Letters from alumni about Robert George, McCormick
Professorship of Jurisprudence
I must thank Russell Nieli for bringing back memories of my undergraduate years, and the conservative presence then at Princeton.
In the spring of 1975, the National Review published an article which treated a small survey most unscientifically, and concluded that "If Princeton undergraduates attended for eight years, they would be indistinguishable from graduates of the Lenin Institute." Whether this was dishonesty, incompetence, or Yalie "humor," is it surprising that the claims of National Review readers to scholarship were greeted with at least a certain irony?
[As I recall, a small Christian college in the South had commissioned a survey of the politics of its students and others; 50 undergraduates from the sponsor and each of seven other more-or-less distingished institutions, including Princeton, were each asked half-a-dozen political questions, and the schools were ranked by the results.
Doubtless to their pleasure, the sponsors were on the right end on all questions, sometimes far right. Princeton was left of average on all. Since the average included the sponsor, this would have been true even if Princeton undergraduates were a perfect sample. The results were not broken down by class; the sample size was too small to do so, and the purpose of the survey did not require it. Therefore there was NO evidence of progressive leftism and I would bet the Class of 75 was somewhat left of the Class of '78 on their freshman weeks anyway.
There were also the Concerned Alumni of Princeton, and their ceaseless rants against coeducation and for Bicker. Their chief a Dartmouth man is now campaigning against equality of opportunity, on the grounds that he paid good money for his children's inequality of opportunity. (Whether he got a scholarship, or admission preference, from Dartmouth has not come down to us.)
But I am verging on the larger question of why American conservatives have produced no publication of the caliber, or integrity, of the Economist.
Paul MacLean Anderson 72
I enjoyed the article on Robert George ("Voice from the Right": Oct. 8). I wish I had been around to take a class from him; it sounds like a wonderful and challenging learning environment.
However, I must take issue with him on a point of "natural law." Life certainly does not begin at conception. As far as we have been able to tell, life on Earth has arisen only once, but that could easily be wrong. New life being created today would almost certainly be out-competed and driven extinct before we had a chance to detect it. But since its inception, many billions of years ago, life as we know it has been a continuous thread a nonliving sperm could not fertilize a nonliving egg.
Human life, if it can be said to have a separate existence, began at the point when the first humans evolved. In essence, the question is misphrased. What we really want to know is, at what point a new combination of living human egg and living human sperm becomes a living human being (this is the same as asking when a fertilized chicken egg becomes a chicken).
To answer that we obviously must first define what we mean by a human being: How do we recognize one? Certainly it isn't a matter of whether the tissue has human DNA or a human chromosome set, or we would be murderers whenever we had a nosebleed or removed an appendix.
Usually, we say things lke "looks like a person" or "has abstract reasoning" or "uses tools" or some such, but clearly none of these things apply to a new zygote.
My own best guess is that the answer will come from neurobiology: just as we say that a person has ceased to exist when his brain activity ceases, we might say that the fertilized egg has become a human when we can recognize distinctly human brain activity patterns.
Until then, it is only a potential human being. Or should we shop for chicken at the egg counter?
Sifford Pearre Jr. '56
Regarding conservative Constitutional Law Professor Robert George, a question I suggest he should ask his class and which alumni, undergraduates, faculty, and administrators should consi-der, is this regarding abortion.
Does it not require that an already living sperm unite with an already living egg in order for conception to occur and a new person to be born, in a God-given (or, for that matter, natural evolutionary) perpetuation of life? Yes!
So where did this nonsense originate that life doesnt begin until the third trimester? And as to choice, does a woman not already have a number of available, acceptable choices from which to pick (wait-until-married; contraception via pill or condom; abstinence; offer unwanted child up for adoption) so that it isn't really a denial of choice in general to deny abortion as simply a convenient, self-serving out for any and every gal who just won't say no?! Why should the poor, innocent unborn pay for the mother's venality or lack of self-control?
Conversely, in instances of rape (when reasonably proven on a reasonably
timely basis), con-sidering the woman was denied ALL opportunity to exercise
choice, why should we not only tolerate but perhaps publicly fund her
abortion, if that's what she wants, rather than force her to endure the
pain, embarrassment, cost, etc., that was so brutally forced upon her?
Not very surprising, really, in today's world of immediate self-gratification, but not tenable, either.
John J. Auld Jr. 50
I'll take the conservative acolytes of Professor George seriously when they campaign for a return to parietals. That's a tougher sell to Princeton students than lower taxes for the top brackets.
