Interview: Robert George

Robert George is the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University. He also serves as the director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions. He writes frequently about constitutional law, the moral philosophy of law, and religious freedom. I interviewed him yesterday in Princeton.

My questions are in bold; his answers are in plain text.

When you were in high school, you were twice elected governor of the West Virginia Democratic Youth Conference. What compelled you to become so involved in politics?
My grandfathers were coal miners and union men. And of course, a lot of West Virginia politics had to do with union advocacy and issues having to do with miners and working conditions. Now, one of my grandfathers saved up enough money to get out of the mines and start a little business of his own and become a grocer. My other grandfather remained in the mines or working on the railroads as a laborer his entire life. So I came from a strong tradition of labor union advocacy and Democratic party politics. The labor unions and the Democratic party were really one and the same thing. My grandfathers were great supporters of Franklin Delano Roosevelt; they saw political action as important to the cause of justice and to the working family. So it was quite natural for me and my brothers to want to be part of that tradition and be active in politics. Our goal — what we thought the goal of politics was — was to make life better, especially for people on the low end. People who were poor, people who were working class.

What were some of your other interests as a teenager?
Bluegrass music, which I still play a lot of. Again, I grew up in West Virginia, where banjos are issued to little boys at birth, so that came very naturally. And fishing. I loved to fish, I still love to fish, and I grew up doing an awful lot of that.

Where are the good fishing spots around here?
There’s good fishing in Lake Carnegie. And the local streams, like the brook that flows near Princeton Day School, have natural fish populations of bass and sunfish and are stocked by the state with trout. Being a West Virginian, I don’t care much for catching stocked trout. I like the native fish that we have back home. But I will catch stocked trout in a pinch.

Do you eat what you catch?
I like fish, but I tend to like fish from the sea rather than freshwater fish. The one exception is I do like walleye, but those are pretty rare around here.

You played in a bluegrass band when you were in high school, right?
I did, yeah. And in college, and I’ve done a good deal of performing in the past few years, playing at the Princeton Arts Council or campus venues.

When you were younger, how comfortable did you feel performing?
I was always a bit of a ham, so I was always very comfortable performing. I sang and played guitar and played banjo — a bit of mandolin as well.

Where did you perform?
There were two coffeehouses; this was the heyday of the coffeehouse. And in my hometown, which was a university town, there were two coffeehouses. One was in the basement of the Catholic students’ center, and that was called “The Potter’s Cellar.” And then one was run by one of the Protestant ministries, and it was called, if I recall correctly, “The Last Resort.” My friends and I played in both of those places. Now, I also played a lot at country dances. There were sportsmen’s associations, sometimes called rod and gun clubs, throughout Appalachia, and we certainly had a lot of those in West Virginia. I also played at dances that were in fire halls and school auditoriums and things like that. When I say dances, I mean country dances. Like square dancing and other kinds of country things.

You don’t hear about those kinds of dances in New Jersey.
In Southern New Jersey, there is some of that. In fact, when I’m down in southern New Jersey — and usually when I’m there, it’s in relation to some sort of musical activity — I’m struck by how much it’s like Appalachia. I like southern New Jersey. I like the Pine Barrens. And it does remind me of home in a lot of ways.

After high school you went to Swarthmore. And I read that you were kind of appalled by the decision in Roe v. Wade when that came out.
I wasn’t yet at Swarthmore, but I can tell you exactly where I was. I was working a table for our local pro-life group at the West Virginia University student center, which was called the Mountainlair. I was working a table, handing out leaflets and talking to people for our pro-life group, and someone came by and said, “There was a big decision from the Supreme Court on your issue.” This was January 22nd, 1973. And he didn’t know what the decision was — he just said there was a big decision. So we ran off to find a radio and get the news. We found a radio, and we heard that the decision legalized abortion.

