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

Issue: "Foster care's future," March 5, 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.

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"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.


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