Home > marriage, natural law, Robert P. George > Tearing Down Robert P. George’s Scaffold (Part One)

Tearing Down Robert P. George’s Scaffold (Part One)

The puff piece on Robert P. George in last Sunday’s NY Times Magazine was one of the more infuriating things I’ve passed my eyes over in some time. At many points I found myself wishing for the kind of critical perspective that a similar, personality-based piece would have gotten in, say, the New Yorker or the Atlantic. Instead, David Kirkpatrick’s article was a weird mixture of amanuensis-like reporting of George’s point of view and unexpected instances of the writer’s occasional, startling snarkiness at his subject. (Example: “I met George 20 years ago, when I was a Prince­ton student and he was praying for tenure.”) There was so much to dig into, but Kirkpatrick barely lifted a spade.

And surprisingly, still there’s been but little written in opposition to the positions that George put forward. (Here‘s one game effort at deconstructing his arguments, from Kathleen Reeves.) But there’s so much wrong with what he’s saying that I can’t sit by idly and let this go unanswered. It’s clear that George is providing an intellectual scaffold to prop up a host of right-wing views and talking points. But the support he provides is rickety.

So, as my last serious work before taking a short Christmas break, I’ll have a go at George’s views (with a focus on marriage) and their intellectual pedigree. This will require more than one post.

Let’s start with the purported distinction between Humeans and Aristotelians that George (via Kirkpatrick) describes, and that is vital to his world-view. After setting forth Hume’s view that the emotions are the seat of decision-making, and Aristotle’s preference for an objective moral order that  can be known through the rational mind, George casts himself as a neo-Aristotelian whose mission is to restore the primacy of reason to moral (and political) decision-making. For George, it’s one or the other: emotions or reason.

Unfortunately, this simple “either-or” disregards increasingly well-accepted findings from the field of neuroscience. If you’ve never read Antonio Damasio’s ground-breaking yet accessible work, Descartes’ Error, promise yourself to correct this omission in 2010. Damasio’s work with brain-injured patients showed this: Those whose emotional capacities had been shut down could not make rational decisions. It turns out that we need emotions to bring our otherwise potentially endless ratiocination to some kind of conclusion — for us to get up and do something. The always-curious David Brooks further popularized this insight in a column last year:

Over the past several years, the momentum has shifted away from hard-core materialism. The brain seems less like a cold machine. It does not operate like a computer. Instead, meaning, belief and consciousness seem to emerge mysteriously from idiosyncratic networks of neural firings. Those squishy things called emotions play a gigantic role in all forms of thinking. Love is vital to brain development.

[P]eople seem to have deep instincts for fairness, empathy and attachment.

So this Aristotelian-Cartesian idea that truth can be known purely through reason is so yesterday.1 The purportedly syllogistic logic that leads George to his definition of marriage (one that — surprise! — ends up walling out same-sex couples) is driven by complex emotions that neither George nor sophisticated neuroscientists as yet fully understand.

This isn’t to give up the project of judging arguments grounded in logic and reason, but to provide context for them: The arguments we choose to make, and the ways we present them, aren’t the products of pure reason, because…there’s no such thing. And once we get into the specifics of George’s natural-law position on marriage — which by the way is nothing new — we can see how his complex construction is anchored in a biological, reductive model of humanity  that is hardly the product of “reason” at all. It’s an article of emotion or of faith; take your pick, because they amount to the same thing.

In my next post, I’ll pursue this natural law argument further.

Update: The second post on this topic, which will address Andrew Sullivan’s response to George as well as George’s natural law arguments, will be up early tomorrow.

  1. But  yesterday is, of course, where George proudly abides. From the Kirkpatrick piece: “George’s admirers say he is revitalizing a strain of Catholic natural-law thinking that goes back to St. Thomas Aquinas.”
  1. Bill
    December 23rd, 2009 at 12:52 | #1

    I read the piece in the Times.

    To me, it seems as if George is simply another gay hating heterosexual.

    That he can dress up his hate in fancy language that he hopes will confuse the less intelligent into believing that he knows something they do not is really an old, old trick.

    Mostly the Times piece left me feeling sorry for his family, if he has one. Especially his children. For certainly they will pay for the sins of their father.

  2. gwern
    December 23rd, 2009 at 15:28 | #2


  3. December 23rd, 2009 at 15:41 | #3

    Thanks for the correction.

  4. December 23rd, 2009 at 17:29 | #4


    I defend Catholic teaching but avoid such arguments as Robby George, which I don’t find convincing.

    Would you be interested in reading a copy of my book, Born to Love? I would be willing to send you a copy.


  5. Jake
    December 27th, 2009 at 14:28 | #5


    Neuroscience does not settle philosophical issues like this. Kant’s entire project is disproved by one study of brain damaged patients? That sort of science is too messy, too based in judgment calls by the psychologists. Philosophers are much more trustworthy than psychologists.

    Remember that Skinner and the behaviorists had a lot of people convinced that they had ended millenia-old philosophical debates as well. Yet it turned out they were full of shit, and they were proven wrong mostly by a linguist-philosopher, Noam Chomsky, using a mixed arsenal of modern science and old philosophy (see “Cartesian Linguistics”).

    I agree that this George fellow is horrible, though.

  6. December 27th, 2009 at 23:38 | #6

    Well, as you say, Chomsky himself used neuroscience to take apart Skinner. My point is that neuroscience has insights for our understanding of the world, and to act as though that isn’t true (as by clinging to a mind-body duality, for example), is itself irrational.

  7. January 2nd, 2010 at 07:55 | #7

    Robert P. George is an asshole. I love the post.

    I’ve made a similar one here: http://topenetrateamatteroftaste.blogspot.com/2009/12/and-asshole.html

    On the topic of neuroscience, of course reason and emotion are intimately connected. It was Kant who gave us the possibility of a groundwork for believing so (although it was not his argument). That 3D, temporal space which is open to human understanding is also always simultaneously colored by both reason and emotion. It is, in my opinion, only our human desire to break apart and categorize which has led us to discriminate between reason and emotion; the two are more similar than different.

    Anyway, keep up the good work!

  8. DC
    January 9th, 2010 at 09:50 | #8

    I have not read Descarte’s Error, and it has been a long time since I read either Hume or Aristotle.
    However, on the face of it, it appears that you are providing a dubious scientific support for backing Hume’s view. Which is fine, and I believe that is where I probably stand as well, although I am not sure that studies of brain-injured add to the argument. Reading the three authors involved, however, might change my initial impression.

    Thank you. This is an interesting debate.

  9. Alister
    October 7th, 2012 at 02:35 | #9

    What human communication is not “personality-based” ? Enough said

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