Two Cheers for Robert P. George: A Response to Nathanael Blake’s Public Discourse Article, “The Contradictions of Absolute Academic Freedom”

The Princeton professor, legal scholar, moral philosopher and public intellectual Robert P. George is one of the most stalwart voices for free speech and academic freedom in the world. He is not only a scholar of immense influence, but also a popular figure on the lecture circuit (appearing both solo and in partnership with his fellow public intellectual and close friend, Cornel West). He is an engaging, humane, good-humored presence on Twitter and greatly loved by students and colleagues.

He can also infuriate even those of us who admire him. I have myself expressed my annoyance at what I and others consider to be his excessive tolerance of progressives.

Now, along comes Nathanael Blake who has penned an erudite critique of George in an October 13, 2021 article in Public Discourse, entitled, The Contradictions of Absolute Academic Freedom.

Unlike Blake and George, I am not a scholar. But many of the people who greatly admire George are not either, so I may as well share a few thoughts on Blake on George. That is what blogs are for, after all.

Basically, Blake takes George to task for the latter’s near absolutist free speech position when it comes to academic freedom and cites George’s frequent mention in this regard of his fellow Princeton philosopher Peter Singer, who is notorious for his view condoning—even celebrating, infanticide and to many of us his loathsome views on the things that can be done to the disabled without any compunction.

Blake makes the point that universities are not under some public, scholarly or moral obligation to employ those with monstrous views and that George is simply wrong to argue that.

I am with Blake on that. It seems to me that George ignores the fact that there is an Internet and that Peter Singer could broadcast his views as effectively there as Jordan Peterson has done. Why must Princeton (which gets tons of federal dollars in the form of student loans for students and grants for researchers and programs) provide Singer with a platform and facilitate his interactions with young people at just the age when their moral characters are being shaped? Princeton is going for shock value, not scholarship with Singer. He is walking, talking clickbait.

George argues that it is through the poking and prodding process of exposure to the ideas of people like Singer that the truth is to be found—or at least sought for in good faith. But the thing is, George is a grown man with a fully-developed intellect. Young people of 18 are not quite there and many of them may become twisted morally due to the charisma of figures like Singer and only some years later, if at all, come to their senses. By then, damage to their souls and damage to society by them in influential organizations will have been done.

Ideally, it would be helpful if some kind of colloquium were held (perhaps at George’s own academic home at Princeton, the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions which he founded in 2000 and still directs) that brought together for panel discussions former students of both Singer and George from various eras to see if they regret anything they did as a result of exposure to both men or if they feel even more strongly that what they were taught was sound and moral.

Given Singer’s views on infanticide, for example, have any of his students become professional abortionists? Did any students, having taken one of Singer’s courses, find themselves so outraged by some of Singer’s lectures that they sought George’s counsel to regain some moral grounding? Did students at George’s urging take some of Singer’s classes and emerge from them as infanticide-approving Singer acolytes or did they, rather, become pro-lifers? Do any former Princeton students of both men agree with George that Singer and people like Singer belong on university faculties or, as a result of their own experiences at Princeton, agree with Blake that George is putting his own views about the supposed truth-seeking benefits of engaging with and providing cushy professorships to brilliant people with disgusting views ahead of the general welfare? Until we know that, we are mired in the abstract and theoretical.

Blake attacks astutely many of George’s arguments in defense of Peter Singer and other controversial thinkers by pointing out that if a university is to have any moral role in society, it can’t simply be a venue for intellectual excitement for Robert P. George and the more brilliant of his students. Universities, as George himself would argue, shape character and thereby benefit society. Students need to engage in truth seeking and so need exposure to ideas well argued. But I would ask, so what if Singer cleverly and theatrically employs what George refers to as, “the proper currency of intellectual discourse—namely, reasons, evidence, and arguments” if his ideas are heinous? And that, incidentally, is a gate-keeping, elitist argument. To wit, provided that you are intellectually presentable to the Princeton professoriate, you can advocate killing babies and find the sexual abuse of the mentally disabled not altogether a bad thing—but if you are not a polished intellectual but hold the same views, you are merely a brute.