Andrew Lazarus '79
I enjoyed reading about Professor Robert George in my latest PAW. I don't recall Princeton as being a hotbed of knee-jerk liberals in my time there, but perhaps things have changed. He sounds like a refreshing challenger; I am reminded of the style of the late Admiral Hyman Rickover at the Naval Academy, who answered any student's assertion with "What makes you think so?"
I must take issue on one point in the article, however, and that is the reference to David Hume, who is dismissed as an advocate of secular nonsense. For the record, Hume was an outstanding thinker and philosopher of his time, who thought long and deeply about the subject of religion. He made particular inquiry into the question of miracles, as recounted in the Bible, and came up with essentially a twofold conclusion: One cannot prove that Biblical miracles didn't happen, but there is no rational basis to think that they did. That of course is heresy in Christian orthodoxy, and would have got Hume burned at the stake in earlier times. It was this inquiry that led Hume to reject the concept of the Trinity, and come out as a Unitarian. One can attach all kinds of pejorative terms to Hume's conclusions on religion, but that doesn't lessen their validity. They work for me.
Stuart Hibben 48
It was heartwarming to read of the heightened conservative voices on campus. Professor Robert George has moved the dialogue squarely to its origins in our shared (western) religious tradition: hence his concern with moral relativism and natural law, and more particularly, with cloning and stem-cell research, the definition of proper marriage, admissible sex, "and faith in politics."
Like any able lawyer, his first and greatest attention concerns the framing of questions. Whether in negotiation or debate, where one begins largely determines where one ends.
One could arrive at the article's end, as one might spend years and life among our media, with no reminder that the originators of faith place different emphases. "Nor may you strip your vineyard bare, nor gather the overlooked grapes; you must leave them for the poor and the stranger." "You must not act deceitfully nor lie." "The wages of a laborer should not remain with you overnight." "Do not pervert justice ... by deferring to the powerful." "Strangers who live with you shall be to you like citizens ... you shall love them as yourself." And in princeton, that most apt of passages: "For it is easier for a camel to enter the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."
But then, in corporate capitalist society, there can be no funding for these issues. "Faith in politics" reduces to the trivial, which is at once perverse and blasphemous.
Stephen Dell *67
I was delighted to see Robert George recognized in your October 8 issue. As an alumnus, I had the privilege over several years of auditing his lectures. His erudition was obvious, but, more important, his talent for engaging his students and stimulating their minds was an example of teaching at its finest. Regardless of political persuasion, one could not help but know one was in the presence of a special mind and a true credit to our university.
Wil Britten 45
Professor Robert P. George is called a social conservative in the October 8, 2003 PAW. In the opinions described in the article, however, the professor favors government sanction of a social agenda based upon traditional Catholic doctrine. For example, he apparently opposes the legal rights to abortion and euthanasia. Also, he approves of laws against adultery, fornication, and sodomy.
A conservative should be wary of government power in support of any social agenda, whether it be called liberal or conservative. Government power is necessary to provide for the physical security of its citizens and to redress egregious wrongs. Beyond that, the people should be left alone. Government power should not be used on the service of any orthodoxy. Calling Professor George a conservative is akin to calling President Bush one.
Robert C. Lang Jr. '70
Interesting article but the statement "His teenage son and daughter are, like George, Catholic, and his wife, Cindy, is Jewish." is incorrect. According to Jewish laws, if you are born to a Jewish mother you are a Jew. You can choose to practice Catholicism, a completely acceptable choice but not being a Jew is not really an option. I don't think the Fuhrer would have bought for it.
Randie Bencanann s71
October 17, 2003
Most of the time when I read about Princeton, I have gotten used to dismissing Princeton as a nice place to visit. Telling students that they want to be good enough to get into Princeton, and wise enough to go somewhere where you can get a good education. Robby George may provide a good reason to go, at least to audit a class. It would be good if Princeton had a Robby George type in their economic studies.
Jeffrey Schundler k'35 '61, 61, 70, '04, '07
I first enrolled in Princeton's politics department as a graduate student in fall 1971. At that time a virtual civil war was underway between the leaders of the graduate student organization, most of whorn were Marxists of one stripe or another, and the politics faculty, almost all of whom were Humphrey-McGovern liberals.
Graduate students would sometimes denounce to their face the "reactionary" faculty for their retrograde views, and the faculty, long accustomed to thinking of themselves as enlightened and benevolent "progressives " seemed utterly bewildered, not knowing how to respond to a direct attack upon themselves by people to their left.
