Friday, February 5, 2010

Episode 61 The Curious Case of Robert P. George

Robert P. George, professor of jurisprudence at Princeton University, is considered by some to be the “most influential conservative Christian thinker” in America. In recent years he has advanced sophisticated arguments against abortion, embryonic stem-cell research and gay marriage. The key to Robert George’s appeal is his unique brand of Natural Law ethics. He doesn’t appeal to faith, scripture or Church doctrine to advance his arguments. He invokes “no authority beyond the authority of reason itself.” For this episode the doubtcasters examine George’s complicated (and frankly bizarre) argument against gay marriage. Also, the doubtcasters chime in on the anti-homosexual bill in Uganda and the American Christians who shamelessly defend it. Also a new stranger than fiction.

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Taylor said...

It sounds like Robert George's "argument" is just a string of evidence-free and evidence-impossible assertions, many of which don't have any clear meaning. What does it mean to become "one flesh"?

I'm not sure that his assertions warrant any closer consideration than complete dismissal with a hand wave and a chuckle. Perhaps he's engaged in this debate simply as a lark?

NH Baritone said...

For those who want to watch the Rachel Maddow interview with ex-gay activist Richard Cohen, here's the link to the YouTube video:

Jarek said...

You're kidding...this is the best conservative thinker out there? Then we've already won!

Marriage is an intrinsic good? Ha! That wouldn't survive a Philosophy 101 course!

Marriage is very obviously not an intrinsic good, because it is pursued for the sake of happiness, and anything that is intrinsic cannot be pursued for the sake of something else. Aristotle would refute his argument in a single breath.

Martin said...

Fine show of demolition.
One point of clarification:
Newt Gingrich is a Catholic, fairly recently converted, not a Protestant, as one of you implied towards the end.
Imagine being in a classroom with either of these maroons - oh yeah, I was, 30 years ago, with hacks liek them.

TV's Mr. Neil said...

Within the first thirty minutes, it already seems that Robert George is just working backwards to define marriage into what HE wants it to be, while dodging all of the common objections. But as far as marriage as a legally-recognized union, his entire argument comes off as a non sequitur to me. Why can't we just invite who we want into our families? Why does sex even need to be a factor? It just seems like he's working backwards from his bigoted point-of-view to create an argument to SUPPORT his bigoted point-of-view.

I haven't even heard YOUR response yet, so I'm about to unpause the audio to hear that.

Also, I find it ironic that it's a catholic saying that reproduction need not be the intended result of sexual intercourse. I thought every sperm was sacred.

basilides said...

Congratulations on another fine podcast, as usual. However, one negative comment, please.

I know that when it comes to witticisms, de gustibus non est disputandum. I also know that some comic relief is necessary in a podcast, but does Prof. Galen have to try to make a joke out of almost everything discussed, especially the serious topics you focused on this week?

Unknown said...

I can't stand sophists because they try to make their arguments look more sophisticated than they actually are by using a lot of unnecessary flowery language. This Catholic guy's argument is just that same 'ol "God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve" argument dressed up with flowery language to make it look more sophisticated than it actually is.

Unknown said...

I'm not sure I agree that we should be boning up on natural law in case we encounter people like Robert George. In all the debates I've watched between theists and secularists, whether the topic is evolution, existence of god, or whatever, knowing the topic at hand never helps. The theist side is always way too slippery. They never admit when they're being hypocritical or even contradictory, they never even answer direct questions.

If you were arguing with George, I have no doubt that he'd continuously move the goal posts and ultimately claim that you just don't understand his position. Most likely, you'd end up right where you started.

On the other hand, a tactic I have seen work in debates is to present your own secular evidence (in this case, maybe the stuff about sexual competition), but not care what the other side says about it. You won't have convinced him, but the audience will hear more of your evidence than if you spent your time trying to refute his stuff.

Tony said...

So, if "intrinsic good" derives from biological imperatives, what other imperatives can we look at? In the animal kingdom infanticide by a non-paternal male is quite common and obviously biologically driven. Does that mean the infanticide should be OK, too?

Or is it not OK because of its incidental consequences? If not, then which "intrinsic" biological motivations should we choose to govern our social conventions? And do incidental consequences now carry weight?

How can we determine that reproduction is good but infanticide is bad if everything is derived from Natural Law ethics?

Anonymous said...

First, let me tell you I'm a third year law student.

You're completely wrong in your assertion that Justice Scalia believes in "natural law" or use it in his opinions. In fact, he argues exactly the opposite. He believes that in interpreting the Constitution, one should look to the original understanding of the founding generation. This is called originalism. He doesn't look toward nature, he would appalled at the assertion.

Justice Scalia has attacked other Justices who use something like "natural law" theory to find rights in the Constituion that are not explicitly mentioned. Thus, a judge who finds that the "liberty" provision of the Due Process clause of the 14th amendment protects "freedom to contract" or a "right to an abortion" is engaging in a natural law type analysis. They are looking toward what "liberty" means.

Yes, Scalia is Catholic (actually six other current Justices are too I believe) and this may subconsciously affect his interpretations or understanding of history. But his methodology is objective and does not always lead to "conservative" results. See e.g., Crawford v. Davis and Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts. These cases significantly help criminal defendants by expanding a defendant's confrontation rights under the Sixth Amendment(not exactly "conservative.").

Also, some natural law theorists do not always agree. There is quite a variety. Compare Ronald Dworkin's jurisprudence with John Finnis's for example.

So before bashing a Justice Scalia's methodology, please actually go research it first. His methodology may not lead to the results you like, but that doesn't make the methodology wrong.