It took a while to get clarity on just how extreme the Roe decision was. The early reports indicated that the Court held abortion was lawful in the first trimester, but when people had time to read the decision and digest it, they knew it meant a lot more than that. Abortion had to be legal not only in the first trimester, but through the entire second trimester. Even in the third trimester, abortion had to be permitted where it was indicated to preserve maternal health. But there was such a broad interpretation of health required by the Court; that is, an interpretation that included not just physical health or even emotional health, but a whole range of factors. This meant that for all intents and purposes, under Roe v. Wade, states are forbidden from actually preventing any abortions. Even in the third trimester, when in theory, according to Roe, abortion can be prohibited, it still has to be permitted for health reasons, with a definition of health so broad that just about any abortion that any abortionist is willing to perform would fall within it.

When you heard about that decision, how much of your reaction was antipathy towards abortion, and how much were you aware of the constitutional arguments?
I was in almost complete ignorance of the Constitution and constitutional interpretation at the time. So I was just upset with the decision, because I thought it was deeply unjust to the victims of abortion; namely, unborn children. It was only later, when I began to appreciate the constitutionalist critique of Roe v. Wade — I would say probably not until my college years — that I began to see that there is, in addition to the morally problematic nature of the policy the decision imposed, the deeply constitutionally dubious status of the decision itself.

Who introduced you to the constitutionalist critique — or how did you stumble upon it yourself?
It was really when I began getting interested in law and the philosophy of law in my sophomore year of college. Maybe about 1975 or ‘76. And just a few years after that I went to law school, where I started reading the writings of critics of Roe — several of whom were sympathetic to the policy Roe put in place, but deeply hostile to the decision on constitutional grounds. A good example of that is John Hart Ely, who was teaching at Harvard Law School while I was there. I didn’t have him, unfortunately. I regret that I didn’t have him as one of my constitutional law teachers. But I did read his article called “The Wages of Crying Wolf,” a now-famous essay on Roe v. Wade, and I found that very persuasive. Ely didn’t share my moral abhorrence of abortion. If he were a member of a legislature, he made clear he would vote for a pretty permissive abortion policy. And yet he argued that Roe was completely constitutionally unjustifiable.

It was the position of the dissent in Roe v. Wade, which I hadn’t paid much attention to — the argument of the two dissenting justices, Rehnquist and White, was not that this decision was wrong because it renders unborn children vulnerable to lethal violence. But rather, there’s just nothing in the constitution that warrants taking the authority to regulate in this area away from states. White’s dissent famously says that Roe is nothing but an exercise of raw judicial power. Those dissents don’t engage the question of the morality of the decision, but they criticize the majority for usurping the authority of the people acting through their elected representatives in the state legislatures.

Who were your favorite teachers in law school?
I started to fall in love with the philosophy of law in college, as I’ve mentioned. And so the teachers that most interested me when I was at Harvard were those who taught philosophy of law. Lewis Sargentich, Henry Steiner, Charles Fried, and Roberto Unger, who’s the famous critical legal theorist. I was able to take some courses outside of the law school in the philosophy department. I studied with Ronald Dworkin, who was at Harvard as a visiting professor. I would later sit in on his seminars in Oxford, the seminars that he offered jointly with Professors Joseph Raz and John Finnis. In those seminars, on many occasions, the great Oxford legal philosopher H.L.A. Hart would sit in. Those were amazing seminars. It was just an unbelievably great place to be. I describe it to my students as the mecca of the philosophy of law.

Justice Gorsuch followed you there a few years later.
He did. A few years later, Neil Gorsuch came. Like me, he was a graduate student of John Finnis. He wrote a thesis on euthanasia, and that thesis became a book which was published in the series that I’m general editor of at Princeton University Press.