I often wondered in those days how a National Review-reading conservative like myself was ever going to survive in this sort of environment. Faculty with political views to the right of the Democratic party were virtually nonexistent, and most of the faculty considered the views held by political conservatives like myself to result from a combination of malevolence and stupidity. A rare exception was the international relations theorist Robert Gilpin, who once explained to me that he was the sole Republican among the Woodrow Wilson School and politics department faculty. (Prof. Gilpin was quick to qualify his disclosure, however, by explaining that he was a moderate, "Vermont Republican," not a Goldwater-Reagan conservative). To me, at least, the overwhelming message of Princeton University in those years seemed to be: Keep Out! Conservative Views Are Not Welcomed Here.
Things have changed very considerably since that time. As an academic adviser for the last several years at one of Princeton's undergraduate colleges, I have been struck by the much greater case with which conservative students, including religious conservatives, seem to get along at Princeton nowadays.
While the faculty rernains overwhelmingly left-liberal in its political orientation (surveys by student groups indicate a Democratic-to-Republican ratio in many departments of 10 to one or more), students with conservative views no longer feel isolated or unwelcome.
Much of the credit for this unquestionably positive development must surely go to the "heretic in the temple" whom Jim Merritt writes about in the October 8th PAW, Prof. Robert P. George.
Prof. George has shown how just one high-profile conservative professor, who enjoys the respect of his liberal colleagues for his personal integrity and scholarship, and the ongoing institutional support of the university administration, can significantly change the political atmosphere on campus.
Conservative students have come to feel that there is at least one faculty member at Princeton who believes that their own views are not necessarily misbegotten or retrograde, and that they may even have something of genuine value to contribute to the campuswide political conversation.
One cannot overestimate how important this development has been for Princeton. Robby George is a gem whose addition to Princeton all Princetonians, regardless of their own political or philosophical views, should enthusiastically celebrate.
The article by J. I. Merritt '66 entitled "Heretic in the Temple" shifted this reader's thoughts from an otherwise fine article re Prof. Robert George to the bias demonstrated by the author and his opinion of the Princeton faculty.
If the faculty is as biased as the article implies with Prof. George being one of a few conservatives, I question the educational level being produced by Princeton University.
In my day, we were educated to think for ourselves and make up our own minds even though the faculty would indicate their beliefs at times but not to overwhelm the personal thinking of students who are attempting to become adults.
I trust "Heretic in the Temple" is not a true characterization of Princeton's faculty or otherwise its preeminence in education will fade.
William C. Earhart 36
In describing Prof. George's lofty political standards but not mentioning his opinion of the present administration, the writer J.I. Merritt makes George's opinions reasonably clear and so reassures those who might otherwise fear that this brilliant conservative scholar favors Bush & Co.
A debate between Prof. George and Prof. Krugman would be great fun.
Hannon H. Ashley '41
Your portrait of Professor Robert P. George shows him to be a talented teacher with strong scholarly credentials who has the facility of stimulating and challenging students by presenting a point of view which they do not get in other classes. In his teaching capacity he is a credit to the university.
The problem is, however, that he is sought out by poiliticians who share his point of view and cite him as authority.
Many medical and scientific researchers believe that stem-cell research and therapeutic (research) cloning offer great promise for improving the lot of people who suffer from serious afflictions or disabilities. Yet Professor George argues that embryos are "whole human beings" and would maintain this proposition "whether conception occurs inside or outside the womb."
He supports legislation which would prohibit research cloning, apparently intimating that there are overriding moral principles which require that the potential beneficiaries of stem-cell research be denied the opportunity for improvement of their deplorable ailments.
Common sense makes it clear that his position, as applied to embryos existing outside the womb, is absurd. No abstruse philosophical analysis is necessary. An acorn is not an oak even though, planted in good soil and properly attended, it might become one. A fertile egg is not a chicken, even though, placed under a hen or in an incubator, a chicken might emerge. By the same token an embryo existing outside the womb is not a human being, even though, by a massively invasive process, it might turn into a human being.
I hope that other members of the Princeton faculty, in both scientific
and philosophical disciplines, will speak out against his position, so
that all will understand that his views are not shared by the university
Charles B. Blackmar '42
J.I. Merritt's carefully balanced and nuanced article, about conservative professor Robert George is marred by the headline "Heretic in the Temple." The implication of this headline is that the rest of the Princeton faculty is knee-jerk, doctrinaire liberal, and that George defies the Princeton faculty's lock-step liberal orthodoxy.