Jeremy said...


at first I was going to defend myself by pointing out that I said nothing about Scalias methodology, and merely claimed that George "has his ear." This seemed obvious by the high regard Scalia has for him as a conservative intellectual and their agreement on so many social issues. In researching George I noticed how frequently he cites Scalia's opinions (especially on the repeal of sodomy laws, and the implications that has for a legal definition of marriage). Sadly, I haven't the refined legal knowledge of third year law student, and did not know that Scalia arrives at Georges conclusions on these matters through entirely different methods. After quickly scanning through a Symposium on Natural Law in interpreting the constitution, I find that you are most certainly correct - Scalia finds himself on the opposite side of George in the debate over whether or not judges can ever appeal directly to natural law (how he thinks of natural law when it comes to ethics, as opposed to the law, I have no clue).

So I concede, that we made too big of a deal about Scalia. I will be sure to make a correction on the next show...and I thank you for bringing it to my attention.

I will reiterate the major point we were making, however --which is Robert George is not some goofball apologist we can afford to ignore (as some in the comments here still insist). He is held high regard by many conservatives in legal and philosophical circles.

Unknown said...

I'm finishing listening your podcast at 3 am in the morning and HAD to come to the computer to ask something: Why is George's argument anything but a naturalistic fallacy? I mean, even if all his biological evidence was real, that has no bearing what so ever in how we should do things.
So what if homosexual unions don't fit his idea of marriage? He can call it whatever you want, but marriage is a legal institution that has nothing to do with all his had waving about "one flesh" and all that. If homosexuals want to marry (even if it doesn't produce "one flesh"), what's his justification for denying that right? He may think is morally wrong, but even if he's right, that doesn't mean we can ban it. Smoking is morally wrong, in my view, but it shouldn't be banned.
His definition of marriage is NOT the standard one nor the traditional one so he really has to do some justification on that side. And the idea that marriage is somehow an intrinsic good is ridiculous.

Also I thought about some other objections to his argument:
What about a man with no penis? He can't get married since he can't put a willy in a vagina? And what about a woman who suffered from female vaginal mutilation and to whom vaginal sex would be painful? She can't get married either?
No law would deny their right to marry and I don't think he would do it either.

So, in conclusion, I would say that his argument is not only both invalid and unsound, but also that his conclusion is false.

snafu said...

Prof Galen, take heart, your humour is just fine, as I suspect we bought our humour genes from the same shop.
Keep up the levity, it puts a shine into our day.

Unknown said...

Through all of this the one connection that seemed lacking was something you touched on in you response here re: Scalia.

My thought was: why should natural law have any bearing on our laws?

Laws should be based on what effect they produce. Speed limits don't need a natural la basis, they are meant to control traffic. Free speech is not based on natural law, it is recognized as necessary for a functioning democracy. To the extent these laws don't achieve their stated goals they need to be repealed. See: prohibition.

Getting back to gay marriage, The West Wing had the best take on gay marriage several years ago. The state should not recognize marriage at all. The state should limit it recognition to civil unions. If people wish to have civil unions further recognized by their religion as marriage, then that is separate from the state. Europe seems to be getting closer to this over time.

Just a pipe dream, but we have to dream.

JC said...

I have to say I'm confused by the popularity of George. You can't say that an argument is based on reason or rationality if your starting point is based on a religious belief.

Who cares if he doesn't use faith, scripture or church doctrine directly? He uses them indirectly. They are his starting point. He has a particular belief that he then tries to use seemingly nonreligious arguments to prove.

To challenge someone like this, you need to just continually bring up the reality that a faith position is the starting point. I think this guy could be backed into a corner where you could force him to admit in a debate that ultimately he is arguing from a faith, not reasoned, opinion.

mabell said...

Robert George claims that vaginal sex between a man and a woman produces "one flesh" in the presence of a wedding ring. All other sex acts, including fornication, rape and (even worse) gay sex do not produce this result. That seems pretty testable. Until he has the scientific results to back up his claim, he should STFU.

Lyndon said...

Here's a discussion a guy used that referenced the Natural Law theory at CPAC last night. Note his liberal usage of the phrase, "bring it."
Also, note the commentary after the video.

Jeremy said...

Thanks Lyndon,

Yeah...I saw that. Blows my mind that people actually take this stuff seriously. But it re-affirms the importance of this episode. There are people out there putting their bigotry out there as 'reason" and we should use reason to shut them up.

Anonymous said...

In reference to your analysis of Prof. George:

It might be worthwhile to have a conversation (recorded or not) with the people whose arguments you are analyzing. Perhaps some of your misconceptions and/or misunderstandings could be alleviated prior to your discourse? You were just off in so many directions it was difficult to feel that you had a clear grasp of the topic.
Just a thought.

Jeremy said...

I think I understood his argument very well.

In fact, I dont think we've ever devoted that much time before to laying out the other sides argument in that much detail.

Did you have a specific critique in mind?

We were "off in so many dirrections" because we were running out of time and still had a couple dozen more criticisms of George we wanted to get through

Unknown said...

Yeah, I thought you spent so much time explaining his side that you were almost trying to sell his ideas. I appreciated it as I had never heard of him or his ideas and if you had just jumped right into criticism I would have been lost. Thanks for the effort.

Anonymous said...

In refernce to:
Anonymous: In reference to your analysis of Prof. George:

Sorry to throw that comment out there without any references back to what I was speaking of.

I hesitated even leaving a comment because I am rather busy and do not have alot of time to devote to explaining the issues to you.

I will try to cut out some time over the next week or two (or three?) to listen back to the podcast and to make notes and comment back to you.