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Body and soul. An interview with Princeton Scholar Robert P. George

Body and soul

INTERVIEW: Princeton scholar Robert P. George on the philosophy that underlies abortion, drug abuse, euthanasia, and the widespread decline of sexual morality

by Marvin Olasky
World Magazine
March 2005

Robert P. George is one of the most influential professors in the United States. A specialist in constitutional law and jurisprudence at Princeton University and a member of President Bush's Council on Bioethics, he has advanced degrees from Harvard Law School and Oxford, and has written Making Men Moral, In Defense of Natural Law, The Clash of Orthodoxies, and numerous law review articles.

WORLD: Overall, what's the best political and legal strategy now for the defense of marriage?

GEORGE: The institution of marriage has been damaged by laws and policies that compromise its integrity and weaken people's capacity to enter into marriage with a proper regard for its norms of permanence, exclusivity, and fidelity. These laws and policies-such as so-called no-fault divorce-reinforce and even encourage essentially anti-marital practices, and provide fertile ground for the flourishing of ideologies that pave the way for worse things.

"Covenant marriage" legislation is a step in the right direction. So is the elimination of laws permitting one spouse to divorce another in the absence of fault without the other spouse's consent. As we work for reform, we must also hold the line against the latest crop of misbegotten ideas, such as the legal recognition of nonmarital sexual cohabitation and the redefinition of marriage to include same-sex partnerships.

Since state and federal judges have signaled their intention to impose these ideas under the pretext of giving effect to constitutional guarantees, I support a Federal Marriage Amendment to preserve the legal definition of marriage as the union of one man and one woman, and to prevent activist judges from requiring states to enact "civil unions" or "domestic partnership" schemes.

WORLD: Why is it important to maintain that marriage creates, as the Bible says, a true one-flesh union?

GEORGE: The first and most fundamental reason is simply that it is true. The Bible discloses this truth beginning at the beginning, in Genesis 1. Great thinkers such as the classical Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle who did not have access to the revealed word of God in Scripture were also able to articulate the core of this truth, since it is a biblical principle but also a principle of natural law.

When a culture loses its grip on this principle, the public's understanding of the meaning and importance of marriage, and, indeed, the intelligibility of marriage as a uniquely valuable form of human relationship, begins to erode. The inevitable consequences include widespread nonmarital sexual cohabitation, rampant divorce, and the panoply of social pathologies that always accompany these phenomena. Everybody suffers, but children suffer most. Society's preeminent interest in marriage is its importance for the welfare of children.

WORLD: Why has our conventional sense of marriage become dualistic, with marriage seen as emotional vision, a union of souls, so that what happens with bodies doesn't matter?

GEORGE: It's part of a larger trend towards identifying the good or the valuable with pleasing experiences and psychological satisfactions. This helps to explain not only the decline of sexual morality in our culture, but also the widespread use of recreational drugs. Many people (including more than a few Christians) have come to view themselves as consciousnesses (or, for people who retain some level of religious self-understanding, as "souls") that inhabit bodies. Since the body is regarded as merely instrumental, rather than as part of the personal reality of the human being (considered as a dynamic unity of body, mind, and spirit), moral constraints of any sort on "nonharmful" drugs or "nonharmful" sexual practices of "consenting adults" seem arbitrary and even irrational.

This dualistic conception of persons and their bodies underwrites the evils of abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia. If human beings prior to the development of self-conscious awareness in infancy, or after its loss as a result of old age or infirmity, are not yet or no longer "persons," then what is wrong with killing them when they are inconvenient to us or because their organs can be harvested for transplantation or experimentation? Hence, the erosion of respect for human life in all of its stages and conditions.

WORLD: Most readers of this magazine have a biblical worldview and are inclined to accept your arguments. What do you say to those coming from a secular liberal perspective?

GEORGE: Most of my professional life is spent interacting with secular liberal academics. What I tell them is that they are living off the cultural capital of Judeo-Christian moral understanding and depleting it quickly. Most liberal academics say they favor marriage and just want it to be available to homosexuals and heterosexuals on equal terms. They support "tolerance," they say, and oppose "discrimination," but they misconceive both toleration and discrimination.

I try to show them the unsavory logical consequences of their willingness to equate sodomy with marital sexual love. To justify same-sex "marriage" one must abandon the concept of marriage as a one-flesh union of sexually complementary spouses. But if we do that-if we embrace the idea that marriage is fundamentally an emotional union of people who find their relationship enhanced by mutually agreeable sex acts of any type-we eliminate the rational ground for restricting marriage to two people (as opposed to three or five or eight) and for regarding marriage as intrinsically requiring mutual pledges of exclusivity and fidelity. People who accept same-sex "marriage" have no basis of principle (as opposed to mere sentiment or subjective preference) for opposing polygamy, polyamory (group marriage), promiscuity ("open marriages"), and the like. What then is left of marriage? Nothing.

Similarly, most secular liberal academics do not want to join Peter Singer in endorsing infanticide and the mass production of children to be killed in infancy for the purpose of harvesting transplantable organs. I try to show them that by accepting abortion they remove any principled moral basis for objecting to such a nightmarish view. After all, birth is of no moral significance. The child a moment or a month or nine months prior to birth is the same living human being as the child a moment or a month or nine months (or 90 years) after birth. My argument against the rather chaotic collection of moral views held by many secular scholars is not that they violate the tenets of Jewish or Christian faith (though they do); it is that they fail-sometimes spectacularly fail-the test of reason.

WORLD: What do you say to conservatives with a federalist perspective who want the same-sex marriage issue to be decided on a state-by-state level?

GEORGE: On their own terms they should favor a federal constitutional amendment to prevent the courts from imposing same-sex marriage nationwide, either by manufacturing a federal constitutional right to same-sex marriage or by ruling that Massachusetts same-sex marriages must be given "full faith and credit" by other states when same-sex couples from Massachusetts move into those states. We need more than that, though, and after the success of socially conservative candidates for the House of Representatives and Senate in the 2004 elections, we can get it. The "more" we need is a uniform national definition of marriage as the union of one man and one woman.

Here's why: Marriage is fundamental. Marriage is the basis of the family, and it is in healthy families that children are reared to be honorable people and good citizens. So marriage and the family are the basic units of society. No society can flourish when they are undermined. Until now, a social consensus regarding the basic definition of marriage meant that we didn't need to resolve the question at the federal level. Every state recognized marriage as the exclusive union of one man and one woman. (The federal government did its part at one point in our history to ensure that this would remain the case by making Utah's admission to the Union as a state conditional upon its banning polygamy.)

The breakdown of the consensus certainly does not eliminate the need for a uniform national definition. If we don't have one, then marriage will erode either quickly-by judicial imposition, unless judges are stopped-or gradually by the integration into the formal and informal institutions of society of same-sex couples who, after all, possess legally valid marriage licenses from some state. In the long run, it is untenable for large numbers of people to be considered married in one or some states of the United States yet unmarried in others. As Lincoln warned it would be with the evil of slavery in his time, it is inevitable that the country will go "all one way or all the other." Slavery would either be abolished everywhere or it would spread everywhere. The same is true of same-sex "marriage," in the long run-and perhaps even in the not-so-long run.


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