However, neither Ivy League professors nor "the media" are necessarily lock-step "liberal" (whatever that term may now mean), no matter how often so-called "conservative" politicians and others may say so.
In my first freshman term in the summer of 1944, I was a student in Professor Corwin's "Cont. Interp." (then Politics 103), as some of my classmates not young enough to avoid being drafted or to have enlisted were hitting the Normandy beaches.
I doubt that George's "Coninterp" is the same course which Edwin Corwin (one of the last Wilson "preceptor guys") professed. Like Prof. George, Prof. Corwin favored the Socratic method, not to push a conservative or liberal ideology, but to explicate the views Mr. Chief Justice Marshall and other early founder-leaders of our representative democratic republic.
These early leaders had to devise ground-rules for the new USA, that had not been fully explicated by the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. In the Supreme Courtdecisions of the time (he wrote almost all of them) Marshall provided many of ground-rules for our governance in such proceedings as the Dartmouth College Case, ex parte Milligan, and Mcullouch vs. Maryland.
Today's undergraduates, future citizens, should learn more about these issues, the relevant judicial reasoning, and how the issues were resolved at the time, rather than engage in ideological jousting presented as "constitutional interpretation." I would hope that is this kind of learning is more likely to occur in Professor George's course than the misleading headline on the article implies.
Charlton Price '48
Thank you for your cover article on Prof. George (October 8). It's good to know there is such a fine teacher of constitutional law at Princeton, and one who does not inject his personal opinions into his formal teaching. People like him and Peter Singer deserve our admiration for their fair-minded pedagogy in the presence of strong personal agendas.
However, when it comes to Prof. George's extracurricular opinions, clearly there is much room for disagreement. As an atheist, I am offended by the suggestion that secularism necessarily leads to moral relativism. It certainly does not, in my case. And it need not lead to any different stance regarding free will than any religious stance. A moral and personally responsible view of society is not the sole property of religion. To suggest so is no more than ideological dogma.
The moral certitude that Prof. George looks for in "natural law" can be found in understanding the human nervous system as the seat of reflexive consciousness, and all the important foundations of our morality derive from the resulting human capacity for empathy as an origin for the Golden Rule. This can all be found in science, without the slightest appeal to anything having to do with any gods or creation myths or whatnot.
I hope that Prof. George pays deep respect to the constitutional principles of separation of church and state (the establishment clause). This is one of the bedrocks of our society, and one of the reasons it has flourished as much as it has. To impose universal moral judgments that arise from nonscientific religious origins would amount to destroying that separation, and would be a travesty in American politics.
Daniel Krimm '78
October 12, 2003
I found Prof. Georges statement interesting that he approves of laws prohibiting adultery, fornication, and sodomy for the sake of setting a moral standard even while acknowledging the difficulty and wisdom of enforcing them. Why have a law on the books that you are unwilling to enforce, if not to generally stigmatize a group?
As Justice Kennedy recently noted in his opinion in Lawrence v. Texas, in which the Supreme Court struck down Texass statute making it a crime to engage in sodomy, [a] law branding one class of persons as criminal solely based on the States moral disapproval of that class and the conduct associated with that class runs contrary to the values of the Constitution and the Equal Protection Clause, under any standard of review.
Finally, I would be interested in hearing Prof. Georges views as to whether or not he is himself a beneficiary of changing mores, by having married outside his religion? I do not know that such conduct has ever been prohibited by law in the U.S. (and hope it hasnt), but I do know that this conduct used to be considered a big deal within the Catholic Church. Would he like his own marriage to be considered as somehow suspect or less deserving of the rights that accrue to such a relationship?
Anyway, he certainly occupies a forum in which all these issues can be discussed, and I hope he gives some thought to them.
John Lamb Jr. 66
Excellent article about Prof. Robert George, but I wish you had interviewed more students who don't share George's right-wing views. I disagree with him on nearly everything, but when I took his civil liberties class in the early 1990s, I found him engaging and prepared to argue the right (progressive) side of the debate as persuasively as he argued his right-wing side of the debate.
Mike Bocian '95
The October 8, 2003, article about Professor George was entitled "Heretic in the Temple."
We know that President Tilghman is committed to ethnic, gender, and geographic diversity. Why not an equal commitment to intellectual diversity?
It seems to us that there should be more than one tenured professor in the humanities and social sciences able to reflect an established intellectual tradition, one which represents the viewpoints of a substantial portion of our citizenry. We call upon President Tilghman and the trustees to seek more heretics, so that Prof. George won't be so lonely in the temple.