What role did you play in editing his book?
Well, he sent me the manuscript, and I liked it very much. John Finnis had told me that it was an excellent manuscript, so I was favorably disposed when it came in. I shared some thoughts with him, and there were some adjustments; nothing major. We worked together through the rest of the editing process, and it was produced as a terrific book. I’m very proud to have it in the series, which is called “New Forum Books,” and would be proud to have it even had he not gone on to become such a distinguished jurist and eventually Supreme Court justice. It’s a fine work of scholarship.

For people who haven’t read the book, what’s the gist of Gorsuch’s argument?
It’s an examination of the legal tradition when it comes to the taking of human life, whether by abortion or euthanasia. And it looks at all the different areas where you have this issue, and tries to sort out what the principles are. What distinguishes euthanasia and abortion from, say, capital punishment and killing in war? Our legal system has always permitted capital punishment. As it happens, I’m opposed to it, but that’s neither here nor there. But our system has permitted capital punishment, and it’s believed that there are wars where killing can be justified. So on what principles does it distinguish those kinds of lawful killing from historically unlawful killing and abortion and euthanasia?

In connection with that, he has to do some very interesting intentionality analysis: an examination of the philosophy of human action. For example, he distinguishes what’s called indirect killing in war from direct killing in abortion and euthanasia — circumstances in which the objective is the death of the person who is killed. That’s true in abortion and euthanasia. If you don’t get the unborn child, or you don’t get the person to be euthanized dead, then you’ve failed. Distinguish that from what many argue is indirect killing, for example in warfare, where while you’re allowed to aim right for the heart, you are not intending the death of your victim. You’re intending to stop his aggression. You know he likely will die — you’re aiming right at the heart in order to stop him. But if you wound him and can capture him, you can’t finish him off. You have to, as a matter of strict moral obligation, take him prisoner and even care for him medically in prison. This seems to indicate that there’s something different about the intentionality of killing in war than there is in abortion or euthanasia. So Neil Gorsuch explored some of those questions in his book.

That kind of intentionality analysis, which was so crucial to his work as a graduate student, appears in his Masterpiece Cakeshop concurrence in a very interesting way. If you have a chance to look at that, you’ll see how he deploys that analysis in his debate with Elena Kagan. They’re on the same side of the outcome of the case, but they had different reasoning. Kagan wanted it to be a very narrow ruling, and Gorsuch would make it a broad one.

I’d like to go back to your time at Oxford. I’m wondering if you had any teachers who were influential to you in terms of their teaching style, or who inspired you to become a teacher yourself.
That all began with my teachers in college; two in particular. One was a teacher of medieval philosophy and religious thought named Linwood Urban. He was not a dynamic teacher, but he was a person who modeled a tremendous amount of care in making sure that his students understood material. He worked with his students to make sure they understood it, and more than merely superficially or notionally, he made sure that his students understood deeply what was happening. So he would tend to work with students in small groups or on an individual basis, even though he wasn’t a dynamic lecturer.

James Kurth, who was even more influential in my own decision to become a teacher, was a very dynamic lecturer. I loved just seeing how his mind worked by listening to his lectures. He, like Gorsuch, was a precise and analytical thinker. He was a big influence on me. I certainly didn’t go into college with any idea that I would become a professor. In fact, I probably would have laughed if someone said, “You ought to become a professor.”

What did you think you wanted to be?
A man of affairs. A lawyer, a politician, someone out there in the world doing things, making things happen. But the big event that changed all that was when I read the dialogue Gorgias in a survey course in political theory. I think it was in my sophomore year of college. What Plato taught me is that the fundamental reason for seeking knowledge, whether it’s in your own research or in reflection or in dialogue with others during debates, is the intrinsic value of truth. I had been brought up with a very different understanding of knowledge — really as an instrumental value rather than something intrinsically valuable or inherently enriching. I always wanted to know what you could do with that knowledge, or how will mastering this subject get you a credential or get you ahead or enable you to accomplish some political goal.

