A Week with Robert P. George (Part 1)

March 31, 2014

Editor’s Note: This week, we’ll be running a three-part interview series featuring Robert P. George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University. A 2009 New York Times profile labeled him the “country’s most influential conservative Christian thinker.” He’s the author of such works as Conscience and Its Enemies: Confronting the Dogmas of Liberal Secularism; and Clash of Orthodoxies: Law, Religion, and Morality in Crisis, both necessary guides for discerning our times. Though I’ve never had the privilege of studying with him formally, Robert George has been an academic mentor to me from afar, one whose thinking has been immeasurably impactful.

ATW: What theologians, ethicists, or philosophers have been most influential to your own thinking and why?

RPG: Although I would scarcely qualify as a Platonist, the greatest philosophical influence in my life was certainly Plato. Reading his dialogue Gorgias awakened me from my dogmatic slumbers, fundamentally transforming my attitude about ideas, arguments, and intellectual life generally. It happened in an undergraduate course in political philosophy at Swarthmore, where I was an undergraduate. Before my encounter with Plato, my views were largely shaped by a desire to be, and to be regarded as, a sophisticated person.  I tended to believe what I thought sophisticated people were supposed to believe. I was a skilled debater, so I knew how to defend my views; but I had never actually thought in a serious or critical way about most of the stances I took. Plato made me stop and rethink—or, to be brutally honest, to actually think through for the first time—quite literally everything. When I did that, I found that much of what sophisticated people thought, or were supposed to think, just didn’t hold up under scrutiny. By liberating me to reject fashionable elite opinion, Plato led me out of a kind of intellectual slavery into freedom. My debt to him is incalculable.

Substantively, my thought about philosophical matters (especially those pertaining to ethics and the social sciences) has been shaped most decisively by Plato’s student and critic, Aristotle. I do qualify, I think, as a neo-Aristotelian.  I believe that ethical reflection begins with our intelligent grasp of principles directing choice and action towards various constitutive aspects of human well-being and fulfillment—the basic human goods that provide more-than-merely-instrumental reasons for our choosing and acting—and away from their privations, and that moral norms are specifications of the integral directiveness of these goods and reasons. As that sentence perhaps suggests, the other major philosophical influence on my work is Aristotle’s great medieval expositor and interpreter, St. Thomas Aquinas.

Among modern philosophers, I’ve learned an enormous amount from Bernard Lonergan, Elizabeth Anscombe, Germain Grisez, Joseph M. Boyle, Jr., John Haldane, Alasdair McIntyre, and my doctoral supervisors John Finnis and Joseph Raz.  Religious thinkers and public intellectuals whose work and witness have been important to me include David Novak, Richard John Neuhaus, Charles Colson, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, Leon Kass, Hadley Arkes, Daniel Robinson, Gilbert Meilaender, Timothy George, James Dobson, Hamza Yusuf, Jonathan Sacks, Jean Bethke Elshtain, and Mary Ann Glendon.

ATW: One persistent concern about those involved in the defense of marriage is the complexity of the arguments, and in turn, their general inaccessibility to the general population. What advice would you offer those who think our arguments are too complex?

RPG: I myself am not good at reducing complex ideas to sound bites. Someone else will have to be put in charge of that task. But I’m not sure that the basic argument for marriage is actually all that complicated. The argument for redefining marriage as something other than a conjugal union—that is, as sexual-romantic companionship or domestic partnership—collapses pretty quickly when one demonstrates that what Sherif, Ryan, and I call the “revisionist” account of marriage is incapable of providing a principled basis for any of marriage’s structuring norms—(1) the idea that marriage is a sexual partnership, as opposed to a relationship integrated around any of a variety of other non-sexual shared interests or activities (playing tennis, reading novels, or what have you); (2) the belief that marriage is sexually “closed” rather than “open”—thus requiring strict fidelity; (3) the proposition that marriage is the union of two people, and not three or more in so-called polyamorous sexual ensembles; (4) the idea that true marriage includes a pledge of permanence—“till death do us part”—and is not for a fixed term of years, or “for as long as love lasts.” Of course, to get an interlocutor to see this, one must first raise the curiously overlooked question in the debate—the question on which all else turns:  What is Marriage?

Believers in “same-sex marriage” almost always are people who have uncritically come to believe that marriage just is a form of sexual-romantic companionship or domestic partnership. They lack any sense of the historic and cross-cultural idea of marriage as a conjugal union.  So the key is to get the two possibilities out there clearly for people’s consideration. Then the question becomes, simply, which view of marriage can provide a principled basis for its structuring norms. At that point, the revisionist view is checkmated. From there, what remains is to flesh out the meaning of marriage as a conjugal (comprehensive, one-flesh) union, and answer the standard objections (such as the claim that the coitus of infertile spouses is indistinguishable from sodomitical intercourse). Much of our book is concerned with those tasks.

ATW: How would you explain the principles found within “What is Marriage?” to middle school students and younger kids? Or, perhaps I’ll ask differently: How can Christian (and non-Christian) parents equip their young children with a view of marriage that you’re promoting?

RPG: If ever there were a case when it is important to teach by both precept and example, this is it.  Parents certainly need to model true marriage for their children.  That’s because the main way we learn the meaning of marriage is by observing the marriages of others, beginning with our parents if we are fortunate enough to have married parents.  Dads need to be good dads—and husbands.  Moms need to be good moms—and wives. But given the false and destructive messages about the meaning of marriage kids are being sent by the culture, setting a good example will not be enough.  From a fairly young age children need to be taught that marriage is the relationship that brings a man and woman together in a covenantal bond as husband and wife to be father and mother to any children that may come of their union.  When teaching children about the birds and the bees, parents need to help their children understand that in the marital embrace a husband and wife truly (and not merely metaphorically) become one-flesh. Kids need to be taught that the body is not a mere instrument (as if persons were minds or spirits inhabiting “merely material” bodies), but is rather part of the personal reality of the human being. So bodily (sexual) union is truly personal union; and marital union actualizes and enables spouses fully to experience the reality and good of their marriage.

ATW: True or False: Biblical morality is human morality. Whether true or false, can you explain your view?

RPG: True. As the Eastern Orthodox Christian liturgy puts it, God is the lover of man. And love is no mere feeling:  it is the active willing of the good of the other for the sake of the other.  God wills the good for man—the human good, our good. His commands are not arbitrary dictates, unconnected to our flourishing or integral fulfillment; nor are they mere tests of our obedience or worthiness of heaven. God gives us his commands, rather, so that we can have life, and have it in abundance. That is why no truth of natural law—no moral truth—is out of line with the will of God. Every such truth—like every truth of every type—is God’s truth, in line with His willing of our flourishing.

Stay tuned for part two on Wednesday.

Robert George
Robert P. George is the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and Director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University. He has served as a presidential appointee to the United States Commission on Civil Rights and as a member of the President’s Council on Bioethics. You can find him on twitter at @McCormickProf.

Andrew Walker
Andrew Walker is the managing editor of Canon and Culture. He also serves as the Director of Policy Studies for The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, the denomination’s entity tasked with addressing moral, social, and ethical issues. In his role, he researches and writes about human dignity, family stability, religious liberty, and the moral principles that support civil society. He is a PhD student in Christian Ethics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Andrew lives in Franklin, TN with his wife and daughter and is a member of Redemption City Church. You can find him on twitter at @andrewtwalk.

Robert P. George

Professor George holds Princeton's celebrated McCormick Chair in Jurisprudence and is the founding director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions. He served as chairman of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), and before that on the President’s Council on Bioethics and as a … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24