Alex B. Donner '75
I took "Coninterp" under Alpheus Mason (who was also my thesis adviser) and that made the course in constitutional law under Paul Freund at Harvard Law School a snap. With those two great teachers behind me it may be regrettable that my practice in the real estate field presented very few constitutional issues (although many a bureaucrat severely stressed the precepts of due process.)
In the law school course on jurisprudence I encountered "natural law" and found it lacking, notwithstanding its long prominence and distinguished supporters (from Plato to Martin Luther King Jr.) The problem is that nothing about it is "natural;" its principles do not derive from nature or the study of nature humans as evolutionary, behavioral organisms in changing physical and societal environments. The principles of "natural law" rest on the assertion of "a God-given ability to reason," a theory of cognition and epistemology that fails numerous logical and scientific tests. By giving weight to a favored source this self-referential approach renders its contentions relative, although natural law supporters continue to castigate doctrinal Relativism as a great philosophical evil.
If Prof. George sees his role as "a teacher rather than a preacher," then in leading his students toward understanding of a moral philosophy, he must surely expose them to sources other than the Judeo-Christian faiths, including of course, Islam, Oriental faiths, and the analyses of humanists. "Coninterp" (like the Supreme Court) is too important to be swayed by ideologues, no matter how great their scholarship.
Edward C. Mendler '47
I had heard rumors of the presence of a thoughtful American on the Princeton campus, but remained skeptical. Imagine my excitement when your October 8 issue not only confirmed the rumors, but gave the man a name, face, cover, and feature article.
And not just a thoughtful American on a faculty generally viewed as liberal, but a devout Christian, distinguished educator, and class act. hard to believe someone dressing well out of respect for the matters at hand.
the offensive process of cloning has never had a more appealing application, but will have to settle for the power of his example. Who knows, with this toe hold we may see the return to campus of Chapel and single sing football. At the very least, we know that god has not given up on Princeton.
Gordon Batcheller 60
Well, bless my soul, ain't it jus' wunnerful (as L'il Abner would say) that Princeton has ONE conservative teacher?
What would happen if Princeton had ONE female teacher, ONE black professor?
I recommend the October 13 issue of The National Review in which Prof. George is quoted by Victor Davis Hanson. In it, we see the stark truth about political conformity among faculty on the typical American campus. Prof. George is a lonely voice on campus who reflects at least half of the American electorate which opposes confiscatory taxes and increasing government power over every aspect of our life.
Stephen A. Molasky '63
In a September 27, 2003, New York Times Op-Ed piece, David Brooks quoted Prof. Robert George as saying of conservative students, "We need to send our best soldiers into battle."
Students as ideological soldiers? Far from the balanced, scholarly professor portrayed in PAW's October 8 article, George apparently sees his classes as boot camp for right-wing combatants in the culture wars. Although indoctrination is the accepted mission of some universities (Bob Jones and Liberty, for example), training ideological extremists of any stripe can only corrode Princeton's academic integrity.
Kurt Schwarz *84
I found your article on Robert George fascinating, but I find his arguments about sexual morality to be suspiciously illogical ones for a legal scholar to make. His concept of "Natural Law" seems problematic to the point of worthlessness, because it completely hinges on the way one defines what is "natural."
Shouldn't we include all things that are natural? In addition to sex being the biomechanical event that creates offspring, it turns out that it can also provide significant pleasure to the two (or more, I suppose) people involved. Why isn't that natural? And what would George say about the placement of the clitoris, which prevents around 75 percent of women (and therefore around 37 percent of human beings) from achieving orgasm from George's "good" sex alone? I know it's not explicitly in the Declaration of Independence, but it seems to me that the right to pursue happiness pretty logically extends to the pursuit of orgasm.
A play I read at Princeton said that "the body is the garden of the soul," but then I was a lefty English major, and it was a play written by a gay author and assigned by a gay professor. I would hope, at least, that Mr. George is vehemently against female circumcision. But if so, isn't that like saying "you must be allowed to have your cake, but you're not allowed to eat it"?
George's arguments are so blindfolded that I have to wonder if something else isn't going on here. Could it be that the professor and people like him have ulterior motives for trying to legislate what goes on between consenting adults in bedrooms? Is it just misdirection? Sleight-of-hand morality? Is George playing us like a two-dollar guitar? I mean, "President" Bush may have invaded another country resulting in death to innocent people, but at least he doesn't have "bad" sex in the oval office, as far as we know. Thank god some things are sacred again!
Matthew Ferraro '00
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