But when I read the Gorgias, that turned me around completely on that issue. I began to see that although knowledge can have wonderful instrumental value, and it can help you to get a better job and accomplish your political goals — and if your political goals are good, advance the cause of justice — but even more fundamentally, we should be seeking truth for the intrinsic and inherent value of truth. Truth is something inherently enriching of the human being as the kind of creature we are. And that was what put me on the road becoming a scholar and teacher.

How often do you witness similar epiphanies in your own students?
Oh, many times. And it’s the most gratifying part of teaching. Cornel West and I share this conviction very deeply; we have exactly the same view of this. In our teaching together, we have seen it with our students in seminars. More often than not, the problem is not that people have considered the questions that we’re raising and just rejected our answer or rejected Plato’s answer. Rather, it’s just that they’ve never considered the question. We’ve grown up in a kind of society in which everything is instrumentalized. It’s a society that doesn’t raise enough questions of intrinsic value. And so people have just never thought about that, and it’s an easy sale once you’ve presented it.

Then the next step is to make it an existential reality in your life. Because we do have all the other concerns of life, and those can distract us away from appreciating knowledge for its intrinsic value. I was meeting with a prospective Princeton student and her parents here in this office yesterday, and they were at first scandalized by a story that I told. But in the course of the conversation, they became persuaded.

The story I told is this. I said to my kids when they were looking at colleges, “Your mom and I are going to pay for education, and we’re going to make sure you have no loans so you will graduate debt-free. But I will pay for your education on the condition that you not study anything practical.” [laughs] Because my wife and I really strongly believe in liberal arts education — we think that’s the foundation for life. I didn’t want my kids to think that they had to study something practical, learn a skill or a trade or anything like that. When I said that, the parents of this girl were initially scandalized. But as I made the case for liberal arts education as something inherently valuable, inherently enriching, reading Shakespeare and Plato and reflecting on the causes of the First World War and studying the periodic table — all the stuff that is interesting about life — they began to see that that’s right.

I said that if your daughter goes to a good college, she’s going to do okay financially. She’s going to get a job. If she happens to be interested in some practical thing, that’s fine if it really engages her intellectually. I wouldn’t have actually carried out my threat of not paying for my kids’ education if they studied something practical. [laughs] I was making a point. But the parents looked at each other and said, we are guilty of pressuring our daughter to study something practical in college. And a lot of parents do that.

A lot of people may have to study something practical, because they have no choice but to make money right after college.
I think if you can afford, as this family certainly could, not to pressure your kids to do that, I think inviting your kids to take advantage of a really broad and deep liberal arts education is a good thing. There’s nobody who’s at Princeton — honestly, there’s no student here — who really has to focus on preparing vocationally for a profession. Because if you graduate with a Princeton degree, it doesn’t matter whether it’s an English literature or Near Eastern Studies or Anthropology or Philosophy degree: you’re not going to starve. You’re just not. And there are going to be plenty of businesses, big companies that are going to offer you great jobs. Because a lot of companies are looking not for people with undergraduate business degrees, but for people who are good, creative, clear, powerful thinkers, and boy, a liberal arts education trains you to be one of those.

You’re a busy person. How do you find time to pursue things that are interesting and intrinsically enriching, even if they aren’t relevant to your lecture schedule?
I love to read. I read on planes and trains. These days it’s hard because you can never get away from your cell phone, and the temptation is always to work on your computer. But I do love to read, and I read pretty widely, so I go well beyond the areas of my academic specialization. I love reading biographies, I love reading history, I love literature — especially 18th and 19th century American and English literature. I’ve got amateur interests in things like psychology. So that’s what I do. There’s no practical reason for my reading the Brontë sisters or Hawthorne, but I love to do it and I find it very enriching.

Of the books that aren’t super practical to your work, which is your favorite?
I do love all of Jane Austen’s novels. I even like “Emma” — even the ones that other people don’t like, I like. I love Waugh, especially “Brideshead Revisited,” but I like some of his comic novels and his dark novels.

