the judge, as law-applier; and preserving such a distinction strikes me as important—not because the common good doesn’t matter, but rather because it does. Achieving and maintaining the rule of law are requirements of the common good, as, relatedly, are judicial objectivity, the relative autonomy of law, and the principle of equal justice according to law. Sometimes the way officials occupying particular offices, such as judges, serve the common good is by playing their procedural roles well and being careful to respect the legal (e.g., constitutional) limits of their authority—even if that means refraining from pursuing the common good in the direct way that officials occupying certain other offices (e.g., legislators) might legitimately (i.e., pursuant to their legal authority) do.

Achieving and maintaining the rule of law are requirements of the common good, as, relatedly, are judicial objectivity, the relative autonomy of law, and the principle of equal justice according to law.


SS: In the early 2000s, the vision of thinkers like yourself played a major role in political and moral debates. The President’s Council on Bioethics, for example, was hugely influential. In many ways, it seems like the influence of natural law reasoning has waned in the GOP, if not the federal judiciary. Why do you think that is? If Father Richard John Neuhaus were alive today, what wisdom do you think he might offer us about our current situation?

RG: Bill Clinton was something of a policy wonk, but George W. Bush was much more interested in moral and political philosophy—in ideas. This will scandalize some people, but the truth is that President Bush was more interested in ideas—much more interested in ideas—than Barack Obama was. He was certainly more interested in them than Donald Trump was.

I think this largely explains why conservative intellectuals of a certain stripe—Fr. Neuhaus, Leon Kass, Michael Novak, Mary Ann Glendon, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, James Q. Wilson, Jean Bethke Elshtain, and others—were especially influential in the early 2000s. Clinton and Obama both had bioethics councils, but they had nothing approaching the influence and high profile that the Bush bioethics council, chaired originally by Dr. Kass, had. Of course, President Trump, regrettably, did not establish a bioethics council. Many of the intellectuals with whom President Bush was in conversation were—you’re right about this—either natural law thinkers themselves or associated with ideas or, more broadly, traditions of thought that are not entirely out of sync with the thinking of natural law theorists. Such thinkers are certainly not likely to have roles in Joe Biden’s administration. Will they—or their successors—have roles in future Republican administrations? Naturally, that depends on who the presidents are. Lots of Republican presidential aspirants, or possible aspirants, are men and women of ideas. It’s easy to picture people like Ryan Anderson, Yuval Levin, Daniel Mark, Melissa Moschella, Sherif Girgis, Devorah Goldman, and Alexandra DeSanctis having influence in a Rubio, DeSantis, Noem, Sasse, or Cotton administration.

You asked what wisdom Fr. Neuhaus would have for us, were he alive today. That’s an easy question to answer. He would say what he never tired of saying: “Remember, our job is to be faithful—ever faithful—standing boldly and fighting for what’s right; the victory will surely come, but its timing and terms are not up to us. The victory will come in God’s time and on his terms. We must stick to doing our job, and not try to do His. We are merely His instruments. So, however dark things may seem, never yield to despair. Leave the timing and terms of the victory to God. Be faithful—ever faithful.”