What does George think a university is for? Blake argues against George’s academic freedom maximalism powerfully:

The university with absolute academic freedom pretends to be agnostic regarding the merits of infanticide or bestiality or racism, even while enforcing liberal moral norms on everything from academic misconduct to sex.

Such norms are necessary because the university is not just an academic debating society, but a community of instruction. This is what George sidesteps in his insistence that the university be an anything-goes intellectual arena. It is true that having such an arena need not inhibit our acting on the good in law and custom; that it is possible, as George wishes, to outlaw infanticide yet still leave Peter Singer free to promote it at Princeton. But this requires the university to surrender its claim to instruct students…

He goes on to say:

…to fulfill their tasks as communities of inquiry and instruction, healthy universities would sometimes need to limit direct academic attacks on what George would call basic human goods. That limits on academic freedom may be wrong, abused, and misapplied does not mean that there should not be any.

Blake does not point out, but I will, that George is a brave crusader against the deleterious effects of pornography and has argued that it should be banned in hotel rooms, for instance. Let me get this straight, adults should not be allowed to view porn in hotel rooms but Peter Singer is allowed to preach infanticide at Princeton. True, hotels rooms are not classrooms, but it does seem to me that George allows Singer a lot of leeway for the sake of academic freedom that he would deny people unknown to him as they travel. That is setting up a two-tiered system of freedoms. Robert P. George wants to enable impressionable college students to listen to arguments about snuffing out the lives of the cognitively disabled for the greater good and mull those over in a truth-seeking fashion, but should those same students find themselves in a hotel room somewhere, they could not watch dirty movies. How this supposed to help the image of universities is beyond me and only alienates average people from the academic ethos that Singer and George embody.

As Blake says, “We should not waste the little influence we have in support of an absolutist position on academic freedom that is philosophically and practically incoherent.”

However much I agree with much of Blake’s take on Robert P. George, I am not comfortable with Blake’s use of wording such as, “a proper academic freedom.” What may be proper may also stifle debate—and from a purely practical standpoint conservatives need to listen to progressives like Singer say if only to say, “Whoa—that is an appalling thing to do say. I had better find out who this guy is and who is funding his research so that I can protest accordingly and certainly not send my kid to anywhere he teaches.”

And as George argues, conservatives need to be able to hone their arguments via robust debates with their opponents—and he is himself a notably effective counterweight in such debates to progressive spokespeople. And unfortunately, it is often the liberals who draw the audiences given their greater cachet and if they are stifled, so will their conservative interlocutors be.

Also, rather than focusing, as Blake does, on trying to find some sort of version of academic freedom that fences higher education off from atrocious ideas conservatives would be better off producing cohorts of brilliant young scholars (like Blake himself and as George is incredibly skillful at doing at the James Madison program--his legions of mentees are already personages in the intellectual firmament in their own rights) and not being scared off from demanding parity in academia (George himself is too tepid in this matter, it seems to me) because of charges of hypocrisy vis-à-vis affirmative action. What we need is a conservative critical mass and more people of the stature of Robert P. George in academia, not restrictions on topics of discussion.

And trying to impose them would only backfire, in any case. As Blake himself says, "The faltering norms of academic freedom protect Robert George more than Peter Singer." All the more reason to rally to the adamantine Georgian view of academic freedom more fiercely than to Blake's qualified version, which would probably be attacked by so-called conservatives like David French and result in one of the tiresome spats among conservative intellectuals that eat up so much time to so little purpose. (Just a note that George is not at all self-serving in arguing for academic freedom--he has a proud record of standing up for it across the political spectrum.)

Blake uses the phrase “a community of inquiry and instruction.” George often tells audiences that his job as a professor is not to tell students what to think but how to think. Blake seems to lean toward the instruction side. They are both right.

I look forward to reading rebuttals of Blake’s superb critique of a significant figure.

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