And — these are closer to my professional field — I have a lot of interests in thinkers like Edmund Burke and Montesquieu.

What book do you recommend most often to other people?
Probably the Bible. One big problem today is that people don’t know their Bible, and it has tremendous costs in all sorts of areas. You can’t understand Shakespeare if you don’t understand the Bible. You can scarcely understand Hobbes. You certainly can’t understand Lincoln. Now, there are some sections of the Bible you can skim. All the “begatting.” [laughs] But if you don’t know the Bible stories, and if you haven’t read the Prophets, certainly the Gospels, you’re not going to understand a whole lot of stuff about literature, politics, philosophy, and the West.

You won’t be surprised to learn that I do an awful lot of recommending of “The Federalist Papers.” And it’s amazing how few students come into college even knowing what they are. Most students go through college without reading a single one. But you know, you don’t understand our political system — even if you bother to read the Constitution, which most students don’t. Even if you’ve read the Constitution, you don’t really get it unless you’ve read at least the basic Federalist papers: 1 and 10 and 51 and 78. Really, young people should try to read the whole thing during their college years, or at least sometime by age thirty.

I also recommend Lincoln’s speeches, especially the Gettysburg address — which most students do know — and the second inaugural, which students think they know but don’t, and the Cooper Union Address, which most have never heard of. I think his speeches are great. I also frequently recommend Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” I think that’s an important thing for students to read.

I see several copies of “Democracy in America” on the shelf behind you.
Oh yes! That’s a very important book. That one has become more important to me over the years, I’ve noticed. As I’ve gotten older, I find myself in my speeches and writings referencing Tocqueville more and more. There are not as many references to him in my earlier work.

Why do you think that is?
I’ve gotten a greater appreciation of Tocqueville’s insights into the importance of civil society. To democracy. That of course is what the book is about. It’s about the preconditions of democracy, the moral and social preconditions. And it’s become clearer and clearer to me that there are really important social and moral preconditions to democracy. You can’t just impose a democratic system on any culture; there’s a kind of plowing of the ground that needs to be there if democracy is to take root.

I love reading biographies, and I’ve got David McCullough’s wonderful biography of Adams there. I also love his biography of Teddy Roosevelt called “Mornings on Horseback.” Fabulous. Not only is Roosevelt very interesting, but “Mornings on Horseback” is just a wonderful example of the genre of political biography. And we live in a time where you’ve got a lot of really superb biographies of statesmen, and others, being done by independent scholars. People who are not university professors and who are not writing for professional specialists, but for a broader audience. And so their work is really readable. I think that’s great. It’s a wonderful thing that these independent scholars, who don’t have to write to impress their peers in the academy, can write therefore for a broader audience, but at a very high level. There’s a lot of things I don’t like about our contemporary situation, but we’re living in a kind of golden era of political biographies for ordinary readers.

If you were to write a political biography for ordinary readers, who would you write about?
There would be no need for the one I would write because there are so many good ones, but it would be Lincoln. Yeah, I find Lincoln endlessly fascinating. I think he’s the person about whom the most biographies have been written ever. Maybe Jesus would be ahead of him, but there would be very few others. Another person I would be interested in writing a biography about, if I had that talent, would be Washington. So my choices wouldn’t be very interesting: the two most famous presidents.

How about someone with a less gargantuan profile?
Jane Addams. I have friends I’d love to write biographies of, too. The late Richard John Neuhaus. The late Elizabeth Fox Genovese; I would love to do a biography of her. If I were doing biographies, they would really be fundamentally intellectual biographies. I’m sort of more interested in people’s intellectual lives than other aspects of their lives. But of course I would talk about other aspects, because that’s all connected to their intellectual lives. Now, you know who’s done this brilliantly is Allen Guelzo, who’s written beautifully about Lincoln’s thought. There are biographies that explore the relationship between his experiences from his very earliest ages all the way through his political career, to his intellectual life, to his thought, to his moral life, to his religious beliefs. And I love that kind of thing.

