A Week with Robert P. George (Part 3)

April 4, 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: It seems increasingly likely that the Supreme Court is being primed to decide whether same-sex marriage is a constitutional right. On the assumption that the Supreme Court errs in its ruling and fiats same-sex marriage across the nation, what becomes of the pro-family movement, or what are our next steps? Should religious conservatives accept living as outsiders within our own country?

RPG: Well, one already sees religious freedom and the rights of conscience being attacked in the name of “anti-discrimination” principles. So this is not going to be easy.  The days of comfortable Christianity in the United States are over. It is going to be uncomfortable to be a Christian—increasingly so. We’re going to get a little taste of what Jesus meant when he said that to be his disciple one must take up one’s cross and follow him.  We’ll see how many self-described Christians are going to be willing to pay the price—usually a non-financial one—Jesus had in mind when he told the rich young man to “go and sell what you have, and give to the poor, and come and follow me.”  I suspect that a lot of Christians will be like that young man who, as you recall, “went away sad, for he had many possessions.”  They will not be willing to place at risk reputation, social standing, professional opportunities, and the like in order to bear witness and remain faithful to Christ.  We Christians and our fellow believers are already being labeled as “bigots” and “homophobes”; the next step will involve outright discrimination and the imposition of disabilities in domains such as employment, licensing, accreditation of institutions, and government contracting. This is going to be rough sailing.

But let me quote two men who were great friends and, as it happens, both dear friends of mine.

Chuck Colson:  “Stay at your post and do your duty.”

Richard John Neuhaus:  “Never weary, never rest. Stay ever faithful and trust God for the victory.”

My message is the same:  Stay strong. Stay faithful. Bear witness. Do not yield. Remain on the field of battle. Organize. Cooperate. Encourage one another.  Fight in the domain of ideas. Fight in the arena of politics. Fight in every nook and cranny of the culture.

And, as Fr. Neuhaus said, “trust God for the victory”—which will come on His terms and in His time.

ATW: At present, religious conservatives have their backs against the wall. What gives you hope or optimism about the future?

RPG: That’s an easy question.  First, Christ won the victory on Calvary. So we know how the story ultimately ends—and it is not with a victory for the devil over the dignity of human beings and the great principles of morality and justice that protect human dignity.  Second, how can I not have hope when I think of the courage and brilliance of those young people we discussed earlier—hundreds of them even in the small pool of my own students at Princeton and Harvard?

ATW: You’ve been an advocate for Natural Law ethics in your academic career. Many protestant Christians see the value of Natural Law, but view its efficacy with suspicion—that man’s capacity for honest and rational thinking has been corrupted by sin. What would you say to protestant thinkers that would accuse Natural Lawyers as having an anthropology that’s too optimistic?

RPG: I think the Augustinianism that is so strongly felt in the Protestant community is a healthy thing. In the end, our hope is in Jesus, not in any mere human power, including the power of reason.  One of my favorite hymns beautifully captures the basic thought:

I’d rather have Jesus than silver or gold;

I’d rather have Him, than riches untold.

I’d rather have Jesus, than houses or land;

I’d rather be led by His nail-scarred hands.

Than to be the King of a vast domain,

And be held in sin’s dread sway.

I’d rather have Jesus than anything

This world affords today.

So Jesus is the alpha and the omega; the beginning and the end.  But God has shared with us the gift of intellect.  And, in my judgment, he desires and expects us to use it—not only to defend truths that are revealed in sacred scripture, but to more deeply understand those truths and to ascertain truths that are not themselves among the data of revelation. Now, this is not to deny that reason, like everything else about us, has been damaged by the fall. That tragedy results not only in the weakening of the will, but in the darkening of the intellect as well. So it is folly, not to mention hubris, to suppose one can rely on one’s own wits to figure out all the important existential truths. Fortunately, God has seen fit to give us the Bible and the Church as our guides.

To my mind, the primary role of the Christian intellectual, including the natural law theorist, is to assist the Church in the project of proclaiming the Gospel by clarifying and deepening our understanding of saving truths—such as the truth about marriage as a one-flesh union. This is a good example of how the philosopher—and in particular the natural law theorist—can serve the Church. Apart from careful philosophical—natural law—analysis, one might be tempted to interpret the reference in Genesis 2 to marriage as a one-flesh union as some type of metaphor, something implying an especially intense but merely emotional bond between husband and wife. After all, how can two separate individuals become “one” in a bodily way? But philosophical reasoning enables us to see that such unity is indeed possible, and that what scripture is here proposing is meant literally, not merely metaphorically.  Having said all that, the Christian intellectual must also be guided by the Church and submissive to its authority as the mystical body of Christ. The intellectual—of any stripe—who believes in his own infallibility is in grave error and deep trouble.

ATW: A Southern Baptist ethics professor wanted me to ask you: “Do you believe there is an inherent moral limit to ‘rights language’ in the public square.

RPG: Yes. Not every true proposition about morality—or even justice—can be translated meaningfully—or at least not painfully awkwardly—into the language of rights.  That doesn’t mean rights language is bad or useless, only that its usefulness is limited.

ATW: Who and what are you reading on a daily basis?

RPG: I spend a lot of time in hotel rooms, and these are wonderful occasions for Bible reading. I make it a habit not to bring my own Bible.  Most hotel rooms still have Gideon Bibles in the night table drawers, and when I’m in a hotel that does not allow them to be provided, I make it a point to call down to the main desk and ask why. I want them to know there is a demand. They usually manage to produce a Bible by the way.  Recently, I was in a hotel in Washington, D.C. that didn’t have a Bible.  Every room had a yoga mat, though.

I am a faithful reader of quite a few periodicals—First Things, Touchstone, National Review, the Weekly Standard, National Affairs, Commentary, the Times Literary Supplement, the New Criterion, Human Life Review, Foreign Affairs, the American Interest, the Atlantic.  I love British and American literature, so I often have a novel going.  It might be anything from Jane Austen to Evelyn Waugh.  I like biographies, too.  Because I serve on a number of boards and am chairing the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, I have lots of reports to get through—I’ll confess that reports are not my favorite reading.

ATW: Do you have any book projects in the works?

RPG: Patrick Lee and I will soon have a book out on the philosophy of marriage entitled Conjugal Union.  It is being published by Cambridge University Press.

ATW: If you could build your “perfect day,” what does Robby George do to unwind and relax?

RPG: Play the banjo. Then after doing that for a while, I’ll pick up a guitar and do my best Merle Travis, Chet Atkins, and Jerry Reed impersonations. If I’ve got a picking partner or two, I might spend a little time on the mandolin. I grew up in the hills and hollows of West Virginia, so Appalachian classical music (which you might know as “bluegrass”) is part of who I am.  I might then fire up YouTube on my computer and listen to some old fashioned Nashville or Bakersfield country music.  If I find a video of an especially good performance (by, say, Porter Waggoner or Kitty Wells) I’ll send the link to my pal Russell Moore.  He’s a true connoisseur and my musical soulmate.

To read part one, click here; part two, click here.

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.

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