Unfortunately, as far as I can tell, I have no talent for it. [laughs] I don’t expect that I’ll produce any biographies, although I have to admit, you’re the first person who’s ever asked me that question. And I have thought from time to time about doing one.

Why do you think your writing style wouldn’t lend itself to a biography?
Maybe I just haven’t tried it. But when I think about it, I get daunted. [laughs]

Which writers have been influential to you stylistically?
I’m not a great stylist. I wish I could claim to be a great stylist. The writers who impress me style-wise are Austen and Samuel Johnson. To the extent that I have any virtues in my writing — and that’s a very limited extent — it’s from having just read and reread and reread again Austen and Johnson.

What do you admire so much about their writing?
Robust, clear, beautiful command of the language. Choosing the right word — just the right word. Constructing sentences so that they’re beautiful as well as clear and functional. Making it a pleasure to read. That’s what I love about writers like Austen and Johnson.

What are your biggest flaws as a writer?
Parentheses. I’m constantly, much too often, inserting parentheticals. And my sentences are often clunky, and they go on too long. I know there are teachers who insist on students breaking up their sentences that are too long and complicated, and I don’t have a good grip on how to break them up. So I end up with these very long, complicated sentences, and by the time you get to the end you don’t know what I said in the beginning. [laughs] Sometimes I stop myself and say, “I’ve gotta reconstruct this.” Other times I give up. I get tired of trying. “Ah it’s good enough,” and I leave it.

My best editor — I’ve imposed on him way too much — is my student, Sherif Girgis. I run my work past Sherif, and he’s good at cutting out unnecessary words and reconstructing sentences. He is an excellent stylist.

In an interview with Bill Kristol, you said that the quality of students’ writing has decreased over the years. What problems are you seeing?
I don’t think that high schools are putting much emphasis on written expression. I don’t know if that’s because they’re teaching for these standardized tests or not, but I have noticed a deterioration. Students are every bit as intelligent, if not more intelligent than when I began teaching. Certainly admission at Princeton has become more competitive as SAT scores have gone up, and I have no trouble with the intelligence of my students. But it’s surprising how many intellectually gifted young men and women not only don’t write superbly; they don’t write well. So to some extent, colleges and universities are doing remedial work on writing with their students.

How can high school students become better writers?
It’s all a question of what you read. Read great stuff. And the second ingredient is, write a lot. That was my problem in high school. We were not required, and not even encouraged, do very much writing. When I got to college, writing was just a new thing to me.

When you were in high school, did you read a lot?
I didn’t read a lot. I probably read more than most of my fellow students, but not as much as I should have. Again, where I was at that time, I didn’t have as much encouragement as I should have. That’s no excuse, I shouldn’t have needed a teacher to tell me to read — I should’ve had more sense to do reading for myself. But I did a fair amount. When I arrived at college, I was out of the hills of West Virginia. My fellow students knew things I didn’t do, even names like Dostoyevsky. I had never heard of Dostoyevsky. Students would talk about him and “The Brothers Karamazov,” because they assumed that everyone else knew about “The Brothers Karamazov.” It took me almost no time to realize that I couldn’t fake it. [laughs] I couldn’t pretend to know this stuff. I just wasn’t going to get away with it.


Other interviews conducted by Anna Salvatore: UChicago law professor Justin Driver, SCOTUSblog founder Tom Goldstein, former Solicitor General Neal Katyal, court artist Art Lien, New York Times Supreme Court correspondent Adam Liptak, UCI Law Professor Leah Litman, litigant extraordinaire Fane Lozman. former Court writer Linda Greenhouse, legal writing expert Ross Guberman, Georgetown professor Shon Hopwood, NPR reporter Carrie Johnson, Fix the Court Director Gabe Roth, IU Maurer Law Professor Ian Samuel, and Lawfare editor-in-chief Benjamin Wittes. 


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